Hazel O'Connor Press 2008

Review: Beyond Breaking Glass at Gulbenkian Theatre

Interview: Hazel O'Connor

Edinburgh 2008 -Hazel O'Connor: Beyond Breaking Glass

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Hazel's breaking back

Hazel O'Connor live and unplugged

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Hazel's breaking back http://www.independent.ie
Singer Hazel O'Connor might not top the list to sign up for Strictly Come Dancing, but ballroom is her latest passion. And escaping into a dream world has been her way of surviving the turmoil of her youth, a miscarriage and marriage break-up. She tells Ciara Dwyer about the fun of performing again.

By Ciara Dwyer - Sunday January 20 2008

If you want to understand the singer-songwriter Hazel O'Connor, take a look at her hobbies. Yes, she does yoga and t'ai chi but in the next breath she will tell you about karate and ballroom dancing. Mixing karate with yoga is one thing, but it's the ballroom dancing which stuns me. Strictly Come Dancing may have converted a multitude, but this singer seems more suited to Rambo pursuits than the rumba.

Hazel O'Connor first came to public attention in 1980 as the wild punk in the musical film Breaking Glass. (The character was based on her). Her raspy singing voice denotes years of dangerous living. (Think a slightly softer version of Marianne Faithfull). Ballroom dancing is such a ladylike pastime for this unbridled spirit.

When I meet Hazel to talk about her show "Beyond Breaking Glass", it is clear that she has mellowed with the years, although she is still no Doris Day.

"I was a hippy girl," she says "and we always danced alone. One night after a gig in Germany, a band started to play waltzes and we got up on the floor. I realised how beautiful it was to dance with someone else."

The seed was planted.

"Ballroom dancing seemed romantic and there wasn't a lot of romance in my life."

She then asked her male friends if they would take lessons with her and eventually one man -- Patrick, a painter and decorator from Navan -- said that he would give it a whirl. For the past year they have attended weekly ballroom dancing classes in Donnybrook, taught by the delightfully named Everna Evans.

"We do waltzes, jives and there's always a cha-cha. The man is supposed to lead but I keep getting told off because I'm a bit pushy, 'Let him lead, Hazel, let him lead.' We laugh so much because I step on Patrick's feet and he steps on mine. It's great fun. I'm not sure about doing competitions, but I'd like to get the frocks. It's a princess dream. It's nice to get involved in fantasy land."

Escaping into a dream world has been Hazel's way of survival. Sometimes her reality has been too harsh to bear. In her song Still Breathing, she sings, "You lose your way, you have your day, I'm still breathing, I survive, I'm alive." That pretty much sums up her life.

In her heyday, Hazel O' Connor sang to stadiums with 5,000 people. When she went on her first tour, Duran Duran was her support band. (At that stage, Simon Le Bon and the boys were so broke they slept in a Bedford van outside Hazel's Holiday Inn hotel. They'd rent one room between the lot of them to have a shower.) Photographers clamoured for her at the Cannes film festival. No slow set at a disco was complete without her beautiful song -- Will You. At Slane, she was one of the headline acts, up there with Thin Lizzy and U2. But she has had lows since then -- a miscarriage at four and a half months and her marriage break-up.

"Sometimes I think my little kiddie would be 16," she says.

There was bad luck with record companies which led her to court, fighting for money which she eventually received.

"I got seriously ripped off, so I never made any big money," she tells me, "I live hand to mouth."

And yet, for all that, she comes across as someone who strives to be content. She gets on with living and is happy that she is still singing.

Is she bitter about the bad luck with the record companies?

"Sometimes I am but then I read books which tell me to let go and forgive, so I try to do that." And that's where her karate training comes in. When her marriage, to the artist Kurt Bippert, broke up, a friend suggested she take up the martial art.

"I was in my 30s, I had nothing to lose. The classes weren't expensive, the teacher was good and I would get fit. I'm on my second brown belt now. In karate, if you have to fight, you are supposed to stay unemotional because if you are emotional, you don't win. I thought I'd take the Zen of that and use it in my everyday life."

Listening to Hazel tell her life story, it is very easy to get emotional. She has had many highs and lows, and a lot of them were before she reached the pinnacle of her career.

Her childhood in Coventry took a turn for the worse when she realised that her parents' marriage was crumbling. Her Galway-born father -- Peter -- and her mother Joyce (who was from Birmingham) clashed. There were rows and a general atmosphere of violence in the house. As an eight-year-old, Hazel witnessed her father hitting her mother and often she would wake up to hear them fighting. She would go downstairs and interrupt her parents, in the hope that they would stop. The discord continued. In the end, Joyce took her children, Neil and Hazel, to live in her mother's house. She worked as a charlady, trained as a hairdresser and set about building a new life for her family. Then the divorce came through.

