Annie Lennox: 'Women need to wake up. There's so much to do'

Pop's 56-year-old Diva sings less and less these days, but she's eager to take to the stage for a rash of feminist activities this week. Susie Mesure meets Annie Lennox

Piano chords sound from the next-door dressing-room, signalling an end to my wait; the Diva of pop is finally here. I listen, in vain, for a refrain I might know: from "Sweet Dreams", perhaps, or "Why". I'd even settle for "Walking on Broken Glass", her irritatingly catchy solo number that defined an entire summer for my generation. But before I can make anything out, the music stops and, seconds later, there she is, Britain's most successful female artist.

In her pinstriped trousers and black jacket, with her elfin crop shorter than ever, there is no mistaking Annie Lennox, the Aberdeen-born queen of androgyny, whose penchant for suits back in the 1980s kept alive speculation about her sexual orientation long after her break up – romantically speaking – with Eurythmics' front man, Dave Stewart. Her eyes are instantly drawn to the grand piano in the green room at London's Royal Festival Hall, but my hopes of more tunes are quashed when she heads not for the piano stool, but the sofa.

Her choice is symbolic: given an audience, Lennox, 56, would rather make a different sort of noise. Barring the odd gig, she has swapped her stage mic for a soapbox and couldn't be happier. "Maybe I've just been there and done that," she says of her three-plus decades in the music world, which have seen her notch up worldwide album sales of more than 80 million and win countless awards, including eight Brits, a record for a female singer.

These days, she is somewhat dismissive of the music industry that has served her so well, calling it "rather lightweight". Pop has turned "corporate" in a way that it wasn't back in her heyday – consider her fellow activists Bono and Bob Geldof. Today's pop stars, she says in her gentle, lilting voice, are a "put-together thing... with a big production behind them, in terms of a make-up artist, a stylist, a manager, someone writing the songs". Very different from "artists", she adds. "Pop stars are so busy having a career that they don't really have a lot of time for activism."

While much of Lennox's drumbeating, on issues such as HIV and women's rights, dates mainly from the past 10 years or so, she recorded a version of Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" for the Red Hot + Blue Aids awareness benefit in 1990. And that severe suit and tie in the video for "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" was definitely a political statement, albeit "one with a small P in a sense that it was saying, 'I don't want to be categorised as some kind of objectified sex object'", she explains.

Indeed, it was her work on the Aids front, specifically via her Sing campaign, that earned her an OBE in the New Year's Honours. An OBE, by the way, that she will bite her tongue to collect in June: "renegades" such as herself don't take kindly to being swallowed by the very establishment they profess to disdain, until, that is, people start dishing out distinctions like an OBE, even if she would prefer it to stand for "Order of British Excellence" rather than "Empire".

In person, Lennox is every bit as serious as she comes across in her music but markedly less scary. Her extreme ardour is both her virtue and her downfall: worthy as her views are, the earnestness with which she delivers them has the unfortunate side effect of leaving me feeling slightly cold about serious issues. It's undoubtedly my failing, not hers: my morning spent rewatching old videos of Eurythmics and her solo debut, Diva, was, in retrospect, poor preparation. I'd hoped to meet Annie the performer, but there on the sofa sat Annie the campaigner.

Her latest hobby horse is timely: the launch of Equals, an umbrella group of 20-plus women's rights charities, comes ahead of Tuesday's International Women's Day, which is marking its centenary. Then, on Friday, Lennox will headline a concert at the Royal Festival Hall that is part of the Southbank Centre's new annual Women of the World festival. Shocked by the lacklustre attendance at a women's march last year, Lennox wanted to bump women's issues up the agenda. "There's a lot of women's organisations, but they're all working separately. If you get people together, as a collaborative voice, it's strong."

That's why she will be leading a walk on Tuesday from London's Borough Market, across the Millennium Bridge, up to Westminster, and back to the South Bank. The route is symbolic: the idea is to help women "build bridges of peace"; similar events will be going on around the globe. And then, in the shadow of the London Eye, she'll be shaking her booty at the Equals' Soul Train dance event, in an echo of the cult 1970s American show that did much to promote black culture – not to mention cement the notion of blacks as equals to whites.

