Sinead O’Connor is opening up about the two most defining moments of her 35-year career. In a new interview with The New York Times, the 54-year-old Irish singer describes a violent encounter with Prince during the peak of her 1990s fame and unravels the heartbreaking story behind the viral Saturday Night Live moment that changed her life forever.
O’Connor, who stormed onto the scene in 1987 with her fierce, loud debut, The Lion and the Cobra, became an unlikely global superstar three years later when she released her iconic, hushed take on the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U.” With her shorn hair and piercing, liquid-brown eyes, O’Connor dared you to look away in the close-up video for the track, which famously ended with a single tear sliding down her face.
But to hear O’Connor tell the story — which she writes about in her new memoir, Rememberings (due out June 1) — the Grammy-nominated Prince cover is the thing that actually “derailed” her career. And, contrary to the popular narrative, the controversial 1992 SNL performance of an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War” that ended with her tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II as a protest against the then-rumored Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal is the thing that got her back on track.
Here are four key takeaways from the Times interview:
The real story behind the Pope picture
O’Connor, who has openly struggled with mental health issues for the past two decades, said she’d already been branded as “crazy” early in her career for boycotting the Grammy Awards when she was nominated for record of the year for “Nothing Compares 2 U” in 1990, as well as refusing to allow the “Star-Spangled Banner” to be played before her concerts. She is, in typical fashion, unapologetic about those choices.
“I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant,” she said of the apparent Catholic Church protest that went viral well before the rise of the internet. “But it was very traumatizing. It was open season on treating me like a crazy b—h.” O’Connor was booed at a Bob Dylan concert shortly after the SNL incident. She said she thought at first that the crowd just didn’t like her outfit, but things kept heating up when she was later threatened with a “smack” from Joe Pesci in an SNL monologue and called “one stupid broad” by Frank Sinatra.
John Paul II apologized for the church’s role in suppressing the rampant abuse of children in a 2001 letter, but in her book, O’Connor reveals that the picture rip was more personal than political. According to the Times, the singer details the physical abuse she suffered at her mother’s hand as a child, noting she won a prize in kindergarten for being able to “curl up into the smallest ball,” which her teacher didn’t realize was tied to her abuse at home.
She also writes that the tear in the “Nothing” video comes as she hits the line about her “mama’s flowers,” and that when her mother died when O’Connor was 18, she took down the only photo on her mom’s bedroom wall: a shot of the pope. She writes that she saved the photo, “waiting for the right moment to destroy it.”
“Child abuse is an identity crisis and fame is an identity crisis, so I went straight from one identity crisis into another,” she told the paper, noting that her attempts to call attention to child abuse during her career invariably ended with her being vilified. According to the Times, O’Connor wrote that the backlash from SNL actually freed her, though, pushing her away from the “wrong life” in mainstream pop, forcing her to make a living as a live performer, which she prefers.
Fighting for her right to be
The Times reports that the singer writes in the book that an unnamed music executive called her to lunch around the time of the Lion‘s release and told the punk-hearted artist that she should dress more “femininely” and grow out her cropped hair. She, of course, then went to a barber and had it all shaved off, which she writes, made her look “like an alien.”
And when she became pregnant with her first child, Jake, during the sessions for the album, she says an executive called a doctor and attempted to convince her to have an abortion, which she refused.
A scary night with Prince
During the height of her “Nothing Compares 2 U” fame, O’Connor writes, Prince called her to his Hollywood mansion and berated her for using curse words in interviews, and insisted his butler to server her soup, even though she repeatedly declined it. In a strange passage, according to the paper, she writes about the diminutive singer suggesting they have a pillow fight, and then hitting her with a hard object he had put in his pillowcase.
The singer recalled in her tome that she tried to run away on foot in the middle of the night, only to have Prince follow her with his car, jump out and chase her around the highway. While O’Connor notes that the late pop-rock icon was often called “crazy-in-a-good-way,” as far as she concerned, she told the Times “there’s a difference between being crazy and being a violent abuser of women.” And even though her best-known tune was written by a man she considers an abuser, the stalwart O’Connor doesn’t let it bother her. “As far as I’m concerned,” she told the paper, “it’s my song.”
Famous flames and the women who came after O’Connor
In the book, according to the Times, O’Connor denies reports that she had a fling with Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis, saying it was “only in his mind,” but confirms a brief romance with Peter Gabriel. She also writes about seeing a bit of herself in artists such as Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears.
“What they did to Britney Spears was disgusting,” she tells the paper about the pop star’s decade-long conservatorship and hounding by the paparazzi. “If you met a stranger in the street crying, you’d put your arms around her. You wouldn’t start taking photos of her, you know?” O’Connor also understands the throughline about Spears being categorized as “crazy” when the younger artist shaved her hair off in public during the midst of a mental health crisis in 2007. “Why were they saying she’s crazy for shaving her head?” O’Connor said. “I’m not.”