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Annie Lennox

 The Big Issue in Scotland 28 May 2019

(Originally published: 09/2009) When pop icon Annie Lennox swept into the recent Festival of Politics in Edinburgh, Scotland, her glamour alone was enough to cause a stir amongst the suits. But when she announced that she wanted to become Scotland’s ambassador on HIV and Aids and criticised the Pope for making “no sense” over Aids prevention in Africa, headlines were guaranteed. “Make Poverty History?” she asks? “Yes, that’s a lovely idea but it’s not going to happen overnight and it’s certainly not going to happen as the result of a concert in Hyde Park and the spin-offs that came from that.” Laura Kelly asks a music industry legend why she wants to be a global Aids ambassador.  - By Laura Kelly

The Big Issue in Scotland

Sitting in the library of the swanky Macdonald Holyrood Hotel, looking as elegant and striking as ever in skinny jeans and a white smock top, Lennox tells the Big Issue Scotland that she's delighted to have got so much attention for a cause that struggles to get the status it deserves in Britain. "With HIV, because of the stigma and the silence on the issue - you know, nobody's out there marching for HIV in this country - just to have some exposure is of value to keep attention on the issue, which doesn't go away," she explains.

Whilst a success, her trip to the parliament was a year later than Lennox wanted. Last August she was dramatically forced to cancel after being rushed home from an Aids conference in Mexico in a wheelchair following a back injury. For a while it looked like this symbol of '80s elegance and strength - the woman who with Eurythmics had huge hits with 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)', 'Thorn in My Side' and 'There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart)' and who on her own again smashed the charts with 'Walking On Broken Glass', 'No More I Love Yous' and 'Why' - might be left permanently disabled.

Today, having struggled through a period when her foot was paralysed so she walked with a limp and needed a crutch, she is able to walk again after surgery to release an impinged nerve. "I'm very grateful to be able to walk," she says. "I could have been on a crutch and certainly I couldn't have run or jumped or skipped - I can just about run now. I can certainly walk without a limp. But I've been through that this last year. It just goes to show the vulnerability we all have."

Though the incident left her with a greater appreciation of how misfortune can hit anyone no matter "how much money you have, how famous you are, what position of power you hold", Lennox is profoundly conscious of the fact that she wouldn't be able to easily walk over and make herself a cup of green tea - as she's just done to prove how mobile she is again - if it weren't for her position as a wealthy member of a wealthy Western society.

The experience has therefore reaffirmed her commitment to ensuring that women around the world have access to the sort of opportunities that she has had. "I've had good medical care, a certain kind of education and opportunities in life and I had to struggle to get them," she says. "So I feel when I look at other women, it doesn't matter which part of the world they're from, I want to see them have similar rights. I want to see them empowered. I want them to have education so that they can see what their rights really are."

Having travelled extensively in Africa and visited areas torn by civil war and poverty, Lennox has seen many places where those rights are worth little and has been personally affected by seeing just how powerless some of the women are. "There are so many places where woman have absolutely no power over their sexual and reproductive health, where rape is used as a weapon of war," she passionately argues. "As a woman and a feminist I have to stand in solidarity with those women and use my voice to say, 'That's not right,' because those women don't have that voice."

With this in mind, Lennox hopes that getting an official title - like, say, Scottish Ambassador on HIV and Aids - will give her even more clout in her battle to force the world to wake up to the Aids crisis. As both an ambassador for Nelson Mandela's 46664 charity and her own organisation Sing, she has focused on the issues surrounding Aids in Africa since 2003, when Mandela inspired her to concentrate her efforts on the issue by persuading her the epidemic is nothing less than genocide.

Her celebrity already draws a lot of attention, but that is not enough. "I know through my own individual kudos a lot of doors will open for me," she says, "but I think I need to bring my campaign up to something with a bit more clout to it." Having encountered no opposition as yet from MSPs, she hopes the Scottish Parliament will come through for her, especially as "it has some new initiatives; it has some fresh ideas".

Part of the impetus behind the political manoeuvring is the desire to distance herself from the sort of self-serving, PR-focused charity efforts of most celebrities. She's dismissive of the famous bandwagon-jumpers who just "use the cause to make their profile look better". "Make Poverty History," she zeros in, "yes, that's a lovely idea but it's not going to happen overnight and it's certainly not going to happen as the result of a concert in Hyde Park and the spin-offs that came from that.

"But that doesn't mean you should become a cynic and say, 'there's nothing you can do, what's the point, all politicians are a waste of time, all politics is a waste of time, all do-gooders are a waste of time, all celebrities are a waste of time…' well, I beg to differ."

Despite this defiant message of hope, Lennox admits that the politicians we have at present leave her cold. Asked if there are any politicians that she trusts, her response is damning. "Hmm," she says, her amazing blue eyes closing in concentration, "let's just say, 'she paused'."

The Iraq war was a low point for Lennox's faith in the party political system since so few MPs had the guts to speak out against it. Having no desire to be whipped into line, she pledges that she will never follow in the footsteps of Esther Rantzen or Glenda Jackson and actually run for parliament, explaining, "I have no interest in becoming a politician, whatsoever. I don't have to toe any party line and I see truth as I see it and I'm not afraid to speak it."

Iraq has not been the only disappointment from New Labour, however. Neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown have lived up to the expectations Lennox had for the party when they came to power in 1997.
"When New Labour came in, it felt like the good times for a lot of people," she says. "I was thinking we were going to get the National Health Service really sorted out, we were going to sort out issues of urban violence and neglect and drug use and criminality and overcrowding of prisons. I thought they would have the imaginative vision to tackle these social issues and that they would walk the talk. I haven't seen enough positive change in any of those things. That has left me feeling quite disillusioned."

As Lennox points out, her cynicism is by no means an unusual standpoint. For everyone who feels the same way, she urges that they don't give up on making a difference. "You are not powerless," she says. "Your vote does count. Your involvement does count. Your membership of whatever organisation is what they have. That is the representation of the things you truly believe in. So if you don't believe in politics, like me, then look towards other organisations who are working on the frontlines."

Now 54, Lennox is preparing to go through the traumatic wrench of seeing her two teenage daughters, both of whom she's "very connected and very bonded" with, move away from home. Given that it was motherhood that saw Lennox go from a constant schedule of touring with both The Tourists and Eurythmics to only minimal live performances as a solo artist, I wonder whether she looks at the big, money-spinning tours of her one-time contemporaries - The Police, Duran Duran, A-Ha - and feels the itch to get back on the road.

Apparently not. "I'm always a little bit reticent to go back on tour because for me, physically and mentally, when I go on stage I have to give 110-plus per cent. It's hugely draining and it's almost like a life substitute, as it was for many years."

Is part of the problem that she feels the need to live up to all the striking images of herself through the years - power suits, cropped hair and cheekbones to die for? "I won't say I'm not vain," she admits. "Every woman has her own sense of vanity. It's not easy. Should you just let the wrinkles come and let the skin sag and let the belly flop? There's nothing sadder than convincing yourself that you should be a young person when you're not, you're middle aged.

"I'm in the process of letting everything go." Wrinkly and saggy they may be, but Lennox feels it's a mistake to write off older women.

 

She may not care for the cutting edge any more - "I think it's full of bullshit" - but she believes that women like her, who've been through so many stages of life, who've had careers and raised families and balanced the two, have much more to contribute than they're given credit for.

As the kids fly the nest, she says, it's time that women discovered their real passion and followed it. "In your 50s, you're not that old," she says. "You've still got a lot of life to live."

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