She’s was a true pioneer for women in music and film in the 1980s. Now Hazel O’Connor is about to set out on a 15-date UK tour, and here she speaks to editor Simon Redley about her most personal battles and setbacks, in a brutally honest and at times, upsetting interview…
Hazel is at her home in Ireland. When she picks up the ‘phone, she apologises for eating something as we chat. It is lunchtime. So, what does Ms O’Connor choose to sustain herself with?
Why, hazel nuts, of course! Plus a few almonds, an apple, a slice of cheese and some egg mayo she picked from the Supermarket on her way home last night. Hopefully, I can conjure up better questions than the opener now I have her sole attention for a bit!
So the forthcoming tour. 15 dates starting on 16th November in Holmfirth, Yorkshire, closing on 2nd December in Birmingham. Hazel is joined on stage with a five-piece band including Clare Hirst on sax’ (Belle Stars, Communards and David Bowie) and Sarah Fisher (Eurythmics) on keyboard. They will play songs from her first three albums, “Breaking Glass”, “Sons and Lovers” and “Cover Plus”, and material from her current album, “See You Again”.
Hazel O’Connor became an overnight sensation after her BAFTA nominated portrayal of Kate in the 1980 smash hit film “Breaking Glass”. Narrowly beating one of her oldest friends Toyah Wilcock to the lead role. During this period, Hazel released three of her most successful albums; which produced a stream of top ten hits, including the iconic “Will You”, “Eighth Day” and “D’Days”.
1982 saw Hazel land her first theatre acting job in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, alongside John Sessions and Tim McInnerny at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. In 1984 she released new album “Smile”, after legal restraints from a former record company were lifted.
Hazel then appeared in her first West End musical, “The Girlfriends”, and in the mid ‘80s, wrote and performed her own musical “Sing Out Sister” at the Riverside studios in London, alongside Clare Hirst who is now Hazel’s bandmate. After the TV airing of the 1986 five-part BBC drama “Fighting Back”, in which Hazel starred and won rave reviews, she left the UK to try her luck in Hollywood, where she married and toured with her US band.
Hazel was about to start work on a pilot for a TV sitcom when she was diagnosed with two types of skin cancer. This prompted her to move to Ireland, and subsequently toured the country throughout 1990. Financially, this was a lucky break for Hazel, as she had never received one penny of royalty payments from “Breaking Glass” or her other three albums recorded during that period.
In the early ‘90s Hazel made three albums with Sony and toured extensively through the UK, Germany, Ireland, France and Holland. By the mid ‘90s, she received her first ever royalties for “Breaking Glass” and her most famous song “Will You”, after 13 years of litigation.
Hazel’s brother Neil is back in her band and on stage with her, for the first time since their two week residency at Ronnie Scott’s club back in 1984. Neil played original guitars on the “Sons and Lovers” and “Cover Plus” album, and had his own success as lead singer of punk band The Flys. Their song “Love and a Molotov Cocktail,” is still a favourite of mine, as it was of John Peel. Hazel later covered it.
Hazel adores her brother, who is a record producer in Canada, but when she moved back to Ireland from USA back in the late 80s, the week she moved to Ireland, he buggered off to live in Canada where he still resides. So, they don’t see that much of each other and she badly misses him. Hazel hates flying and has given it up, so him coming here for this tour is a real “blessing “for her.
“We have always been really close, as we went through such a lot when we were little, and musically we have been through a lot. He’s the nicer part of our family. I last saw him at our Mum’s funeral seven years ago nearly now. I am very excited to see him”.
Hazel talks about leaving home at 16, and the domestic issues she wanted to escape. “When I was very young, my Mum and Dad….Er, you always think you are in a happy home; you’re a kid and you don’t know any different. But our home was not a happy home.
“My Dad used to get drunk and he used to have arguments with me (sic) Mum, which would sometimes end up in violence. My brother always told me he didn’t really used to hear it. I used to hear it like a pin drop when the fights would start. So, the two of us would really cling together from the very start, whether he admitted to hearing it and to being very frightened, you know. I’ve actually asked him that and he kind of glosses over it.
