Eight years after her death, not many people remember Adriana Xenides and fewer still see her as an icon. As for how many think of her as a bigger than life, operatic personality, this number may be reduced to one person – Clare Watson.

The artistic director of Black Swan Theatre Company in Perth envisioned a musical centred around the story of Adriana, whose face will be forever associated with Australian television from the ’80s and ’90s.

“She was on television for nearly 19 years, on the Wheel of Fortune. I loved watching that TV show,” Watson tells Neos Kosmos.

“I always thought she was incredibly beautiful, incredibly glamorous.
“When she passed away in 2010, I saw an item οn the nightly news. And the footage that they had chosen to accompany that news item was of her turning the letters to the phrase ‘Mutton dressed up as lamb’ and I just felt like that was incredibly disrespectful, to be using footage that was mocking her in her death.
“I think it was a deliberate joke. I don’t know whose joke it was but that’s how I perceived that moment – and I just thought: what can be done?”

What Clare Watson could do was create a theatre show about it, a musical. Currently staged at the Black Swan Theatre, Xenides is having its final performance on Sunday. It features songs from the ’80s and ’90s, along with original music written by the show’s musical director, Melbourne-based musician Xani Kolac and features four actresses (Adriane Daff, Harriet Marshall, Laila Bano Rind and Katherine Tonkin) who play “the darling of TV Week and glossy magazines, who made a visit into almost every lounge room across Australia”, in the words of the media release.

“She wore 4,000 dresses, turned 200,000 vowels, traversed 500 km in killer heels and always beamed that million-dollar smile. Adriana won our hearts, and after 19 years, won a place in The Guinness Book of World Records for being the longest serving game show hostess.”

Clare Watson. Photo: Richard Hatherly

Née Adriana Coutsaimanis, she came to Australia from her native Buenos Aires as a child, along with her Greek father and Spanish mother. Growing up, Adriana became a model, actress, TV personality and children’s book writer. She was married three times, first at 19, to Adelaide mortgage broker Michael Xenides, whose name she kept for the remainder of her career. She passed away in Sydney on 7 June, 2010 from a ruptured intestine, after years of suffering from a gastrointestinal digestive disorder, anorexia and depression.

“The more I read about her story, I recognised it was the travel of a young girl, who came with her mum and dad from Argentina to Australia, a sort of rags-to-riches – and then from riches back to rags – story; there were loves and loves lost,” Watson says.

“Her story just seems as rich and interesting as a Puccini opera character, so I thought it was great to tell her story as a musical – particularly because she existed on television in those years the ’80s and ’90s, which is my favourite era of pop. That’s why I decided to do it as a musical. Besides, who doesn’t love musicals?”

Not everyone thinks of Adriana as having these bigger-than-life qualities that make operatic characters.

“What we have looked at while making this work is particularly the female characters, what qualities they have,” Watson explains.

“Most of them are very beautiful; most of them go mad; sometimes by love or other circumstances; and they usually die tragically and young.
“And it is not just characters in opera, but if you look at some of female characters in Shakespeare, like Ophelia, or Juliette, they are the same story; and then, if you look at the story of Marilyn Monroe or the story of Maria Callas, or even the story of Princess Diana, we see that story played out again. It is a sort of trope in western culture; we keep telling the story of a woman who goes mad and dies young, who is weak and reliant or dominated or even destroyed by a source of power. Wouldn’t it be great to see some alternatives to those stories?”

That’s what Watson has set out to achieve in Xenides, in which the actors who play Adriana, also play themselves.

“They speak to the audience as actors in the play, about characters that they can and can’t play. We really challenge the notion of the stories worth telling, particularly in this time of the #MeToo movement moment,” Watson explains, adding another dimension to the production, beyond the light entertainment and pop culture value.

So, what is it that the story of Xenides – or rather the story that Watson is telling about her – has to say to the modern Australian audience?

“We watched a lot of footage of the show; we heard Ernie Sigley, the first host of the show making really rude sexist jokes about Adriana,” explains the dramaturge.

“All the women involved in the show, we remembered that as little girls we would watch that every afternoon. What sort of values did that instil in us?”

From a certain angle, watching these episodes of Wheel of Fortune today, is watching a woman being bullied in her workplace.

“We all had experiences like that, and while making the show, we realised that every woman has had that experience of harassment in some degree. So while we wanted to tell Adriana’s story, her experience became a kind of vehicle for something else. Looking at what we created, I’m incredibly proud of the work that we have done. It is a fun night at the theatre, but at the same time we are sending a message.”

Now that this production is about to have its final performance, what aspirations does its creator have about it?

“I would so love to bring it to Melbourne,” she says. “Melbourne audiences would love it. I basically would love for it to have an actual tour, both for Adriana and because I’m so proud of it. Hopefully it will happen in the not so distant future.”