If you can remember the 80s, could you ever forget Adriana Xenides? That elegant blonde TV hostess with the melting eyes and dazzling outfits who graced our screens for decades.
Sadly Adriana, who flipped the letters on top-rating quiz show Wheel Of Fortune for nearly 20 years, died in hospital in 2010, just 54 years old.
“She was a lovely lady,” John Burgess, Adriana’s co-host on the show for 12 years, tells The Starfish. “In all the years we worked together, we never had an argument – and that’s pretty rare in showbiz!”
Adriana, who’d battled stomach disorders for years before her untimely death, “always cared a lot about others – though perhaps not enough about herself,” John recalls with fondness.
But eight years on, the Argentina-born TV star is certainly not forgotten.
To Burgo’s delight, a musical has just been written celebrating her life, and is currently running in Perth.
“I’ve been fascinated about Adriana for years,” explains the show’s creator, Black Swan Theatre Company director Clare Watson.
“I’d grown up watching her on TV and to me, she was a bit like Australia’s very own Princess Di. After all, she’d become famous in the same era, and like Diana, had ended up in the lounge rooms of most Australian homes, both on TV and on magazine covers. She even likened herself to Princess Diana! She too was glamorous, had a big heart and did a lot of charity work.”
Clare vividly remembers the night she turned on the TV news in June, 2010, to learn Adriana had died in hospital.
“The news report about her death has always stuck in my mind: it showed vision of Adriana turning letters to uncover the word ‘mutton dressed as lamb.’ What a disrespectful way to mark this woman’s death. They had 18 years of stock footage to choose from; she deserved better!”
Clare felt she owed it to the star to do something theatrical and fabulous to celebrate her memory.
“The news reports all depicted her as a kind of tragic blonde; a beautiful fragile woman who’d gone mad before she died. I felt Adriana deserved better. There was so much more to her!”
Eventually, she decided a musical on the star’s life would do her justice.
“First, I set about researching her,’ she explains. ‘I realised her story had elements of ‘rags to riches’ and back to rags again.
To learn more about Adriana, Clare talked to journalists, school friends, and as many people as possible who knew Adriana, who moved to Australia with her Greek father and Spanish mother when she was nine years old.
“We know when she was a child, her parents were so strict she was never allowed out of the house,” says Clare. “In South Australia, her father, who she adored, worked as a barber.
“And some things still remain a mystery. For example, there are reports that she was Dux of her school, but a former schoolfriend says this isn’t so.”
To complicate matters, many of the early photos of Adriana as a child no longer exist; ‘She apparently destroyed most of them!’ says Clare. ‘But one school friend said she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen: striking, with long dark hair, and quite self conscious.’
Though on camera she’d always flashed a bright smile, behind the scenes, Adriana had suffered from repeated illness, depression, a tumultuous love life, and loneliness.
In her latter years, she’d become dependent on painkillers, which had also affected her weight.
“I think she missed being Adriana the TV star and getting that level of attention,” John Burgess reflects. “After so long in the public eye, it was hard for her to adapt to suburban life. And her illnesses made it much worse.”
But throughout her highs and lows, the star is remembered by friends and associates for her warmth, kindness and devotion to her late parents.
John, 75, recalls the terrible day he received a phone call from Adriana’s cousin saying his close pal was gravely ill from a ruptured intestine and not expected to live.
“My wife, Jan and I raced to see her in hospital. And she was in a coma. I said, ‘Adriana, it’s Burgo here,’ and – I was so upset, I don’t remember this – but Jan says when I spoke, Adriana turned her head towards me, one last time. Soon after we left the hospital later that afternoon, we got the sad phone call that she’d died.”
“I still miss her – and I miss her midnight texts!’ he chuckles. ‘She had a propensity to text you messages at 1am or 2am. And I mean, a text as long as your arm! She often had trouble sleeping so she’d get in touch at any hour.”
And how would this complex, intelligent woman feel about the fact that a musical has been written about her?
“I know she’d be really, really chuffed,’ says John Burgess. ‘I think it’s fantastic. Adriana was never happier than when she had some attention and she’d be so happy to know that we’re thinking of her and celebrating her today.”
“Around the time as we were writing this musical, the Harvey Weinstein story broke. Her story ended up becoming a vehicle for the stories of all women, especially those in showbiz,” Clare explains.
In the show, the four women playing Adriana also talk about their own experiences, in a refreshing, whimsical exploration of what it means to be a woman in showbiz.
Xenides, The Musical is on now at the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre.
Cast: Adriane Daff, Harriet Marshall, Laila Bano Rind, Katherine TonkinCreatives Director: Clare Watson Musical Director & Composer: Xani Kolac Musician: Djuna Lee Musician: Holly Norman Set Designer: Zoe Atkinson Costume Designer: Sarah Duyvestyn Choreographer: Laura Boynes Lighting Designer: Richard Vabre Lighting Design Associate: Chloe Ogilvi Assistant Director: Katt Osborne
More information and bookings at www.bsstc.com.au.