Graham Smith Mediaworld All Rights Reserved October 2006
The Kathy Kirby Story
Kathy Kirby has good reason to have fond memories of Matt Monro for both of them were runners up in the Eurovision Song Contest and gave a special show at the London Palladium in 1964 called “A Song for Europe”.
Matt represented the UK in 1964 with “I Love the Little Things” and the year after Kathy was second with “I Belong”. The Palladium show featured Bob Miller and the Millermen and was hosted by Bob Monkhouse.
“I have very fond memories of Matt, he was a great performer and a gentleman,” says Kathy, “He was very much a singer’s singer who is as popular now as he ever was.”
By 1975 Kathy Kirby was probably worth £5 million, now, over thirty years on from the height of her fame and fortune, she is delighted that her music and her poignant story are finding a new audience. The girl who had arguably one of the finest female voices in 20th century popular music has lived in obscurity for almost 25 years, but recently gave her first interview proper in all that time and is enjoying a renaissance of her music.
Her hits , “Secret Love”, “Let Me Go Lover”, “I Belong” and so many more are now available on compilation CD, and her best-selling LP “My Thanks to You” is a collector’s item. Her effervescent style, blonde hair and trademark lip gloss made her the highest paid girl singer of the sixties. She was a favourite of fans and royalty, and it is only recently, thanks to her biography “Secrets, Loves and Lip Gloss”, by long time friend and manager, James Harman, that her career has begun to enjoy something of a revival, with more plans in the pipeline.
She is much more settled with her life and is enjoying some of the comforts which the publication of her story have brought about.
The “Golden Girl Of Pop” who sang for her Queen and for her country, plunged to the very depths of poverty and despair and now lives reclusively in her London flat . In the 1960s and 70s she was ranked at the top with Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw and Lulu and was constantly on television. Today she normally refuses all requests for interviews and has only a small circle of close friends who care for her.
She was hailed as the British Marilyn Monroe, but now lives a Garboesque existence with only her memories. What is the real Kathy Kirby story? What happened to the blonde bombshell with the enormous voice, lip gloss and looks? Why did the girl who sang “Secret Love” turn herself into the most enigmatic secret show business has seen in the last quarter of a century?
Convent educated Kathy O’Rourke was born in 1938 and could have become an opera singer. However, great forties and fifties bandleader Bert Ambrose spotted her talent. Vera Lynn and Anne Shelton had sung with his band but of Kathy he said: “I have never known anyone with what Kathy had to offer. Voice, tone, range, feeling, personality and looks. In fact this girl has it all, and nothing can stop her becoming one of the great stars of our time.”
Ambrose was to become her mentor, manager and, despite the forty year age difference, her lover. When he died after being taken ill on a TV set in 1971 it was the beginning of the end for Kathy Kirby. She would struggle from one manager and agent to another, and through personal crises of monumental proportions. The glamorous singer who had had everything would reach rock bottom and even have to sleep in a shop doorway.
Without Ambrose she went into self destruct mode, although much of that was due to the fact that he had exercised such control over every aspect of her life. Along with members of Kathy’s own family, Ambrose spent a great portion of the fortune which had been earned by channelling her talent. Her own family too were involved in the situation which eventually led to her bankruptcy.
That talent had seen her become one of the highest paid British female entertainers of all time. She had her own TV series, sang at the Royal Variety Performance and made records which, even today, forty years on, sell in great numbers and interest in her web site at www.kathykirby.co.uk is enormous.
Even at the height of her fame cracks were beginning to appear. Rumours circulated of her having become pregnant after an affair with Tom Jones. One night she would run from the stage in tears as a heckler shouted to enquire how the “bastard” child was?
There were other well publicised romances for Kathy, but all took second place to Ambrose. Then, after Ambrose’s death, she began her unbelievable spiral into drugs, mental problems, even becoming the victim of a woman who was to coax her into a lesbian wedding ceremony when she was at her lowest psychological point. Could it get any worse?
It certainly could. Her career went steadily downhill. Her troubled personality gave her a reputation which no manager could overcome. She played smaller and smaller venues, and by her own admission became trouble with a capital T. The sad side of her story began to make the headlines. The story of how Ambrose had completely possessed her in every way, becoming her lover when she was not quite eighteen. She confessed to an affair with Bruce Forsyth. Ambrose had been furious and jealous and eventually the two had to meet in secret.
More headlines told of an incident where a man was hospitalised from her West End flat sporting a knife wound. Now she was becoming more and more reclusive, reduced to dancing alone in front of a wall to wall mirror to her own records. Rumours of her troubled finances began to circulate and culminated in 1975 with bailiffs arriving at her flat and leaving only a bed and a carpet underlay. Bankruptcy, the final ignominy, or was it?
Ever the survivor, she bounced back and married for the first time to a former London policeman turned writer, Frederick Pye. She made a West End comeback which came to little. She would lose a baby and for a while settle as a full-time housewife, but the worst for Kathy Kirby was just around the corner.
Separated from Pye, Kathy’s life fell apart piece by piece and she simply blamed the men who had been part of it. She was to end up in court for failing to pay a hotel bill and having no address was ordered to stay at St Luke’s Mental Hospital in London. She was placed on a ward with acutely disturbed people. Eventually released, she was given into the care of a woman friend, Laraine McKay.
This was the beginning of the most scandalous headlines about Kathy. McKay, a fan, had visited her in the mental hospital. Seizing on her opportunity, she caught the singer at her lowest ebb and a lesbian relationship began. The newspapers had a field day when it was announced that the couple were to go through a wedding ceremony at Chelsea Registry Office. “Kathy Kirby to wed woman!”, they screamed.
Hours after posing for celebratory pictures McKay was arrested over charges involving cheques totalling £18,000. Weeping, Kathy told the Press that McKay was her “Prince Charming” and that “ I truly love her as much as I ever loved Bert”. Later McKay was to be imprisoned on 20 charges of fraud and forgery involving almost £30,000, much of it, she claimed, has been spent on Kathy. She went to prison for three years.
In the early 80s Kathy tried many times to kick start her career. It was then that James Harman, a fan who had followed her career, earnestly, became her final manager. But the admiration that had brought them together was to turn to despair as Kathy unwittingly destroyed all his efforts to resurrect her much tarnished career. He too would eventually walk away from the fallen star who made her last appearance at the Blackpool Horseshoe Theatre Restaurant in December 1983
But they would be reunited when James was successful in halting a play ironically titled “Whatever Happened To Kathy Kirby?”. They remain friends to this day. Still the fans buy her recordings and contact him asking how she is. Still she refuses to make TV or personal appearances, and so her fans are deprived of a great star, a great survivor, a legend of the sixties whose trademark song “Secret Love” is such a poignant reminder of the days when a lady who has little left in life had it all.