Aperture Magazine (Summer 1999)
The interview took place on August 25, 1998, in the living room of Madonna’s duplx apartment on Central Park West. The space is large and imposingly formal, with oversize deco armchairs and a plush sofa across the room from a fireplace flanked by shelves that are empty save for a few deco vases and some art books. There are paintings by Tamara de Lempicka on two walls, a small exquisite Dali canvas near the fireplace, and some frames photos of her child, Lourdes, on a sideboard. A book by the Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi sits on the coffee table, where an assistant has placed a tray with a china tea service, but the room feels like a public space, a meeting room for guests rather than an integral part of the apartment’s regular domestic life.
Madonna, fresh from emergency root-canal work, says she’s a bit groggy from the gas, but she looks just fine in all black, and she moves quickly from subdued to playful to witty woman of the world – Vince Aletti
Vince: I found a quote from your interview with Bill Zehme, when you said “I’d rather own an art gallery than a movie studio. Or a museum. I’d rather be Peggy Guggenheim than Harry Cohn.”. Where did your interest in art and photography start?
Madonna: My interest in art started as a child because several members of my family could paint and draw and I couldn’t, so I was living vicariously through them. And from going to the Detroit Institute of arts, which is how I got into Diego Rivera, which is how I found out about Frida Kahlo and started reading about her. Then, if you go to enough Catholic churches, there’s art everywhere, so you get introduced to it that way, from a religious ecstasy point of view. And then just coming to New York and dancing. As an incredibly poor struggling dancer, you could get into museums for free, so that was my form of entertainment. It was just something I was interested in. And then you get into it, and when I started collecting, I started reading more and more about the artists themselves, and names would keep popping up – you know, Peggy Guggenheim. And of course I started reading about her and she was just -
Vince: She was definitely a character.
Madonna: Oh, my God! What a life she led! Just the idea of being in contact with all those great artists and nurturing them and giving them a place to show their work and being their patroness is, to me, fabulous.
Vince: It’s the one great thing to be.
Madonna: Totally! I mean that’s real art. And to be able to be a part of that and to nurture it – it’s a very enviable and honorable position.
Vince: I’ve always collected images and torn pages out of magazines and put them up on the wall -
Vince: And one picture that’s been up on every dorm room or apartment wall I’ve ever lived in was this Richard Avedon photo of Lew Alcindor from Harper’s Bazaar. I wondered if there was anything like that in your life early on. Was there an image that you’ve carried with you?
Madonna: The image that always struck me was one that I ended up using as an inspiration for one of my videos, and that’s a really sort of Cubist photograph – I forgot who the photographer is – of a man working on some big, huge piston-shaped cylinder.
Vince: The famous Lewis Hine photo.
Madonna: Right. Well, that ended up in my “Express Yourself” video; that was totally the inspiration for that. Every video I’ve ever done has been inspired by some painting or some work of art.
Vince: That’s what I was wondering. Obviously “Vogue” with the Horst references, which I know you got into some trouble for.
Madonna: Well, those were all pretty obvious. I consider them to be hommages of course. And I didn’t get into trouble, the director did. Fortunately, I owned the Tamara de Lempicky painting that I used for the opening of “Open Your Heart”. That one over there. Only we put lights on her nipples.
Vince: What else? Most of the others aren’t so -
Madonna: Obvious? Well, my “Bedtime Story” video was completely inspired by all the female surrealist painters like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. There’s that one shot where my hands are up in the air and stars are spinning around me. And me flying through the hallway with my hair trailing behind me, the birds flying out of my open robe – all of those images were an hommage to female surrealist painters; there’s a little bit of Frida Kahlo in there, too. What else? The “Frozen” video was totally inspired by Martha Graham – I have a lot of photographs of her dancing; the big skirts and all the iron shapes and stuff like that.
Vince: I thought that the “Vogue” video was especially terrific because those were all pictures that -
Madonna: We brought to life.
