Entertainer, Model. Called “The Mighty Mannequin”, Joan Rhodes both dazzled and astonished countless audiences with her feats of strength. Born Josie Terena to a lower class family, she was abandoned early, raised primarily in a London workhouse, and ran away at 15, joining a carnival after a time on the Soho streets. Just when Joan’s physical power became apparent is not known, but before long she was making a name for herself by lifting and tossing large men, raising a (small) elephant from the ground, and, her signature, tearing thick urban telephone books. (She is estimated to have destroyed roughly 20,000 of them during her performing years).
After appearing with circuses in both England and Europe, she came to national attention in 1949 with a traveling “freak show” called “Would You Believe It?”; soon, she was a regular on both sides of the Atlantic in music halls and nightclubs. During the 1950s, she was seen on American television with Bob Hope and Ed Sullivan, and even joined some of the former’s Christmas USO tours. (At a 1955 appearance in Iceland, Joan is said to have dropped Mr. Hope on his head). In 1958 at Windsor Castle, she snapped a nail that Prince Philip had only managed to dent.
Joan found a second career opportunity after Dame Laura Knight’s painting of her was exhibited by the Royal Academy in 1955, leading to her image being captured by Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein, and others. Long a movie stuntwoman, she eventually tried acting and had turns in around a dozen films, most notably “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” (1976), and the 1980 “Elephant Man”; she also had a recurring role on ITV’s “Dick Turpin”, which ran between 1979 and 1982.
In later years, Joan ran a London cafe, enjoyed Scrabble, and was reticent about her years before the public, saying: “I’ve had rather an odd life. I’ve always been rather a puritan and terribly shy”.
(bio by: Bob Hufford)