independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

A life of walking on broken glass

Belinda Walsh talks to Hazel O'Connor about a life of ups and downs HAZEL O'CONNOR IN CONVERSATION

WHILE SPENDING an afternoon sipping mint tea and talking space travel among other things with the singer/songwriter Hazel O'Connor, 55, in her cottage in Rathdrum, I noticed how, every so often the years seemed to fade away as she became animated and wide eyed talking about her life.

I was yet again face to face with the young queen of punk rock and British film sensation of the 1980s. Many of us will remember Hazel and that iconic image of her dressed as a silver robot singing 'Eight Day' on Top of the Pops.

Few could forget her bizarre costumes, panda eyes, white sometimes pink hair and her powerful voice. It was also her electric style of delivery and passion that had us riveted to our TV screens and eagerly buying her new wave, alternative style of music. Hazel shot to fame in 1980 when she played the part of punk rocker, Kate in the critically acclaimed film ' Breaking Glass' for which she wrote all the songs. That same year she won the Variety Club of Great Britain for 'Best Film Actor' and a BAFTA nomination for ' Best Newcomer' and 'Best Film Score.'

The album of the same name went double platinum and several hit singles followed. But the sudden explosion of attention didn't sit to well with the sensitive artist and her fearful inner child, as she tells us of one experience in Ireland at the height of her fame.

'After doing Slane Castle in the '80s I wanted to get away for a bit and go camping down in Ballybunion. I remember feeling really nervous walking up the high street when these people who had been at Slane saw me and started screaming at me.

Then later having dinner in a local hotel, scores of people began hovering around looking for autographs and searching for me, so I hid under the table in the restaurant. People just stood there amazed, just looking at me but I was genuinely scared." She laughs in retrospect with girlish giggles.

Hazel O'Conner was born in Coventry in England, the daughter of an English mother and an Irish Father. Her father was born in Galway but left aged 17 to join the British army in the World War and later settled in England.

As a young girl Hazel travelled with her older brother Neil, now a successful record producer living in Montreal, and her parents to Ireland regularly to visit her Granny in Galway and her many cousins here.

She describes her father as a great raconteur with a love of music, dancing and singing and tells us about her close relationship with him.

'My dad left a traditional West of Ireland republican background to join the British army which was weird but of course it was a way of getting out then. He was very young, a bit of an adventurer I suppose. Dad and I were very close when I was little. I was his little 'fairy girl.' He could tell great stories and he loved to sing and dance. He was also terribly handsome, very dark haired and dark skinned.

'Mum and him were terrific ballroom dancers and he sang in the working men's club choir and played the piano. I remember someone saying my dad could play the piano by ear. As a small child, I was very confused and intrigued as I'd never seen him do that.'

The happy early childhood years, that she describes as ' wonderful,' often sitting with her brother on the stairs listening to her parents singing and dancing, came to sad end with the break-up of their marriage when she was just 8 years old. An event that seemed to have a traumatic and lasting effect on a young, very sensitive and aware, Hazel O'Connor.

'I was pretty freaked out when mum, me, Neil and the dog all left dad. He had become violent with mum and it was the right decision for her but I was devastated. He wasn't a drunk but he drank regularly and would become jealous. Alcohol changed him. I remember hearing them arguing at night. Neil could sleep but I would stay awake worrying and wondering what I had done wrong.'

Although Hazel saw her father, now deceased, from time to time, things were never the same again and he seemed 'saddened and broken for a time' and the distance between them grew when he later went on to remarry and have another family.

At 16, Hazel was beginning to move into her ' hippy' period and on a tearaway few weeks with a girlfriend first in Casablanca, Morocco and then in Marrakesh she innocently went for a walk with a Moroccan boy who attacked her and raped her at knifepoint. She never reported the incident and returned to England where she believes she suffered for a long time from 'post traumatic stress syndrome.'

