It isn’t every day you get to meet a ‘Nana (the apostrophe being particularly important in this case). In fact, I’d be lying if I said I’d given much thought to any ‘Nana at all since, ooh, 1991-ish. Maybe longer ago than that. A passing glimpse at an early-Thursday evening TV screen, TOTP in full flow. Christmas 1989. Band Aid.
Or, more likely, the previous year’s French & Saunders’ Christmas special and a famously irreverent spoof featuring Kathy Burke in the all-girl band Lananeeneenoonoo. Which incidentally led to a Comic Relief reboot of ‘Help!’ in collaboration with the ‘Nanas themselves.
And now here she was, delivering a much-needed back massage in a bamboo tent, under the warm Greek sun, and happily responding to my suddenly awe-struck questions, about her pop goddess past. That was last year. Sadly I didn’t get to do any of her flow yoga classes then, because I could barely stand up straight – even remedial yoga was out of the question.
This year, the ‘Nana is back. Teaching yoga and even doing a guest turn at the Healthy Options barbie night. One song only! But baby she’s still got it! Yeah, baby she’s got it!
And she’s agreed to chat to me only a tad more formally this time (and only a little less awe-struck on my part), pen and paper in hand. An exclusive interview with a ‘Nana, right here on my blog! Phew!
Venus is her name
In fact, Jacquie O’Sullivan is one of the most serenely spiritual people you could wish to meet. Exactly what you might expect from a yoga teacher of twenty-odd year’s standing, who cut her yogi teeth with a month’s hard study at a Sivananda ashram in India.
But how does all that square with that pop music past, those hedonistic Bananarama days, travelling the world, no expense spared? Dating Adam Ant, for God’s sake!! Before he hit the big time and we all had him blu-tacked to our walls in lust.
Surely the pop world is all about ego, the antithesis of this yogic lifestyle? But she disagrees. ‘Music is just another energy,’ she counters. It wasn’t about ego for her, just a way to express herself. In hindsight, she realises now how shy and socially clumsy she was.
‘Music gave me the opportunity to bypass all that stuff you need to be validated. I was quite feral, bit of a troubled youngster. Crazy home life.’
She started out, nineteen or twenty-year-old, as a Shillelagh Sister. An all-female band, the Shillelaghs were similar to Bananarama in that respect, but with instruments. Prolific giggers, they were regularly supported by the Pogues, and vice versa. ‘We weren’t famous but we did it for the craic.’
The Shellelaghs came along on the back of punk – which Jacquie had embraced in the early 1970s (another surprise!). Elsewhere, she describes the girls as a ‘gigging underground band who were well known for their shambolic post-punk gigs’. They’d get up and play anywhere, earning the sobriquet ‘cow punk’: country-style music, punk attitude.
‘It was as if you could get up and do anything. Anything was possible.’
But ‘cow punk’? Not the sort of label you’d hear these days. ‘We liked it! We’d raid the back catalogues for obscure female rockabilly songs from way back when – lots of stuff about killing and shooting your partner if they weren’t faithful! Always a very feminist slant’. Which, apparently also involved their guitarist Boz (a bloke, later Morrisey’s guitarist), being required to dress up in drag.
The Shillelagh Sisters fizzled to ‘a natural end’ by which time, Jacquie was ‘doing all kinds of stuff’, including dressing in head-to-toe rubber, running a ‘rubber and leather club called ‘Maitresse’ in London. ‘People used to come down and beat the living daylights out of each other!’ Nice! That yoga vibe not quite ready to rise just yet, then?
But she also ran the Big Snit in Soho on Friday nights, hanging out with the likes of George Michael, Boy George and Siouxsie and the Banshees. And the Bananarama girls.
‘One week, they came down looking at me weirdly. A couple of weeks later, I got the call from Pete Waterman. Come in and talk. Was I interested in joining the ‘Nanas? I nearly fell off my chair!!
‘But it seemed like a good idea at the time,’ she adds, with typically modest understatement.
That was in 1988 and she didn’t look back for three years.
Formed in 1979, by friends Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey and Keren Woodward, the group had a distinct vocal style, all singing in unison rather than in harmony. They enjoyed huge success on both pop and dance charts, earning a place in The Guinness Book of World Records as ‘the all-female group with the most chart entries in the world’.
Jacquie replaced Siobhan Fahey in the line-up, after her friend left the group for pastures new. A world tour took her to North America, Eastern Asia and around the UK.
So it’s about this point in the conversation we wander into Ant territory. I mean… How? Back then, in the early-eighties, I recall any number of female friends lusting after all that ‘Prince Charming’ schtick – one in particular who frequently shared with us her x-rated intentions for the unsuspecting Mr Ant (Stuart Goddard to his mum), should she ever catch him. And Jacquie was dating him!!
