Lawnmowers and ripped Pope pictures: Inside Sinead O’Connor and Madonna’s fraught history

Singers butted heads in the early Nineties over beauty ideals and O’Connor’s stance on the Pope

Nicole Vassell
Friday 28 July 2023 09:56 BST
Sinead O'Connor dies, aged 56

Since the unexpected news of Sinead O’Connor’s death broke, stories and forgotten facts about her career have started to resurface – one of these being her feud with fellow artist Madonna.

O’Connor’s death was announced by her family on Wednesday (26 July) after she was found unresponsive in her London home. She was 56 years old.

Fans, friends and others in the entertainment industry have paid tribute to the Irish singer for her talents, as well as her activism and commitment to her principles.

On Thursday (27 July), Morrissey issued a withering statement to some stars and members of the press who commemorated the star despite having shown O’Connor little support when she was alive.

O’Connor was known to voice her strong opinions without apology, which occasionally led to clashes with other celebrities including Miley Cyrus, Joe Pesci, Prince, and Madonna.

In an interview with Spin magazine in 1991, O’Connor directly referenced Madonna and called her out for allegedly making unkind comments about her appearance while being a promoter of women’s rights.

“Madonna is probably the hugest role model for women in America,” O’Connor noted. “There’s a woman who people look up to as being a woman who campaigns for women’s rights. A woman who, in an abusive way toward me, said that I look like I had a run-in with a lawnmower and that I was about as sexy as a Venetian blind.

“Now there’s the woman that America looks up to as being a campaigner for women, slagging off another woman for not being sexy.”

Sinead O’Connor and Madonna

Their difficulties continued the following year after O’Connor’s appearance on Saturday Night Live, during which she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II in protest of the child abuse being committed and covered up by the Catholic Church.

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The move led to counter-protests around the world, with a bulldozer even being deployed to flatten a pile of her records in Times Square, New York City.

Like O’Connor, the “Like a Virgin” singer was raised Catholic and shared her disapproval of the controversial stunt with the Irish Times. “I think there’s a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people,” she said.

During her own appearance on SNL later in the same season, Madonna ripped up a photo of convicted New York statutory rapist Joey Buttafuoco. People interpreted this as Madonna mocking O’Connor’s actions.

In her tribute to O’Connor, writer Helen Brown remembered her as a figure who walked alone, “outwardly fearless although often fearful”.

“So she was messy. Confused. But I don’t think she was capable of telling a lie,” Brown wrote. “In between the mess was an extraordinary, smart, but damaged human searching fiercely for a truth to cling to. Not to mention the many great records she made along the way.”

You can read the tribute in full here, and follow updates as they come in here.

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