Sinead O'Connor's Ex-Manager Speaks Out About Her Mental Health Troubles, Losing George Michael & More

Simon Napier-Bell

Simon Napier-Bell, like the rest of us, has been deeply concerned by Sinead O’Connor’s ongoing – and public -- mental health struggles. The multi-hyphenate British entrepreneur, however, has a deeper connection with O’Connor, who he managed earlier in her career. 

“It’s been going on for nearly two years. It’s frightening and terrible and everyone wants to help," he tells Billboard. "It’s impossible to say how they can help and what they should do. I’ve known so many people involved, attached or related to her, but it can be very difficult to help somebody who is in that situation. But also when you have somebody with just enough money to get by, there’s not a situation where they have to put themselves in a public care system. It’s very complex indeed.”

Napier-Bell, a celebrated author, filmmaker and owner of music firm Pierbel Ltd., has also guided the careers of The Yardbirds, Ultravox, T Rex, Marc Bolan, Japan, Asia, Candi Staton, Boney M and of course George Michael and Wham, with whom he famously blazed a trail when he presented the pop duo in China in the mid-’80 and pulled off an early viral campaign.

Billboard spoke with Simon Napier-Bell ahead of his speaking tour of Australia's five biggest cities, which kicks off with a Sept. 8 keynote at the Bigsound conference

Sinead O'Connor’s struggles have thrust mental health back into the spotlight. Is there a connection between the artistry and the illness? 

It’s the horror story of artists. Sinead is an artist, she’s typical of all artists in that there are extremes. All artists are desperately insecure and megalomaniac. All artists are what would now be called bipolar, it used to be called the "artistic temperament." It’s a mood swing from self-denigration, no self-worth, to absolute megalomania and a certainty that they’ll rule the world. They live both those things. You need that lack of self-worth to write passionate insightful songs about yourself and you need the megalomania to get on stage and perform that to an audience. In the end, they’re all desperate for love and affection from the audience. And they can sink into a terrible depression; they [might] go back to their hotel room and take drugs to pass the time until the next moment where they’re on stage. With social media, if there’s a lapse in your career and things go downhill and you get overly depressed, it used to be that you went to a clinic, you were seen by a doctor, but with social media you grab an audience by putting a camera in your hotel room. And since that’s what artists need more than anything else it can be very dangerous. It can almost thrive on their bad moments rather than waiting for their good moments. 

We lost George Michael last year, which was a huge shock especially considering he passed away at Christmas, a time of year when his voice is heard in so many households in “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and “Last Christmas.”

Absolutely. But who knows, that may have added to his loneliness and however he felt that night, it may have made it worse being Christmas. It’s a tragedy. We don’t know if he was going to go back and create music or not. There are many artists we know of who died young and it played into the artistic story, there’s a romantic Hollywood story about dying at the peak of your powers rather than later on. (Michael's death) is very much a personal tragedy.

You took Wham to China in the mid-‘80s. That was such a huge story; no other band had done that, though Jean Michel-Jarre had performed his “Concerts In China” earlier in the decade.

No pop bands. (The authorities) were terrified of youth culture. Any repressive society knows when it takes ahold, it takes over and you can never go back. They’re frightened to death of it. 

We’ve got a standoff between the U.S. and North Korea. Would you suggest it’s a smart idea to send a band over in a sort of diplomatic mission?

(Laughs). They’re pretty determined to not make that happen. Of course they’re well aware of it too. (Kim Jong Un) is well aware that the most undermining thing is a burgeoning youth who wants freedom. Youth want freedom and they don’t even mean freedom politically. When we think of freedom as an adult, we think of politics, courts and the ability to say what you want. Youth just think, ‘I want to go out and I want to dance all night.’ It’s such a simplistic idea of freedom, it just grabs everybody by the neck. Really repressive societies are terrified of it. China was too. The whole deal I made with the Chinese, we wanted to play there because we wanted to make Wham the biggest band in the world in a very short space of time. We had 90 television crews following us, we knew we would be – and we were – on NBC, ABC, all the bulletins each hour for a week. At the end of that week they were the biggest group in America. That’s what we wanted, and it happened. What the Chinese wanted was investment. What I said was, if the world could see you opening up to youth culture, you’ll get your investment. People will say, ‘right, China is changing.’ No one in China knew, I just wanted to get them on those television programmes. And make them big. That’s the deal with the devil. 

And how did you promote that show?

The Chinese had the idea that nobody there would know about this gig, and that’s pretty much the case until right up until the show. I started getting some subversive ideas on how to pull this thing of. We gave away a cassette of Wham songs with the tickets. On one side it had all the songs in Chinese and the other side the Wham songs in English. We gave two cassettes away to each person who bought a ticket -- keep one and sell the other which would pay for the ticket. That would spread the word around. The Chinese didn’t quite manage to keep it quite as under wraps as they thought. A terrific travel writer Colin Thubron, who has written a great number of extremely erudite travel books, did one about China four years after that. He said everywhere he went in China he heard Wham songs playing. I did my subversive job very well, I think. 

Simon Napier-Bell will speak at Bigsound (Sept. 8), Melbourne's Arts Centre (Sept. 9), Adelaide's The JADE (Sept. 10), Sydney's The Leadbelly (Sept. 11) and Mojos Bar in Fremantle (Sept. 12).