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LENA HAD NO FEAR OF DEATH; The child star's best friend tells how Lena wanted to find an end to the anorexia which had plagued her life.

LENA ZAVARONI had arrived on the doorstep in a pair of slippers, wearing a flimsy coat and a nightdress over her pitifully thin body.

It was two weeks before the former child star was due to have her high-risk brain operation and she had travelled alone from Euston to Birmingham to be close to her best friend Elaine Dalziel.

Yesterday, an inquest heard that the Rothesay-born singer - whose weight had dropped to three and a half stone - died of pneumonia.

There is no evidence - yet - that the surgery was directly related to her death, but more tests are to be done.

When Lena's father Victor called Elly last Friday and broke the news of her death, Elly was distraught - but not surprised.

"I think the operation was Lena's death wish," she says.

"In the two weeks that we spent together before she went into hospital, she had talked about dying and although I don't think she wanted to go through with the surgery, she had explained to me that it was her only hope of a release from the anorexia and from the fear of not being in control of her life."

Elly was the woman who had shared much of Lena's life, becoming so close that she had even changed her name to Zavaroni.

A fellow anorexic, they had become best friends when they starred in a pantomime in the 80s.

They had made a pact to keep an eye on each other's paltry food intake and to never grow up.

"We just didn't feel that we fitted into the adult world. The anorexia was our way of keeping our bodies like children's. It was a kind of protection," said Elly.

"We always said we'd sooner drink a cup of tea with sugar than have sex."

The memory of seeing such a helpless Lena at the doorway of her high-rise flat is one that will remain with Elly for a long time after the funeral which will take place a week on Friday.

"Lena called me from a telephone box near her flat in Hoddesden that morning at 6am," she recalls.

"I could tell from her voice that she was desperate and frightened. She told me she just wanted to run away and was catching a train to stay with me. When I opened the door and saw her standing in her slippers with her nightie showing, I could hardly get my breath.

"She had an old duvet round her shoulders and said she'd spent the night sleeping in the 'phone box. She was absolutely exhausted and I put my arms around her and told her everything was going to be all right. She slept for most of the day with me cuddled up next to her on my single bed. She was so frightened and just needed to be loved. Lena was 35 going on 10, she was never able to shake off the need to remain in a little girl's world and anorexia was her only means of control.

"Not eating was a way of proving that she could still control her destiny even if she couldn't find happiness."

The relationship between Lena and Elly Dalziel was as bizarre and unlikely as it was intense and dependent.

Like Lena, Elly has battled against anorexia since the onset of puberty. The two women met in 1981 when Lena was starring in a Blackpool pantomime production of Jack And The Beanstalk. Elly had spent two years living with a foster family in Birmingham from the age of 14 after leaving the children's home that had been her home since the death of her father, George, when she was nine.

At 16, she moved into a council flat in the city and started taking dancing classes at Birmingham's Hippodrome Theatre in the hope of finding a career as a dancer.

After successfully auditioning for a place in the pantomime, Elly met Lena on stage and they became firm friends.

"Lena's showbiz career was nowhere near as high profile then as it had been," says Elly, now 41. "From the day we met, I knew there was always going to be a strong bond between us. We were soul mates. Lena said her mum Hilda had initially been the driving force behind her showbiz career, but they had never been close," says Elly.

"Her agent, Dorothy Solomon, took over the role of her surrogate mum and I think she was really the one who drove her on.

"When Lena's recording of Mama went to number one in Japan in 1986, she phoned me in tears to say she had a virus, but was still performing. She vomited while she was singing."

In 1982, Elly moved in with Lena at the London home she shared with her father, step-mum Christine and sister Carla and within a year, she and Lena had moved into a flat.

"It was like having my own family again," says Elly. "Victor and Christine were supportive but found it hard to come to terms with Lena's anorexia.