‘I was only seventeen. Went to all his gigs. There was a whole crew called the Ant People – it was very early on when he was still into the punk scene. People would always try to get up on stage with the band, but they were generally asked to leave. I got up there, he wrapped his raincoat round me and let me stay on stage. His roadie came over to say he’d like to chat and that was it really. We started seeing each other.
‘He was a lot older than me – twenty-four, twenty-five at the time. One of the nicest people you could meet. Such a sexy man! When I met him, he’d just finished dating Amanda Donohoe, so quite some shoes to fill!
‘It was a very loose relationship but it lasted about a year. Very innocent though, really.’ Not, I suggest, quite the relationship my pal Pat might have envisioned for herself? ‘Not at all. I was having this really wild life but still so innocent!’
Love, truth and honesty
Moving on then, how did she feel about the French and Saunders spoof, with Kathy Burke cast as her? ‘I know Kathy anyway, but I didn’t know they were doing it. It was a bit of a shock. Someone came in and said, hey, you’re on the telly! She did me very well, though.’
But I still can’t square it. Being sent up on primetime TV, written about in the press… this free-spirited, deeply compassionate yogi in front of me and the high-flying, fast-living world of pop music. After all, however spiritual they might claim to be, there’s a fair few who’ve crashed and burned along the way. Many of her contemporaries.
‘You become really hardened to what people say and do. You have to. You grow a hard shell. Spiritually, I think I always had it in me. I’d always been interested in the beyond. As a kid, I was interested in religious studies and other things, outside of religion. Karma. An understanding that there was something else. Deep in my core. Sometimes, you can be very tested and ill-at-ease with yourself, but that inner core is peaceful, serene, calm. Everything else takes you out of that. You forget!
‘Yoga became such a powerful thing in my life. An Oh yes! This is what I was looking for! The thing that was missing. That sense of disconnection became less so with yoga. You can replug into everything.’
Did she try yoga during her time with the ‘Nanas? ‘Yes. The odd class. But didn’t really plug in till after.’
It’s been something of a running theme this holiday, what with flip flop fandangos, a delightfully translated sign by the swimming pool advising bathers that the surface is slippely [sic] when wet, and now thunderstorms and torrential rain which render every surface in sight distinctly slippely. With or without flip flops.
But, it was a Slippery Feet which took our yogi to the next stage of her pop career, in 1992, persuaded by her best friend Paul Simper, a journalist with Smash Hits – who had been writing songs on the quiet – to ‘do some vocals’.
‘We weren’t particularly successful. All the pop stars used to come down. We put on a good show. Nearly got signed – then the record company man went into rehab so it didn’t happen.’ Good times, nevertheless, she adds.
Then, finally, that inner yogi began to break through.
Discussing my own difficulties in finding a suitable class back home for me (and my dodgy back), with our other Healthy Options yoga teacher, Marina (whose classes, incidentally, had reignited a personal passion for yoga), she had advised I search for the teacher, not the class. Forget about style and labels, first ‘find your teacher’.
Advice which Jacquie echoes now. It was in the early-90s when she found her teacher and, gradually, things began to make sense.
‘I’d found a Sivananda-trained* yoga teacher who gelled. I’d been with her for three or four years when I started questioning shifts in my mental state. I’d given up smoking, stopped wanting to go to parties – preferred to do yoga! What was happening?! She suggested I go and train in India. So I did.
‘Went to a Sivananda ashram with a hundred other people training to be teachers – although I didn’t go to become a teacher. I went to learn. It was hard, very hard. Up at 4.30am, cold hard floors, living, sleeping, eating on the floor. A diet of rice, dahl and veg. A hard, hard life.’
But – perhaps worse for this erstwhile pop goddess – it was very ‘singy, happy clappy, chanting’.
‘I’m thinking, I can’t do that!! But they drill it into you – what does it matter what people think? Who’s judging you?’
Within days she was in there singing, happy clapping and chanting with the best of them. ‘And I felt so much better. Cried a lot. Lots of tears!! I admit I thought I was going there to learn some shapes but it was the whole steer of yoga. It was overwhelming, opened me up. Really cleansing.
‘But very challenging, living in an ashram, especially coming from the lifestyle I’d just left. Loads of people quit. Steady hand to victory is the O’Sullivan family motto and that comes back to me when I need it. And I really needed it there! Talk about a fish out of water!’
Following a month at the ashram, Jacquie travelled round India, teaching a bit as she went. She tells me this is an occupational hazard. Once people discover you are a yoga teacher, wherever you are in the world, they ask you to teach a class or two. It’s served her well.
It ain’t what you do…
Along the way, she has studied and taught different styles of yoga. For a long time, her favoured discipline was Ashtanga for its flowing style, but found it too harsh on the body.
‘As a teacher, you can only bring to your class what you feel passionate about but not so much that it’s exhausting. It’s a fine balance when you’re teaching, that connection between the flow and stillness, if you want to get to the spiritual side.’
I suggest that, for some, that spiritual side of yoga gets lost – or completely discarded.
