"In my pidgin English, Bono means good egg. He is my big brother and I love him."
-- photographer Anton Corbijn
Ali Hewson interview: In The Name of Love
Women who marry rock stars often get caught in the spotlight. But Ali Hewson, married to one of the most famous of all, prefers to play her own tune - privately
October 01, 1993
From the outside, one can only imagine how difficult it could be to hold on to any sense of your own identity, when married to one of the most famous men in the world. "I suppose it could be," says Ali Hewson, wife of U2's Bono. "But I really don't have a big problem with my own identity, because I am a very private person, so I've always let Bono take the brunt of anything that was coming along. He is happy to do that; I am quite happy to make my own way around things."
Ali Hewson, formerly Alison Stewart, grew up in the less affluent suburbs of north Dublin and met Bono at school -- Mount Temple interdenominational. He tried to chat her up on her first day there, but she brushed him away. He pursued her for several years, using humour as his calling card. The relationship moved slowly, because she didn't want to become just another of Bono's girls.
After his mother died, it was the more practical Ali who helped look after the scatter-brained Bono, taking care of the essential things like food and clothes and house keys. The couple were married when Ali was 22, at the old Guinness Church of Ireland in Raheny, Dublin, in August 1982, with U2 bass player Adam Clayton as best man.
Ali Hewson comes across as open, natural, and sincerely warm. She is not inclined to make false claims of herself, or pretend to have any more knowledge than she has. Her smile is frequent, and often self-deprecating. At the age of 33, she has gained a degree in social science, politics and sociology, as a mature student, and now devotes most of her time to her daughters, Jordan and Eve, and to doing some campaigning work for Greenpeace.
"It is hard, sometimes. I hate being called 'Bono's wife,' and being identified just as that. I know that people who know me well enough don't think of me like that. But there are always going to be others who don't see me as having a separate identity, who just see us as the one person. At the end of the day, I don't really care what people think, just so long as I feel strong enough about myself."
Ali is forced to fall back on her own resources a great deal because her husband is away touring so often. "That is different, that is a bit harder. Especially when the children get to the stage that they won't listen to you anymore," she says. "I say, 'I'm going to ring your father, and tell him to give out to you.' It doesn't work, I'm afraid, with my two, particularly as they have his character! They are both strong-minded."
It was having children that made Ali Hewson start thinking about the environment in which they would grow up. She got involved with Greenpeace, campaigning against the Sellafield nuclear power plant, 200 kms across the Irish Sea, on the northwest coast of Britain. And to lend strength to the campaign, she agreed to present a powerful and moving documentary on the effects of the fallout from the Russian Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Black Wind, White Land, shown recently on Irish television.
More than 600,000 people were evacuated from the former Soviet state of Belarus, following the Chernobyl accident, in 1986. Since then, leukemias and childhood cancers have doubled, genetic deformities tripled and people of all ages are traumatised. Radiation levels must be checked before children can be allowed outside to play. There is talk of young girls being sterilised when they reach puberty, to reduce the incidence of birth deformities. Already, the birth rate has dropped by 50%.
Ali and the film crew were, naturally, anxious about exposing themselves to radiation during their three-week stay in Belarus. "We were in the exclusion zones, where the radiation was highest. The main dangers now are dust particles and contaminated food, and the soil. We just brought along dried food and our own water. But people wanted to give us food and drink, and look after us. There was no way that you could say, 'It's okay for you to eat that, but I'm not going to eat it, thanks very much.' So we did eat and drink there, and just sort of hoped for the best," says Ali.
Despite her own involvement, she declines responsibility for U2's recent protest at the imminent opening of a second plant at Sellafield. "We probably both influence each other, we both share the same concerns," she says. "I am really frightened about the second plant at Sellafield opening up. And I don't want to sit back and let them do it without me protesting, which is all I can do."
As a wealthy person, she feels she has a responsibility to do what she can to raise awareness on such issues, if only because she is not tied to a nine to five job. "I am very privileged from that point of view. I would not feel right about taking money for anything I do. It's really nice to be able to get into something without having to feel I'm financially dependent on it." There is a set of women married to rich, high profile men, who involve themselves in charity work. While their work is both worthwhile and commendable, does Ali ever fear that she will be branded as another one of the so-called "Ladies Who Lunch"?
