Wheel of Fortune’s Adriana Xenides remembered by co-host

John Burgess recalls his favourite moments with the TV icon
Adriana Xenides remembered

If you had a TV in the 80s, how could you ever forget Adriana Xenides?

She was the elegant blonde TV hostess with the melting eyes and dazzling outfits who graced our screens for decades.

During her career, she wore 4000 dresses, turned 200,000 vowels and even won a place in the Guiness Book of World Records for longest serving game show host.

Sadly Adriana, who flipped the letters on top-rating show Wheel Of Fortune from 1981 for nearly two decades, died in hospital in 2010, just 54 years old.

‘She was a lovely lady,’ nods John Burgess, Adriana’s co-host on the show for 12 years,. ‘In all the years we worked together, we never had an argument – and that’s pretty rare in showbiz!’

Adriana Xenides remembered

Adriana, recalls John, 75, ‘always cared a lot about others – though perhaps not enough about herself.’ 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.

‘After her time on Wheel of Fortune ended, she missed being Adriana the TV star and getting that level of attention,’ John reflects. ‘After being in the public eye so long, it was hard for her to adapt to suburban life. And her illnesses made it much worse. She was on a lot of medication.’

But despite her private troubles, the star is remembered by many for her warmth and kindness.

John, 75, vividly remembers 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. Soon after we left the hospital later that afternoon, we got the sad phone call that she’d died.’

But now he can smile at some of the memories. ‘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.’

‘I still miss her, and I miss her early morning texts!’ he chuckles.

Eight years on, the Argentina-born TV star has been celebrated.

To Burgo’s delight, a musical commemorating her life, launched in Perth on October 23.

‘I’ve been fascinated about Adriana for years,’ explains 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. Both women had become famous in the same era, ending up in the lounge rooms of most Australian homes, both on TV and on magazine covers. She even likened herself to Princess Diana! She was glamorous, with 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. Eventually, she decided a musical on the star’s life would do her justice.

‘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 these reports were unfair.’

‘I knew her story had elements of ‘rags to riches’ then back to rags again, but I needed to learn more,’ says Clare.

So she talked to journalists, school friends, and people who knew Adriana, an only child who had moved to South Australia with her Greek father and Spanish mother when she was nine years old.

‘When she was little, her parents were so strict she was never allowed out of the house,’ says Clare. But she was very close to them both. Some of her earliest memories were of dancing the tango with her dad, who worked as a barber. She was also extremely close to her mother and as an adult, often moved in with her between relationships.’

‘And some things still remain a mystery. For example, there are reports that she was very academic, Dux of her school, but former school friends say this isn’t so.’

‘One school friend said she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen: striking, with long dark hair, and quite self conscious.’

Asked to describe Adriana in a sentence, Clare replies: Gallant, courageous, misrepresented, iconic and beautiful.’

Around the time Clare and her colleagues began writing the musical, the Harvey Weinstein scandal became world headlines, and ‘this affected our approach to the story of Adriana – her story became a vehicle for the stories of all women, especially those in showbiz,’ says Clare.

In the musical, ‘the four women playing Adriana also then talk about their own experiences.’

And how would this complex, intelligent woman have felt, knowing musical has been made about her?

‘I know she’d be really, really chuffed,’ says John Burgess. ‘I think it’s fantastic. Dear 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.’

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