Monday, 8 December 2014

1982: Erika Roe

This blog is about anything to do with sport in the 1980s, so please forgive me as I look back on a memorable incident involving a young lady who streaked during the half-time break of a rugby union international, and became an instant media star.

Saturday January 2, 1982, England v Australia at Twickenham: on a cold, grey and wet day, England rugby union captain Bill Beaumont is doing his best to give his team some important instructions during the half-time break that in the distant amateur days of the past traditionally used to take place in a huddle on the pitch. But Beaumont sensed that his team were not completely focused on his words, that their minds and eyes appeared to be elsewhere.

"I was in full flow, emphasising all the things going well and identifying a couple of areas where we needed to tighten up a little," Beaumont explains in Dallaglio's Rugby Tales. "What perturbed me was the simple fact that not one player was looking at me, they were looking in my direction but seemed preoccupied with something going on over my shoulder".

That something going on over Beaumont's shoulder would be all over our television screens and the papers for the next few weeks. Unbeknown to Beaumont at the time, the Twickenham pitch had been invaded by a couple of topless women, one of which was about to live up to Andy Warhol's proclamation that everyone would have their 15 minutes of fame. "What the f**k is going on?" an understandably irritable Beaumont politely enquired, as he tried his best to make sure that England's first half display - they were leading 6-3 at the time - was built upon during the next forty minutes.

Scrum-half Steve Smith was about to enlighten his skipper (some sources state it was Peter Wheeler who uttered the oft repeated statement to Beaumont, but the England captain himself points out that it was indeed Smith). "Someone's on the pitch taking the piss out of you", Smith replied. "There's some bloke on the pitch running around with your arse on his chest" (again, this quote has often been stated as "Some bird has run on to the pitch with your arse on her chest", but we'll stick with Beaumont's recollection). Beaumont then turned around to see the object of his players' attention: a 24-year-old bookshop assistant named Erika Roe.

Roe really should not have been at Twickenham on her day of fame. Having been issued with a final warning at work the week before, she had been warned that any more unauthorised leave would result in the sack, but after being persuaded by her older sister Sally to make her first trip to Twickenham, Roe phoned her boss to say that she could not make work in due to an eye infection.

Definitely not the first person to throw a sickie and then attend a sporting event, the chances of Roe being caught out were extremely slim, after all, the crowd at Twickenham was over 60,000. But after a few glasses of courage enhancer, Roe made a choice to stand out clearly from the crowd, and raise her profile to such an extent that over the next few weeks her face (and breasts) were everywhere we looked.

A wise man once told me, a good story never started with a salad, and Roe's particular tale was only just beginning. Arriving at Twickenham, Roe and her large group of friends headed straight for the beer tent and passed the time until kick-off working on their blood alcohol levels. Describing herself as tipsy, Roe and her friend Sarah Bennett made their way towards the front of the stand, mainly to avoid the advances of one of the male members of the group, and as half-time approached boredom began to set in.

"Someone suggested that we should do something outrageous....that's really how it all came about," Roe informed the Daily Express on the Monday after her famous streak. "It was just one of those things you do on the spur of a moment". Passing her bra and packet of Marlboro to some neighbours in the crowd, Roe set off along with Bennett, and was about to become a national star.

As Beaumont would soon discover, the brunette with a 40-inch chest turned plenty of heads, as Roe's arrival on the pitch was greeted with huge cheers and captured for all to see on BBC television. "I'm not sure which side this lad is playing for," commented Bill McLaren, as Roe clearly revelled in her moment. Flinging her arms back and grinning widely with a cigarette in her mouth, Roe was eventually led away by a few smiling policemen and covered up by a combination of police helmets and Ken Bailey's Union Flag (Bailey was dressed as John Bull).

Bailey also helped to cover Bennett, although by this time she was very much the forgotten character in the story, forever to be in the shadow of Roe, the Andrew Ridgeley to Roe's George Michael, the Logan to her Goss. "If I hadn't taken the lead, she'd never have done it," a slightly resentful sounding Bennett said a few days after the event. An understandable reaction perhaps, as Roe's exposure during and after her Twickenham streak didn't leave much room for Bennett in the spotlight.

