The documentary Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché could never be straight-forward. After the death of her mother, Marianne Joan Elliott-Said – better known as the British punk legend, Poly Styrene – Celeste Bell knew she had to do the work of memorialising her. Without taking control of her photographs, notes, diaries and looking through archive footage, Poly Styrene could be forgotten. The pair had reconciled before Marianne’s death but to paraphrase her daughter’s words, she was an artist before she was a mother.

It’s also a complicated and bittersweet watch, because Poly Styrene’s career was so fleeting. The singer named herself Poly Styrene after searching through the Yellow Pages, “looking for a name of the time, something plastic.” She was a burst of youthful joy, colour and playfulness across the punk and new wave scenes. With her braces and oversized bright outfits, she looked and sounded like no one else. Songs like “Identity” and “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” made her band X-Ray Spex an overnight success, and Marianne a feminist icon.

After just one explosively popular album, she was sectioned, misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and left disorientated by the pressures of the music industry and British press. She broke up the band in 1979 and, after a brief stint as a solo artist, essentially faded into obscurity. The film shows the highs and lows of British rock fame, as well as following what happened afterwards. Marianne becomes a mother to Celeste, spends years struggling with her mental health and takes her daughter to live in a Hare Krishna commune.

We spoke to Celeste Bell about making the documentary, her mother’s racial identity and search for spirituality and, crucially, who Marianne Elliott was behind her alter-ego, Poly Styrene.

VICE: There are very few interviews with Poly Styrene from the X-Ray Spex era. If you look at The Clash or the Sex Pistols, for example, there’s so much interview archive. Do you have any thoughts on that? Was it because the band was female-fronted or that their career was so brief?

Celeste Bell: It took a long time to find everything that’s out there in the archives, because there wasn’t that much. The thing is X-Ray Spex were quite mainstream – more mainstream than the Sex Pistols at the time, because they had a broader appeal. My mum was very young so they had tween followers too and were assigned to a major label. They appeared on Top of the Pops, and in the tabloids and everything. So they definitely were quite a commercial band, especially when you think about punk.

But, yes, because my mum was a woman fronting the band and they were sort of on the outside of punk anywhere. You couldn’t easily fit them into a category. My mum broke up the band just after that first album, so unless you were a fan they sort of fell out of memory. When people look back on punk, X-Ray Spex are often forgotten about or ignored. But in fact they were actually very successful for the short period that they work together as a band. 

Do you think she regretted not reforming the band? Where do you think they would’ve gone if she’d found a way to continue?  

My mother didn’t have regrets. She broke up the band because she was in not a great state, her mental health was really bad. Just being in the public eye to that extent and having that much exposure very quickly, she wasn’t really prepared for it. She did the right thing getting out when she did because she was just crumbling under the pressure. For the other band members it was very disappointing, obviously, because without my mum, there was no X-Ray Spex. They wanted to continue, of course, and they were very excited, it was all going really well.

I do think if X-Ray Spex had stayed together and done another album, it would have been very different. But ultimately my mum made a choice based on her happiness and that was more important to her than being famous or a successful artist.

Her decision to implode the band from the centre comes across as a very brave and swift one. Usually, in music documentaries, you see months or years of a band bickering and someone’s mental health deteriorating before that decision is made.

It was really brave. She’d created this persona, an alter ego of Poly Styrene, and it became distressing when people didn’t see the real person behind the facade. Compare early footage of X-Ray Spex where she was still happy and excited about everything to that later 1979 footage at the arena, it’s like night and day. The spark in her eyes is gone at the end of that period. What my mum was doing was saying ‘in order to preserve my sanity, but also just my integrity, I had to leave that behind’ and pursue something that she felt was more authentic, ultimately, even if it wasn’t going to be a commercially successful.

She was only driven by success when she was very young. From what my mum would tell me, especially if you’re really young, fame stunts your development. The more famous you are, the worse the impact is, especially if you’re a woman.

She never wanted to be a sex symbol. It must be so destabilising for someone so young to be both told that you’re like a sexual object while also being ripped apart for your looks and your perceived otherness as a biracial girl. What did you learn about how she coped with that?

My mum was, let’s say, an early developer. She was a young teenager, already at 13 going out to party. She would dress provocatively; I remember my nan saying that she would wear hot pants and my nan was dead against it. So my mum had that experience of wanting to look sexy, and looking for and enjoying male attention. But I think by the time she got to 18 and she was doing X-Ray Spex, she was over that already.

She felt like she wouldn’t be taken seriously as an artist if she played on sexuality, and she really did want to be taken seriously and to not be put into a box of ‘female performer’ or ‘woman in rock’. She wanted to be as respected as her male contemporaries. So she definitely covered up and, if you notice, nothing she wore was revealing. It was much more childlike and playful.

There weren’t any other women doing that at the time, even other women in punk, Debbie Harry or The Slits, were still doing a sexy vibe even if it was alternative. What was upsetting for her was that instead of seeing that and celebrating that, the media kept highlighting how she was trying to not look attractive, which is not what she was doing. There would be comments on her weight and her braces, just really not getting the point. It was frustrating because even though she was trying to not make her body image a focus, she couldn’t escape it. The more covered up she was, the more that actually put attention on her body.