"Lena was still getting calls to work but by then she was suffering from severe depression. She was constantly being compared to Bonnie Langford and that added to a sense of failure. She was never jealous of Bonnie, but the fact that Bonnie's career seemed to be taking off made it harder for her."

In 1986, Lena moved into another flat with Elly in Birmingham.

"She was taking up to 50 laxatives a day and had to be hospitalised. She was always trying to get me to eat and in the end we made a pact that we would only monitor our own eating rather than try and get each other to eat.

"We just wanted to revert to being 10. We loved dressing up, cuddly toys, fairground rides, cartoons - it was our way of escaping.

"Even in the weeks before she died Lena used to phone me from hospital and say she felt as though she was living in a dead body.

"She used to tell me that it was as if part of her brain had stopped working. She couldn't experience normal emotions."

And although 35-year-old Lena knew there were no guarantees that the procedure would put an end to her anorexia, she believed it was her only hope of beating the eating disorder.

A year after returning to London to live with her father, Lena met computer technician Peter Wiltshire in a local pub.

Elly admits she was astonished when Lena phone to tell her she was getting married.

"Peter told Victor he wanted to take care of Lena," she says. "I think Lena saw him as a means of security. She told me she was terrified of having sex. But he swept her off her feet and I think he recognised how vulnerable she was.

"When I saw her at their wedding, she told me not to worry but, I could see that wasn't at ease."

Within just 18 months, the marriage was over.

"Even though Lena and I saw less of each other during the time she and Peter were together, we still kept in touch," she recalls.

"I had added the name Zavaroni to my own name by deed pole in 1985 because I wanted to feel like a complete sister to Lena. Peter knew she had problems, but like Victor and Christine never really understood how to help."

Lena stayed with Elly in her Birmingham flat for a year after her divorce was finalised in 1991.

Both women underwent intermittent psychiatric treatment and hospital admissions as anorexia once again took its hold on their reclusive lives together.

In 1994 Lena spent months at the eating disorders clinic in Canada owned by Peggy Claude Pierre, where Birmingham anorexic twin Sam Kendall was undergoing treatment.

"It was another attempt to try and rebuild her life," says Elly. "She would have what she called picks, which basically meant eating crackers, little pieces of cheese and perhaps a biscuit.

"But then there were times when she would just spend whole nights bingeing food, she never swallowed anything, she just used to chew food and spit it out. It was a nightmare, because although we were facing the same problem, we couldn't help each other In December 1996, Elly was forced to have the lower part of her left leg amputated after anorexia caused circulatory problems.

"It was the lowest time of my life," she says. "Once gangrene had set in I knew there was no hope of saving my leg. Lena was brilliant. I was so frightened.

"She always called me Mickey and I called her Minnie and when I opened my eyes, she was holding my hand and said "Hiya Mickey, how are you doing?"

"She came to Birmingham with Victor and Christine because she knew they were the only family I had. I stayed with them after I came out of hospital for three months and I know I would never have survived coming to terms with losing my leg if they hadn't been there for me.

"That's why I can't imagine what my life is going to be like now that Lena has gone. When Victor phoned to say that she hadn't survived the operation, I didn't want to carry on living. Lena phoned me before the operation and told me that if she didn't come through, she would always love me.

"In the two weeks that she stayed with me before going into hospital, I really felt we had never been so close. She only weighed about four stone so I didn't think they would risk operating until she had put on some more weight.

"She smoked about 20 cigarettes a day which meant that her lungs were already very weak and she had a real hacking cough.

"When I saw her off on the train back to London, I didn't want to face the reality that it just might be the last time I ever saw her."

One of the things that has most angered Elly since Lena's death is the claim by unemployed singer Ray Dexter, 49, that he and Lena were planning to marry.

"Ray is a user and he's lied about having a relationship, which is unforgivable, because Lena's not here to put the record straight.

"I have to try and think that Lena is now at peace and all the torment she went through is over."
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Challand, Christine
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Oct 7, 1999
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