Norma Ann Sykes (19 May 1936 – 24 November 2016), better known as Sabrina or Sabby, was a 1950s English glamour model who progressed to a minor film career. She was best known for her hourglass figure of 42.5-inch (108 cm) breasts coupled with a tiny 19-inch (48 cm) waist and 36-inch (91 cm) hips.
Sabrina was one of “a host of exotic, glamorous (British) starlets … modelled on the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Lana Turner”; others included Diana Dors, Belinda Lee, Shirley Eaton and Sandra Dorne. According to Su Holmes, Reader in Television Studies at the University of East Anglia, Sabrina was the visible focus for contemporary debates about the cultural decline associated with fame: “The press marvelled at how she had achieved fame ‘without professional experience or training’, and they wondered if she was a ‘bosomy Frankenstein-style construction produced in the BBC workshops and stuffed with old scripts’ ”.
Sabrina was born on 19 May 1936 at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport, Cheshire, to Walter and Annie Sykes. She lived in Buckingham Street, Heaviley, for about 13 years and attended St George’s School there, before moving with her mother to Blackpool. At the age of 11 she contracted polio, which resulted in two years in hospital and some scarring on her leg. After reaching the age of 16 Sabrina moved to London, where she found work as a waitress and did some nude modelling, posing for Russell Gay in a photoshoot that led to her appearance on the five of spades in a deck of nude playing cards.
In 1955 Sabrina was chosen to play a dumb blonde sidekick in Arthur Askey’s new television series Before Your Very Eyes (BBC 1952–1956, ITV 1956–1958). The show ran from 18 February 1955 until 20 April 1956, and made Sabrina a household name. She was promoted by the BBC as “the bosomy blonde who didn’t talk”, but surviving episodes show quite clearly that she did. Askey, who in his autobiography claimed to have chosen the stage name “Sabrina”, explained how she was chosen for the part in his TV series:
We held auditions for a suitable dumb-cluck and found one in Norma Sykes. She had a lovely face and figure, but could not act, sing, dance, or even walk properly.
The critic Cosmo Landesman has referred to Sabrina’s appearance in Askey’s show as “a pivotal point in Britain’s postwar cultural history”. Despite her perceived lack of talent she was soon receiving fan mail at the rate of 1000 letters a week, and her personal appearances often degenerated into near riots. On one occasion 4000 people turned up to watch her open a shop in Sheffield, for which she was paid £100, more than twelve times the average weekly wage of the time.
Sabrina made her film debut in Stock Car in 1955, followed by a small role in the 1956 film Ramsbottom Rides Again. In her third film, Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957), she had a non-speaking role in which, despite sharing equal billing with the star Alastair Sim on posters and appearing in many publicity stills in school uniform, she was required only to sit up in bed wearing a nightdress, reading a book, while the action took place around her.
Sabrina’s penultimate film role was in the western The Phantom Gunslinger (1970),[a]Although it was not released until 1970, the film was produced in 1967. in which she starred alongside Troy Donahue. Her final film was the horror movie The Ice House (1969), in which she replaced Jayne Mansfield, who had died in a car crash two years earlier.
Later life and death
On 27 November 1967 Sabrina married Dr. Harold Melsheimer (born 11 June 1927 in Germany), a Hollywood gynaecologist/obstetrician. They divorced ten years later.
In 2002 an article in the Daily Mail claimed that Sabrina was living “a lonely and sad existence” in Los Angeles. The paper later issued an apology, stating that “allegations in the article were untrue and that she lives in a desirable residence in West Toluca Lake”. In 2007 however, there were further newspaper reports that Sabrina had become a hermit, “living in squalor” in a Spanish-style house on a street known as “Smog Central”, under the flightpath of Burbank Airport.
Having suffered from chronic back problems for many years, towards the end of her life Sabrina became paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. Her mother moved to Hollywood to care for her in 1990, but died five years later. Sabrina died of respiratory failure on 24 November 2016, at the age of 80.