"I never told anyone about the rape. I remember the fear I felt, that I was going to be killed and the fear of getting pregnant. Everything changed, my life had turned 360 degrees, at 16. All the frilly stuff was gone and the harsh reality of life gripped me and I couldn't see the point in anything like going back to school.'

She did however manage six months at a London art college where they still display her work today, before deciding to run off, be a hippy and see the world. 'I met a student in Los Angelus a few years ago who told me she'd seen my work there. It's funny how they show my art work because I became famous, if I hadn't become famous, I would just have been that little 'so and so' who ran away.'

The next period of Hazel's life is best summed up by the singer herself which she wrote in a programme for a gig in Santa Monica, LA, ' I ran away from my home in Coventry at 16, made and sold clothes in Amsterdam, picked grapes in France, joined a dance troupe to Tokyo and then Beirut just escaping the civil war, travelled West Africa, crossed the Sahara, sang in a trio for the U.S. troops in Germany and then came home.'

While on her travels Hazel fell in love with a young businessman called Adrian Amos whom she describes as ' the biggest influence in my life outside my Dad.' Although they drifted apart after a few years, he was a mature influence on her for a time and they still remain friends to this day where she often visits him and stays in his house. It was

Adrian who convinced her to branch out on her own and go to Japan where she had been offered a job as a 'go go dancer.' Hazel explains,

'I didn't want to go to Japan initially but it was the making of me, I even learned the lingo. I was beginning to annoy Adrian with my hippy ways and I needed to earn my own living. After Japan I joined a Cabaret troupe, mostly failed ballet dancers and headed for Beirut to dance, take singing lessons and have yet another adventure.'

In 1975 on Hazel's 20th birthday, Beirut was in a state of pre-civil war with constant threats of Israeli bomb attacks and Hazel who often choose her own company and a good book over the boozy antics of the cabaret girls, found herself alone again and under attack.

'Sounds crazy, but I was out sunbathing in a rubber inflatable dingy when I was bombed by the Israelis. I took the dingy out as you couldn't go on the beaches because they were covered in rolled up barbed wire. The Israelis would come in on the beaches and do sneaky commando raids at the time. I had to row ashore like mad with earth shattering, loud explosions going off and glass breaking all around. Needless to say I left Beirut soon after and returned to England.'

Back home Hazel decided to give the singing a go and formed a girl group called 'Lady Luck' playing the London pub circuit but her real break came when she auditioned and got the lead role of Kate in the film 'Breaking Glass' beating off stiff competition like her good friend Toyah Wilcox. The film was a monster success and Hazel life changed forever. This multi-facetted, free spirited young woman went on to do numerous TV appearances, notably the critically acclaimed lead role of Vivienne in 'Fighting Back' and theatre successes like 'Nightshoot,' 'Swing Out Sister' and ' The Raven Beckons' to name a few. She also helped break one of the biggest groups of the New Wave era to secure a recording contract by letting a young unknown band from Birmingham, called 'Duran, Duran' be her opening act on tour.

Unfortunately, legal battles plagued the singer's life in the early '80s just like her alter ego Kate who struggled to cope with the music industry in the movie, Hazel had to do real life battles over copyrights and clauses for years. 'I had all the fame and no money. I had been talked into signing two five year contracts just before I got 'Breaking Glass.' The timing was bad. I remember thinking 'Oh! God, yesterday I just sold my life away thinking nobody else wanted me. I was completely ripped off but I let it happen by signing in the first place. I was so busy and everything was happening so fast, I hadn't the time to be tough and smart.'

Then love came to town in the form of artist Kurt Bippert and the couple were married in 1987 in Venice Beach, California, an event that was covered by 'Hello' magazine. They later moved to Ireland in 1990 when they both fell in love with Co. Wicklow. Hazel was almost five months pregnant when they came here but regrettably suffered a miscarriage due to a virus and being physically exhausted. Hazel explains, 'Kurt and I toured Wicklow with Louis Walsh who was my agent then and we fell completely in love with this area. We though it was so beautiful and I knew I could work here. Louis was great and helped me a lot, getting a mortgage and moving to this country and we bought our little cottage in Rathdrum. Then tragically I lost my baby. It was the first time in my life that I ever felt bitter about anything and my marriage fell to pieces. I knew that my losing my baby was a direct result of having to work so hard. I never wanted to get pregnant again after that.'

