"I might be a hero on stage, but off-stage I'm an anti-hero."
Sit Back and Relax? Bono's Wife Can't .
March 02, 2005
Having lunch with Ali Hewson, the wife of Bono, lead singer of U2, at the Clarence Hotel in Dublin, partly owned by her husband. Their oldest daughter, Jordan, turns up dressed in the typical teenage wardrobe of skinny jeans, bomber jacket and trainers. At 15, she is already a beauty, with huge, blue eyes. "Her dad's," beams Ali. "I remember when I saw Bono on stage for the first time and all I could see were his eyes, it was as if they were lit up. They were electrifying. Amazing."
I ask Jordan whether having Bono (Ali calls him "B") as her father can sometimes be a little embarrassing. Does he wear those wraparound dark glasses to breakfast? She laughs. "No," Jordan says, "he's kind of boring, but sometimes when he drives us to school he wears just his dressing gown, and has the music turned up really loud." Does he give her a hard time when it comes to boyfriends? "Well, I don't have a boyfriend yet," she says, squirming, "so he thinks I'm a real loo-ser."
Ali and Bono, who live in the Dublin suburb of Killiney, have four children. As well as Jordan, there is Eve, 13, Elijah, five, and John Abraham, three. "We also have two dogs and a rock band," says Ali, who was terrified she was going to be late for our shoot as the nanny had called in sick. She ended up doing the "very complicated" school run in her husband's Maserati, and then haring into Dublin in the snow.
Bono is in Mexico, rehearsing for U2's American tour. The whole family, plus tutors, will be joining him next month, but he phones "all the time" according to Ali. He wrote "The Sweetest Thing" when he missed her birthday.
"Dad is always going away," says Jordan, "but he always comes back."
"Elijah will never say goodbye to anyone," says Ali, "he just goes downstairs until they've gone, it's so sad and so sweet." "I think he's just plain rude," says Jordan.
Ali, who at 42 has pale skin, rosy cheeks and inky hair, prefers to be low-key, which is why the couple still lives in the city they grew up in and why they try very hard to make sure their children grow up appreciating how lucky they are. "We have taken them to the townships in South Africa," says Ali. "And although they have much more than Bono and I did growing up -- Bono's dad was in the postal service, my mum and dad had an electrical business -- we don't spoil them.
"When I first went to Ethiopia with Bono 20 years ago for Band Aid, we slept in a tent for five weeks, we saw children dying around us, and when we came back to Dublin we were in shock that there was all this food in the supermarket, that we had so much stuff. It was obscene."
Ali, who has just launched an ethical clothing range, has never been a typical rock star wife. She is the antithesis of bling; the only jewellery she wears apart from her wedding band is a simple pearl necklace, given to her by Bono but hidden under her black polo neck. While Bono's career was taking off in 1987 with the release of The Joshua Tree album, making them the biggest band in the world, with album sales over 100 million, Ali was studying for a degree in political science at University College. "I gave birth to Jordan two weeks before my finals," she says.
She became involved in fundraising for the children of Chernobyl in 1993, making an Oscar-winning documentary; she is godmother to a child she met while in the Ukraine. Ali once left Bono with the kids so that she could drive an ambulance to Belarus. In 2002, she began a campaign to close Sellafield, the nuclear reactor across the Irish Sea in Cumbria.
Ali has been shot at in Sarajevo and El Salvador. But it wasn't Band Aid 20 years ago that first politicised her. "Even at school, Bono and I would talk about what was wrong with the world," she says. "We grew up hearing about famine. It's part of being Irish."
She first met Bono at the age of 12. They went to the same school, Mount Temple Secondary Modern, and Bono, or plain Paul Hewson, was in the year above.
"He worked very hard at being the heart-throb," she says. "He came up to me within the first day and asked, did I know where his class should be going? It was just an excuse to talk to me, and I thought, 'What an eejit.'
"I remember that on the fourth day at school I saw him walking across the courtyard and it was, bing. That is the guy for me.
"But we waited until we were 15 before we actually started going out. We broke up after six weeks because I had promised my best friend I'd just get him out of my system. That completely bemused him."
He was to be "pretty much" her only proper boyfriend. They married in 1982 in Dublin, in a wedding dress made by her mum; her parents are about to move nearby so that they can be more involved with the children.
They still have the same group of childhood friends -- band member the Edge is a mile away; drummer Larry Mullen's girlfriend is Ali's best friend from school -- and they all go on holiday together.
"I'm starting to like the music now," she says, "but at first I hated it. I grew up listening to my dad's records, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole."
