The day Hazel O'Connor got a bucket of water poured over George Michael
PUBLISHED: 18:21 24 November 2017 | UPDATED: 18:21 24 November 2017
Hazel O'Connor was a trailblazer for female performers during the 1980s. She reminisces about the friends she made and the battles she's fought.
If you take anything from reading this, it should be treasure those closet to you. You don’t know how long you have together.
Hazel and the late George Michael became close friends during her legal dispute with her then record company over royalties from Breaking Glass and her other three records during that period as they had the same lawyers.
His parents lived in Radlet, close to where the singer, writer and actress lived. She remembers doing silly little things like walking her 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. 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 to 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,” says Hazel, who covered George’s One More Try on her album.
She’s supposed to be just singing songs from her first three albums on this tour but may include it in her live set.
Hazel remembers another incident involving George and a bucket of water.
“He came to a little party we were having and bought in his new solo single demo on a cassette player. We got a sneak preview and all danced and sang to this thing. Then he went off that night and everybody left the party.
“At five in the morning I’m woken up by Mr George Michael again at me window going ‘Hazel, Hazel, open the door’. When I did the poor man was soaking wet and it wasn’t raining,” she laughs.
“He’d forgot his demo and came back to get it. He’d rang my doorbell but I’d switched it off, I didn’t want people coming to a party that was over. He’d rang my neighbour’s bell several times and she was not happy. She’d gone to her bathroom and poured a bucket of water over his head.”
Her best mate in those days was the late Paula Yates.
“I used to hang out with Paula when she was with Bob (Geldof). But when I hit my hard times I didn’t see anybody because I was busy fighting the court case. Prior to that, which seems like a million years ago, I used to go to Bob and Paula’s every Sunday in Clapham.
“We would play Boggle and Bob would take great relish in beating me because he was so well versed in words. I could never win, I’m just not as articulate as he is.
“Paula and I would often then go upstairs, sit under the duvet, have a pot of tea and she would tell me about all the latest interviews she’d done and her latest crushes on pop stars. We had a wonderful friendship and that time was beautiful.”
Duran Duran came on their first tour with Hazel. She remembers they had a tough time as her audience was quite hard-core and they 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. All our band used to rush out when Planet Earth was played. The boys had no money at the time, but a lot of commitment and I think their managers at the time 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.
“They made their record deal (with EMI) during my tour and within six months they had a huge hit. We ended up appearing on Top Of The Pops at the same time and we had a cup of tea 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 f***’s sake boys, you are acting like the nouveau riche.”
Hazel, who strode into the spotlight with her BAFTA nominated portrayal of Kate in the 1980 cult movie Breaking Glass, is full of wonderful stories like this. One of her favourites is when she did Decadent Days on Top Of The Pops and took her clothes off.
“We wanted to stay and watch the rest of the bands but we weren’t allowed to stand in the audience. So I thought it would be really fun if I got a wig, put my glasses on and stood in the audience like a dork and wave and say ‘hello mum’.
“However, I then walked towards the stage and threw my clothes off until I just had my bikini top and a little mini skirt on. At the time I thought it was the best moment ever. Looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking.”
X Factor Judge Louis Walsh has been an integral part of Hazel’s life too. She’s known him she was 19.
“When I first came to Ireland, my agent sent Lulu, as he is known in Ireland, to be my driver and we had such a hilarious time. Nothing was organised on that tour and to this day Louis says to me ‘I always remember you screaming at your manager in England because you didn’t know what was happening’.
“When I moved to Ireland years later he really supported me wholeheartedly, as I was going through a lot, having been diagnosed with skin cancer. It’s crazy what has happened to him since, what with his boy bands and television work. Back in those days, me and Marianne Faithfull where his hip girls.
“He’s been through 50billion different things now and knows his music inside out. That’s what I liked about Louis, he’s a music fan. He’s helped me through everything, too.”
Hazel - known for iconic albums like Breaking Glass, Sons and Lovers and Cover Plus - blazed a trail for the female multi-media stars that came along in the mid 1980s.
“Nobody quite knew what bag to put me in. Nowadays it’s totally acceptable to wear a black bra and mini skirt on TV shows; to talk about female orgasms; be a film star, singer and composer, not to mention an authentic Girlpower advocate,” she laughs.
The singer was paid just a pound to sign to her record company. It sounds ridiculous, but she was so happy somebody wanted to sign her in those days.
With just four songs to her name and no money, when destiny finally called Hazel happily answered – literally.
