In 2014, Simon Napier-Bell, a music industry veteran who’d managed everyone from the Yardbirds to Marc Bolan to George Michael and Wham!, was scrolling social media when he paused on a surprising post attributed to a familiar name. “She put on Facebook: ‘I’m looking for a new manager.’ I saw it and I didn’t think it was really Sinéad O’Connor. I thought it was a joke, some fan. I didn’t even want to call her up. I didn’t want to look the fool. So, I got my business partner to call and yeah — it was Sinead.
“And she said, ‘I want a new manager.’ What a strange way to find one!” Napier-Bell tells Yahoo Entertainment. “But I said I’d love to do it. Because I love projects.”
Napier-Bell was well aware of O’Connor’s reputation for being “difficult,” but that hardly deterred him. “If you haven’t got someone difficult, you haven’t got an artist. They’re all difficult. I’ve dealt with that the whole of my career,” he shrugs. So, he happily took on the Irish singer-songwriter as a client, envisioning a “three-year project” to develop and rebrand her as a legacy artist. “But it almost felt to me that this was like taking on a new act. She was at a point where she’d been huge and then come down and sort of leveled off a bit, and I thought from there onwards, she could have become a huge star again,” he says. “Not a star in the teenage sense of No. 1 records week after week, but one of those stars that went on the road and drew thousands and thousands of people to every gig. So, that’s what we set off to do.
“And it would have happened, I think, but her hysterectomy really interfered with that and took her to another level of manic-ness.”
The new alliance between Napier-Bell and O’Connor worked wonderfully at first, and all seemed to be going according to Napier-Bell’s plan. O’Connor had just released what would turn out be her final studio album before her July 26, 2023 death, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, and it was critically acclaimed. In July 2015, she memorably sang “The Foggy Dew” as the entrance music for Irish MMA fighter Conor McGregor at UFC 189 at Las Vegas’s MGM Grand, where McGregor first became world champion; her historic appearance broke with tradition to allow live performances for the main event, and the moment is still considered one of the greatest UFC entrances of all time.
“It was going really well,” sighs Napier-Bell. “Then she flew home from that to have the operation.”
Napier-Bell explains that less than a year into his time with O’Connor, “she had to have a hysterectomy [to manage her endometriosis], and she never recovered from it. … After the hysterectomy, she began to disintegrate, and I could see there was no coming back from it.” (O’Connor would later blame her hospital’s refusal to administer hormone replacement therapy after her 2015 emergency hysterectomy for her increasing mental health problems, telling Dr. Phil that she was “flung into surgical menopause” and “became very suicidal.”)
“I mean, we have the word ‘hysteria’ in the English language, because when people have hysterectomies, that can happen,” says Napier-Bell. “She decided she didn’t want laser surgery. She felt a hysterectomy should be done with a knife — that that was the way a hysterectomy was ‘meant’ to be done. It was some peculiar Catholic stupidity. And so, she didn’t even have the most modern surgery. And it was a disaster. I mean, she was always difficult, but she became beyond difficult and couldn’t cope with herself. When she came back hospital she got better physically, but she was suicidal, week after week.
“She’d put notes on Facebook saying, ‘I’m going to take pills right now,’ and then people would rush around to try and trace where she was when she posted that, to track her down. And this wasn’t just once; it was quite a lot of times. She had a huge Facebook following, nearly a million followers, and she’d get into quarrels with people and she’d get all her fans to send abuse to the person she was quarreling with. Facebook several times tried to close it down, and it was a very difficult process. She went in and out of mental hospitals, was given drugs and every possible cure they could think of, and she’d come out and think she was better, or they’d think she was better. And then, she’d be back in again.”
Interestingly, Napier-Bell believes it was O’Connor’s eventual conversation to Islam, not any psychiatric treatment, that eventually brought her some peace. “Now, this is a girl who was originally Catholic and disowned Catholicism. And then she became a rabbi, a Jew. And then she became a Rastafarian. And then she went back [to Catholicism] and became a priest of an independent Catholic church. She had this big cross that she wore when I was managing her,” he recalls. “But then she discovered Islam [in 2018], and it did what the medication and the rehabs didn’t do. It calmed her down. She started singing again and went back on tour. I’m not a religious person and Islam doesn’t attract me — any religion doesn’t attract me — but credit’s due one way or another, because that got her back to vaguely healthy. She was able to sing, at least. But she was still a disturbed person underneath — and not very deep underneath.”
O’Connor’s issues with Catholicism became well known in October 1992, when she ripped up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live to protest the Pope’s failure to address child abuse scandals within the Catholic Church. Few viewers grasped the importance or intention of her message at the time, and the backlash was intense, with O’Connor’s career never quite recovering. Even more than 20 years later, when she was managed by Napier-Bell, the scandal followed her, and the sensationalistic media still harped on it.
“Somebody called me up and said they wanted to do a talk show and with her and the [current] Pope [Francis] on it. And they were absolutely serious,” Napier-Bell says incredulously. “It was a major talk show, some major talk show host in America. They said, ‘The Pope has agreed to do it!’ It was so stupid and such a dumb idea. Yes, it might have been amazing; it might’ve been like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg having a cage fight! I suppose it’s not a dumb idea if you want to get some column interest in the press; it’s a great little story. But it is a dumb idea if you’re trying to take somebody who’s mentally disturbed and wants to lead a decent, nice life and put those things behind them and move forwards. It was resurrecting something that happened when she was 21. It’s ridiculous.