‘But that’s what yoga is!’ she says, emphatically, agreeing that ‘the spiritual thing gets so lost now. When I started out, there weren’t that many teachers. But many of them now started out as super-mobile dancers and gymnasts. They can go to the full range. So they go off and do the teacher training but it’s not available to most people what they’re doing with their bodies. I ask myself, what are they teaching me?’
Back to that ego thing again, I guess? ‘You see it in the classes too. There are those who’ll never go to a beginner class – always want to go to level 2.’
‘Those are two of the precepts of yoga**,’ says Jacquie. ‘No ego, no aggression. As a teacher you should follow those first but some don’t know what they are. They just cut the shapes.’
The other thing that gets lost is the importance of breathing. Something it’s easy to forget to do (speaking from experience), when you’re busy trying to ‘cut shapes’. But, as both Marina and Jacquie have reminded us regularly this week, yoga is all about ‘the breath’. If you’re not focusing on the breath, you’re just doing a fancy exercise class. You’re not doing yoga.
So where to next for Jacquie O? Home from Vassiliki, back to London for three months then, on Christmas Day, that free spirit takes flight again, this time for Bali, where friends of hers run the Ubud Yoga School. She loves to travel and hates the British winter so this is an eagerly-anticipated trip, a chance to simply be.
‘I’ve been doing lots of studying for the last six years – yoga and massage – and lots of teaching. Feel like I need time for myself now. Don’t have to get up and do anything. No pressing engagements. I can wake up and decide for myself what I’m going to do. Find that extra bit of freedom.’ Sounds like bliss.
Then it’s on to Thailand, ‘my home town’. She once lived on Kohtao for a year and has lots of friends all over the country, so lots of travelling.
Hopefully no repeat of a previous visit when she was rudely awoken in the early hours by much shouting and screaming. Thinking a woman was getting attacked outside her bungalow, she ran out in her knickers to help, to find the place was on fire.
‘We all had minutes to get ourselves and our belongings out of the bungalows. The fire was as high as the palm trees and you could see it from all over the island. My friend’s whole business and home was gone in about 15 minutes – all 20 bungalows, her home and restaurant. It was honestly one of the most scary situations I had ever been in, in my life. Luckily no one was hurt, but it made me feel so humble, fire is such a powerful thing. No candles in straw houses! Especially in dry season!’ (As told to poptasticconfessions.blogspot.gr)
Finally, she plans to ‘rock up on a beach for a month, stay in a hut, do a bit of reading, bit of spiritual connection and see what happens. See what life brings up.’
Life, I suspect, will bring up a spot of yoga teaching along the way!
Do they know it’s Christmas?
Then it’s back to London and possibly even a revival of the Shellelagh Sisters, next year in Vegas, this time with her yogic core very much in evidence. She also plans to exercise her travel gremlin with teaching stints with Sardinia Yoga, and Jason Vale Juicy Retreats (yet to be confirmed). And, hopefully, back here in Vass with Healthy Options.
‘So what angle are you going to take?’ she asks. And, honestly, I didn’t have a clue. ‘I’ll just see what comes out the fingers when I type!’
But if I have to take any angle at all – apart from documenting the unique spiritual journey of this lovely soul, from pop goddess to free-spirited yogi – it’s my own awe, respect, envy if you like, of the life she’s led. So many times, as a twenty-something unattached female, I thought about running away from the life I had for pastures new. Canada, France, Greece, Oz, even simply London – from time to time all these enticed, but never quite happened. Something always held me back. Fear, probably. Of losing career. Family. Friends. Or maybe I was always where I was meant to be. Deep down, I chose to stay where I was. Sure, there’ve been challenges along the way but, in the end, life takes you where you need to go. If you let it.
And Jacquie reminds me of my own move, two and a half years ago, barely two and a half hour’s drive up the M6. Maybe not Thailand, or India, or even London. But a huge move nevertheless – and for the foreseeable future, it’s where I’m meant to be. To coin Jacquie’s phrase, it’s ‘my home town’. Now all I need to do is find ‘my’ yoga teacher!
Pop pickin’ faves
Flippin’ heck! How could I forget? No pop interview could possibly be complete without a few ‘faves’!
Fave pop time? Getting up to sing live with the Shillelagh Sisters. World tour with the ‘Nanas close second.
Fave place in the world? Thailand.
Fave person you worked with? My pal Lyn Boorer, who played double bass with the Shellelagh Sisters.
Fave time of year? Summer, definitely. Although I love spring when things really start to come alive. So maybe spring!
Fave colour? Jade green.
And, finally, most important, fave song? Venus. Of course.
*Sivananda yoga, named after the teachings of Swami Sivananda, is a form of hatha yoga in which the training focuses on preserving the health and wellness of the practitioner.
** Yamas and Niyamas: The ten ethical precepts that allow us to be at peace with ourselves, our family, and our community.