Sinéad O'Connor's Struggle: Inside the 'Nothing Compares 2 U' Singer's Tumultuous Ups and Downs
Sinéad O’Connor achieved pop culture immortality with a soulful cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that built on the pain and vulnerability of Prince’s original, but the tears shed in the iconic video weren’t just for show. The ethereal voice and wounded eyes masked a past marred by child abuse, incarcerations, and tragedy, and those inner demons followed her through the gilded door of fame and haunt her to this day.
They ultimately led her to a New Jersey Travelodge, where she lived a solitary existence away from family in her native Ireland, whom she claims couldn’t cope with her mental illnesses. “Why are we alone? People who suffer from mental illness are the most vulnerable people on Earth,” she said in a video filmed inside her cramped hotel room and posted to Facebook last Thursday. “You’ve got to take care of us. We’re not like everybody.”
She never was. Born into a large Roman Catholic family in Glenageary, County Dublin, her parents’ tumultuous relationship ended in a divorce so acrimonious that they debated one another on a radio program. “Our family is very messed up,” she said in a 1993 interview. “We can’t communicate with each other. We are all in agony.”
Eight-year-old O’Connor was sent to live with her mother, who regularly abused the child. “It was physical violence, perpetrated particularly in a sexual manner,” she told PEOPLE in 2012. “She wasn’t trying to have sex with me, but she spent a good time trying to destroy my reproductive system. It was psychological, too. It was a torture chamber, really. But I forgive my mother; she just wasn’t well.”
At 13 she ran away to live with her father, but two years later her teenage truancy and shoplifting resulted in her being sent to a Magdalene asylum for “unruly” women for 18 months. Rules were strictly enforced, and O’Connor was sent to sleep at a nursing home next door for minor infractions. “I will never experience such panic and terror and agony over anything like I did at that place,” she told SPIN in 1990.
The asylum would be the scene for her earliest musical ventures. A volunteer had a brother who played drums for the Irish group Tua Nua, and when she heard O’Connor singing Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen,” she put the two in touch. They recorded a song, “Take My Hand,” but O’Connor was deemed too young to pursue music full time.
It would be several years before she took to the stage with a new band, Ton Ton Macoute, but her life was shattered in 1985 when her mother was killed in a car accident. Despite their complicated past, the loss left her devastated. “I suddenly became an angry sort of person,” she said in 2007. “I was angry with God. I mean, I was f—ed up about the abuse and I would have had to go and sort my head out anyway, but the thing that really made it hard for me to get up off the f—ing floor was my mother dying.”
Still mourning, O’Connor quit the band and moved to London to start over. It was there that her career began to take flight. After a well-regarded debut, her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, launched her into the pop stratosphere as its single “Nothing Compares 2 U” topped the charts across the globe in 1990. Director John Maybury’s striking video, consisting almost entirely of penetrating close-ups of O’Connor’s emotionally contorted face, transfixed audiences with its raw display of grief. Two delicate tears slowly fall down her cheeks as she sings the line: “All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the back yard, they all died and withered away.”
For O’Connor, it was more than just a song. “The song reminded me of my mother,” she later admitted. “I made an emotional connection, which I was not expecting—it didn’t hit me when I was recording the song. It only kicked in when I was being filmed. So I was sitting there, thinking about me mother, and trying hard not to bawl my eyes out.”
She became famous not only for her music but also for her outspoken, and often controversial, political stances. In August 1990, she threatened to back out of a performance at New Jersey’s Garden State Arts Center if the National Anthem was played. The production staff complied, but she was later permanently banned from the venue. In a later interview, she insisted that she meant “no disrespect,” but refused to “go on stage after the national anthem of a country which imposes censorship on artists. It’s hypocritical and racist.”
The incident drew the wrath of Frank Sinatra, who happened to be performing at the Arts Center the following night. From the stage, he expressed his wish to “kick her in the ass.” Months later, in February 1991, she became the first artist to win a Grammy for best alternative music album—but she found the commercialism of the event offensive and boycotted the ceremony.
