Ali Hewson: The Sweetest Thing
Pilates in Sandycove and a quiet lunch in Cavistons
When Ali Hewson steps off a plane at Dublin airport tomorrow, she will be a woman with a mission. Flying in from the States to promote National Chernobyl Week with her close friend and Chernobyl Children's Project International (CCPI) founder, Adi Roche, it will be action stations the minute her plane touches down.
"That's Ali -- she's coming in especially, as she did for our board meeting recently," says Adi. "She is based in America at the moment with the (U2) tour coming up. But, she has made the project a huge part of her life. She's always at the end of a phone call or email, always in contact."
Ali's husband Paul, who likes to go by the name Bono and plays in a promising Dublin band called U2, is known for multitasking his talents across music and political activism. Ali, though, has been quietly carving out her own version of a life less ordinary. At 48, she now wears many hats: mother, campaigner, fundraiser, style icon and ethical fashion trendsetter.
It was not a life that Ali Stewart might have envisaged when, as an olive-skinned, doe-eyed 15-year-old, she first caught a young Bono's eye in Mount Temple secondary school. They started going out in November 1976, the same time Bono joined the teen band formed by Larry Mullen Jr that would become U2. That month was one that he has acknowledged shaped the rest of his life and, by extension, Ali's.
While he clambered aboard the rocket to stardom, she was to be a quiet powerhouse of support at home. As Eamon Dunphy once said: "The best thing about Bono is Ali," describing her as "calm and rational". She worked for a brief time after school in Sun Alliance insurance company on Dawson Street, where a former work colleague remembers her as "friendly and unassuming". But when the couple married in 1982, she devoted herself full-time to keeping the home fires burning.
Even four years into their marriage, she was still toying with the idea of becoming a nurse, but realised that the years of live-in training required would have been "too much on the relationship".
Ali came from hard-working Protestant stock, her mum Joy a housewife, her dad Terry an electrical contractor in north Dublin. Not for her the spending habits of the super-rich, or the farcical mis-behaviour of a diva rock wife.
Neighbours in the affluent south Dublin village of Killiney, where she and Bono live, speak warmly of a woman who is as happy to do the school run as she is to hang out with the couple's supermodel pals Helena Christensen, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell.
Her friends are not just those whose stardust she has rubbed against since Bono's ascension to fame; she has been close friends with Larry Mullen's partner, Ann Acheson, since school.
There is no personal trainer for the house on the hill -- Ali prefers to roll out her mat in a public Pilates class in nearby Sandycove, grabbing a bite of lunch with Bono in Cavistons café afterwards. They might own one of the most expensive houses in Ireland -- the gated Temple Hill on Vico Road, where the views are akin to Capri -- but for years she continued to run her local errands not in an SUV, the favourite of local yummy mummies, but in a battered old Volkswagen Golf which drew many smiles of admiration.
Naturally, the Hewsons do indulge in some perks. A family rule has always been to give their four children -- Jordan (19), Eve (17), Elijah (nine) and John (seven) -- as much structure and normality as is reasonably possible when your dad fronts a global supergroup and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The children attend local schools and Ali insisted there would be no nanny for the night shifts when they were young.
But, when school is out, the luxury holiday pads get an airing. The family jet down to the 20-room villa in Eze-sur-Mer (rough translation: Posh-on-Sea) in the south of France that they have shared with Edge and his family since 1993.
No to Madonna
Now that daughter Jordan is in college in America, studying politics and history, Ali has found herself doing the transatlantic jaunt to their New York base more frequently. The family bought their 3,500 sq ft apartment for $15m from Apple founder Steve Jobs in 2003. If you're a fan of jaw-dropping trivia about rich people's cribs, feast on this: the panoramic bedroom windows alone cost $79,000 apiece.
Evidently, this is no modest bolthole. It is the penthouse dwelling in the north tower of the coveted Thirties San Remo building overlooking Central Park, a block up from the famous Dakota building. Its prestigious reputation is so heavily guarded that while Ali and Bono's neighbours number Steven Spielberg, Steve Martin and Bruce Willis, the building's board rejected Madonna when she tried to buy a pad there in the mid-80s.
