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Lena Zavaroni

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Here is a cautionary tale to beat most others, of how high child performers can rise and the depths to which they can sink. Lena Zavaroni was a teenage sensation in the mid-'70s but was built up so far by the media that she succumbed to the eating disorder anorexia nervosa and died at the age of just 35. She was born in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, a small island off the coast of Scotland, on November 4, 1963, and was a regular child performer in talent shows on the island. While she was still only nine years old, she was heard singing in the Athletic Bar on the island by record producer Tommy Scott, who happened to be on vacation at the time. He recommended her to the impresario Phil Solomon, who had been looking for a young girl singer. Despite her age, he immediately spotted a rare talent and brought her down to London to appear on national television in the talent show Opportunity Knocks, on which she topped the viewers' voting poll five weeks running.

Early in 1974, her recording of the 1950s Johnny Otis hit "Ma He's Making Eyes at Me" was released and hit the Top Ten, quickly followed by the album Ma, which also reached the Top Ten, peaking at number eight. Because of this chart success, she became the youngest singer to date to appear on the pop program Top of the Pops, and by Easter 1974 she had her first live performance in front of a major audience at the Blackpool Opera House and an appearance in a Hollywood charity show that starred Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball. Fast becoming a world-wide star, she also appeared on The Carol Burnett Show on TV, sharing a dressing room with Liza Minnelli. By 1975 and with Zavaroni only 11 years old, her single had been successful in many countries throughout Europe and Japan, and she was invited to the White House to sing before President Gerald Ford.

She still had a lot to learn, and she signed up with the Italia Conti stage school, where she met fellow child performer Bonnie Langford, forming a friendship that would develop further, and the two teenagers later starred together in their own TV series Lena & Bonnie. Her own TV show, Lena Zavaroni on Broadway, was chosen for the 1978 Golden Sea Swallow Festival, where it won the silver award, but dark clouds were already on the horizon — Zavaroni was growing up and developing into a woman, and no longer seemed to be such a cute kid. When the media had described her as "cuddly," she took it to heart, and no longer able to fit into the children's clothes she was expected to wear on TV and on-stage, she developed anorexia nervosa.

At age 15 in the summer of 1979, she returned to her home in Rothesay and was looking thin and gaunt, and spent her 16th birthday at the general hospital in Glasgow with an upset stomach and a general feeling of listlessness. The trips to the hospital continued throughout the '80s, stopping her from working for long periods, and although she attempted a comeback at Blackpool in a summer season in 1985, she was forced to stop working again due to continued weight loss and illness the following year. Attempting to lead a normal life, she married Peter Wiltshire in September, 1989 but the marriage only lasted 18 months, and it was also around this time that her mother, who had developed a problem with alcohol, committed suicide. Lena Zavaroni spent most of the '90s in various rehabilitation clinics but nothing seemed to give her any happiness, and her weight at times dropped to less than 60 lbs. She finally developed a chest infection and died from bronchial pneumonia on October 1, 1999, at the age of just 35.


November 4, 1963 in Rothesay, Scotland

Years Active:

'70s, '80s