Her newfound superstardom brought her more accolades, including a spot as musical guest on the hallowed stage of Saturday Night Live. But what might have been a crowning achievement would prove to be the unmaking of her career. On Oct. 3, 1992, she chose to perform an a capella version of Bob Marley’s “War,” using the anti-racism anthem to stage a protest against the alleged child abuse of the Catholic Church. Singing the world “evil,” she held up a picture of Pope John Paul II. As the song ended, she tore the photo into pieces saying, “Fight the real enemy,” before throwing the fragments at the camera.
Network brass, who were not aware of O’Connor’s plan, were apoplectic. Producer Lorne Michaels ordered that the “Applause” sign not be lit, and O’Connor walked off the Studio 8H stage to silence.
It wouldn’t stay quiet for long. NBC reportedly received 4,400 phone calls criticizing O’Connor’s statement, which caused a furor in religious communities. Even Madonna, rarely one to shy away from controversy, chastised the move in an interview with the Irish Times. “I think there is a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people.” She added, “If she is against the Roman Catholic Church and she has a problem with them, I think she should talk about it.”
O’Connor, who maintained that she was a devout Catholic, defended herself in an interview with Time, and insisted that it wasn’t specifically the Pope who drew her ire. “It’s not the man, obviously — it’s the office and the symbol of the organization that he represents. I consider them to be responsible for the destruction of entire races of people and the subsequent existence of domestic and child abuse in every country they went into.”
Two weeks after the Saturday Night Live appearance, O’Connor was due to play Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary tribute concert at Madison Square Garden, when her performance of Dylan’s “I Believe in You” was drowned out by a mixture of cheers and jeers. For one agonizing minute she stood there, absorbing the hostility. Kris Kristofferson, who had introduced her, ran to her side. “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” he told her. “I’m not down,” she replied. Undeterred, she ordered her microphone turned up and switched songs mid-set, delivering an aggressive, largely improvised version of “War.” As she reached the lines pertaining to child abuse—her primary point of contention with the Church—she exited the stage. Kristofferson ran to comfort her.
She stayed true to her principles but her music career would never reach the same heights again. Soon after, it was reported that O’Connor would retire from the industry altogether, though she walked the claim back shortly after. But the music wouldn’t drown out the problems of her tumultuous personal life. In 1995 she found herself embroiled in a lengthy custody battle with John Waters, the father of her second child, daughter Rosin. (She had previously had a son, Jake, with her first husband John Reynolds, a music producer she married in 1987.)
Facing accusations that she was an unfit mother, she tried to take her own life in 1999. “That was on my 33rd birthday, after a session in court that day where it was suggested that for the rest of my life I would only see my daughter once a month,” she said in 2005.“I made a very serious suicide attempt, and I did almost die.” The singer had reportedly taken 20 Valium pills.
She survived and threw herself into motherhood and religion. That same year she became an ordained priest of the Latin Tridentine Church, a fringe splinter group of Roman Catholicism, taking the name Mother Bernadette Mary and earning an archdeacon title for her work with Dublin’s homeless. She announced her intention to step back from public life, writing a furious open letter when an Irish newspaper reported on her new relationship with British journalist Nick Sommerlad. The pair married in mid-2001, months after telling Curve, “I’m a dyke… although I haven’t been very open about that and throughout most of my life I’ve gone out with blokes because I haven’t necessarily been terribly comfortable about being a big lesbian mule. But I actually am a dyke.”
She staged a musical comeback before announcing her retirement again several years later. “As of July 2003 I shall be retiring from the music business [in] order to pursue a different career,” she wrote in a message to her fans posted on her website. “I seek no longer to be a ‘famous’ person, and instead I wish to live a ‘normal’ life, could people please afford me my privacy. By which I mean I would like not to have [exploitation] of my self or my name or anyone connected with me by newspapers. I also mean that (with love). I want to be like any other person in the street and not have people say, ‘There is Sinéad O’Connor,’ as I am a very shy person, believe it or not…I am glad that you are helped by my songs. So help me too, by giving me what is best for me, a private life.” Once again, the retirement would prove to be short-lived, and in 2005 she released the reggae-influenced Throw Down Your Arms.