“Whereas me, I would be really frightened, and I would think it was something to do with us and it was our fault, as children do. So, I would try to stop the fights, which was really stupid, But you don’t know what you are doing as a kid. I used to go downstairs and say, ‘I feel ill’.
“It would get worse because I’d come down. Two adults fighting is not the right place for a kid to be, so there was a lot of acrimony, and eventually they split and then they got back together and then they split up. Then we left and went to live at my Nan’s house, and me (sic) Dad used to creep around and tell me (sic) Mum he was going to kill her, or me (sic) Nan was gonna get a knife to me Dad, and it was quite nasty stuff going on.”
This was all happening in Hazel’s home city of Coventry. Her Nan and Grandad lived a couple of streets away from Hazel’s family home in the Wykin area. Her Dad was a former solider in Ireland and then he worked for The Roots Group in a car factory.
Both her parents are now gone. Her Mother always told Hazel when she was young, after they left him, not to lose her relationship with her Dad. “So, I used to follow that as gospel, whether I wanted to or not. You know, when someone tells you to do something and it’s your parent…. I went every Sunday to see him. My brother didn’t.
“Dad was so upset that his wife and kids had left him, by then he was probably drinking more. My memories of him was of this man with loads of stubble all over him and smelly from the night before, opening a bottle of milk and drinking from the bottle.
“It felt weird, so I’d go and play with my toys in the shed and then go home. I kept that going for a long, long time, and I wanted my relationship with him. But at the same time, I didn’t like what he’d done”. Her father re-married, and she has a half-brother.
Hazel says she did undergo some therapy eventually, and was asked what she remembered of her childhood. “I tried to break the fights up. My Dad crying…I couldn’t remember the middle bit. My Mum filled in the middle bit and she said he used to say, ‘you weren’t his child’. Isn’t that horrible? I wanted to be Daddy’s girl, like all girls do and instead you got…………..Over the years, I tried to be less hard in my thinking, but there’s nobody left to ask now…”
Hazel goes back to Coventry often, to visit friends old and newer, and to get her car sorted out by her favoured mechanic. Her Mum was in a hospice there, her Father died in the hospital in Cov’. “I go to see Mum’s grave to say hello to her”. Does she visit her Dad’s resting place? “No. I don’t remember where it is. I did go to his funeral. I am glad I did. We did come back round to a détente…”
Hazel is famed for playing Kate, a struggling singer trying to cope with life and a career in the film “Breaking Glass”. We speak about “life imitating art” with that script perhaps eventually reflecting some of her own personal emotional and physical battles, inside and outside of the music business. Hazel’s traumatic childhood wasn’t the end of her personal demons and fight for survival against all the odds. She revealed the horrific assault she suffered in Morocco when she was just 16-years-old.
“Kate a struggling singer; well it is funny to think about her now and how, when I was asked the question, did I think I had any relation to her character and I said, no, no, no, that will never happen to me. Well it didn’t quite happen how we (myself and Brian Gibson who wrote the script) imagined would happen to her character. “We imagined she’d go loopy because of certain things, but I think the reality was, you go loopy because you have a glitch; a black hole inside you from your very early life, that I admit I do have.
“Then you have people who take advantage of that glitch. Not the ‘I want to be loved glitch’; wanting to trust. Just wanting to get on with your life, and all I wanted to do was make music. I didn’t really care about the dotted lines that the lawyers told me to pay attention to. My fault in that way; I should have been tougher. I should have said, ‘don’t treat me like a twat’, but I didn’t. I just thought; I want everything just to be alright.
I was the perfect victim…
“I don’t think I got what I deserved, but it just happened that I was the perfect victim….I have been like that since my youth. I was raped when I was 16, I was the perfect victim then. Because I was the one who thought it was my fault all the time. Therefore, the money that I never got, I didn’t think I’d earned it anyway. Do you understand? That’s the sad part. That’s the bit that’s taken me a whole life time to change. And I have changed it, in the sense that I know I earn every penny of the money I make now.
“I was paid a pound to sign to my record company. It was ridiculous. I was so happy that somebody wanted me and signed me in those days, even if they gave me a quid. At the time I was delighted, but of course I had no money to pay the rent, so I answered the record company telephones for two weeks while the receptionist girl was on holiday.