Hazel's soft hearted yet tenacious attitude also drew her into political activities. She become known for her anti-government views and her dedicated support of ' The Peace Movement' performing at a number of rallies and peace marches. In 1985 she donated her song-writing talents to Greenpeace and became an active animal rights campaigner.

'I was into revolution and at that time and I have always been very politically active but only about issues that I really believe in, like all animal issues. I joined up with Chrissie Hinds, Lynda McCartney and other staunch vegetarians, together we were called 'Reprieve for Animals' and we even made a film about abattoirs and cruelty to animals.'

The sensitive, highly talented, irrepressible Hazel O'Connor has produced over 20 albums and has numerous hit singles including, 'Eight Day' 'D.Days' and the hauntingly beautiful balled ' Will You.' Last year she got her own star on Coventry's Walk of Fame and performed in the 'Glastonbury Festival in '04 and '08.

This wonderfully unique woman is said to have inspired artists like Pink and Lady GaGa and Kylie Minogue has recently stated that she had a big influence on her career. Throghout Hazel's life she has worked with, met and befriended some of the biggest names of our times, like David Bowie, George Michael, Annie Lennox and Elton John.

'Bowie stands out because when I first met him I gave him a hair cut and he advised me a lot on how to deal with fame, like when people are coming on strong, to try to equal the equation by asking them questions about themselves. The actress Johanna Lumley is someone else who was particularly lovely and easy company.' Nowadays she is the recipient of a good deal of retro interest and continues to record and tour extensively in England and Ireland with her own projects like, 'Beyond the breaking Glass' an autobiographical singing show and 'Bluja Project' with two female musicians and singers.

Hazel O'Connor will be performing at the Athlone music festival on Ist. August '10 WHILE SPENDING an afternoon sipping mint tea and talking space travel among other things with the singer/songwriter Hazel O'Connor, 55, in her cottage in Rathdrum, I noticed how, every so often the years seemed to fade away as she became animated and wide eyed talking about her life.

I was yet again face to face with the young queen of punk rock and British film sensation of the 1980s. Many of us will remember Hazel and that iconic image of her dressed as a silver robot singing 'Eight Day' on Top of the Pops.

Few could forget her bizarre costumes, panda eyes, white sometimes pink hair and her powerful voice. It was also her electric style of delivery and passion that had us riveted to our TV screens and eagerly buying her new wave, alternative style of music. Hazel shot to fame in 1980 when she played the part of punk rocker, Kate in the critically acclaimed film ' Breaking Glass' for which she wrote all the songs. That same year she won the Variety Club of Great Britain for 'Best Film Actor' and a BAFTA nomination for ' Best Newcomer' and 'Best Film Score.'

The album of the same name went double platinum and several hit singles followed. But the sudden explosion of attention didn't sit to well with the sensitive artist and her fearful inner child, as she tells us of one experience in Ireland at the height of her fame.

'After doing Slane Castle in the '80s I wanted to get away for a bit and go camping down in Ballybunion. I remember feeling really nervous walking up the high street when these people who had been at Slane saw me and started screaming at me.

Then later having dinner in a local hotel, scores of people began hovering around looking for autographs and searching for me, so I hid under the table in the restaurant. People just stood there amazed, just looking at me but I was genuinely scared." She laughs in retrospect with girlish giggles.

Hazel O'Conner was born in Coventry in England, the daughter of an English mother and an Irish Father. Her father was born in Galway but left aged 17 to join the British army in the World War and later settled in England.

As a young girl Hazel travelled with her older brother Neil, now a successful record producer living in Montreal, and her parents to Ireland regularly to visit her Granny in Galway and her many cousins here.

