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 . . .

Scottish Daily Mail - - Life - by Michael Thorn­ton

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

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