“The day before I was told I was getting the lead part in ‘Breaking Glass’, the record company told me nobody else wanted to sign me, and so I signed a very long contract .They knew they were going to make loads, and that they’d get the best publicity for me through the film.
“The best producer Tony Visconti, agreed to work with me to record my songs. The label, who also had my publishing, leased me out to make the film. I finally ended up having to go to court because there was nothing coming in for me. I was in debt when I shouldn’t have been, because there was a lot of money that rolled in.
“Your songs are like your children, they are extensions of you, and when somebody steals them, or you don’t get anything back, you start to feel worthless. I spent a lot of time feeling worthless. The people working on the film, the producers on ‘Breaking Glass’, were brilliant. I have to say people like Dodi and Mohamed Al Fayed, the producers, were the people who kept me buoyant”.
“I’ve got to go and have a big foot operation straight after this tour and I haven’t got any health insurance, and in Ireland it is worse than England, you can wait for 10 years to have a big operation. I’m becoming slowly crippled with a condition I was born with, so I’m getting one foot done this year, and one foot next year”.
Hazel talks more about her assault overseas when she was 16, by a guy staying in the same Pensione in Marrakesh, Morocco as Hazel and her female friend. “I didn’t tell anyone other than my friend I was with. I told nobody else. I didn’t even tell my Mum until years later”
We discuss the current “Me Too” campaign on social media, where men and women in the film and entertainment industry use that hashtag #metoo, to show they have been victim of sexual abuse or harassment at the hands of men in a position of power in Hollywood or elsewhere. Hazel reveals two other times she was subjected to unwanted sexual attention.
The first was when she did some modelling for about a year, as a young woman. “I was sent out on a job. I had a funny feeling about the photographer. He didn’t give me the model’s bedroom. He gave me the sofa to sleep on, which I thought was weird. ‘I am not sleeping on a sofa’. So, when he’d gone to bed, I pulled the bed clothes into this room he said was the model’s room, and then I pushed the bed across the door, because I didn’t feel good about this.
“In the middle of the night, I heard creeping and crawling around, and the living room light being switched on and off again, and I felt the door being opened and closed. But he couldn’t open it because the bed was against it. Next day he said, ‘oh, I don’t want to photograph you, you’re such a nice girl. I’ll pay your fee, just go back to London’. A year later I had solicitors calling me saying this guy had tried to molest a lot of models that had gone to work for him and he’d done a runner.
“One girl had refused to give him what he wanted, and he put some hash in her handbag and called the police and got her busted. I had such a funny feeling about him; all the way through the dinner he was talking about conquests; women who had come to model for him and how they threw themselves at him. I am really glad I had the instinct to change rooms and put the bed against the door”.
Benny Hill tried to kiss me…
The next time Hazel felt uncomfortable was with TV star Benny Hill. “I went for a job on the Benny Hill show. To be one of the Benny Hill girls. It was years and years ago, and he used to have a place near The Royal Albert Hall. I went up to his mansion flat to meet him, and he seemed very personable but slowly he started to talk about the girls that worked for him, and he said; what will you do for me if I give you this job?
“He said, she did this for me, and she did that for me and was showing me pictures of his Benny Hill girls, and I thought, you dirty old bastard. And of course, I didn’t get the job. I didn’t want the job.
“He tried to give me a kiss and that was it, goodbye. He was sleazy. I’d forgotten about him. It never went further than him trying to pucker up his lips and pull me towards him, but it was all of his inuendos; ‘what will you for me’; sexual favours… Yuk”.
People better not mess with Ms O’Connor these days. When she is at home in Ireland, she spends three nights a week taking karate lessons. She also does the martial arts side of Tai Chi. Apparently, yoga is not “dynamic enough” for her!
But she has to be careful. At 62-years-old, Hazel suffers from osteosporosis, and this issue with her feet which she had from birth, and she says means she is “almost crippled” with it. So, when she packs for her tours, calcium supplements are a must and as a self confessed health food “freak”, she will always take plenty of nuts to go with her vegetarian diet.
