In search of Kathy Kirby, the star who fell to Earth

She used to be one of the country's most recognisable faces. Today, Kathy Kirby is a virtual recluse living on benefits.

Kathy Kirby was way ahead of her time. Four decades before the lives of Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse became cautionary tales of the price of fame, a story with all the now familiar hallmarks was unravelling in the British Press.

While those who called Kirby the UK's answer to Marilyn Monroe may have been guilty of a little wishful thinking, she was undoubtedly one of the country's most recognisable faces.

The highest paid female singer of her generation, Kirby was estimated to be worth 5m and at the height of her fame when her BBC show regularly topped the ratings, she was the self-styled golden girl of variety entertainment.

"In the 1960s and early 1970s she was ranked at the top with Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw and Lulu," says Leeds writer Graham Smith, who became intrigued by what happened to the singer after discovering a manuscript written by one of her former managers.

"She had her own television series, she sang at the Royal Variety Performance and released countless records.

"She was the glamorous singer who appeared to have everything."

Kirby's rise to fame had been carefully masterminded by the bandleader Bert Ambrose, who despite being 40 years her senior became her lover as well as her mentor and manager.

Keenly over-protective, even when rumours began circulating about Kirby's affairs with several high-profile celebrities, Ambrose remained determined to preserve Kirby's glamorous veneer.

However, following his death on stage in Leeds in 1971, there was no one to paper over the cracks and by the end of the decade, following a much publicised nervous breakdown, a lesbian affair and a numerous failed comebacks, the showgirl's mask had crumbled completely.

"Kathy may have been convent educated, but she was always a diva," says Graham, who has now written a stage show chronicling Kirby's life and times. "When she was still a teenager she walked right up to Bert on stage at the Ilford Palais and asked to sing with him.

"He'd played with the likes of Vera Lynn and Anne Shelton, but early on he said he had never known anyone with what Kathy had to offer. She had the voice, tone, range, personality and looks. She was the whole package and he really believed nothing could stop her becoming one of the great stars of the time."

The pair's ambition was formidable, but, as in many showbusiness partnerships the relationship was far from equal. Behind the scenes, Ambrose was the power behind the throne, unwilling to let his young protege make her own mistakes but more than happy to profit from her success.

While there were those who felt Kirby, who made her name with songs like Secret Love, was held back by Ambrose's domineering presence when she was unexpectedly released from his grip, the self-destruct button was pressed.

"Ambrose's death was the beginning of the end for Kathy," adds Graham, who is one of just a handful of people Kirby communicates with. "He had exercised control over pretty much every area of her life, he refused to let her do film tests and when he'd spent his own fortune he moved onto hers. God knows how much he went through, but like a lot of other people he came to see her as a meal ticket.

"It wasn't a particularly healthy relationship, but it was the only one she knew. Overnight, she lost the person who told her how to live her life. She was like a boat without a rudder."

As Kirby's behaviour became increasingly erratic, she went through a succession of managers, none ever able to live up to Ambrose. By her own admission she became trouble with a capital T and in just a few short years she went from top of the bill to backwater venues which afforded little of the luxury she had become accustomed to.

However, even when it seemed she couldn't sink any lower, Kirby did just that and every detail was raked over by the Press who even then knew that celebrities sell and troubled celebrities sell even more.

"There was a story about a man who ended up in hospital with a knife wound after visiting her flat," says Graham. "Kathy became more and more reclusive, reduced to dancing alone in front of a mirror to her own records, but once the bad news started coming it didn't stop.

"Despite all the money she had made, there was talk she had been reduced to sleeping in a shop door and in 1975 all the rumours about her financial problem were confirmed. Bailiffs arrived at her flat leaving only a bed and the carpet underlay."

The story perhaps should have ended there. However, for a brief period it seemed Kirby, who married Frederick Pye, a London policeman turned writer, might just get the happy ending her still loyal fans felt she deserved. Predictably, the marriage and a planned West End comeback came to nothing.

"When Kathy separated with Frederick her life fell apart again and she took to blaming all the men who had been part of it," adds Graham.

"Ultimately, she ended up in court for failing to pay a hotel bill and having no address was ordered to stay at St Luke's psychiatric hospital.

"During her stay, a female fan called Laraine McKay began visiting Kathy and looked after her when she was released.

"This was the start of the most scandalous headlines. The couple started a lesbian relationship and it was when they announced they wanted to get married that the Press went into overdrive."

Kirby's apparent happiness was again short-lived. Shortly after posing for celebratory pictures, McKay was arrested and later imprisoned for three years on charged of fraud and forgery totalling almost 30,000.

With another confidant erased from her life, Kirby made her last public appearance 25 years ago at Blackpool's Horeshoe Theatre Restaurant.

Retreating from the spotlight which had both made and destroyed her, it wasn't long before the woman who had been a household name became a distant memory for a public who now had other stars to champion.

"When I published a biography of Kathy I contacted the singer Vince Hill to see if he would like to write a tribute," says Graham. "He and Kathy had worked together a lot, but he was confused, like a lot of people he thought she had died years ago.

"What's strange is how despite all that happened how fondly people remember her. We set up a website to promote the book and very quickly we were getting thousands of hits a day. She may have lived in Garboesque obscurity since 1983, but there is still something about Kathy which appeals.

"I hope the show, which includes a lot of her most memorable songs, will be a fitting tribute to her career. She never got a chance to say a proper goodbye to her fans and that just seems such a shame."

Having being diagnosed with schizophrenia, Kirby – who will be 70 in October – lives in a London flat, her fortune long gone and only occasionally ventures out.

"On her good days she's a pleasure to talk to," says Graham. "I know she still does gets recognised and it always amazes her people still remember who she is, but as one of her friends always tells her, 'Perhaps Kathy it's got something to do with the turban, the sunglasses and the fur coat'."

Kathy Kirby the household name may be long gone, but Kathy Kirby the diva lives on.

Secret Love premieres at Leeds City Varieties on May 9 before touring venues across the UK. For details visit www.secretlove.info or call 01992 470907.