Considering that grandeur, the ease with which Ali walks unobtrusively through her native Dublin is all the more remarkable. She and Bono have been pictured strolling down the beach at Killiney hand in hand -- an earthy mirror image to the shots of them with Helena Christensen on an Easter break with their two boys in the Caribbean recently -- and at the St Stephen's Day races in Leopardstown. Perhaps it's partly the healthy Irish disrespect for standing on ceremony with celebrities; mostly, though, it's the standard of normality Ali has set. She's not flashy: the trademark palette of black clothes and wedgy sandals or boots -- a million miles from the designer handbag squad -- have made her a subtle style icon with those who appreciate simplicity and also underline her unwillingness to make herself a star.
Adi Roche is quick to appreciate the enormous effect that Ali's contribution to the issue of Chernobyl and its suffering children has had on her life. "She gave up her privacy for it, and I will never forget that," says Adi. "It was a huge sacrifice when she had a young family to come to Belarus to see for herself what was happening."
Ali is no lady who lunches then signs a blank cheque for whatever is the cause du jour. Never a mouthpiece for what she doesn't understand -- a claim that also applies to Bono, no matter what your views on the man -- she spent three weeks in Belarus to explore the after-effects of the 1986 nuclear disaster so that she could narrate the 1993 documentary Black Wind, White Land.
In 1996, another trip to Belarus ended with Ali and the aid convoy she was with fleeing in retreat from a wild fire that ripped through five villages and released deadly radioactive gases into the air. "We got a speeding ticket on our way out," she told reporters when she got home. "Had the wind caught up with us, we would have been at high risk." She has been back numerous times since, narrating another documentary, Chernobyl Heart, in 2003. It won an Academy Award for best documentary short, an event that caused Ali to observe wryly to her gong-laden husband: "Wait a minute, does this mean I won an Oscar before you?"
The intricacies of their marriage can never be fully understood by anyone other than Bono and Ali, of course, but her independence is probably one key to keeping the relationship vital and interesting. "When I first met Bono," she said some years ago, "the deal was that I looked after the children and the home and he did the talking."
Bono, however, has remarked that what he deeply respects in his wife is that "she won't let me wear her like a brooch". Ali's great talent is to mix the personal with the political with aplomb.
Bono forgets her birthday and writes The Sweetest Thing for her, and she smiles forgivingly but insists the royalties go to the CCPI. She launches a fashion line, EDUN, as any good rock wife might be expected to, but makes it an ethically and socially aware business.
She takes her campaign against Sellafield to Downing Street for the protection of all children, but she also makes room in her heart for a Belarusian godchild, Anna, who lives with her Irish adoptive parents in Bandon, Co Cork.
'Motherhood is my most important role'
This generosity of spirit on all levels means that Ali is never still for a moment, acknowledging once that she and Bono have "a very nice life, but it's also a very fast life".
She is adopting an even more demanding role in her Chernobyl work by abdicating her role as patron of CCPI to novelist Cathy Kelly and advancing to the board of the charity, making decisions and strategising for its future. But never for one second do you doubt that a woman who deliberately lists 'Mother' as her occupation on her passport has anything but her four children as her main priority.
"It is my most important role," she once told an interviewer. "Whatever about the clothing business or whatever else, it is the one area I don't want to fail in." Essentially a single parent whenever Bono has to take off on an extensive tour, her fortitude is not in doubt. Not that it's been easy. She gave birth to their first daughter, Jordan, two weeks before she sat her final exams in a politics and sociology degree she took in UCD. The final day of those exams, she remembers having had no sleep and having to express her milk in the car before the exam.
Now that life is on more of an even keel, with second daughter Eve finishing school and the younger boys growing up, it will be exciting to see what Ali does next. In 1993, when she first came to the fore with her charity work, she expressed a dislike for being known simply as Bono's wife.
Will it be long before Bono is labouring under the moniker, Mr Ali Hewson? We can but hope.