She doesn’t drink booze, and says her only requirement on her performance rider is for four litres of water in her dressing room for each show. She gets really “pissed off” if anyone else takes her water. “That’s all I drink. I do not drink alcohol coming from that family background…”
This is certainly no Diva. Hazel drives herself to her gigs, and personally makes sure the lighting is set to shine on all the musicians on stage, not just on her. She is adamant that everyone who works with her gets paid properly. She is extremely down to earth and tells me if she gets to a venue and for any reasons there is no dressing room or private place for her to change, then no problem. “I’ll just go into the bogs and change. I don’t mind. I’ve had beautiful, wonderful dressing rooms and shit-holes! I am easy going that way, as long as I have privacy and water”.
Money and material things have never been her motivation. More’s the pity after she missed out on serious amounts of cash from song writing royalties. She spent around 13 years in litigation after being sued by the sax player on her big hit “I Will”, for half the songwriting royalties, and she was also trying to get unpaid royalties for writing the song.
She was first in court to battle for £85,000 that was hers, after her song “I Will” was used in an advert and a TV series. But after 13 years of court action, she got around £18,000 of that money, after the rest was paid to lawyers and 25% of the song’s credit went to the sax player on it. “I’ve never been money orientated because I never had any”.
The worst moment for Hazel was going to “social welfare” and being mobbed at the same time by kids in the street, as she was so famous. In West Hampstead where she used to live, for a means test appointment, because she needed legal aid to defend herself while being sued by the sax player. She says she offered him 25% because she felt his sax solo added huge value to her song, but his lawyers rejected it. But 13 years later, that 25% was what they finally accepted in court!
I needed to get legal aid…
“I needed to get legal aid when I was being sued, and had to go for this meeting. They asked if I had jewellery and furs stashed away, which was ridiculous to me because I have never been a materialist for things like that. Jewellery and furs are the furthest thing that would ever come into my life. It was pretty horrible sitting there having somebody inspect your life when you are very famous, and assuming you’ve stashed money away.
“Yes, there is lots of money I didn’t get for myself that I should have, but I think I made a lot of money for people, now I understand how money is made. In the years that happened later, maybe my songs might have just kept me alive per year of about £10,000 in publishing royalties, and the rest is whatever I can find from touring. Now I can tour and earn money again, not big money but enough to live on a year and pay my taxes on”.
But the cost of the two operations on her feet is worrying her. “To have an operation that is going to cost five or six thousand Euros is very scary, because I don’t make that sort of extra money. If the roof has a hole in it, I go up and fix it myself. If I could break bones in my foot to fix them, I would. But I can’t,” she laughs.
Hazel shares her time between her home in Ireland, about an hour or so from Dublin, with her two dogs Diva and Lolly, and a little cottage she has practically rebuilt herself, in France. She loves to go there to get out to ted to the garden and listen to the birds, and doesn’t want to hear music while she is there. It is her haven of tranquillity.
It is certain that Hazel O’Connor is a born survivor. She says so herself, and she may well get involved in a documentary project about her life and her career next year. “I am a survivor. I think that’s my art.” So, was her art of singing and performing, her escape; her therapy? “Yes. And before I was a singer, I was a really good painter and drawer (sic).
“I did go to art college for a little while, but because I had just been raped it all went pear shaped because I couldn’t accept any authority really. You know what; the things that change your life, that move you on, are sometimes not the nicest things in the world. But when you look at them with the fullness of time, you can see that stone that got you across the river.
“It made me do things that I would never have done and go places I never would have gone. After that rape I came back to England, I went back to school because I was going to do my ‘A’ Levels. I wanted to vomit every-time I was with all the schoolgirls and we were putting on navy blue knickers and playing hockey.
“I thought, ‘I fucking can’t stand this. I can’t stand this. It’s not real’. I felt very different after my rape and the fact I couldn’t tell anybody, expect my friend I was with in Marrakesh. All I could see was to do something different to get out of school, and I managed to get myself a place at Leamington Spa Art College.
“They used to let people come in at 16 to do a degree course if you did your ‘A’ Levels at the same time. I got accepted and did that there for about six months, and then I was so maddened emotionally inside. I thought, I don’t even want to be doing this.
