Stepping out of the spotlight

By Yusef Najafi from "Washington Blade"

BETWEEN SHAVING HER head, tearing up a picture of the Pope on live television, and coming out as a lesbian shortly before marrying a man, Sinéad O’Conner is no stranger to controversy — or contradictions. In fact, she has courted both for much of her 20-year career.

Now, the career and the controversy are supposedly over. Earlier this year, like an aging boxer, O’Connor announced her retirement from the music industry on her official Web site. She said the recent release of her superb final album, “She Who Dwells,” marks the end of her musical career.

The 36-year-old Irish singer says she no longer wishes to be famous and hopes to achieve a “normal” life with her two children, a 16-year-old son, Jake, and a 7-year-old daughter, Roisin.

“I am glad that you are helped by my songs,” O’Connor says in a letter addressed to fans, “so help me too, by giving me what is best for me,
a private life.”

She could not be reached for comment.

O’Connor’s final two-CD set features 19 unreleased songs featuring various styles, from reggae and pop to folk. And in a final ballsy move, she even includes a remake of “Do Right Woman,” a song made famous by the Queen of Soul. The other half of the collection involves a live concert recorded last year in Dublin, which also was released on DVD.

NEITHER FANS NOR critics appear to be taking O’Connor’s retirement news very seriously, perhaps because she has a habit of contradicting herself. During an interview with “Curve” magazine in 2000, she came out of the closet.

“I haven’t been very open about that, because I haven’t necessarily been terribly comfortable about being a lesbian,” O’Connor said.

“But I am a lesbian.”

Critics saw the revelation as a marketing ploy aimed at pushing the singer’s single at the time, “No Man’s Woman.” After being criticized for her former marriage to John Reynolds, O’Connor explained her sexual orientation in a letter to “Hot Press” music magazine.

“I love men,” she said, “but I prefer sex with women and I prefer romantic relationships with women.”

O’Connor even performed “No Man’s Woman” on the Rosie O’Donnell Show, making the tune something of a lesbian anthem. “I never wanna be no man’s woman,” she sang. “I haven’t traveled this far to become, no man’s woman.”

After all this, O’Connor appeared to be the perfect candidate to headline America’s first gay concert festival in 2001. Spearheaded by gay pop act the Pet Shop Boys, “Wotapalava,”(an English expression meaning “What a fuss about nothing”) billed O’Connor, among other gay artists, in a full summer tour. But for reasons left unexplained, she backed out of the entire tour.

“Wotapalava” was later canceled due to waning interest and less-than-stellar sales.

Confusion then increased when the self-proclaimed lesbian married 29-year-old journalist Nick Sommerland later that same year.

“I don’t believe there’s any such thing as gay or straight,” she told Scotland’s Sunday Herald. “You fall in love with someone, it’s about the spirit and the soul.”

They are no longer together.

RAY SENIOR, EDITOR of, a Web site about Irish celebrities, credits O’Connor with being a genius at manipulating the media and prolonging a career built from one hit song — “Nothing Compares to You.”

“She hasn’t had that much success, aside from one song, which wasn’t even written by her,” Senior told the Blade. “Yet, she’s known all over the world.

“People perceive her to be a naïve and innocent person with very strong views, but she is extremely astute and she has pulled off one media stunt after another and managed to keep an interest on a global base.”

O’Connor first appeared on the music scene in England during the late ’80s.

A cover version of Prince’s “Nothing Compares to You” garnered her major success in the U.S. at a time when female musicians were following in the footsteps of Madonna, Paula Abdul and Mariah Carey.

O’Connor was decidedly different. With a shaved head, a political agenda, and a sound that was all her own, she influenced the work of female artists like Alanis Morissette and Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries.

Her progressive politics came to the forefront in the ’90s when she voiced her support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and her dislike for popular Irish rockers, U2. She then refused to perform a concert in New Jersey if the “Star Spangled Banner” was played and refused to acknowledge the four Grammy nominations she received for her second album, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”

In one of her most infamous television appearances, O’Connor ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II after a live performance on “Saturday Night Live” in 1992. Even her most devout fans expressed disapproval, and when NBC rebroadcast the episode it did not include the picture-ripping scene. Seven years later, O’Connor apologized for the incident and was ordained a priest for the Latin Tridentine Church, an offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church.

After a career spent aiming the spotlight at her politics and personal life, it’s no surprise that the singer’s recent plea for privacy is being ignored. recently reported that she is pregnant with her third child. O’Connor confirmed the pregnancy but did not disclose the identity of her child’s father.

ROMAN SZENDREY HAS maintained an unofficial news Web site on the entertainer,, since ’94.

“Her music is written straight from the heart and you can feel her emotions, whether that’s anger, sadness or hate,” he told the Blade in an e-mail message..

The 28-year-old O’Connor fan lives in Vienna, Austria, and believes that her retirement letter “is true for her at the moment.”

But he hopes she isn’t leaving the spotlight for good.

“I think being a celebrity is too much for her to handle,” he says, “but I don’t think she can live without music in the long run, so maybe her retirement won’t last that long.”

Senior also is skeptical about O’Connor’s retirement.

“She’s got to live, so she’s got to keep working,” he says.

Nevertheless, in her retirement letter, O’Connor leaves fans with this thought: “To anyone who ever admires a so-called ‘celebrity,’ if you love them, don’t make them get their picture taken, or write their names on bits of paper. That’s pieces of them. And one day, they wake up with nothing left of themselves to give.”

© 2003 by "Washington Blade"