What Was it about sabrina that made her such a big star?
She was the factory worker’s daughter with an 18-inch waist and zero acting talent who made a fortune as Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. So, as it emerges she died in terrible poverty . . .
WITH her long, platinum-blonde hair, pouting lips, seductive lisp, awe-inspiring 41-inch breasts and 18-inch waist, the young Sabrina was hailed as Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. In her early appearances on TV and film as a classic dumb blonde, she remained exactly that — dumb — rarely uttering a single word.
And yet, she vividly captured the public imagination, swiftly becoming one of the best-known and most popular personalities of the Fifties and Sixties, with a bust famously insured for £100,000.
But Sabrina, whose death aged 80 has just been announced, was also a refreshing realist and the first to admit that she had none of the talent of the iconic sex symbols with whom she was compared.
Many decades later, when asked about her fame, she said: ‘It made me a sex symbol, which I’m not. And it made me a household name, like Tide, which I am — a clean girl from the sticks.
‘People seem to forget that I was, at one time, the junior breaststroke champion of Manchester.’
Indeed, she was. Norma Ann Sykes — her real name — was born in a modest terrace house in Heaviley, Stockport, on May 19, 1936, the daughter of a factory mechanic, Walter Sykes, and his wife, Annie, a seamstress. She proved herself a talented schoolgirl swimmer with ambitions to swim the Channel, and by the age of nine, she was swimming a mile a day at the local YWCA, beating girls of 15.
But her dreams were thwarted when, at 14, she contracted rheumatic fever and polio and spent two years in and out of hospitals. An operation on her leg almost led to amputation, leaving her with a scarred ankle and a dependency on calipers, at times, to walk.
Doctors prescribed exercises to develop her leg muscles during her convalescence, and she would spend hours each day swimming in a heated pool, and then working through body-building sequences. It was to these strenuous workouts that her prodigious bust was attributed.
At the age of 16, and realising that her incredible 41-18-36 figure was her best asset, Sabrina left Blackpool where her mother was running a hotel and moved to London, where she worked as a waitress and housemaid, before turning to ‘glamour modelling’, posing nude for pictures used on the backs of playing cards, and for various magazines.
THe turning point in her life came in 1955 at the age of 18. The comedian Arthur Askey, casting around for a gimmick for his BBC television series, Before Your Very eyes, claimed to have had a nightmare following a late supper of cold roast beef and pickled onions in which the 5ft 2in tall comic saw himself confronted by a pair of huge bosoms.
With the launch of the commercial channel ITV imminent, Askey’s producer, Bill Ward, saw the publicity potential of his star’s ‘vision’.
In these politically correct times, it seems incredible, but a nationwide hunt was launched and thousands of photographs of well-endowed young beauties sent in to the BBC — but none could rival the shot of Norma Sykes sent in by a modelling agent.
even then, Askey had his doubts. ‘She had a lovely face and figure,’ he later recalled, ‘but could not act, sing, dance, or even walk properly... Anyway, she was exactly what we wanted.’ Askey and Ward renamed her Sabrina, after the 1954 film Sabrina Fair starring Audrey Hepburn, and an elocution coach was hired to work on eradicating her Lancashire accent.
‘You will have to take my word that I did not engage her on the size of her bust,’ Askey wrote in his autobiography. ‘I knew she was “well built”, but had no idea how big she really was until the BBC wardrobe mistress told me she couldn’t get Sabrina into a medieval costume on account of her enormous chest. I realised then that I had unknowingly struck “gold in them thar hills”!’
The BBC had also struck gold. The reaction of viewers to her first appearance was so enthusiastic that she was moved centre-stage for the next episode. Within months, she was receiving 1,000 fan letters a week and was hugely in demand for shop openings and personal appearances.
Often, her public activities descended into near-riots. A crowd of 4,000 turned up to watch her opening a shop in Sheffield, for which her fee was £100 — at a time when the average weekly wage was £7.50.
Her clothing was regularly torn off by fans, and everything she did was photographed, including being politely ejected from the Royal enclosure at Ascot.
