Monday, 28 December 2009

Young Talent Time & Coping With Death

About 5 weeks ago I turned 26. Sometimes I think to myself that I’m only in my early twenties given that my first few years were a complete write off. As I’ve alluded to previously these first few years was a struggle for me, and in particular my immediate family as we coped with the grim diagnoses of my physical disability. I don’t remember much about those early years, except for my undying devotion to the campy variety show Young Talent Time (YTT)

For those readers under 22, YTT was basically a forerunner to the Idol juggernaut in Australia, where a group of eight kids, four girls and four boys between ages 10 and 18 would perform the latest chart hits and dance to highly choreographed numbers. Hosted by 1960s pop star Johnny Young it ran for 17 years, before being abruptly cancelled at the beginning of 1989, just before a new season was about to commence. Due to my age, my familiarity with the show only lasted with the show’s last group of performers: the end of Danni Minogue’s and Beven Addinsall’s stints on the show, and the ‘New Generation’ kids: Joey Dee, Courtney Compagnino, Jamie Churchill, Ricki Arnott, Johnny Nuich and Juanita Coco.

I remember sitting in front of the TV every Saturday night at 6:30 and watching the show religiously. According to my parents it was one of the few times each week I would smile and not cry: for that was pretty much all I did in my first five years. Alas, it ended too early for me to enjoy it properly as it was cancelled around about the time I was just making sense of my world.

However for Christmas 1990 my Aunt gave me a straight to video release called Young Talent Time… Now starring the ‘New Generation’ cast members: featuring such highlights as Juanita singing Madonna’s Cherish, Courtney singing Transition Vamp’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me and two separate New Kids On the Block songs performed by the boys. The cast even did a special segment on a strange phenomenon called ‘Global Warming’ set to Martika's version of I Feel The Earth Move (how forward thinking were they!?!). That tape got played for years and years, and I loved every second of it.

Then one day my Mum was reading a magazine like she does every Friday night after dinner while my brother, Dad and I were watching the football and we heard her gasp audibly. We turned to face her, she went white and she simply said ‘Juanita Coco died in a car accident’ I can still remember the confusion I felt upon hearing the news aged 9. Young people don’t die surely? That’s only old people. That was the first ever experience with death I had. I just remember the utter confusion of it all. Even though I knew YTT had finished I realised that I’d never see her again.


Then a couple of nights ago something reminded me of YTT and so I found the above YouTube clip. I remember watching that on its first broadcast at the tender age of 4, knowing all the words, but not being able to verbalise them. Watching it again was quite a surreal experience. Then immediately after watching Juanita singing Fairground Attraction’s Perfect my mind suddenly leapt to that childhood moment: ‘Juanita Coco died in a car accident’ and so I was prompted to do a little investigating to see if somehow I could reconcile a childhood memory to some sort of reality.

Through my university’s archive I was able to find an article by the crime reporter from The Age, Andrew Rule, who is now of course famous for co writing the Underbelly books and the TV series. His description is shockingly vivid, more shocking than I could ever anticipated.

Former 'Young Talent Time' star, Juanita Coco, 17, was one of two people killed in a car accident in East Malvern early yesterday morning. Brad Lacey, 21, of Beech Street, East Malvern, also died when their station wagon and another vehicle collided. Three male passengers in the car were injured and were taken to hospital. The driver of the other car was unhurt. The state's road toll stands at 141.

DEATH cruises the streets in disguise, late at night. This time it's a rust-brown Commodore sedan, hurtling along Malvern Road at nearly 100 kilometres an hour. The road is almost empty but, as if synchronised by some malevolent force, a white Subaru station wagon turns across the speeding sedan's path at exactly the wrong moment.

Six people are crammed in the Subaru. It moves slowly, but the road is wet, the driver clumsy and probably affected by alcohol. A belated stab at the accelerator spins the tyres and the car loses traction - just long enough to make a thousand-to-one chance a dead certainty.

In the split-second before impact, the Subaru's driver instinctively reefs the wheel away from the danger. It is this - the final roll of the dice in a bloody Saturday-night lottery - that dictates who dies, and who doesn't.