Vince: Yeah, and it angered me that Horst couldn’t see that as a tribute. What could be better?
Madonna: Yeah, and those images are really powerful, and it’s great to remind people of them and to bring it into pop culture and not to keep it so outside where people are never going to exposed to it.
Vince: When did you start collecting?
Madonna: When I got my first paycheck, $5’000 or something.
Vince: Do you remember what you bought?
Madonna: This is a good question for my art dealer. I bought a Leger and I bought a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, but I don’t know which came first. But I remember buying it and I had just gotten married and it looked completely out of place in my house in Malibu (She laughs in a light, breathy burst). But those were my first paintings.
Vince: And were those things that you had always wanted – always hoped to have?
Madonna: Well I’ve always been kind of obsessed with Frida Kahlo, so I was really into the idea of getting something that belonged to her. And then from Frida Kahlo I found out about Tina Modotti and then I started collecting her stuff and Edward Weston, and one person always leads to another person with me, because for me it started with Diego Rivera, then it went to Frida Kahlo, then it went to Tina, and Edward and… (She trails off.). Also, if you’re into Picasso, and you want to find out about him and that whole area of art and European culture, then you start reading about Man Ray and the surrealists and Andre Breton, and all of a sudden you’re in that whole world and you start having interests in other people. It’s like a disease.
Vince: Of the best kind.
Madonna: Lately, I’ve gotten more into newer photographers. I’m really into Guy Bourdin (Note by madonna-online.ch: Bourdin was the inspiration behind the visuals of Madonna’s 2003 video Hollywood) right now; I’ve got a couple of his photographs in my bedroom that I wake up to every morning. I just move all over the place, really.
Vince: That’s been my impression whenever I read about the art that you have; it seems to be very wide-ranging.
Madonna: It’s more that a sensibility appeals to me. I’m really interested in two things in art. One is suffering, and the other is irony and a certain bizarre sense of humour. And that you can find everywhere.
Vince: Who else beside Guy Bourdin would you consider somebody new for you?
Madonna: That I love? Well I love Nan Goldin. She’s amazing. Now I’m into color photography – don’t get me wrong. I still love black and white – and I like a lot of the really young photographers. I interviewed Mario Testino for his show in Naples and Rio, and he has a new book – it’s great! Fantastic book – I love it. And I did a piece for him for the book and we had a lengthy discussion about young photographers that we really like right now. Like Mario Sorenti – people that are considered fashion photographers. For instance, I love Inez van Lamsweerde. She photographed me for Spin magazine and she is unbelievable. She’s Dutch.
Vince: What is she like? I’m really curious about her work.
Madonna: She’s so interesting. She’s tall; she’s got really long black hair; she looks like a Modigliani painting. She and her boyfriend (Vinoodh Matadin) work together and he does all the art direction. They make such beautiful photographs, and they do a lot of campaigns for a lot of young designers.
Vince: A lot of their work looks very computer-altered. Did they do that with you?
Madonna: Not that I know of, because I don’t like that. I knew I was going to get it with… what’s his name? I’m sorry I had too much gas and I can’t remember anyone’s name right now. David LaChapelle! Because you can’t work with him without being computerized.
Vince: It’s part of the look.
Madonna: Yeah. Anyway, I just love van Lamsweerde’s photographs, but I’m into Sean Ellis and Mario Sorrenti. Their photographs are very cinematic and they’re like a whole new wave, I think, of photography that transcends fashion and Steven Meisel, Patrick Demarchelier – that whole school of photographers, who I think were really inspired by Avedon and Helmut Newton.
Vince: You brought up Mario Testino. I’d been wondering who would be the official photographer of your baby and he’s not the person I would have expected.
Madonna: Why, who would you have expected?
Vince: Someone you had worked with before, like Herb Ritts or Steven Meisel.
