Every body has a story.
Every body has a story.
November 4, 1963—October 1, 1999
Lena Hilda Zavaroni was born on November 4, 1963, in Greenock, Scotland, to Victor and Hilda Jordan Zavaroni. Lena spent her formative years living with her parents and younger sister, Carla, in the Scottish town of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. (Her grandfather had emigrated from Italy, hence the non-Scottish sounding surname.) Her parents ran the family fish and chips shop—aptly named Zavaroni’s—which apparently has pretty decent food because as of mid-2021 it is still open for business (although under new management, I believe).
Both of Lena’s parents were good singers, and her dad played the guitar, so they would entertain customers on a regular basis. Before she was three, Lena was providing vocals alongside them. According to Lena’s cousin, in mid-1973 the family sent in an application for Lena to appear on the popular U.K. televised talent program Opportunity Knocks (sometime before that, Lena had been politely asked to stop competing in the town’s amateur talent shows because no one could beat her). While they were waiting for a reply from OpKnocks, vacationing British record producer Tommy Scott caught one of Lena’s performances. Knowing a money-maker when he saw one, he told record producer/music promoter/pop manager Phil Solomon about his discovery, who in turn told his wife, Dorothy, a talent agent/manager. Dot heard opportunity knocking for herself and signed Lena on as a client.
Billed as “the little girl with the big voice,” Lena did eventually appear on Opportunity Knocks and a couple of other similar programs (and Simon Cowell acts as if he invented the British television talent show). Lena won OpKnocks for a then- (and maybe still) unprecedented five weeks in a row. Somebody must have beaten her in her sixth week competing, but the internet’s not naming names.
Soon after her run on that show, she made an album, from which the single “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me” was released. The song was just the first in a long string of questionable music choices selected for Lena. There is no report on whose idea it was to have a ten-year-old girl singing a song about getting proposed to, but apparently the idea wasn’t as creepy to the record-buying public in general as it is to me, because the song was a huge hit and the album made it into the top 10. Lena was 10 years, 146 days old on the date of that momentous occasion, making her the youngest person to have an album in the UK Top 10, which is record she still holds as of July 2021. Allegedly she was also the youngest person to-date to have performed on British music top-10 countdown show Top of the Pops. By the way, according to Lena’s father, Lena herself hated the “Ma” song, so at least we know she wasn’t to blame for it.
Other early songs deemed appropriate by her management for a preteen were: “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” a song from the musical “Sweet Charity,” sung by a “dime a dance” girl about her visit to a rich customer’s home; “Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me” (it’s even worse than it sounds); “Should Have Listened to Mama” (about a handsome heart-breaker); and my personal favorite (which she was singing from age 10): “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Thanks for calling; we have a winner!
I won’t even get started on the songs they had her sing that were more suited for 110-year-olds than 10-year-olds, and then there were the songs that were just…bad. To Lena’s credit, she did a beautiful job with every song she was asked (forced?) to sing.
In order to facilitate her burgeoning career, Lena was moved into her manager’s London apartment. Solomon, who freely admitted that she was never interested in raising a family of her own, ran a well-appointed, if not overly relaxed, home.
In the spring of 1974, Lena and Solomon jetted around globe so Lena could share her talents with the world. Japan seemed particularly enamored with her. On one television appearance there, she crooned the song “End of the World,” a song about getting dumped (sample lyrics: “…it’s the end of the world; it happened when I lost your love”) to the show’s host. It’s a great song, but maybe not the best choice for an 11-year-old girl to sing to an adult male.
In the U.S., Lena appeared on The Tonight Show (singing “Ma!” and “It’s the End of the World”), as well as a televised charity special starring Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball. One of them said to her, “You’re special. Very special and very, very good.” No one seems sure which one of them actually said it, but when a compliment of that magnitude is coming from either Old Blue Eyes or Lucy, does it really matter? Later in the year, she guested on The Carol Burnett Show and Dinah! (the exclamation point is part of the title of Dinah Shore’s talk show, not me adding my personal endorsement.) Somewhere along the way, she gave a performance for President Ford at the White House.