“That’s when I made the decision to go and live in Amsterdam and smoke joints on Dam Square, and I did”. She made and sold clothes in Amsterdam, picked grapes in France, joined a dance troupe that went to Tokyo then onto Beirut (escaping the start of the civil war by one month!) traveled West Africa, crossed the Sahara and sang with a singing trio for the U.S. troops in Germany. Phew!
Paula Yates and Bob Geldof for tea and board games…
In later years and after she hit the bigtime with the film and her hit records, Hazel was best mates with Paula Yates and Bob Geldof, and recalled going to their place every Sunday for tea and playing board games
She went out with Midge Ure and Strangler’s front man Hugh Cornwell. She married artist Kurt Bippert in 1987 on Venice Beach, in California. Actor David Rappaport was best man, and Dave Wakeling from The Beat gave the bride away. Hello! Magazine covered the wedding. They divorced in 2000 and she has never re-married.
Hazel is credited as helping a then unknown band called Duran Duran in their early days. They went on their first ever tour as support to her. “They had such a tough time, as my audience was quite hardcore and Duran Duran came out with frilly shirts on because they were following the New Romantics. It was a little bit misguided I think, but crucially they had good songs.
“The boys had no money at the time, but a lot of commitment, and I think their managers had mortgaged themselves to the hilt to be able to afford to do the tour. It paid off though, and I’m really glad for them”. The Birmingham band got signed to EMI during that tour and within six months they had a huge hit.
Hazel and Duran Duran ended up appearing on Top Of The Pops at the same time, and she grabbed a cup of tea with them after the show at the hotel they were staying at. “It was really funny, because I saw they had got a bit uppity, a bit up themselves for a minute and the manager said, “For fuck’s sake boys, you are acting like the Nouveau Riche’.”
Close friend George Michael…and Bowie…
Hazel stayed close friends with George Michael. “His parents lived in Radlet, close to where I lived, and we used to do silly little things like walk my dog through the fields together. Once we went to see David Bowie together at Wembley…We got there on the tube, but then we left because it was so packed, and we thought, ‘how are we going to get out of here?’ We started to walk and then we decided to hitchhike. We got the first lift and the driver freaked out when he recognised us.
“When we had to get out, we started doing stupid stuff like Wham! dances along the road, to try and get another lift. I think it was Pete Murphy from Bauhaus, who picked us up in the end. George and I had lots of hilarious times; he agreed to be in the video for my single ‘Don’t Touch Me’ and there’s a scene where we kiss. It was just a silly peck, but it resulted in ridiculous stories saying I was the older woman he was seeing”. Spandau Ballet remained good friends and Hazel met up with David Bowie several times over the years.
She told me of the trips on the ferry coming over here from Ireland, where she has sat looking at the glossy “celebrity” magazines, and asking herself; “Did I want to be any of that? The answer is no”. If she got to write a headline for her own life story, what would that be? “Consummate Survivor. Yeah, I am the consummate survivor and I am glad I am.
“I am proud I am a survivor and it has made me have a much better vocal sound than if I hadn’t had to live my life as tough.It is a lived-in voice. My allure is my lived in voice that makes them laugh and makes them cry”.
So, we end the call after 70 minutes and a conversation that got quite deep at times, and revealed Hazel to be a no nonsense, wise, intelligent, pleasant, honest and very open woman. Surprisingly uber-positive and a “pot half full” kind of girl, despite all she has endured.
But above all else, an artist and songwriter who still has that creative fire inside her, despite being a person who has been through the mill in her personal life and her career, and been taken advantage of too many times. But is perhaps a living and breathing example of that old saying: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”.
With the promise of a big hug when I go meet her at one of the shows on her tour, and a reminder to make sure I get some photographs of Hazel with her beloved brother Neil, we end the call. First, I promise not to steal her water when we do meet! Hazel gets in the final word: “You nick my water and you’re dead mate!” I flash back to the bit in this interview where she told me she studies karate three nights a week!!! Your water is safe Ms O’Connor, trust me…
By Simon Redley