Madonna: Herb Ritts did take photographs of my daughter that are quite beautiful, two days after she was born, and those are all framed and in my house in L.A. But more like the classic, black-and-white; there are some beautiful, beautiful shots of her foot in my hand – incredible. There are some shots that look like photographs Man Ray did of Lee Miller, too. My hair was really blond and I had red lipstick on and they were black and white; just the way he processed them, they look very Man Ray-ish. But Mario’s really one of my favorite photographers right now, which is why he ended up taking the official portrait of me and her together. And when she had a real personality; I mean, babies don’t have personality when they’re two days old. I suppose some people think they do, but they’re just amoebas. They can’t even focus on anything.
Vince: I thought Testino’s pictures were wonderful.
Madonna: Believe me, there’s a lot more. He captures something about her. He has a real, natural kind of journalistic style of photographing that I like, which I think is better for a baby who’s running around and can’t stand to sit still. It’s not about lighting or anything, it’s about capturing her doing something, and he took some fantastic pictures of her.
Vince: It was those pictures that convinced me he was more interesting than I’d thought.
Madonna: Have you ever met him? He is a scream. He’s so much fun. He’s the kind of guy who will photograph you, and if he doesn’t like the way you’re standing or something, he’ll kick you. And he’s constantly singing and moving around the room and he’s so full of life, and I feel like his photographs are, too. He creates an atmosphere, a relaxed atmosphere, and then he just starts taking pictures. Which is very, very different than someone like Steven Meisel, who is really precise. (She says this last phrase with a deliberate pause between each word.)
Vince: I suspected that.
Madonna: He has a very specific aesthetic. But because I worked with him for so long, I felt like I needed to get away from it.
Vince: Let’s talk a little but about him, because I’m very curious about him and yur relationship with him. It did seem like you two formed one of those bonds that a subject and a photographer can form.
Vince: Yeah. And that you brought out very interesting things in each other.
Madonna: Yeah, well, first of all I have to feel like I’m friends with a photographer and that we enjoy the same things, like the same movies, have the same sick sensibility. And I felt that with Steven, which is why we just kept working together and working together and finally the idea of doing a book together came up. You really have to feel like someone’s part of your family to work on a book like that, where you’re just like hanging out. And not only did we photograph everything, we also filmed everything on a Super-8 camera – everything that we did.
Vince: Really? What’s happened to all that stuff?
Madonna: Oh, it’s around. It’s in the archives. It’ll be unearthed after I die. It’ll be playing at the Film Forum.
Vince: What drew you to Meisel in the first place, and what clicked between you?
Madonna: Well, first of all, he just really, really appreciates beauty, and he knows how to photograph a strong female. He’s a diva himself. And he, like me, is sort of a scavenger who picks stuff out of things, whether it’s old movies, old Warhol films. He’s interested in street fashion., He picks up stuff from all over the place and puts it in his work and so do I. And he likes a lot of the same things I like. I don’t know – we just clicked. He’s one of those people who will call you and go, You’ve gotta see this movie or rent this movie. It’s always movies you have to go and rent or buy somewhere; it’s nothing that’s out, nothing modern.
Vince: He fascinates me because there’s always what’s there on the surface and then there’s all this stuff behind it. I know he has this incredibly broad range of things that he pulls from, and they’re never what I’m expecting next.
Madonna: No, and that’s the great thing about Steven. He’ll take you down a road and then he’ll completely throw a curve ball. I wish he’d do more outside of Vogue magazine. I suppose he can’t. Because that’s certainly working within a serious restriction, and unfortunaely Vogue has turned into a Speigel catalogue.
Vince: I hardly pay attention to his work in American Vogue, because -
Madonna: It’s all about Italian Vogue.
Vince: That’s so great, and it does seem that he can get away with just about anything there. But I am curious about the Sex book and how that came about. A lot of the visual influences there seem to be Man Ray and experimental European work.