The Commodore rams the wagon on its left side. Metal grinds on metal, glass explodes, bodies smash. The force whips the left rear passenger's head sideways so savagely that it breaks his neck. His head hits that of the young woman beside him, and breaks hers. Her head hits her boyfriend beside her, smashing his jaw. He survives - but when he finds out that his best friend and his fiancee are dead, he wishes he were too.

All but the first paragraph were written in an article published on the sixth anniversary of Juanita’s death, May 2nd 1999. The 3000 word feature article goes on to document the details of the night of the crash, and it plays out just as tragically as you might expect. Juanita and friends call a taxi to head home from a local night spot, and of course it shows up, the group go inside to grab their things, and by the time they return outside the taxi leaves, the driver tired of waiting. They then decide to take a ride home with an older female friend, who (according to reports) the group knew was visibly drunk. The car then speeds through the streets of Melbourne, has a few near misses of monumental proportions, until the fatal accident occurs just two blocks from their destination. The driver was ultimately found not guilty in her trial for manslaughter.

As you can imagine reading this in the dark late on a Saturday night, I was shaken up considerably. One could only think that this is a giant waste, not only of talent, but of two lives that had not yet reached their prime, add to that those of the survivors who have all had significant issues due to the accident. To think that if she was still alive today Juanita Coco would have turned 34 two and half weeks ago. If that is not a deterrent for drinking and driving I don’t know what is.

Johnny Young compared Juanita to YTT’s two most successful members: Dannii and Tina Arena, a world renowned artist who appeared on the show before I was born. Whether that is true I cannot say: for all I can picture now is Juanita performing with an infectious smile, and now the final moments of that crash in my mind. It really typifies the fragility of life: the joyful and the tragic. It is a timely reminder for me to treasure life no matter the barriers I face: for it may well be gone in an instant.


  1. Courtney Compagnino20 January 2010 at 00:59

    Thank you for this

  2. Thank you, Todd. Brings back some sad memories, and good memories too. The other day I looked up YTT on YouTube, for no particular reason - I was just reminiscing... I found the same video you have shown here. I remember Juanita very vividly - as we went to the same schools. Seeing that video inspired me to google her, and that lead me here.

    I remember how chuffed our whole school was that she had been selected for YTT. It's very difficult to find a modern equivalent to compare it to... We all thought it was so cool - someone from our school got to be on tv every week and be awesome!! (Courtney - you were awesome too!) Then of course the show got axed, which put a bit of a dampener on things.

    Wikipedia says "After she left Young Talent Time, Coco faded into obscurity..." Which I think is a bit unfair - I think it was more the show that faded into obscurity!

    To people who knew Juanita, or for people like me - I didn't really know her personally, but I saw her at school every day - and just looked up to her - she was still a star. She always played a major role in our schools musical productions and was such an inspirational everyone involved. There was no doubt in our minds that she would be famous some day. She was very attractive and really had an amazing stage presence.

    What happened that night left our whole school and the local community utterly shell shocked. Thining about this still puts a lump in my throat and brings a tear to my eye. It was such an unlikely and cruel chain of events that lead to this tragedy.

    R.I.P. Jaunita - you will not be forgotten.

  3. I remember when Jacinta died too and for some reason today was thinking of it. I remember doing leadlighting course at Jacinta's boyfriends parents house and how the parents told us of what happened frightening experience happen that night and how their son's life changed not only physically and mentally. He lost the love of his life because of one girls generous over to take them home in her car. The only problem she was under the influence. If only you could go back in time and change it all....

    1. JUANITA!!! Not jacinta. At least show her some respect and get her name right

  4. I remember Juanita COCo on YTT she was my favorite on YTT. I watched YTT in 1987/1988 I was then 10 and 11 years old back then. It's sad about this tragic accident. Back in 2000 I was in a car with a guy who was under the influence of alcohol. I was lucky to be alive. I was at my sister's birthday party. RIP Juanita 10-12-1975-02-05-1993.