When Hazel broke up with her first boyfriend at the age of 14, she took it very badly. Her reaction was out of proportion for the teenage romance.

"I couldn't stop crying. There were all different feelings of loss -- loss of Dad, loss of family. I think it was a mini nervous breakdown. The doctor put me on Valium and Librium. One day one of my teachers stopped me and told me about some horrific things that had happened to her. She said, 'People will lose interest in you, if you lose interest in life," and that I should snap out of it. I stopped taking the tablets after that ... But I think in life you don't get over things. Some things come back to haunt you.'

Hazel has been on many adventures, but there have been misadventures too. When she was 16, she accompanied her friend and her friend's big sister to Morocco. Bored in Casablanca, the two young girls took the train to Marrakech. They stayed in a pension and an Algerian who was staying there invited Hazel to the King's palace gardens. It was there that he raped her.

"I didn't kick him or hit him. It was as if my head moved outside my body. I remember thinking --'Oh God, I'm going to get pregnant.' I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I didn't move. I think I was numb after that. I hitch-hiked to Spain, went to Ibiza and eventually went home. I had to keep moving. I was running away from everything. The rape changed me profoundly."

Inevitably, her life was never the same again. Back to school she went, then she left to do an art foundation course. She was restless. It wasn't long before she moved to Amsterdam, where she lived in a squat and eventually lived out her dream of living in an attic and painting. She went on to make clothes and sell them in the street markets there. She had just turned 18 and her father was so worried about her that he was going to send Interpol to find her.

Hazel went home for a while; knocking on the door in full hippy gear -- a kaftan which she had made from curtains with a bandana around her henna-ed hair but soon she was off again; this time working as a go-go dancer in Tokyo and later Beirut. While she was there, Beirut was bombed and she was shell-shocked by the experience. Yet she carried on working, suppressing her troubles.

O'Connor lived many lives before she began her singing career. (She is in the process of writing her memoirs.) Her brother taught her to write songs and she realised that singing soothed her soul. She set about starting a career and eventually it took off.

No longer is she the famous superstar singer that she once was and that doesn't seem to bother her. She likes quietness and relishes her anonymity. These days, she lives a tranquil life in Wicklow. She remembers times when people would see her on the street and scream just because they had seen her face. "There was a stage when I was too famous," she says. It didn't sit comfortably with her.

She recalls when she was at the Cannes Film Festival and she broke out in eczema.

"I never had it before. I'd swear it was psychosomatic. It was as if I'd been photographed so much that my body was saying, 'f*** off.'

Fame and success was not all it was cracked to be.

"When it happens, you don't see it as a big picture. You just see it as your own little life. One of the high points was walking up Oxford Street and a van door opened and a radio was playing my first single Eighth Day. It was very exciting."

But then there was the other side of fame. "For every rave review I got, someone wrote something horrid about me. A lot of family hassles came home to roost. The papers made out that I had lost my father, when the truth was that I hadn't spoken to him in four years. And little things started to rear their ugly head -- pictures from when I had modelled naked appeared in the papers."

Any stranger would have thought she was flying high and fabulously happy. It was not to last. She moved to Ireland in 1990.

She tells me about a time years later when she sang in Navan and five people turned up for the gig -- the same number as in the band. It was a turning point. She realised that numbers weren't important. What mattered was that she was happy, enjoying performing and being true to herself. She recalled some years prior singing to an audience of 4,000 in Hammersmith and being deeply unhappy with herself -- "I felt nothing any more" -- yet that night in Navan she was content and gave her all.

And so, she carries on with her singing and manages to keep her life as interesting as possible with her many hobbies.

"I always get scared because I'm insecure but I always feel that I've got to try things. If I'm trying, I'm living in some way. I'm rotating with the rest of the world. If I stop trying, I'll know that's when the breath has gone out of my body."

So says the ballroom dancing, yoga practising, brown-belt singer.

Hazel O'Connor -- 'Beyond Breaking Glass' at Draiocht, Blanchardstown, January 25, 8pm.
Tickets: €18/€16 concessions. Booking 01 8852622/ www.draiocht.ie.

Also her Up Close and Personal gig in Belfast January 31 at the Rotterdam Bar, 54 Pilot Street, Belfast, £12 and February 1 at Airfield House, Upper Kilmacud Road, Dundrum, €18. Booking 01 298 4301 (Email: bookings@airfield.ie)

Ciara Dwyer

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Hazel O'Connor on ULSTER STAR - 17 Jan 2008
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