Lennox wants all those gyrating booties to help shake people out of the "complacent" stupor that has stalled the feminist movement of late. She is fed up of what she dubs the "I'm-a-feminist-but" attitude, asking: "Why are we not valuing the word feminism when there is so much work to be done in terms of empowerment and emancipation of women everywhere?" Warming to her theme, she cranks up those soft Aberdonian tones a wee notch, asking: "Why are we sitting comfortably within our own bubble and thinking it's all been done and, really, living with the full benefits – all the things that have been achieved so far – when so much of it was done by our great-grandmothers?" She quickly answers her own question. "We, ourselves, are obsessed with celebrity culture and we think that this is all there is, that the Western world is all there is. We take things for granted. I think we are complacent; we're hypnotised by our consumerist culture, hugely, which is just so luxurious and fabulous."

At a do last year to crown Lennox Barclays Woman of the Year, barely half the roomful of 450 of Britain's brightest women admitted to being a feminist. Lennox was disgusted. "They were afraid," she says. In a sort of stream of consciousness ramble, she adds: "The word feminism needs to be taken back. It needs to be reclaimed in a way that is inclusive of men. Men need to understand, and women too, what feminism is really about. And it is not the parody that it has been diminished and turned into, and it is not this parody about whether you burn your bra or shave your armpits or whatever. That's just nonsense. Actually it's a red herring. It's really disgraceful that it has become the kind of dumbing down of something that has to do with human rights, social and political values – and where we're going as a world that is dominated by war and strife. And young women being born still have no rights over what is done to their bodies."

It was, she says, motherhood that set her off on the campaigning path in earnest. Despite losing her son, Daniel, who was stillborn, she went on to have two daughters, Lola and Tali, with her (second and now ex) husband, the Israeli film and record producer Uri Fruchtmann. "Motherhood was the great equaliser for me; I started to identify with everybody... as a mother, you have that impulse to wish that no child should ever be hurt, or abused, or go hungry, or not have opportunities in life."

I'm slightly surprised that her love for babies and globetrotting – she is just back from South Africa and Malawi – hasn't pitched her into the Madonna/Angelina Jolie scoop-them-up-as-you-go school. "Adopt children? Well, how many orphans are there across Africa? Fourteen million approximately. That's an awful lot of adopting. And I also think: is it a solution to take children out of their native country?"

So, no more children then, not least because she admits to being too used to her own "autonomy". And as for no more music, well, there will always be the odd concert, especially when it helps one of her causes. Not to mention those piano chords, which turn out to have been nothing in particular. "I was just playing," she says, "because the piano was so beautiful. I play anything that comes into my head."

Annie Lennox will perform at 'WOW', the Southbank Centre's 'Women of the World' festival on 11 March

Curriculum vitae

Christmas Day, 1954 Born Ann Lennox, in Torry, Aberdeen. Her mother, Dorothy, was a cook, her father, Tom, a shipyard boilermaker.

1958 Attends Aberdeen School for Girls.

1961 Begins piano lessons.

1971 Wins a place at the Royal Academy of Music, London.

1974 Quits the Royal Academy weeks before her final exams. Works in a bookshop and as a waitress while taking singing lessons.

1975 Sings in a roots band called Dragon's Playground and then in a jazz ensemble called Red Brass.

1976 Meets Dave Stewart while working in a restaurant in Hampstead, London.

1977 As The Catch, they record and release their first single, "Borderline"/"Black Blood". It bombs.

1978-80 They re-form as The Tourists. Their most successful release – the Dusty Springfield hit "I Only Want to Be with You" – reaches No 4 in 1980. They disband in December 1980.

1981 Lennox and Stewart form Eurythmics.

1983 Release "Sweet Dreams" which reaches No 2 in the UK and No 1 in the US. Win an Ivor Novello award as Songwriters of the Year.

1984 Marries a German Hare Krishna devotee, Radha Raman. The marriage lasts one year.

1985 Makes film acting debut in Revolution with Al Pacino and Donald Sutherland.

1988 Marries Israeli producer Uri Fruchtmann. They have two daughters. A son is stillborn.

1992 Lennox records Diva, her first solo album. It reaches No 1.

1995 Her second album, Medusa, tops the charts. 1996 Wins Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

2004 Wins Best Original Song Oscar for "Into the West", from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King soundtrack.

2005 Champions Make Poverty History campaign.

2010 Awarded OBE. Named as a Unesco ambassador for HIV/Aids.

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