The band, later called U2, was formed in 1976 after Mullen pinned up an ad on the school notice board to see if anybody was interested. Ali went to the first gig and thought they were "pretty good."
I ask her if, when the band took off in the early Eighties, she became worried that she would lose him to a supermodel. "Of course," she says. "We sat down and we talked about it. I told him, 'This is how it is going to be.'
"Our marriage has worked because we like each other, because we talk to each other, and we are passionate about what we do. We allow each other to pursue our goals.
"I wouldn't want to be married to someone who wasn't happy with what they were doing in life, and B wouldn't either. I have learned a lot about what it means to be married, how great it can be if you persevere. We're very close. He says I'm very good with the dog whistle."
Ali's latest goal is her new ethical fashion company, Edun, which launches in Selfridges this month, with prices starting at Ł35. "We want to show you can run a profitable business and treat everybody well," explains Ali.
The label's name is Nude backwards, the organic-food company Ali and Bono have a share in.
Ali is wearing an Edun soft blouse and black jeans. They are handmade, subtly sexy, with exquisite details, and inside are sewn the words: "We carry the story of the people who made our clothes around with us."
It is the story of how the clothes are made that is so important: Ali has visited every small factory that makes them in Africa, Peru, India and Tunisia, thereby guaranteeing safe working conditions and a fair wage, and that no child labour is used.
"I am a mother; how could I wear clothes that have been made by other people's children?" Although she has also ensured manufacture doesn't damage the environment, the jeans, she admits, are the exception.
"I am a little worried about the jeans," she says, "there is no way to make organic denim yet. We use coffee as a dye, and things like gardenias -- but as soon as we find a way, we'll do it."
I ask her why she came up with the idea of ethical clothing. "Well, I've never been interested in fashion," she says.
"I used to go to school in Wellington boots, I was a bit of a tomboy. But when Bono came back from Africa about three years ago, he had seen how many garment factories were being closed down. The big companies don't seem to have any loyalty to communities, they just go to where labour is cheapest."
She has just visited a new factory in a town called Butha-Buthe in Lesotho, run by "two amazing women" who said, "Can you help us get globalised?" and where Edun's orders have just doubled the workforce from 150 to 300.
Back on the homefront, it is Ali who runs the show. When I ask if Bono is a new man, the response is unequivocal. "Oh my God no," Ali says. "One part of his brain is a genius, but he can only focus on one thing. He wasn't able to negotiate his way through school, but he can sit and read seven books in a day, and just absorb all this information like a sponge; it's like breathing for Bono, but he won't notice the washingup.
"Bono is definitely not a metrosexual. Jordan takes after her dad; she won't notice her bedroom is in a mess, but will sit for hours playing Chopin on the piano."
Surely Bono must be feeling his age? I wonder if he ever asks his children to keep the music down. Eve apparently plays the drums so loudly the plaster is starting to fall off. "He wants us to turn it down, but he will never ask us to," smiles Jordan cheekily. "He knows that would be soooo not cool."
Bono, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, recently returned from a summit with Tony Blair and George W. Bush, in which he criticised the latter for not cancelling African debt. Ali says Bono still believes Blair is a very sincere man, and they have stayed at Chequers -- "It was very relaxed, they are such good people."
Her husband isn't remotely fazed when he is flanked by the two world leaders. "He has had more than 20 years of living with people's problems." He is not about to become a fulltime politician, though. "Music is his first love. He is always telling people that James Joyce's first love was music, not words."
So, I ask Jordan: How many famous people have you met? Apparently, Naomi Campbell ("She's a good girl, a close friend," says Ali), Bill Clinton, Salman Rushdie and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe have all stayed in the little guest house in the grounds of their home that overlooks the bay.
"When I was four I'd already met everybody, it's so not a big deal," says Jordan. "But I haven't met Justin Timberlake yet."
Jordan and Ali get up to go shopping. "We fight sometimes, don't we?" Ali says to her daughter. "But it's the age-old story: parents are stupid. And we weren't prepared for what has happened to us," says the woman who deliberately lists her occupation on her passport as "mother."
"We didn't know his band was going to be successful. We didn't have any training. His dad wanted him to go into the civil service, my mum wanted me to be a secretary. It would be easy to sit back and have a nice life but we can't do that."
I hang back to pick up the tab but am told Ali has already secretly paid. She phones me later to make sure I am going somewhere nice for dinner. I ask the young man who brings me breakfast what the Bonos are like to work for. "They never leave the penthouse untidy," he says. So much for rock 'n' roll.
© Associated New Media, 2005.