She had entered without a ticket and with a plunging cleavage that was deemed ‘inappropriate’ in front of the Queen and Queen Mother. After her sensational debut with Askey, she featured in another BBC TV series, Fast And Loose, with Bob Monkhouse and June Whitfield, followed by her first film, Stock Car, in which she had a few lines — although they appeared to have been dubbed by a Cockney actress.
In her second film, Ramsbottom Rides Again (alongside Askey, comedians Sid James and Frankie Vaughan), she uttered barely a word, and in Blue Murder At St Trinian’s, in which she shared star billing with Alastair Sim and Terry-Thomas, she was seen in bed with a book and
never spoke. Sabrina then took to the stage in a West End revue, Plaisirs De Paris, billed as ‘The Fabulous Sabrina’.
To other West End divas, Sabrina and her assets were less than fabulous. Appearing in an all-star gala, she fell foul of top-of-the-bill singer Dorothy Squires, then married to Roger Moore.
Squires, never one to mince her words, lambasted her, yelling: ‘Don’t you know anything at all about this f***ing business, you big-titted twit?’
Sabrina’s earning power by now was considerable and she was represented by a Svengali-type agent, Joe Matthews, who insured her breasts (she was entitled to £2,500 for every inch of deflation, but Lloyd’s of London excluded claims occasioned by civil war, invasion or nationalisation), and bought her a yellow and white Chevrolet with the registration number S41 (her bust measurement).
Matthews also drummed up press interest in her romance with an American film star, Steve Cochran, and speculation about whether she would meet him on his arrival at Heathrow Airport once relegated a mining disaster from the front pages.
She was also romanced by the singer David Whitfield and circus playboy Billy Smart.
In 1958, after being awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Leeds, Sabrina took her cabaret act first to Australia and then headed to Hollywood, where she told a journalist: ‘I’ve got eight minks. They cost me three years’ work and I paid for them all myself.’
Known as the ‘British Bosom Lady’, her film work in America was less than distinguished.
In the 1962 sexploitation movie Satan In High Heels, she sang two songs, but it was refused a licence by the British censors.
This was followed by House Of The Black Death, a farrago about warlocks, witches and a horned Satanist with a cloven hoof, in which she played a blonde belly dancer. It was so dire that its release in the U.S. was delayed by 34 years until 1999.
SHE appeared in the TV series Tarzan, alongside Broadway legend Ethel Merman, while one of her last films was The Ice House, which had been intended for Jayne Mansfield, but who had meanwhile died in a car accident.
Sabrina had, to some extent, blighted her U.S. career by visiting Cuba as a guest of Fidel Castro’s new revolutionary government, something for which the American press never forgave her.
In 1967, she gave up on showbusiness and married an affluent LA gynaecologist, Dr Harold Melsheimer. They set up home in a mansion in the exclusive Woodland Hills (where her Doberman Pinscher had its own bedroom and bathroom), and partied with Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Dick Van Dyke. Sabrina had her own 40ft yacht and went shopping with Lucille Ball.
When the marriage ended in divorce in 1977, her decline into obscurity, ill-health and hardship began. She moved to a small, shabby house in North Hollywood, where she became a virtual recluse and a paraplegic, ill for long periods as a result of unsuccessful back surgery, for which she sued her surgeon.
In 1990, her elderly mother moved from the UK to care for her, but died five years later.
In recent years, she depended on a live-in lodger. She died, as she had been born, in obscurity — in November 2016 from respiratory failure, but her death has only just been announced.
The unexpected fame of the girl from Stockport did not seem to bring her happiness.
A journalist once described her sitting forlornly at a white baby grand at 3am in her barely furnished apartment near Sunset Boulevard when her career was dwindling.
‘You know, when I finally do go back to London, I’m going back big,’ she told him. ‘I’ll make those people who laughed at me laugh on the other side of their faces. For a long time I didn’t know what it was I wanted. Now I know . . . Just a little respect. It goes a long way. Respect.’
Sadly, you can’t but feel it’s the one thing she never achieved.
Cover girl: Sabrina fronted many film fan magazines of the day
Making the most of her assets: Sabrina (from top) in Blue Murder At St Trinian’s, in the pose that got her thrown out of Ascot, and on Arthur Askey’s knee Fame: Sabrina’s astonishing figure put to sensational effect in Lurex trousers and tight sweater