LENA WAS PUT ON DIET AT 10; Star's long battle with anorexia began the moment fame's door swung open ... and her showbiz agent beckoned her inside.
But by the time the world had woken up to Scottish singer Lena Zavaroni's talent, her agent had put her on a diet.
Lena's new eating regime was meant to be a healthy and nutritious diet.
But it sowed the seeds in the mind of the young star and her on a roller- coaster ride that would lead to her tragic death at the age of 36.
She was on a crash course to self-destruction and she still wasn't even old enough to leave primary school. Now, for the first time since the anorexic star's death last October, her family have spoken about the agony of watching Bute-born Lena starve herself.
They have recalled how the happy little 10-year-old singer was suddenly put on a diet after moving from her Rothesay home to stay with her London agent, Dorothy Solomon.
Soon afterwards, Lena started to complain about being too fat for her skimpy stage outfits.Lena's cousin Martha has described how the singer became obsessed with her weight after she moved south to the bright lights of London.
The big move came soon after her 1974 appearance on Opportunity Knocks - the talent show that would transform her from a schoolgirl into a star who would later rub shoulders with Frank Sinatra.
Martha said: "Lena said something to us about feeling a little bit overweight.
"But she came from Rothesay, with fish and chips and cans of baked beans and spaghetti, so Dorothy put her on a sort of healthier diet."
Martha's husband David added: "Lena was plump, but all the kids on the island were full of fish and chips, because that's all they ate."
Lena, whose father Victor worked in the family-owned fish and chip shop in Rothesay, was then introduced to a life of relative luxury at Dorothy's London flat.
She was surrounded by all the good things in life - but soon learned the art of self-denial.
The girl who was raised by Victor and mother Hilda, along with sister Carla, suddenly had a new maternal figure in her life.
She put her complete trust in Dorothy, eating what she was told and being careful to be on her best behaviour in her agent's plush Park Lane flat.
Martha said: "Lena had to be on her best behaviour. It was don't touch this or don't break that. Dorothy became her mother in a sense."
In a television documentary, The Real Lena Zavaroni, to be screened on Channel4 on Wednesday, February 23 at 10pm, David added: "When she came to Dorothy's house, she began eating beautiful food, such as desserts with cream. Suddenly, it was: 'What's going on here?' It was something she had never had before."
Soon the tell-tale signs of an eating disorder began to show, but no one dreamed that Lena would ever be diagnosed anorexic by the age of 16.
David recalled: "She did say: 'I've got to wear all these silly costumes and try and get into them and be with it for the TV'." Dorothy was convinced Lena was going to be the new Barbra Streisand.
After her history-making appearance on Opportunity Knocks, she took the singer on tour in Japan and America with her hit album Ma.
While other children were still in the playground, Lena was singing in the White House and was meeting President Gerald Ford, comedian Jerry Lewis and, of course, the legendary Frank Sinatra. With such a hectic performing schedule, Dorothy knew that Lena had to leave Rothesay far behind.
The agent compared Lena's life with her to staying at boarding school.
She said: "It was awkward because Victor and Hilda were on the island with Carla.
"Lena would phone them every night and went home on the school holidays.
"It was like being at boarding school, really."
The agent admitted she wasn't the maternal type and had never wanted any children of her own.
She said: "I stuck to dogs and horses. Children were never in my plan."
Lena's insatiable appetite for work hid the emotional turmoil that was going on behind her broad showbiz smile.
Dorothy complained that she was legally obliged to wait until Lena was 14 before she could increase her workload from 39 to 80 appearances a year. The singer also launched her own television show.
Dorothy said: "Until children are 14, they can only do 39 dates a year."
She added: "There wasn't the great opportunity when she had her hit song to appear a lot and make lots of money."
But by the age of 16, Lena was finally diagnosed as anorexic. The truth about her life-threatening condition shocked her family, admits her father Victor.
He said: "When Lena came home, she was very thin. I thought it was maybe a transition between being a teenager and an adult.
"I never thought in a million years she wasn't eating."
Later, he was to beg with Lena to eat on a daily basis, pleading with her to think of her family if not herself.
Looking back, Martha says the family should have known Lena was vulnerable to anorexia nervosa, a condition which doctors believe could be hereditary.
The singer's mother Hilda suffered from mental illness and died in 1989 after an overdose of drugs and alcohol. Lena subsequently attempted suicide herself.
Martha said: "Lena's mother was a really wonderful, bubbly person.
"But she had a nervous disposition and when Lena became famous, she found it very difficult to cope. I'm not saying it was actually the fault of Lena's mother, but there's a possibility this is where Lena's problem stemmed from."
After sending Lena to psychiatrists, hypnotherapists and acupuncturists, her family ran out of ideas.
The last resort was a stay at Canada's Montreux clinic, which led to the three-and-a-half stone Lena undergoing pioneering brain surgery at a Cardiff hospital. But she developed an infection and her frail body wasn't able to recover.
Dorothy was concerned that the operation was too risky for her former protege, but Lena was determined to go through with it.
The singer had never lost the stubborn streak that had pushed her relentlessly through a gruelling career.
Shortly before a probe was inserted into the area of Lena's brain that controlled her emotions, the singer was planning her comeback.
Dorothy said: "I thought it was a drastic step, but she was determined to have it done. Lena asked me if I thought she could make a comeback and I said 'yes, of course she could'."
But Victor believes Lena might not have lasted much longer, even if she hadn't had the operation.
He said: "I wish I had said to her not to have the surgery, but you just don't know. For how much longer would she have been here?"
It was a sad end to a fragile life that was on a slippery slope from the moment Lena took her first steps to stardom all those years ago.
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|Publication:||Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)|
|Date:||Feb 15, 2000|
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