Roe was taken to the local police station and let off with a caution, although she did have an anxious moment when the police phoned her parents. She need not have worried though, her dad Peter extremely laid back about the whole experience. "She spent her childhood in Africa where such things are not regarded with any disfavour. It is seen as being perfectly natural. It was a brave act. I don't know what sort of man is insulted by a young woman without her clothes".

Peter Roe also revealed that he had actually seen his daughter streak on television, but was not 100% convinced that it was her. "I was watching the match when one of my sons said 'Isn't that our Erika?' as this topless girl ran on to the pitch. I said 'It looks like Erika, but it can't be'." It certainly was his daughter though, and now the media mayhem truly commenced.

Roe's image adorned many of the Sunday papers - "It was a lovely picture. She had her arms out just like the Pope," said Roe's dad - and the scramble was on to secure exclusive rights to her story. Interview after interview followed, photographers turned up at her workplace on the Monday morning, and the Daily Star then took her to London for some pampering before Roe appeared on Nationwide.

"It's great fun to be famous. I've been offered more money than I've ever earned before," said Roe as the offers flooded in, ranging from posing topless in men's magazines (she declined) to opening shops and modelling sports bras. Signed up by TV personality Barbara Kelly, Roe would have undoubtedly been a prime candidate for the Big Brother House or jungle had these programmes existed back in the early eighties.

A week later, Roe was even afforded the luxury of a helicopter laid on by the Daily Mirror when the Porthcawl hotel she was staying in was cut off by snow (Roe had gone to watch the Barbarians play Australia, and then spent the night partying with the Australian squad).

Naturally the tabloid press went to town. Jean Rook, writing in the Daily Express, was particularly gushing in her praise. "She's uplifted a nation. Reflated a country. With her mountains, she's melted our miseries to molehills. She's crammed new heart into big women". The play on words became relentless, the press seemingly unable to write about Roe without throwing in references to her front row, her assets, and mentioning her bosom buddy Bennett at various points.

Letter pages were filled with comments celebrating Roe's actions:

Thanks Erika Roe for doing a streak at the televised Twickenham rugby international. I've seldom seen so many smiling faces at work as the lads discussed it all on Monday morning. Good luck to Erika. She has given the men of Britain a wonderful tonic
M Pearson, Bedford

I've never found very rugby very exciting. But buxom Erika Roe gave Twickenham a great uplift.
M Nottingham, Lincoln

I wasn't surprised that a women's lib reader objected to streaker Erika Roe. These cranks will never realise that when they talk about freedom of choice for women, it includes freedom for girls like Erika to show off their charms.
D Burgess, Hawkhurst

But not all were quite so praising:

As a long-time admirer of the female form, I can only say that Erika's droopy boobs are some of the ugliest I have ever seen. How she had the nerve to expose them is beyond me.
J Castle, Aldershot

God help our chances of being treated as equals when someone like Erika Roe thoroughly enjoys streaking in front of thousands of rugby fans. What a silly woman she is.
S Murphy, Hounslow

Now I know how to get a job when I leave school in July. All I have to do is flash my boobs (preferably in front of TV cameras) and, like Erika Roe, I'll be inundated with offers of work. On second thoughts, I'll keep my self-respect, and hope that the job centre finds me employment.
Teresa Humphreys, aged 15, Harlow

Gradually of course the fuss died down, Roe's light fading naturally in the months that followed, and in subsequent years she moved to Portugal to become a sweet potato farmer. "Quite honestly, in those three or four years, I'd have made more money working in a pub," Roe revealed recently in this Daily Mail article promoting her 2015 calendar in aid of breast cancer (Roe's younger sister Jessie passed away in 2011 due to this disease).

The fortune may not have been quite achieved, but for a few months in 1982 the fame definitely was. And even now the mere mention of Roe's name to people of a certain age will still get a reaction of some sort depending on who you are talking to.

Oh, and by the way, England won 15-11.

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