The X-Ray Spex singer’s daughter, Celeste Bell, has made an award-winning documentary on her mother’s inspiring yet dysfunctional life.
©2022 By Amy Haben
“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard but I say, Oh bondage, up yours!/Bind me, tie me, chain me to the wall/I want to be a slave to you all/ Oh bondage, up yours!”
Poly Styrene’s attention-grabbing lyrics spoke strongly to feminists, yet when interviewed, Poly claimed that she was speaking for everyone experiencing inequality and bondage, not just women. This is a small example of how misunderstood Poly was by most people around her. The unique teen didn’t believe in wearing the typical tattered striped jumpers and leather many of the punks fashioned. Instead, she wore colorful thrift store outfits she put together herself, causing her to stand out in the crowd. She didn’t give in to normal social pleasures. She hated consumerism and the whitewashed modeling industry. In a sea of drugged-up and immature Sid Vicious types, Poly was a deep thinker.
Marianne Joan Elliot-Said was born in 1957 to a Scots-Irish mother and a Somali father. She was brought up in the Brixton area of London during a time when being biracial wasn’t accepted. Poly was half-black and the fact she was raised by a poor single mother didn’t help to keep the biting remarks out of the kids’ mouths. She would come home with bruises from where the boys kicked her. Neither the black kids nor the white kids accepted her in their groups, so being different was her identity from day one. Instead of turning her differences into self-hate, she learned to embrace herself.
After a brief stint as a hippie, Poly recorded her first single, “Silly Billy,” which was reggae with a touch of ska, under her real name: Mari Elliot. She switched to punk with her band, the X-Ray Spex, after watching the Sex Pistols play in 1976 on her 19th birthday. Mari found the stage name Poly Styrene in the yellow pages while looking under plastics. She felt disposable, like a plastic bag, a meaning that went over many people’s heads who just thought it was a tongue-in-cheek alias. She was the ultimate D.I.Y. artist, something I sorely miss in the current age, wheerepunks wear famous designer pieces on stage and every pop star has their own team of stylists.
I was lucky enough to meet and interview Poly’s daughter, Celeste Bell, a few years ago on a trip to London. Celeste is a beautiful, wise, and grounded woman who formerly worked in Madrid as a teacher. Her skin may be pale and her hair blonde, but I could see her mother clearly in her cute, pouty mouth and large round eyes. It turns out Celeste was formerly a singer in three different ska-punk bands; the apple didn’t fall far. I bought her some beers at the Boogaloo pub while we chatted about growing up with her widely creative yet mentally disturbed mother.
Celeste was honest and raw about her feelings toward her mum. Even though she loves her, life was not conventional nor supportive enough for a young girl. Celeste was brought up in George Harrison’s Hare Krishna commune in Hertfordshire. Although there were trees to swing from and games to play, her mother often forgot to feed or dress her, leading child protective services to step in and take her out of the Hare Krishna compound.
Eight-year-old Celeste chose to live with her grandmother, breaking her mother’s heart. She was angry at her mom for many years, but eventually reunited and even sang with her on stage. After her mother passed away in 2011, Celeste was left with her mother’s archives and had the responsibility of not only planning the funeral but keeping Poly Styrene’s legacy alive. At first, Celeste felt annoyed that her mother left her with such a responsibility, but she dug deep and was able to process her mixed feelings into a book, Day-Glo: The Poly Styrene Story. A subsequent documentary was made: Poly Styrene: “I Am a Cliche.” Celeste codirected the film with Paul Sng, and it has gone on to win best documentary at the British Independent Film Awards in 2021.
In the film, Celeste looks back on her mother’s life in an empathetic way, starting with the hardships she endured as a mixed-race little girl with an estranged father. Even in the punk scene, Poly wasn’t completely accepted. Her obsessive crush on Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols led her to drop in on him at his home randomly while the band was hanging out. Although Johnny let her stay, the Pistols didn’t interact with her very much and it was awkward. Almost as a cry for attention, Poly went into the bathroom and shaved her head. When she came out their jaws dropped. They were cruel about the new ’do. Another time at John’s flat, troublesome Sid even locked her in a cupboard under the stairs for hours as a joke.
Poly dated her much older manager, who seemed to want the best for her. Despite the age difference, people liked that he there for her. Poly liked the protection and emotional support that he provided. By this time, she was getting rather popular as an artist. When the record company artificially slimmed her down for the cover of their album, Poly was angry that they didn’t use her natural image. Journalists commented on her weight and her braces constantly. Poly was confident in herself and didn’t understand the criticism. Being a woman— especially a woman of color—in the spotlight left her wide open to being dragged down by the press.
A big change happened when the X-Ray Spex flew to New York City to play CBGB. She saw all the consumerism, plastics, and advertisements everywhere. It distressed her greatly. While all the boys in her band were hooking up with hot girls and partying, Poly was feeling antipathy toward the world around her. She saw Manhattan as the future of what was going to happen to the rest of the world. While the boys in the band were excited just to see more than three channels on TV, Poly was musing on the fake future: plastic taking over the natural world with its ugliness. She felt ultra-sensitive to the dystopian vision she was peering into. The darkness of the New York scene with its hard drugs really got to her as well. This was a bit of foreshadowing toward her future living in the Hare Krishna commune. A deeper life meaning was calling her.
In the doc, we follow Celeste as she flips through old photo albums and narrates her mother’s life, and hear old friends tell stories about Poly, like seeing her at the Roxy and how it changed their lives. She was the most unlikely pop star. She didn’t fit the image of a cover girl like Debbie Harry. She won over audiences with her spirit and talent—first and foremost.
As a child, Celeste often witnessed her mother being praised by fans in the street. “She used to joke that being famous but broke was the worst of both worlds,” Celeste recalled. “She had all the attention that comes with fame but lacked the means to protect herself from it.”
As strong as her voice was, Poly was also a silly young girl. In an old clip, Poly giggles, “Do you think X-Ray Spex is going to be bigger than the Beatles?” Her bandmate replies, “Uh, yeah.” Eventually, all of the fame made Poly break a bit. She didn’t appreciate all the people around her and told friends she wanted to go back to being Marianne again while ripping her clothes off. She was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia when she actually was suffering from acute bipolar disorder. The first time Poly saw herself on TV, she was in a psych ward. Celeste had to witness her mother being sedated quite often. I’m sure she must’ve felt like the adult in their relationship—a huge burden for a child.
It took Celeste five years to open up her mother’s things after her death but once she did, she was blown away by her mother’s artistry. All of the flyers and band art for X-Ray Spex were drawn by Poly. Her mum’s biggest wish was to have her ashes spread in India. It took Celeste a while to get there, but once she did, she understood her mother’s feelings toward the spiritual mecca. The imagery of Celeste retracing her mother’s steps while in India made me cry my eyes out. This film is a beautiful story of love and redemption. Celeste honors her mother’s history in one of the kindest yet most honest ways I’ve ever seen.
Stream Poly Styrene: “I Am a Cliché” now on all major platforms including Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Spectrum, and Microsoft.