Born October 20, 1938: Died May 19, 2011

Kathy Kirby, who has died aged 72 after a short illness, was a singing star whose popularity peaked in the 1960 but who suffered a traumatic decline in fortunes as her fame faded.

Born Kathleen O’Rourke in Ilford, Essex, she was convent educated and early on harboured hopes of becoming an opera star. But she became a professional singer after meeting the bandleader Bert Ambrose at the Ilford Palais in 1956 and despite being 40 years her senior he became her lover as well as her mentor and manager until his death.

After playing the club circuit she eventually landed a deal Decca Records and her popularity grew until she was a “blonde bombshell” pin-up and one of the UK’s biggest stars, with two top ten hits, including her signature song Secret Love, and three others in the top 40. She starred in three television series for BBC TV and also appeared on the The Ed Sullivan Show in the US. Her cover of Secret Love was released in 1963 and that year she was voted Top British Female Singer the annual New Musical Express poll.

In 1965 Kirby, whose niece Sarah is married to Sir Mark Thatcher, represented the UK in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest, coming second with I Belong to Luxembourg’s France Gall, who sang a composition by Serge Gainsbourg.

Kirby was also noted for her theme to hit TV show Adam Adamant, and she went on to record a number of albums in the late 1960s under a new deal with EMI and at the height of her fame was reputed to be worth £5m. However the hits began to dry up. She recorded 12 singles and an album between 1967 and 1973, but they all failed to chart.

When her chart days were behind her, she then appeared in a number of TV variety shows but gradually withdrew from the public eye. Speaking in 2009, she claimed to have had a fling with Bruce Forsyth which had a profound effect on her relationship with Ambrose, who died in 1971. She said Ambrose was turning down work because he was scared she might leave him.

“I think I could have played romantic leads or light comedy roles in movies but my silly affair with Bruce had inadvertently brought it all to an end,” she recalled.“I could feel frustrated and bitter but in the end I just put it downto experience. What else could I do?”

Following Ambrose’s death on stage in Leeds, Kirby struggled to find direction and by the end of the decade she had been through a much publicised nervous breakdown and a numerous failed comebacks.

Kirby was made bankrupt in 1975 and was reportedly reduced to sleeping rough. After ending up in court for failing to pay a hotel bill and having no address was ordered to stay at St Luke’s psychiatric hospital in London.

During her stay, a female fan called Laraine McKay began visiting and looked after her when she was released. The couple started a lesbian relationship and when they announced they wanted to get married the tabloid press had a field day. But McKay was later arrested and imprisoned for three years on charged of fraud and forgery.

Kirby was diagnosed as schizophrenic but made a brief comeback in 1981, spearheaded by a reworking of the Charles Aznavour song She – renamed He.

But the return to the spotlight was to be short-lived and she decided to retire in her early 40s and made her last major public singing appearance in the early 1980s on a TV special.Kirby, who lived as a virtual recluse in South Kensington, London, married a policeman turned writer, Frederick Pye, in the 1970s but the relationship was short-lived.