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COVER STORY : Nothing Compares 2 Her Year

December 16, 1990|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

Her decision came two days after cast member Nora Dunn said she wouldn't appear on the show as a protest against Clay's routines, which have been widely criticized as degrading to women.

"It would be nonsensical of 'Saturday Night Live' to expect a woman to perform songs about a woman's experience after a monologue by Andrew Dice Clay," O'Connor said at the time.

The decision was applauded by Francoise Jacobson, president of the National Organization for Women chapter in New York, who called Clay's humor "misogynist." For his part, Clay responded on the show by referring in a skit to O'Connor as that "bald chick."

That uproar was mild compared to O'Connor's decision three months later to refuse to allow the national anthem to be played before a show at the Garden State Arts Center in New Jersey.

O'Connor said that she didn't mean any disrespect for America, but that she "has a policy of not having national anthems played before my concerts in any country, including my own, because they have nothing to do with music in general."

A New York state legislator called for a boycott of O'Connor's subsequent concert in Saratoga and a few radio stations around the country vowed not to play her records again. Frank Sinatra was so angry that he told one of his own concert audiences that he'd like to "kick her in the ass."

O'Connor raised additional eyebrows at the time by saying that people should be far more alarmed about the "disturbing trend towards censorship of music and art in this country . . ." than by her action in New Jersey. An avid supporter of rap music, she alluded specifically to the arrest of controversial Miami rap group 2 Live Crew in Florida.

Perhaps the oddest wrinkle in the anthem story was in October, when a meat clerk at Mrs. Gooch's market in Beverly Hills started singing the national anthem when he spotted O'Connor in the market. The incident made the news when the employee was fired for violating a store policy against harassing customers.

While these public battles were raging, O'Connor was going through much private struggle--dealing with the pressures of fame and relationships. There were widely printed rumors during the tour that O'Connor had separated from her husband and had become involved with British musician Hugh Harris, who was her opening act for much of the tour.

All this left her with a public image that was part radical punk and part media opportunist.

Yet O'Connor appears much closer to the radical image than the pop strategist. She can be stubbornly outspoken, but there is little evidence she does any of it merely for publicity. Much of her intensity seems to stem from a deeply troubled childhood which, aggravated by child abuse, left her determined to be uncompromising in expressing her feelings.

"It may seem like she is out there creating havoc and controversy all the time, but that is who she is," said Steve Fargnoli, who has managed O'Connor since late last year and who formerly represented Prince.

"I knew this was going to be a difficult year for her and I did what I could to help prepare her for it, but it was always a concern. It's a dangerous way to live when you are in the public eye so much . . . being that open and vulnerable."

Any regrets?

O'Connor paused for a moment of self-inventory as she sat on a living room sofa, clutching a bottle of beer.

"Where do you want me to begin?" she asked finally, flashing a warm, winning smile--all the more disarming because it was so unexpected from someone whose media image is generally withdrawn or defiant.

On this night after an appearance on the Arsenio Hall TV show, O'Connor was neither sullen nor defiant. Mostly, she seemed relieved. The TV show had been her final scheduled appearance of the year--and she was looking forward to spending the holidays quietly with her 3 1/2-year-old son, Jake.

"Of course, I have had second thoughts--not about the anthem," she said. "But I believe now that I should have gone on 'Saturday Night Live' despite Andrew Dice Clay.

"I thought (going on the show) was wrong at the time, but now I see it is not fair of me on one hand to say censorship is wrong in the case of rap groups like 2 Live Crew and N.W.A. and then do something myself that basically amounts (in effect) to censorship on my part.

"But we learn as we go along. I've done all my growing up and learning in public. I've had to teach myself to think before I spoke and that it was sometimes best to keep your mouth shut. . . ."

She still seems a bit gun-shy from all the media attention.

Asked during the interview how many bedrooms the house has, you could see her guard go up. "Why's that important?" she asked, bristling.

When it was explained as an effort to clarify certain basic facts--that it gives people an idea of her lifestyle to know whether it is a modest home or some 20-bedroom mansion--she answered, "three bedrooms."

She then showed no resistance to questions about her height (5 feet 4) and weight (110 pounds).

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