“I was just trying to get ahead with the singing thing and me brother had just taught me to write songs a little bit. I’d gone stamping around London putting me own posters up, trying to get people interested,” she laughs.
She had no money to pay the rent, so answered the record company telephones for two weeks while the receptionist was on holiday.
The first day a call came through asking to speak to somebody about a singer on the label called Hazel O’Connor.
“It was me that took the call. I said ‘I’m Hazel O’Connor’ and they were ‘oh no, this one’s a singer’,” she laughs. “They were phoning up to get me to come for an audition for Breaking Glass. First I went for a part as an extra, then in the audition they said ‘oh no, give her the part of the bass player to read’ and I thought ‘hey we’re going up the hill here’.
“The next minute (it was) ‘we’re actually thinking of you for the lead’ and I was thinking ‘no, no, I want to write the songs’. Within a few weeks they said ‘maybe we should let Hazel try to write all the songs’ and I’m thinking ‘yes’. It’s how it began. Getting the lead (of Kate); was a total surprise, never being one who got cups or badges or being a winner at anything in my life.”
The film - starring Phil Daniels, who was fresh off Quadrophenia; and a yet to be discovered Jim Broadbent - told the story of a rock singer who lets nothing stand between her and the very top.
It saw her win the Variety Club of Great Britain’s Film Actress of the Year Award, nominated for a BAFTA for Best Newcomer and the album nominated for Best Film Soundtrack; earning Hazel a place in the history books as the first woman to write and perform all the songs for a film.
She’s gone on to star in countless stage productions including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, West End musical The Girlfriends and her own musical Sing Out Sister. She’s also appeared on TV, including BBC drama Fighting Back.
“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, 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 keep me buoyant.
“I love singing and I was never going to give up, but it just worked out I had to sing more than other artists, who’ll have a hit single, put out an album, do one tour a year and it’s all mapped out. Having not made my millions as I should’ve done with all my records, I’ve always had to work.”
Strangely, Hazel had no dreams of music or show business - until her brother, who was a musician, got piano lessons when they were little.
“I was a little bit jealous. He’s a record producer in Montréal now. He’s coming over to play with me on the tour which is great. When I was a teenager I ran away and travelled.
“I was a snotty 16-year-old who was selfish and didn’t want to live the normal life. I took a plunge to change my life; I ran off to live in Amsterdam and never looked back in a strange way because once you take a path in life and it suits you, you carry on along it.”
By 19 she was working as a dancer in countries including Japan and the Lebanon after a spat with her then boyfriend.
“(Then) I wasn’t interested in singing, showbiz or any of that stuff. When I got me dancing job it was merely because me boyfriend had accused me of being a hippy, living off of other people and not having a job of my own. I took umbrage and remember looking in the Stage magazine for a job and thought ‘I’ll show him’.
“This job came up in Tokyo for go-go dancers and showgirls and I thought ‘ooh I can do that’,” she laughs. “For some bizarre reason I got the job and the next minute I’m off to Japan hoping my boyfriend will say ‘no, don’t go I love you’ but he didn’t so I carried on. He realised he loved me in the end.”
She was inspired by seeing what her brother was up to.
“The times were so exciting at the end of the 1970s, the bands that were happening. The punk thing was so crucial for me because in those days it was the end of when you were judged on your sexuality as a girl singer. It was more to do with the energy you were portraying... you weren’t selling your sex.
“I liked that because I never found myself to be a beautiful woman or anything like that. So I thought ‘my God, here’s a chance to be doing what you do without being judged on what you look like’.”
Hazel’s looking forward to the tour for several reasons.
“Afterwards I’ve got to have an operation on my foot, so I need to be able to get around on crutches. I was born with terrible feet and by the time my mum got a letter from the hospital about an operation I was 16, by which point I’d already left home. I was away travelling and I refused to come back.
“Now, though, I finally need to do something about it. They wanted to do both feet at the same time but I need to be able to move around and I can’t stop work completely.
“I’ve got less than three months to recover before I tour again, so I’m squeezing in the operation to have my foot reshaped between tours. The fact is I live in a cottage and you couldn’t even get a wheelchair in there...and I’ve got two nutty dogs.”
Hazel and her band will play all the hits from her first three albums. Doesn’t she miss having a big band, big production?
“Look at Ed Sheeran; you don’t need a big band. You need songs - and I have them.”
• See her at the Norwich Open on November 28 and The Apex, in Bury St Edmunds, on December 1.