Sinéad O'connor, a Poetic Irish Pop Star with a Hit Record and Very Little Hair

updated 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sinéad O'Connor is many things; the most obvious one is bald. The 21-year-old Irish singer swears her Manson-family haircut isn't a publicity stunt. "It makes me feel womanly because I feel natural," she says. "It's just there. I don't wear makeup or jewelry except for a few rings. Inside, I don't feel simple, but I feel I look simple and I like that." The only drawbacks, says O'Connor, are overly friendly British skinheads who assume she's one of them ("I tell them to sod off") and "a few women reporters who say things like, 'Why do you make yourself look ugly?' I say, Thanks. That's very kind of you.' "

Critics have been genuinely kind to O'Connor's first album, The Lion and the Cobra, a mix of reggae, rock and Celtic folk sounds that she wrote and produced herself. The New York Times lauded her "incantatory power," and Rolling Stone likened her to Laurie Anderson and Britain's Kate Bush for "shattering the boundaries of pop." O'Connor, whose LP has sold 600,000 copies, says she wants to be listened to on her own terms. "All the songs are almost obsessively personal," says Sinead (pronounced Shin-ade). "I've never, ever explained to anyone what they're about. I'm not a prophet or any of that stuff. The songs are very much for me."

And of her. O'Connor's account of her rough-and-tumble Dublin childhood reads like Dickens. Her mother, a dressmaker, and father, a barrister, separated when she was 9, and soon after, O'Connor began exhibiting street urchin tendencies. She says she became an adept shoplifter and sometimes raised £100 a day by pocketing money she pretended to collect for charity. "I was trying to make my mother happy by getting money for her," she says. After numerous run-ins with the police, O'Connor says, she was arrested at 14 for stealing shoes and sent to a school for troubled kids that incorporated in the same building a hospice for the dying. "For punishment they would make us sleep on the floor in the old people's section," she says. "There were rats everywhere, and the old women moaning and vomiting."

As an emotional escape, O'Connor began strumming Bob Dylan songs on the guitar when she was 16. After her release, she spent a year busking in Dublin bus depots and pubs before landing a record contract on the strength of "Jackie," an eerie ballad that leads off The Lion and the Cobra, and three other songs she had written. When a first attempt at recording failed—"the producer was trying to make me into the Celtic Grace Slick"—she was allowed to produce her LP herself. "I just wanted to make it as simple as possible, with none of this mucking about with violins," she says.

Pregnant by her lover, London drummer John Reynolds, 30, O'Connor gave birth to son Jake last July, five weeks after Lion was finished. "Producing the album while pregnant was difficult," she says. "I got very exhausted and anemic. The band thought if I was being vociferous, it was because I was pregnant, not because I wanted them to do it a certain way." Still, she got her points across. "She's definite about how things should be, and she's rarely wrong," says Phil Thornton, keyboardist in her band. "It's a kind of genius, I suppose."

No way, says O'Connor, who brings Jake, now 10 months, on tour to help keep things in perspective. "I don't want to lose my values," she says. "I'm just a girl, you know, I'm not different than anybody else." Her goal—not uncommon during the first blush of celebrity—is to stay that way. "I don't ever want to get in the position," O'Connor says, "where I think I'm something special just because I wrote a damn song."

—By Steve Dougherty, with Dirk Mathison in Denver

From Our Partners