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HE was the child star with the big voice who sang with Frank Sinatra but ended up living alone on benefits at the top of a grubby tower block.

Lena Zavaroni knew all about the highs and the lows in her short life, while running through it as a constant thread was her fight against anorexia.

It was a 22-year battle she was to lose despite being granted her wish for a brain operation in a last desperate attempt to cure her eating disorder.

Two weeks after the pioneering operation 35-year-old Lena died in a Cardiff hospital on Friday night after developing a blood infection. Her father Victor and sister Carla were at the bedside of the star whose weight had plummeted to just 31/2 stone.

"Everyone at the hospital is upset that someone so young has died," said hospital spokesman Bob Burrows. "She had made many friends with our medical staff and had become very popular in the time she was with us."

Her cousin Margaret Zavaroni added: It has been a long battle, but she is at rest now."

But it was as a chubby nine-year-old in 1972 that the little singer from Rothesay on the Isle of Bute first captured the nation's heart by winning TV's Opportunity Knocks for five weeks in a row. In four years she toured the world and sang with Sinatra while Ma He's Making Eyes becoming an international hit.

But by the age of 13 she was already battling anorexia. "From my first day at stage school I noticed the other kids were very skinny and I was a little dumpling," she said.

"``And when you're on television, you become very aware of your own body and more critical of it. That was when I became anorexic. I became very anxious if I put on a single pound.

Her career feel apart as she battled with the disease and her private life was just as disastrous, with her marriage to computer businessman Peter Wiltshire in 1989 lasting 18 months.

Broke and alone, she moved into a one-bedroom council flat at Tower Heights in Hoddesdon, Herts, where she spent the last six years of her life.

"She was on the dole and spent her time doing abstract paintings," said friend and neighbour Steve Black, 43. "She didn't sell them and was hard up. I gave her two dozen of my mother's old shoes, she was so desperate.

"We were really close friends and exchanged birthday cards. When I bought her flowers she cried. She was happy that someone had shown an interest in her. But she was very frail. She was very mixed up and on a lot of medication."

Earlier this year she was charged with shoplifting a 50p packet of fruit jelly. The allegation was later dropped but Lena was devastated. "She was worried about her reputation," said Steve. "But I knew she would never steal anything.

Steve added: "The sad thing is that I felt she was getting better. She was positive about the operation and told me, 'See you when I get back'."

Lena first told of her desperation to undergo brain surgery in the Sunday Mirror seven years ago.

At the time she said: "I have tried everything else - I am so desperate to find relief that I pleaded with the doctors to give me a lobotomy but they refused."

The surgery, which involves removing or destroying a portion of the brain by laser probes, is rarely carried out. But one of Lena's neighbours claimed that she had one operation already in Canada which involved two or three holes being drilled into her head through her temples and electrodes being attached to her brain. A spokesman at the University of Wales Hospital in Cardiff said: "Miss Zavaroni came here because we are one of the few centres in the world that carry out this operation." But he refused to go into details.

But leading medical experts cast doubt on the benefits of brain surgery to cure eating disorders.

"I am not aware of any surgical treatment for anorexia nervosa," said Dr William Durward of Glasgow University.

And anorexia counsellor Ann Cox said that removing part of the brain was the wrong way to approach the condition.

"This sort of surgery, where specific parts of the brain are removed to treat various forms of disturbed behaviour, concerns me," said Ann, 47. "I think it is a little bizarre. "It overlooks why a person has adopted this form of behaviour and stopped eating in the first place."

Lena's closest friend Elly Dalziel, who changed her name to Zavaroni after becoming her "adopted" sister, told how the singing star looked painfully thin when she saw her for the last time six weeks ago.

"I was frightened for her," she said. "I knew she was going to die but it's still a shock. She always said it was something more than anorexia but the doctors could never work out what. She asked me to tell everyone that once she'd gone."

Elly still suffers from anorexia and together they tried to help each other re-living their childhoods going to fairs and carnivals

"She always felt she was 10 years' old. She was like a happy, bubbly little girl."

Lena's cousin Margaret said the family were absolutely devastated. "Lena was a wonderful girl. She loved singing but she could not handle the pressure of fame," she said .

"She never had a normal teenager's life. She missed out on so many things.

"But nobody will forget her."

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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Hayward, Stephen
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 3, 1999
Previous Article:Such a sad, lonely and lost little girl.

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