Helen Zerefos: From working at Paul’s Hamburgers to becoming Australia’s star soprano

When Helen Zerefos OAM walks into the Kogarah café in Sydney where we had planned to meet for our interview, I’m instantly struck by her charism and beauty. Wearing flawless makeup and a bright red high-neck dress, she quickly draws the attention of the café’s patrons. This isn’t a surprise though as Australia’s award-winning soprano singer had just walked into the room.

Born in the rural New South Wales town of Scone in 1937, Ms Zerefos was the eldest daughter of two Greek migrants – Katina Andronicos from Avlemona on the Greek island of Kythera, and Paul Zerefos from Neapolis Vion, Laconia. The family was complete with a son, Bill, and second daughter, Fotini.

When Ms Zerefos was three years old, the family moved to Glenn Innes. Paul was a fruiterer and owned two shops, one in Glenn Innes and the other in Moree, providing fruit and vegetables to locals until they eventually left for Sydney after World War Two and settled in Sylvania.

Helen Zerefos at 2 years old.

Ms Zerefos tells The Greek Herald it was in this tiny Sydney suburb where her parents’ idea to open Paul’s Hamburgers was born.

“We went to Sylvania and my dad bought a block of land there and built this shop… it was a mini-market and a milk bar,” Ms Zerefos explains.

“While they were building the shop, my father was at the races one day and my mother said to the builder, ‘I want you to measure seven feet from that wall in and put a wall there.’ The builder goes, ‘Mr Zerefos didn’t say that’ and she said, ‘But I am.’

“That night when my father came home he said, ‘What’s the wall doing up in the middle of my shop?’ and mum replied, ‘I’m going to put a lunch bar over there… I think I’ll sell hamburgers.’ My dad said, ‘But you’ve never made a hamburger in your life,’ and she said, ‘I know but I’ll learn.’ So that’s how it all started.

“The rest of the shop was a milk bar, with fruits and groceries because at that time, there were no other shops around. It was a very busy shop. But as time went on, the hamburger shop, a little tiny corner, took off.”

Crowds outside Paul’s Famous Hamburgers.

Ms Zerefos says the success of the shop is tied to her mother’s cleverness and “unlimited energy.”

“I couldn’t do what she did,” the 85-year-old singer says with a fond smile.

The soprano going her own way:

In a way, Ms Zerefos did live up to her mother. She was ground-breaking and fiercely independent in her own right.

Knowing she had a strong soprano voice, and having learnt to play the piano, Ms Zerefos took it upon herself to audition for Channel 7 and never looked back.

She spent three years singing in the elite choir known as Revue 20 and performed Greek music for the first time on Australian television. Later, from the 1970s to the 1990s, Ms Zerefos grew her solo career and sung in over 600 television shows including The Don Lane Show and The Midday Show, among many others. In 1986, she also performed in a Royal Gala Concert for the late Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip at Sydney Entertainment Centre.

The Queen meeting Helen Zerefos, 1986.
Barry Crocker & Helen Zerefos 1968, National TV, Channel 10.
Cafe Continental, Helen Zerefos, ABC Channel 2, 1961.

In between all these singing commitments, Ms Zerefos says she still had to fulfill her Greek family duties and help out at Paul’s cooking hamburgers. She remembers fondly one particular memory where she was heading to a performance at the Sydney Opera House when she received a call from her mum asking for help.

“So I’ve raced across through the back [of the shop] and I’ve got full make up, my hair up, and I’m making hamburgers. One man in the crowd said, ‘Now that’s what I think a hamburger lady should look like’,” Ms Zerefos says with a laugh.

“They all knew I was doing shows but it was a bit of a joke in the area – ‘oh Helen’s back at the shop’.”

Helen Zerefos (front right) in the shop. Photo courtesy of the St George Leader.

‘Something I’ll never forget’:

Despite these familial commitments, Ms Zerefos still made time for her singing and philanthropic work in neuroscience research. Her philanthropic work is tied to her mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after the sudden death of Ms Zerefos’ father.

She was recognised in 1996 with a Medal in the Order of Australia (OAM) for her work and musical career.

Former Greek President Karamalis, NSW Premier Wran, and Helen Zerefos, 1982.

The Greek Australian soprano also managed to squeeze in an around-the-world trip in 1965 with her brother. This trip was something she has never forgotten, especially after she was asked by the Mayor of Neapolis Vion to give a concert for the locals at an open-air cinema.

Helen and Brother Bill Zerefos, Avlemonas, 1965.
Helen Zerefos Mother’s Balcony Avlemonas Kythera 1965

“When I looked outside [at the cinema] there was 283 people and there were over 1,000 people all the way around standing on the road and on their balconies watching me,” Ms Zerefos explains.

“It was unbelievable. It was something I shall never, ever forget. I was in tears most of the time.”

When I ask how it feels to be able to have these experiences and a successful career, Ms Zerefos says she was lucky to have the support of her family and never takes anything for granted.

Helen Zerefos today. Photo copyright: The Greek Herald / Andriana Simos.

“To get the respect of others, you had to be good at what you did… My parents were both very proud of the fact I could sing and play the piano and so they were very supportive,” Ms Zerefos concludes.

“I just feel very privileged that I can do what I’m doing.”

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