She describes her father as a great raconteur with a love of music, dancing and singing and tells us about her close relationship with him.

'My dad left a traditional West of Ireland republican background to join the British army which was weird but of course it was a way of getting out then. He was very young, a bit of an adventurer I suppose. Dad and I were very close when I was little. I was his little 'fairy girl.' He could tell great stories and he loved to sing and dance. He was also terribly handsome, very dark haired and dark skinned.

'Mum and him were terrific ballroom dancers and he sang in the working men's club choir and played the piano. I remember someone saying my dad could play the piano by ear. As a small child, I was very confused and intrigued as I'd never seen him do that.'

The happy early childhood years, that she describes as ' wonderful,' often sitting with her brother on the stairs listening to her parents singing and dancing, came to sad end with the break-up of their marriage when she was just 8 years old. An event that seemed to have a traumatic and lasting effect on a young, very sensitive and aware, Hazel O'Connor.

'I was pretty freaked out when mum, me, Neil and the dog all left dad. He had become violent with mum and it was the right decision for her but I was devastated. He wasn't a drunk but he drank regularly and would become jealous. Alcohol changed him. I remember hearing them arguing at night. Neil could sleep but I would stay awake worrying and wondering what I had done wrong.'

Although Hazel saw her father, now deceased, from time to time, things were never the same again and he seemed 'saddened and broken for a time' and the distance between them grew when he later went on to remarry and have another family.

At 16, Hazel was beginning to move into her ' hippy' period and on a tearaway few weeks with a girlfriend first in Casablanca, Morocco and then in Marrakesh she innocently went for a walk with a Moroccan boy who attacked her and raped her at knifepoint. She never reported the incident and returned to England where she believes she suffered for a long time from 'post traumatic stress syndrome.'

"I never told anyone about the rape. I remember the fear I felt, that I was going to be killed and the fear of getting pregnant. Everything changed, my life had turned 360 degrees, at 16. All the frilly stuff was gone and the harsh reality of life gripped me and I couldn't see the point in anything like going back to school.'

She did however manage six months at a London art college where they still display her work today, before deciding to run off, be a hippy and see the world. 'I met a student in Los Angelus a few years ago who told me she'd seen my work there. It's funny how they show my art work because I became famous, if I hadn't become famous, I would just have been that little 'so and so' who ran away.'

The next period of Hazel's life is best summed up by the singer herself which she wrote in a programme for a gig in Santa Monica, LA, ' I ran away from my home in Coventry at 16, made and sold clothes in Amsterdam, picked grapes in France, joined a dance troupe to Tokyo and then Beirut just escaping the civil war, travelled West Africa, crossed the Sahara, sang in a trio for the U.S. troops in Germany and then came home.'

While on her travels Hazel fell in love with a young businessman called Adrian Amos whom she describes as ' the biggest influence in my life outside my Dad.' Although they drifted apart after a few years, he was a mature influence on her for a time and they still remain friends to this day where she often visits him and stays in his house. It was

Adrian who convinced her to branch out on her own and go to Japan where she had been offered a job as a 'go go dancer.' Hazel explains,

'I didn't want to go to Japan initially but it was the making of me, I even learned the lingo. I was beginning to annoy Adrian with my hippy ways and I needed to earn my own living. After Japan I joined a Cabaret troupe, mostly failed ballet dancers and headed for Beirut to dance, take singing lessons and have yet another adventure.'

In 1975 on Hazel's 20th birthday, Beirut was in a state of pre-civil war with constant threats of Israeli bomb attacks and Hazel who often choose her own company and a good book over the boozy antics of the cabaret girls, found herself alone again and under attack.

'Sounds crazy, but I was out sunbathing in a rubber inflatable dingy when I was bombed by the Israelis. I took the dingy out as you couldn't go on the beaches because they were covered in rolled up barbed wire. The Israelis would come in on the beaches and do sneaky commando raids at the time. I had to row ashore like mad with earth shattering, loud explosions going off and glass breaking all around. Needless to say I left Beirut soon after and returned to England.'

