Nelson Mandela

Sweet dreamer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am

Annie Lennox's life could have taken an altogether different turn. From a fraught Aberdeen background, she set off for London in the early 1970s and struggled through the grim realities of the Thatcher years. But she also met fellow musician Dave Stewart, formed the Eurythmics and went on to top the pop charts around the world for much of the 80s.

Record sales from that collaboration, and from the solo career that followed after the pair split in 1990, are now approaching the 100 million mark.

But there's been more. A family - Lennox has two teenage daughters - and in recent years a prominent role as a campaigner for several causes, most notably in the fight to stem the African HIV/Aids pandemic through her Sing foundation.

It's that cause that brought her to Hong Kong last week - that and the release of a 'greatest hits' titled The Annie Lennox Collection.

But things could have been so very different. On December 8, 1980, while in Australia with her first band, the Tourists, Lennox boarded a flight from Sydney to Perth and, after a brief stopover in Adelaide, the plane was in the air for about 10 minutes when smoke suddenly started billowing out of its engines.

The pilot announced the flight was having 'minor' difficulties, and passengers sat in stunned silence as they watched fuel start streaming from the wings.

Passengers prepared for the worst as the plane circled Adelaide airport before the flight was forced to make an emergency landing, fire trucks following with sirens blaring as it was directed to the far reaches of the runway - and, finally, to safety.

Those are the exact details because I was on that flight. And now Lennox is sitting on a couch at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, staring at me with her mouth agape and her blue eyes wide after I recount the story.

'My God,' she says. 'I've been telling that story to people for 30 years. That is just mad. I thought I was going to die. So we could have died together. And now here we are in Hong Kong and you're the first person that's ever said they were on that flight. Life can just be so random.' It can. When Lennox finally reached Perth, she found a newsstand announcing 'John Lennon Dead'.

'What a day that was,' she says, shaking her head. 'Well that's the end of the interview, what else can we say after that? That's mad.'

Luckily, of course, it's not the end. Lennox is spending two days in Hong Kong giving interviews, promoting Sing and then performing for a select audience who has paid a minimum of HK$2,000 for the privilege of hearing her voice - that voice - take them through highlights of her 30-year career. (The night raised US$60,000 for Sing before Lennox returned to Australia to continue the tour and spreading her message.)

Lennox says she has always been driven by a desire to make a difference. 'A lot of people have lives that are fairly predictable,' says the 54-year-old. 'You are born, you go to school, you go to college, you stay in the same town and you don't travel much. And there's nothing wrong with that life. But I never took the predictable route, and I've always been driven to follow this yearning for something else.'

Lennox was driven to take up the cause of Africa's Aids victims after hearing former South African president Nelson Mandela speak in the exercise yard of the Robben Island prison that once held him. Both Lennox and Stewart had been long-time Mandela supporters, and supported anti-apartheid campaign during the 80s and 90s.

'Mandela addressed the world press in front of his former cell, in the exercise yard and he described the HIV pandemic as a genocide,' she says. 'There he was saying there was a genocide going on in his country and I thought, 'where is the response'? And then I started asking questions.' Through Sing, which she launched in 2007, Lennox raises money for grassroots organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), and focuses international attention on the issues that affect more than 20 million Africans.

One of the hardest jobs, she says, is keeping the issue in the news. 'The stigma is just as much a culprit of keeping this thing silent and invisible. Look at the front page of today's newspapers. We have the swine flu and before that there was bird flu and Sars. But have you ever seen anything about HIV/Aids? You're just not going to see that. And that's because of the stigma.'

Lennox says she spends about half of her time campaigning to increase exposure. 'I realised I will never solve the world's problems, they are infinite. So all I'm trying to do is to raise awareness the best way I can. Also I raise bits of money here and there and I channel that money to grassroots organisations. I can see the work that they do and follow it through and try to be one of the contributing factors to [helping solve] this huge issue.'

A back injury led to surgery last year and the resulting numbness in her right foot has limited her performing options. But as she showed last week, she remains powerfully impassioned - and confident - in front of an audience. But that hasn't always been the case.

'Live performance was always a tough one because I was paralysed by the grip of stage fright beforehand,' she says. 'It's diminished now almost to nothing, which I am thrilled about.

'I've had some tough things happen in my life, like many people. And compared [to those] the nervousness is like a walk in the park.' Lennox lost both her parents to cancer and had a stillborn son. She credits the support of her family for helping her cope.

'I think having children as well got me in touch with a much more down-to-earth aspect of myself,' she says. 'It doesn't matter how famous you are or how many people know you, if your children wake up in the middle of the night, you simply have to be there for them. It's marvellous.'

Lennox - whose children are from her 12-year marriage to Israeli filmmaker Uri Fruchtmann, which ended in 2000 - has been careful to shield her family from the spotlight and says she has remained relatively free from the paparazzi that often follow the celebrities. She has taken pains to live a normal life. Or as close to what qualifies as normal as she's ever going to get.

'[Fame] didn't really change me but it had a huge impact on my life,' she says. 'I noticed that I was getting terrible earaches. I wondered, 'Why am I getting earaches'? Then I realised when I would go out into the street or into a big department store that people recognised me. And so, unconsciously, I would tighten my jaw and that would cause those earaches.

'I learned how to be more invisible in crowds and how not to make eye contact with people, certain things. It was a big learning curve. Fame is a curse and a blessing at the same time.'

The past 12 months have given Lennox a chance to reflect on her career - the first time she has had time to do so. And The Annie Lennox Collection is the result, a selection of her hits - including Why and No More I Love You's - and new tracks.

'The idea came from the record company,' she says. 'It was something I needed to fulfil at the end of my contract. But it really is the perfect time to do that because I was able to stop and look back - which is something that I rarely ever do.

'This has been my life. [From] that point when you're young and you don't know what you're going to be and your life is ahead of you. And now I am looking back. Anybody over 50 has that feeling.

'I have been very privileged. I have been able to do what I wanted to do creatively. Just to be an artist and make music and do the things I've been doing. And I don't take it for granted.'

The Annie Lennox Collection is out now. For more on Sing, go to