Annie Lennox on gay men, Rihanna and why the F-word has been devalued
Half her lifetime ago, Annie Lennox set out to write a feminist anthem. There came a point last year when she realised how far she had succeeded when hundreds of women, young and old, belted out the 1985 classic Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves at a concert to celebrate International Women's Day.
"I thought they would think I was just an old girl," she says, "but really, they were singing from the heart." It was the highlight of celebrations that Lennox, in bringing together a coalition of women's groups under the Equals umbrella, had done more than almost anyone else to promote.
The Eurythmics star is back this year with another Equals concert on Friday but this time she wants to act more as a host for younger artists. "I want people to understand me as a person with views, not just performing songs," she says.
Any conversation with Lennox makes it clear she has a lot of views, which she first publicised when she donned a man's suit, prompting gossip that she was gay. "It was about power and politics," she says of her look. "It was about saying: 'I'm the same as him' [Dave Stewart, her Eurythmics co-star and former partner]. I'm a female but I have a masculine side and I'm not going to negate that part of myself."
Her views expand to feminism and her opinion that men should be welcomed into the movement. "I don't think feminism is about the exclusion of men but their inclusion ... we must face and address those issues, especially to include younger men and boys," she says, before adding that she is particularly surprised that more gay men don't see themselves as feminists. "I would like to see the gay population get on board with feminism. It's a beautiful organisation and they've done so much. It seems to me a no-brainer."
Being "non-inclusive" can sound "strident and aggressive" and has probably hurt the feminist movement, she adds.
Indeed, for someone with strong views, she goes out of her way not to sound "strident", a word she uses several times to explain why feminism got a bad name in the 1990s. When she won the Barclays woman of the year gong in 2010, Lennox asked the audience to stand up if they were feminists. Half of the all-female audience stayed seated. "It made me wonder, what is wrong with the word," she says. "Maybe it had connotations of stridency ... but there's nothing wrong with the word feminist or feminism. It's a great word. The problem is that we have devalued it." The experience was instrumental in her launching Equals, which brings together at least 26 organisations.
In a debate that she hosted last year, Lennox said: "I'm appalled the word feminism has been denigrated to a place of almost ridicule and I very passionately believe the word needs to be revalued and reintroduced with power and understanding that this is a global picture. It isn't about us and them." Her campaigning, on HIV/Aids for example, has focused on difficulties experienced in the developing world.
She is more reticent when commenting on the vogue for female singers to perform scantily clad – a far cry from her own black campaign T-shirt, trousers and hat worn at last year's concert. "The world has become more sexualised. I thought the world was already sexualised when I was younger but it sells and sells and now it's just a marketing device.
"The display of sexuality is part of our nature but I think when it becomes a cliche and that's the only thing you are using to draw people's attention it becomes one-dimensional."
So, what does she think of Rihanna, the singer known for her skimpy clothes and suggestive dancing? "Here is a young woman who has been through domestic violence and she could become a tremendous spokesperson for that issue but the choice is hers. It's not up to anybody else to do that.
"Of course if she did choose to do that it would be so fucking powerful but it's her personal right to choose it or not. We all have our issues and we have to deal with them in our own way."
She has fiercely protected her own privacy, with a tight grip on press interviews – even for this one, her PR minder insists there are no questions about her private life. Her refusal to "force-feed" her views to others appears to extend to her now grownup daughters – one of whom is a model. "Having children, they're not your property. They need to figure out their own views. I think my daughters have a pretty healthy self-awareness but I can't speak on their behalf."