Back home Hazel decided to give the singing a go and formed a girl group called 'Lady Luck' playing the London pub circuit but her real break came when she auditioned and got the lead role of Kate in the film 'Breaking Glass' beating off stiff competition like her good friend Toyah Wilcox. The film was a monster success and Hazel life changed forever. This multi-facetted, free spirited young woman went on to do numerous TV appearances, notably the critically acclaimed lead role of Vivienne in 'Fighting Back' and theatre successes like 'Nightshoot,' 'Swing Out Sister' and ' The Raven Beckons' to name a few. She also helped break one of the biggest groups of the New Wave era to secure a recording contract by letting a young unknown band from Birmingham, called 'Duran, Duran' be her opening act on tour.

Unfortunately, legal battles plagued the singer's life in the early '80s just like her alter ego Kate who struggled to cope with the music industry in the movie, Hazel had to do real life battles over copyrights and clauses for years. 'I had all the fame and no money. I had been talked into signing two five year contracts just before I got 'Breaking Glass.' The timing was bad. I remember thinking 'Oh! God, yesterday I just sold my life away thinking nobody else wanted me. I was completely ripped off but I let it happen by signing in the first place. I was so busy and everything was happening so fast, I hadn't the time to be tough and smart.'

Then love came to town in the form of artist Kurt Bippert and the couple were married in 1987 in Venice Beach, California, an event that was covered by 'Hello' magazine. They later moved to Ireland in 1990 when they both fell in love with Co. Wicklow. Hazel was almost five months pregnant when they came here but regrettably suffered a miscarriage due to a virus and being physically exhausted. Hazel explains, 'Kurt and I toured Wicklow with Louis Walsh who was my agent then and we fell completely in love with this area. We though it was so beautiful and I knew I could work here. Louis was great and helped me a lot, getting a mortgage and moving to this country and we bought our little cottage in Rathdrum. Then tragically I lost my baby. It was the first time in my life that I ever felt bitter about anything and my marriage fell to pieces. I knew that my losing my baby was a direct result of having to work so hard. I never wanted to get pregnant again after that.'

Hazel's soft hearted yet tenacious attitude also drew her into political activities. She become known for her anti-government views and her dedicated support of ' The Peace Movement' performing at a number of rallies and peace marches. In 1985 she donated her song-writing talents to Greenpeace and became an active animal rights campaigner.

'I was into revolution and at that time and I have always been very politically active but only about issues that I really believe in, like all animal issues. I joined up with Chrissie Hinds, Lynda McCartney and other staunch vegetarians, together we were called 'Reprieve for Animals' and we even made a film about abattoirs and cruelty to animals.'

The sensitive, highly talented, irrepressible Hazel O'Connor has produced over 20 albums and has numerous hit singles including, 'Eight Day' 'D.Days' and the hauntingly beautiful balled ' Will You.' Last year she got her own star on Coventry's Walk of Fame and performed in the 'Glastonbury Festival in '04 and '08.

This wonderfully unique woman is said to have inspired artists like Pink and Lady GaGa and Kylie Minogue has recently stated that she had a big influence on her career. Throghout Hazel's life she has worked with, met and befriended some of the biggest names of our times, like David Bowie, George Michael, Annie Lennox and Elton John.

'Bowie stands out because when I first met him I gave him a hair cut and he advised me a lot on how to deal with fame, like when people are coming on strong, to try to equal the equation by asking them questions about themselves. The actress Johanna Lumley is someone else who was particularly lovely and easy company.' Nowadays she is the recipient of a good deal of retro interest and continues to record and tour extensively in England and Ireland with her own projects like, 'Beyond the breaking Glass' an autobiographical singing show and 'Bluja Project' with two female musicians and singers.

Hazel O'Connor will be performing at the Athlone music festival on Ist. August '10

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