Madonna: Man Ray and every movie that Visconti ever made starring Helmut Berger and – did you see “The Damned”? – Ingrid Thulin. I mean I was Ingrid Thulin for several of those photographs. And the book was inspired by all those kind of things; those old Warhol films, where people did nothing and just sat there and peeled bananas and stuff, to all the Visconti stuff, especially the stuff we shot at the Gaiety when I’m dressed in an evening gown and I’ve got all the men on leashes and I think Udo Kier is even in the photographs. We had to bring Udo Kier back – he’s incredible.
Vince: Was the book something you concocted together or something you decided you should do and then you pulled Meisel into it?
Madonna: We were always fooling around and doing stuff anyway – stuff that never made it into any magazines – because we were always working together on so many things. I guess it was my idea and then I pulled him into it. I mean, we had talked about doing a book together, we just weren’t sure where we wanted to go with it and what kind of book, because I love taking on different personas and becoming and transforming and the whole chameleon thing with a twist on Cindy Sherman – something a bit more aggressive than that. I’m a big fan of hers, by the way. So originally it was going to be this thing of different guises, and then we used to go to the Gaiety all the time and we got onto the subject of sex and gender confusion and role playing and men playing females and women playing men and that’s how the Sex book came about. Steven, like me, likes to f*ck with people, so that was a big part of it, too.
Vince: With the public, you mean, or with the people who are his subjects?
Madonna: Everyone, everything, at every level. It was about celebrating the ultimate taboo and just having fun doing what you’re not supposed to do. I mean, a pop star’s not supposed to do those things. I’m telling you, I had the time of my life while I was doing it. Of course, I got the shit kicked out of me for it, so it’s a good thing I had a good time doing it. And I had fun. I don’t regret it. The whole thing was like performance art while it was happening and it was a real throw-caution-to-the-wind, devil-may-care time of my life.
Vince: Can you imagine doing something like that again?
Madonna: I don’t know…
Vince: There’s no point of doing that again, obviously, but…
Madonna: I never want to repeat myself. I like the idea of doing something political and provocative, but I don’t know what it would be. That’s one of those things that you can’t plan, you just have to let it happen.
Vince: I suspect that if you meet another photographer who inspires you in the way that he did…
Madonna: Or maybe I’ll do it with film; maybe it won’t be photography.
Vince: In a sense, you did it with Truth or Dare.
Madonna: This is true, and I like that confusion of is it real or is it not real? Is it life imitating art or is it art imitating life? Is it something that we planned that we filmed, or is it something that we captured? Because I’m telling you, the line starts to get very blurred.
Vince: Even when you’re in the middle of it.
Madonna: Totally. And that’s beautiful, too.
Vince: Let’s talk about Cindy Sherman. I know that you sponsored her show of “Film stills” at the Museum of Modern Art. What is it that appeals to you about her work?
Madonna: Just her chameleon-like persona – her transformation. What she’s able to evoke – the subtlety of her work, the detail. I just think her stuff is amazing.
Vince: Do you own work of hers?
Madonna: No, can you believe that? I’ve always admired her work, but the images that were available to be bought I wasn’t that crazy about. But I really respect and admire her.
Vince: What exactly was your involvement in the Modern show? Did you actually put up the money to buy that whole group of “film stills”?
Madonna: Yeah, I was a patroness. (She laughs at her own pretension.)
Vince: I like the idea; I think it’s important.
Madonna: It’s the best place to put your money, honestly. I know it’s good to get involved in lots of charities, but I think its really, really important to do things that inspire people in other ways. Because people need to have their consciousness raised in many ways, and sometimes it’s too easy to just give your money to something that you don’t have any connection to. It’s much more gratifying for me to be able to give money to tangible things, like to help keep a theater open, to a school, to supporting an artist in getting a show together.
Vince: How did the Cindy Sherman arrangement come about?
Madonna: My art dealer (Darlene Lutz), she has relationships with a lot of people at the Museum of Modern Art. They come to me a lot and ask if I want to get involved with different shows. The only shows I’ve been involved in in terms of financing have been the Tina Modotti show and the Cindy Sherman show – that’s it. You know, we chicks have to stick together.