“You got that happening all the time,” Napier-Bell continues. “[The SNL stunt] was one of the things she regretted most — she didn’t regret doing it, she stood by doing it, but she regretted that it dominated how people thought about her as an artist. She felt she did what was right. And I think we’ve seen since then that she was right. But she didn’t like the fact that even now when people talk about her, they don’t talk about her songs and her ability to sing and express herself. They’re still talking about what she did on one silly night when she was practically a teenager. It overwhelmed her career.”
Napier-Bell, a self-described atheist and a London-born Brit, never quite understood what the SNL fuss was about, and even theorizes that “if it had happened on a British TV show, it might’ve not been as big a deal; in fact, if it had happened on a U.K. show, she’d have probably made her bigger! … All she did was tear a photograph up. She didn’t say, ‘Kill him!’ She didn’t say, ‘We should go and attack him!’ She tore a photograph. What a mild way of protesting; it’s kind of an incredible level of restraint that that’s all she did. So, what are they going on about?”
In the days since O’Connor died of yet-to-be-determined causes at age 56, many sympathetic and outraged journalists, industry pundits, and fellow artists have argued that the music business failed O’Connor, who was an early victim of cancel culture in the ‘90s and seemingly never received proper support when she was struggling emotionally. Napier-Bell, while stressing that he’s “not a pro-corporate-side-of-the-industry type of person,” still sees both sides.
“She actually never said [that the industry had failed her]. She said to me, ‘Without the music industry, I’d have ended up in prison. I was a petty thief. I did shoplifting. I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. I’d have probably ended up in prison, and the music industry saved me,’” Napier-Bell reveals. “So, it is both things, over and over again: The business destroys people, but on the other hand, it takes them away from self-destruction in the first place.
“The whole music industry is pretty hypocritical, as it exists without ever wanting to face the fact that their product, which they make $60 billion a year from, is a product created by employing people who are mentally unbalanced,” Napier-Bell continues frankly. “Because that’s what artists are. Now, that’s putting it in an extreme way, but it’s true. That’s where art comes from. Yes, I think every record company should provide artists with free [mental health care]. They give artists huge advances, but they don’t have any health insurance. I mean, there’s not a single employee who works in Sony Music building who doesn’t have health insurance — like, if you’re a secretary, you get health insurance — except the artists. Of all things for artists, you should cover mental health.
“But it is a very hypocritical, stupid, analytic business. They think money and profit [don’t come from] artists’ good health. … You can’t ‘save’ artists, because if you do, you wreck artists. You’ve lost the art. People send their artists off for psychiatric treatment, and then if you ‘cure’ them, you have a person, but you no longer have an artist. Art is often the symptom of mental distress — it’s as simple as that. It’s completely a Catch-22.”
Eventually, O’Connor’s mental issues took too much of a toll on her professional relationship with Napier-Bell, which ended just where it had begun: on Facebook, when she posted public accusations that Napier-Bell and his business partner, Bjorn de Water, had swindled her out of payment for a rescheduled concert. (Napier-Bell tells Yahoo Entertainment that her last-minute cancelation had caused the concert promoter to scramble to rebook the venue and lose money, which is why she was not paid for that performance.)
“I just said to her, ‘You can’t post that. This is private. You can talk to me about it if you want, but don’t put it on Facebook.’ … But that was typical. It’s the highs and lows that every artist has. Sometimes they go a little bit higher than normal, a little bit lower than normal. She behaved like an artist,” Napier-Bell says matter-of-factly. At the time, he and de Water took legal action to have O’Connor’s defamatory claims deleted from the Facebook, and he defended himself in his own post, which stated: “[O’Connor’s] last album contained some of the best songs she’s ever written, and she’s in the middle of writing a book about her life which is astonishingly well-constructed and observed. … We’ve enjoyed working with Sinéad — she’s a great artist, a caring mother, and for nine months was a good friend.”
Napier-Bell and O’Connor didn’t make it to his planned “three years”: They parted ways by August 2015. But they did randomly communicate just last year, when he accidentally contacted her on Skype. “I pressed her name by mistake and she came up on the screen,” he chuckles. “We didn’t really talk. I just said, ‘Oh, hello, sorry! I pressed the wrong button!’ Then she was like, ‘No, it’s good, nice to see you. How are things going?’ It’s a funny thing when you have an accident like that: You sort of apologize, say hello, and then after you hang up, you think, ‘Wait, that was devastating. We should have talked for hours!’ But it was only about two or three minutes, like, ‘Oh, we must get together sometime’ — instead of saying, ‘Oh, wait, we are together, on Skype, right now. Let’s talk now!’”
While Napier-Bell regrets that he didn’t chat longer with his former client when he had the chance a year ago, he smiles fondly when he thinks about their brief time together, as volatile as it might have been. “She was a strange person, yes, in terms of being sort of unbalanced, but also delightful,” he says. “She could switch from being fun to being awful and back again in a few seconds. But she could also be wonderful and endless fun.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 988.
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