"I can really see where that criticism comes from -- that these people are rich and can go out and raise money for charity, and feel like they have done something, but never really care. But I don't think that's justified. People who criticise these women are probably giving into cynicism, and I think if you get cynical about life, you lose the real meaning of it. I couldn't allow the fear of someone saying that about me to stop me from doing what I believe in," says Ali.
"A lot of these women do really good work, they are necessary, and they are people who really care. Fair play to them for putting themselves in a position where they are going to be ridiculed sometimes for what they are doing. Especially if they are filling a gap where the government has let people down. They are giving back and I think that is a good thing. They could sit on their ass and do nothing if they wanted to. They could go to lunch without raising money for charity."
Ali Hewson has chosen to live apart as much as possible from the glittery, celeb-encrusted circuit. "I wasn't raised for that. I'm from the northside! It's just the way things have fallen really. I know a lot of people in those circles, who are really good friends. But it just doesn't seem right for me. It's not where I would really feel comfortable, I suppose."
She hopes her environmental work will not keep her in that limelight too long. "I will probably do my best to avoid that. This is an exception, made for what I thought was a very good reason. I'm very protective of my kids, and of my life with Bono. It has worked very well up to now, the sort of life where I can go out and do all the normal sort of stuff, and he can take all the heat. I'd like to stay that way. I'd rather work behind the scenes."
She refutes any idea that telling Bono of her experiences at Belarus may have fed into the mood of his recent compositions. "Bono is not influenced by me in the slightest!" she laughs. "We have only had one really good conversation about it since he became famous. We have seen very little of each other in the last year and a half. Our communication has been erratic." Is it hard to keep track of a relationship in those circumstances? "I suppose we are used to it by now, we have been together for long enough, and it works for us. I usually find that after a separation, the relationship jumps a bit; when you get back together, it has moved on.
"It can be really difficult to re-adjust to having someone living back in the house. I can't help thinking, 'What are you doing in my bed?' or 'What are you doing in my bathroom?' or 'Why are you leaving your clothes all over my house?' Bono always says that he feels like a bit of litter around the house, that I just want to tidy him away.
"But apart from the practical adjustments like that, I usually find that we are much closer together after a separation. You don't take each other for granted, like you do if you see each other every day. There is always something new to talk about."
Dealing with the coming down process, after Bono returns from a major tour, could present difficulties. "Going away to Belarus for three weeks was quite interesting because I went through that when I came home. I had never been away on my own like that before, away from Bono and the kids, working on an independent project. So I could really understand how he feels when he comes back from a tour," says Ali.
"It is very hard for him to come back home and say, 'Yeah, I'm normal.' He wants to climb on the table at 11 o'clock every night and try to perform! He's wondering where are the 50,000 people. We sort of laugh at it now."
Does she worry that home life for Bono will seem dull and boring by comparison? "Well, he never makes me feel like that, at all," she says.
Occasionally, doesn't Ali wish she had married Joe Bloggs from north Dublin? "Sometimes, yes, but I have never met Joe Bloggs! I don't know anyone who is normal -- everyone has their own little quirk. Sometimes I wish life was just a lot simpler. But I can't imagine Bono in a nine to five job. He would have lost his marbles.
"It would be nice to walk down Grafton Street, and do lots of of things that we can't do together. But I have kept my life private, so at least I can still do it." It would be easy to resent someone coming home and bringing a load of cameras with them. "Well, it comes with the territory," remarks Ali. "But we are fortunate -- at least the job pays well, so we can get out of it if we want to. We can go and have a holiday somewhere away from it all. So it all works out in the end."
Bono will sometimes come home drained after his touring schedule with U2. "You have get the band aid out, and try to fix all the bits that are broken. But every relationship goes through that. It is just a matter of whether it works or not, and if it does, everything is fine. I think Bono is happy," says Ali, smiling.
"I don't feel threatened. You can live your life being scared of losing someone, and, at the end of the day, if he is going to leave you he'll leave you, and that's it," she laughs.
© 1993 MORE magazine. All rights reserved.