Girl who shot to fame with `Ma he's making eyes at me'

 

Lena Zavaroni, who has died aged 34, epitomised the potentially traumatic effects of child stardom. A tiny girl with an enormous voice, she was feted by television viewers when in 1974, at the age of 10, she appeared on Hughie Green's Opportunity Knocks and, uniquely, won the show five times in a row.

One of the songs she performed on the programme - a precociously belting version of Ma He's Making Eyes At Me - became a hit record, and by the time she was 13 she had appeared at the Royal Variety Show, worked with Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Barbra Streisand, and been a guest on the Johnny Carson Show. On British television, she had worked with Morecambe and Wise, and had her own series.

Already, however, she had begun to show signs of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, the illness from which she was to suffer for the rest of her life. In many ways, her problems were typical of those that beset many pre-pubescent stars: the loss of childhood, public attention, and the difficulty of transposing childhood talent into an a adult package when show business - and, to some extent, the audience - only thrilled to the child/voice combination.

Lena Zavaroni was born into an Italian-Scottish family at Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute. Her father, Victor, who had come from Genoa, would sometimes play the accordion in clubs, and he and her mother, Hilda, took their nine-year-old daughter to an audition in Glasgow for a place on Opportunity Knocks.

After its success she left primary school, moved to London where she lived with her managers, Philip and Dorothy Solomons, and went to the Italia Conti Stage School to study ballet. The transition from Scottish council house to the Solomons's London home completely overawed her. Presciently, she once said she had never seen so many knives and forks as there were at their table, and that when she sat to eat she didn't know which ones to use.

At Italia Conti, she met another child star, Bonnie Langford, with whom she appeared on the Lena and Bonnie TV show, and who remained a friend. But in ballet classes with taller, thinner and older teenagers, Lena Zavaroni started to think that she was too small and too fat - and that slimming would make her look taller.

At 16, with a trail of appearances in variety, summer shows and pantomimes behind her and a year back in Bute, she was rushed to hospital in Glasgow with anorexia. Her weight had dropped to below five stone. No longer the child sensation, and having difficulty finding an audience that didn't mind not seeing "the bouncy little girl", she spent years in and out of hospitals and working spasmodically, although she did complete her own BBC TV series.

After her parents split up in 1981, her father re-married and they would both occasionally sing in clubs together. In 1989, too ill to work regularly - and often on anti-depressants - she married her only boyfriend, a computer expert named Peter Wiltshire. A few months after the wedding, her mother committed suicide. The marriage lasted 18 months, until Wiltshire said he was tired of eating alone and coping with her reclusive behaviour - she said that she could only eat in front of her family: "I can't bear other people to see me eating."

By 1992, she was living on the dole in a council flat in Hertfordshire. Her weight had fallen to three stone and she had asked doctors for a brain operation - she believed her anorexia and depression were caused by a brain malfunction, even though scans showed nothing. Some weeks ago, she underwent an operation in Cardiff to stimulate her appetite and reduce anxiety.

She is survived by her father, Victor, and sister Carla.

Penny Valentine Lena Zavaroni: born 1964; died October, 1999