Lena’s talents were not as well received in America as her supporters had hoped, but her popularity in her native land kept her plenty busy. Over the next few years, she made albums, appeared on numerous television programs, and performed for the Queen of England. Consequently, she spent most of her life surrounded by adults only (hadn’t the Solomons ever heard of play dates?). When she was 13, someone decided it would be a good idea to dismiss her tutor and enroll Lena in the Italia Conti Academy, a “Fame!”-like school in London, so she could be around children her own age. She seemed to do well there and made friends, something she hadn’t been given the time to do in the previous three years. Unfortunately, this was also the time period during which she started worrying greatly about her weight. When Lena first came to the attention of international audiences, she had been a typical little girl, though perhaps a little shorter and the tiniest bit pudgier than some. When your parents run a fish and chips shop, guess what you eat a lot of? Being and inch or two shy of 5’/1.5m tall probably didn’t help much either. In an interview when she was 13, Lena claimed she had had to go on a diet because she had been fat and the costumers could not find outfits for her. If that truly had been the case, management should have replaced the costumers with others who could actually do the jobs. Virtually every non-nudist on the planet, no matter what their sizes, can manage to get clothes wrapped around themselves on a regular basis, but these so-called professionals couldn’t find any apparel in an entire wardrobe department to fit a medium sized preteen? [Sorry. End of rant.] Lena said her childhood chubbiness, combined with her body’s normal and expected development at that age, made it difficult for her to lose weight, but she was determined to do so.
Somewhere in this time frame, Papa Zavaroni left Mama Zavaroni for another woman, which understandably shook Lena’s sense of security, even though she wasn’t living with them at the time. (I am in no way blaming Lena’s health issues on her father. It was just another trevail Lena had to deal with at a relatively young age.)
In 1978, 14-year-old Lena starred in two specials—one alongside her friend and classmate Bonnie Langford, and one as stand-alone star performing a selection of Broadway tunes (with adult male backup singers). The following year, she was given her own six-episode series. The shows consisted of Lena singing mostly lightweight pop hits and/or perky favorites of yesteryear, as well as performing “comedy” skits with guest stars. The series was renewed through 1982, with Lena doing six episodes a year. In the meantime, she guested on other shows… and got thinner and thinner.
When she went home in 1979 for a rare vacation, her family was shocked by how thin she had become. She went to a doctor, who diagnosed her with anorexia nervosa, brought about by depression. Her family (like just about every other family of the era who heard that diagnosis about a loved one), said, “What?” The disease was just starting to be introduced into the mainstream at that time, and few people knew of it or understood anything about it.
Lena tried to get help throughout the years, but nothing stuck. When she was 19, she reportedly spent time in a hospital in Glasgow, and was also admitted to All Saint’s Hospital in Kennington, London, because she was suffering from a “mystery illness.” The press cried overwork, making Solomon cry foul. After those hospital stays, Lena barely worked again.
In 1989, Lena married her first and only boyfriend, computer consultant Peter Wiltshire. It seemed to have been more of a desperate attempt on their parts to create a chance at some kind of happiness rather than a true love match. About three months later, Lena’s mother died from a heart attack caused by an overdose of medication. When Lena’s marriage broke 18 months after the couple shared “I Do’s,” she moved to Hoddesdon, England, to be near her father, stepmother, and sister.
For the last 10 years of her life, Lena led a quiet and seemingly lonely existence, living on her own or with relatives (where she sometimes exhibited bulimic behavior, as well as anorexic), trying to find help for her illness. She spent some time in a clinic in Canada and seemed to rebound, but after she left there she quickly went back to her old ways.
In 1998 Lena was dealt yet another blow. Her flat/apartment caught fire (allegedly caused by a candle). and all of her show business mementos were destroyed.
Finally, in 1999, she decided that she could no longer stand living with anorexia and that her last option was brain surgery (having a surgeon sever selected nerve pathways) to help lessen her depression.
Eventually, Lena found a doctor who agreed to perform the operation (by pretty much blackmailing him with threats of suicide), and the surgery was performed on September 7, 1999. Over the next few weeks, she started to heal nicely, and she expressed optimism about the future. The medical staff was organizing her transfer to a different facility where she could continue her rehabilitation, when—as happens so many times with hospitalized patients—she developed an infection and pneumonia. Lena’s tiny body could not fight it, and she died on October 1 at the University of Wales Hospital in Cardiff (the same hospital where Micky Gee would pass away nearly 20 years later). Her father, stepmother, and sister were at her side when she died.
Her final resting place is in Hoddeson Cemetery, Hoddeson, Hertfordshire, England.
There is a statue in memory of Lena in the Discovery Centre of her hometown. It’s a bronze statue of a young girl sitting cross-legged and playing with butterflies. It seems ironic, considering that young Lena no longer had time for such childish delights by the time she was ten.
If you have never heard of her before, and you’re curious about why so many of her fans still care about her today (and you’re willing to watch even one of her videos), check out the YouTube video of her rendition of Neil Sedaka’s “Going Nowhere” (the performance where she’s wearing an off-white, one-sleeved gown). Keep in mind that she was only 17 at the time it was filmed.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or addiction, please contact your region’s crisis hotline. In the United States, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s 24/7 National Helpline number is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
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