In the mid-2000s she spoke out about her struggle with the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia, but another serious medical battle was still to come. With her depression worsening, she was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder. “I don’t think I was born with bipolar disorder—I believe it was created as a result of the violence I experienced,” she said during a 2004 interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
But her condition failed to improve. Her third marriage to friend and collaborator Steve Cooney in July 2010 ended with a separation the following March. By August 2011 she had taken to Twitter to solicit potential boyfriends. “My s—t-uation sexually/affectionately speaking is so dire that inanimate objects are starting to look good,” she wrote, requesting that potential partners should be “wham-bam”, “snuggly” and “no younger than 44.”
Within weeks she was back on the social media platform, troubling fans by sharing what seemed to be suicidal thoughts. “I want to go to heaven SO bad. Have for [years] … Can’t manage any more. Badly wish [could] die without it ruining kids’ lives.” Her tweets resulted in a visit from the police, and an open letter from O’Connor to her fans in which she called her worrying tweets “a cry for help” and was pleased it had been taken seriously. “Suicide doesn’t solve your problems. It only makes them infinitely, un-countably worse,” she wrote, but the message did little to ease concerns.
In December 2011 she married Irish therapist Barry Herridge during a brief ceremony in Las Vegas, but their marriage hit the rocks after 18 days and she announced that they were separating. That January she claimed she “took an overdose” while in Los Angeles, and then two days later tried to take her own life once again. Within days she was back on Twitter saying that she was in “serious danger” and pleading with her fans to help her find a psychiatrist in Dublin.
After nearly a decade on medication, O’Connor revealed in 2013 that she had been misdiagnosed with the illness and in fact suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, which she attributes to her abused past. “I’m delighted to be able to say that after 10 years of poisoning myself with these drugs and having to live with the extremely difficult side-effects of them I can shortly begin the very, very slow indeed, process of getting them out of my system and my life and getting my life back,” she told one Irish outlet.
Still, her behavior continued to worry fans. Far more serious than a tiff with Miley Cyrus that made headlines in 2013, her rocky family relationships threatened to overwhelm her fragile mental state. After reportedly sparring with her exes, Donal Lunny and Frank Bonadio, over custody rights of her two youngest children: Shane, 11, and Yeshua, 8, she began to spiral. “I have taken an overdose,” O’Connor wrote on Facebook. “There is no other way to get respect. I am not at home, I’m at a hotel, somewhere in Ireland, under another name If I wasn’t posting this, my kids and family wouldn’t even find out. Was dead for another fortnight since none of them bother their hole with me for a minute. I could have been dead here for weeks already and they’d never have known.” PEOPLE later confirmed that she had been found safe and taken to a hospital.
In May 2016, O’Connor failed to return from an early morning bike ride in Wilmette, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, and police categorized her as a “missing suicidal.” On the morning of her reported disappearance, O’Connor penned a note to her eldest son Jake on Facebook referencing an ongoing custody battle over her younger, son Shane. “Do not abandon your brother or any other of my babies again,” she charged. “What you have done to your brother and your mother is LITERALLY criminal.” It’s unclear exactly what prompted the outburst, but the following day O’Connor was discovered safe by authorities.
Her recent episode in a New Jersey Travelodge marks the latest trial in her fierce crusade to rise above her embittered past. “Recovery from child abuse is a life’s work,” she told PEOPLE in 2012. “[My PTSD] comes from my experiences with child abuse: You’re vulnerable, self-esteem-wise. I’m hearing all these things people are saying about me to my husband, and I started to think negatively about myself, and it pushed some dangerous buttons. It’s like if you get a puppy from the pound who has had the s— kicked out of it – you have to be careful with how you deal with it. It was quite the trauma, to be honest.”
Throughout her many ups and downs, the biggest constant in O’Connor’s life appears to be her fearless commitment to her ideals. In 2002, when asked whether she regretted the infamous SNL performance that stalled her meteoric commercial ascent, her answer was immediate: “Hell no!”