Who was Lena Zavaroni?
Lena Zavaroni was an extraordinarily talented Scottish singer whose greatest claim to fame is becoming the youngest artist with a record in the top 10 ‘UK Albums Chart’. Lena achieved the feat at the tender age of 10—a record that still remains intact. Hailed as a child prodigy, she got a chance to perform in a TV show, ‘Opportunity Knocks’, and went on to win five successive episodes of the program. As a 13-year old adolescent, she featured at the ‘Royal Variety Show’ and shared the stage with the likes of Lucille Ball, Barbara Streisand, and Frank Sinatra. She also received numerous invitations to host TV shows and even emceed her own programs. However, her scintillating professional career came under severe strain when she began showing symptoms of anorexia nervosa—a grave eating disorder—that tormented her until her death prematurely at 34. She was diagnosed with clinical depression when she was 15, and spent the better part of her remaining years shifting in and out of hospitals. The separation of her parents and her mother’s suicide, just months after her marriage made her a near invalid as the twin afflictions of depression and anorexia became more pronounced. She succumbed to bronchial pneumonia after suffering from chest infection, following a operation in University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff. Lena Zavaroni perfectly embodies the devastating effects of early stardom and excessive public as well as media attention.
Childhood and Early Life
Lena Zavaroni was born on 4 November 1963 in Renfrewshire County of Scotland to a family with Italian-Scottish roots. Her father, Victor Zavaroni, who hailed from Genoa, was an accordionist, and her mother, Hilda, was a singer. Her parents owned ‘Zavaroni’s’, a fish and chip café in Rothesay town in the Isle of Bute.
Lena started singing when she was only 2 years old and often performed together with her father in local clubs during her childhood. It was while performing as a band member along with her uncle and father in 1973 that she attracted the attention of Tommy Scott, a music producer.
Music producer, Tommy Scott recommended Lena Zavaroni to Philip Solomon who in turn entrusted her to his wife, Dorothy Solomon, who became her manager. Before her relocation to London to train as a ballet singer, she went to Glasgow, accompanied by her mother, to audition for a TV show titled, ‘Opportunity Knocks’.
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Lena’s auditioning for the Hughie Green show ‘Opportunity Knocks’ was immensely successful as she was declared the winner in five consecutive events of the program in 1974. Soon after, an album of hers named ‘Ma! He’s Making Eyes At Me’, which was an anthology of classic pop numbers, was released.
The album, ‘Ma! He’s Making Eyes At Me’ made it to the UK Top 10 Album Chart and finished at eighth position in the listing. Lena, who was just 10 years old at that time, she became the youngest singer in UK with an album in the top 10—an achievement yet to be accomplished by any other artist till date.
Following the release of her album, she dropped out of primary school and shifted to London to take admission in Italia Conti Stage School owned by Philip Solomon and Dorothy Solomon. She trained in ballet under the guidance of the Solomons and lived with them.
Lena performed at a charity event in Hollywood alongside Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra in 1974. Thereafter, she made a guest appearance in ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ followed by singing performances in ‘The Morecambe and Wise Show’ and the ‘Royal Variety Show’ where she performed for the queen.
Lena Zavaroni sang at the White House for the 38th US President, Gerald Ford. ‘Stax Records’, an American record label, signed her up for promoting and distributing her recordings in USA. However, she failed to achieve the same level of success in USA as she did in her home country.
Lena, despite appearing in a string of television shows and programs in USA, and performing in live concerts, remained largely unpopular in America. Her debut album was not even listed in the popular record or music charts like ‘Billboard Hot 100’ or the ‘Mainstream Top 40’.
Lena came across Bonnie Langford, a child star while she was undergoing training at Italia Conti Stage School in London, and the duo developed a companionship that lasted till the former’s death. Both the child prodigies appeared in ‘Lena and Bonnie’, a one-off TV program broadcasted by LWT (London Weekend Television) in 1978.
BBC telecasted ‘Lena Zavaroni on Broadway’ in September 1978 in the US. Zavaroni starred in a TV series, ‘Lena Zavaroni and Music’ that was exclusively recorded and produced for her by BBC, in 1979.
She was again featured in another BBC series, ‘Lena’ in 1980, whose format was the same as ‘Lena Zavaroni and Music’, and ran for 3 seasons with 18 episodes in total.
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Lena Zavaroni, a budding singer whose life was unfortunately cut short by her premature demise, released a total of 8 albums in her professional career lasting for 13 years from 1974 to 1986.
Some of Lena’s notable albums include her debut record, ‘Ma! (He’s Making Eyes At Me) released by Philips Records in 1974, ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’, and ‘Lena Zavaroni in South Africa’.
Lena Zavaroni was so overawed by the transitioning from her Scottish council home to the stately home of the Solomons’ in London that she became somewhat disconcerted. She confessed to having been overwhelmed by the cosmopolitan setting of and fast paced life in London, compared to the tranquil bucolic environment in Rothesay.
She developed an inferiority complex when she found herself attending ballet classes (at the Italia Conti Stage School) alongside teenage girls who were taller and slimmer than her. She began feeling guilty about her small stature and corpulence and believed that eating less would slim her down, automatically making her appear taller.
Lena’s resolve to become thinner like the other girls in the ballet academy led to her exhibiting signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa—a serious eating disorder. Like most other child stars, she was beset with typical problems like childhood loss, and the stress of coping with too much public attention.
As a 13-year old, she was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and her weight plummeted to 25 kg while training at ballet school. She firmly believed that the compulsion to put on tight fitting ballet costumes was behind her abnormal weight loss.
She was admitted to a hospital in Glasgow at age of 16 by which time she had appeared in a variety of live events, TV shows, pantomimes, and concerts. She lost her status and popularity as a child sensation, spending the rest of her life moving in and out of hospices.
Lena Zavaroni married her boyfriend, Peter Wiltshire, a computer professional in 1989 when she was 26. She was popping anti-depressants chronically and indisposed to work on a regular basis. They broke up after 18 months as Peter found it difficult to cope with Lena’s withdrawn demeanor and reclusive way of life.
Her mother Hilda committed suicide in the same year in which Lena married, succumbing to an overdose of tranquilizers. Following her divorce, Lena shifted to Hertfordshire, putting up in a municipal flat, so that she could be close to her father who had remarried. In the following years, she survived solely on state doles.
Lena had to undergo electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and take several psychiatric medications in order to cope with her depression. She pleaded with the physicians to treat her depression, and in 1999, she was admitted in ‘University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff’ for a neurosurgical operation in order to treat her mental disorder.
Lena Zavaroni appeared to be convalescing following the operation as she was cheerful and sociable. But a few weeks later, she contracted bronchial pneumonia and breathed her last on 1st October 1999. She was interred in Hoddesdon Cemetery in Hertfordshire.