A modern comparison would be Billie Eilish, who deliberately wears baggy clothes. It was, at least partially, about subverting this potentially perverse or sexualising gaze, but it created mystique around her body.

I’ve seen a lot of parallels between them actually. If a woman doesn’t reveal a lot of her body or if she does, it shouldn’t be the main topic of conversation.

When your mum shaves her head it’s framed as her rejection of people positioning her as a sex symbol. But the decision is also a bit ambiguous. Is it a manifestation of poor mental health? A dismissal of fame? Did you want to leave that open ended? Do you even have real answers for why she did that?

It is open ended, because I think it’s really complex. There were multiple factors at play there that influenced her. You could say, quite simply, it was a psychotic break. She was going through a nervous breakdown. There were the pressures we’ve spoken about. But also, I think it was that experience of being around the Sex Pistols, of being at John Lydon’s house and not being taken seriously by her contemporaries and people that she admired. They just ignored her. I think shaving her head was, in a way, her saying, ‘Well, you can’t ignore me now.’

It’s a statement for a woman to shave her own head because so much is tied into our hair and concepts of femininity and beauty. For my mum there was the added level of complexity due to the fact that she was a woman of colour. People would always touch her hair, for example, when she would come offstage. You see a bit of that in the film: a clip where all these guys are rushing onto the stage, and they’re all touching because she had that soft afro hair. And when my mum was very small, her mother – my grandmother – who was [white], couldn’t handle my mum’s hair, so she used to cut it off. My mum spent most of her childhood with really closely cropped short hair, and she actually hated it because people thought she was a little boy.

The exploration of her being biracial is so important in the film. I think she’s been predominantly remembered as being a feminist icon but her ideas don’t settle around binaries, whether it’s gender or politics, or any topic. She didn’t want anyone to be taken advantage of or sold as a commodity, regardless of their identity, which is an interesting and advanced way to think in 70s Britain and even today. Do you feel that comes from having a white mum and Black dad?

Definitely. It gives you a unique outlook on life if you grow up like that, because it’s impossible for you to think in binary terms. My mum inhabited that grey area of identifying with Blackness and whiteness, but at the same time, she couldn’t identify with either or feel like she belonged. It was tough for her because it was a very racist society but, at the same time, it afforded her a kind of perspective that meant she was always very critical of any attempt to put her in any kind of box or category because she felt that was very limiting. No one was really talking about intersectionality at that time, but now we would say with hindsight that she was thinking in intersection terms.

She wasn’t a feminist but was a living example of feminism and the most feminist person that I know in the way that she lived her life. You couldn’t tie her to an ideological or political position because she was so fluid. She was constantly changing her mind.

The film states that she was more of an observer or documentarian than producer of a manifesto or leader of a movement.

It was exactly like that. I’m a lot more political than my mum ever was. She was way too creative and philosophical to be really political. She thought going on marches was kind of lame. She was talking about society and culture to let the listener make their own mind up. In general terms, she was anti-hyper-consumerism, critical of modernity and industrialisation and the degradation of the environment – which, again, was quite ahead of her time to be thinking about those issues. It came from a place of being a hippie. She idealised a simple life, a rural life, when that wasn’t her experience. She was brought up in urban London.  

She was like a sponge; a very empathetic person who absorbed her environment and you can see that porousness in the video footage of her. Do you think that empathy was tied to her mental health struggles and why she found life so difficult to live through?

Definitely. When you’re as sensitive as my mum was, it’s really hard not to be kind of impacted negatively by life, let alone the kind of crazy life that she was living. My mum would watch something on the news, some disaster somewhere, and would actually be in bed for days afterwards because she would be so affected by it. She was so sensitive she had to shield herself from too much stimulus. That was one of the hardest things about being in the band and touring and doing all those gigs. She was literally just absorbing all this energy constantly. She couldn’t disconnect.

She was always looking for spiritual answers and ‘meaning’, whether through being part of the Hare Krishna or trips to India. What I found quite moving and true to life is that in the film she doesn’t find any of the answers that she wants. She must’ve been forced to accept the depressing and the unknown. Do you think that’s a fair assessment of her life?

I totally agree with that. Acceptance is a really good term because I think in terms of my mum’s personal journey, a lot of it did come down to accepting that life was quite horrible at times and finding peace with that. She was always on a spiritual quest, even when she was a kid or in X-Ray Spex. The question ‘what is the meaning of life’ was always driving her, and she found a lot of things that she ended up doing very meaningless. It wasn’t until she found a concrete spiritual path that she was able to, not find the answer, but definitely some tools to make life more meaningful. Meditation really helped her; a lot of the what you do in the Hare Krishna movement is meditating, chanting. She was able to channel a lot of her energy into that.

If she didn’t have those spiritual beliefs, I don’t think she would have faced death in the way that she did. And she faced it very stoically, with no fear. It was quite blissful. When she was much younger, she didn’t have that. And it was like a rock. I’m not particularly spiritual, but I really admired that. It was that she was able to find some peace. That, for me, is the happy ending.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is on release in the UK now.