Vince: And you want to do something that -
Madonna: That I love – that I love totally.
Vince: To go back to photographers that you’ve worked with, I wanted to ask about Herb Ritts. It seemed to me that you had an interesting, symbiotic relationship with photographers, both as a muse and as a great subject. And these people helped to create your image in a lasting way.
Madonna: Yes, aboslutely. And Herb Ritts was really a big part of that, especially in the beginning of my career.
Vince: What did he bring to the relationship that made those pictures so effective?
Madonna: An innocence. Herb is one of those people who doesn’t even seem like he’s a photographer. It feels like he discovered it by accident in a way, and he has a real naivete about him. He doesn’t really plan things; he kind of stumbles across things. He’s got a real aw-gee-shucks vibe on him. He’s a really innocent, geeky-nerdy type of a person, and I became friends with him. I asked him to photograph my wedding, and things went from there. Because I always have to be friends with them first, and they become part of my inner circle, and once I’m really comfortable with them, that’s then things start to be created. And Herb was very much part of my social circle. And Herb – Steven doesn’t do this much, but Mario does it – they always have a little camera in their pocket. I mean, Herb and Mario must have a billion photographs of me in their archives – just of parties, hanging out at my house, coming to visit me on the sets of movies – that I’m sure will resurface someday, when I’ve been reincarnated as a camera lens. But there’s a certain comfortability factor that came with Herb. And I’d never really been conscious or aware of photographers before, and, believe me, I’d been photographed a lot before that, but I wasn’t really present, I didn’t care. And, in fact, all the nude photographs that surfaced of me from my early days of modeling for art classes and photography schools and stuff, I didn’t want to be there that I removed myself from the whole process. I wasn’t relating to the photographer, I wasn’t relating to the camera, and it wasn’t a relationship. I wasn’t there – I was gone. It must be like what a prostitute does when they’re with a john. I was not present. So, to me, the whole Herb Ritts thing was the first time that I realized that symbiosis, that exchange of energy and the creation of magic that happens from that exchange. A good photographer creates an environment for you to shine – for you to express yourself in whatever statement it is you want to make. And you do have to feel comfortable with people. I remember Robert Mapplethorpe kept asking to photograph me back in the day, but he scared the shit out of me.
Madonna: I don’t know why, he just did.
Vince: You seem relatively unscareable.
Madonna: Yeah, but there was some energy that he had that I didn’t feel comfortable with. And I couldn’t even explain to you what it was. I was very young when I met him and I hadn’t been living in New York that long. Anyway, Herb was the first photographer that I really had a relationship with.
Vince: And then Meisel after that?
Madonna: Pretty much. I worked with other people, but nobody that made a difference. And then I worked with Steven. What was the first thing I didn with him? I don’t even remember. But I remember once I got more into fashion and started collecting more art and becoming a lot more aware of the intersection of art and fashion, that’s when I got into Steven Meisel.
Vince: In a sense, you were more on his wavelength, then.
Madonna: I sort of went into Steven’s wavelength, and then that worked for a while. too, and culminated in the Sex book and all of that stuff. And then I didn’t want to have my photograph taken for a really long time, and then I hooked up with Mario Testino. I worked with lots of photographers inbetween, but a sort of artist-muse relationship excisted with those three photographers.
Vince: There are tons of other pictures of you -
Madonna: But those were just one-offs.
Vince: – but those were the photographers who seemed to bring you out in a collaborative way. Is there one, definitive Madonna picture?
Madonna: I think there is with each photographer, but there isn’t just one, because I feel like I change and evolve so much that it’s hard for me to put my finger on one.
Vince: I suspected that you’d say that, because if you chose once, you’d be pinning yourself down to just one moment and there is really no one moment. Are there other photographers that you’d like to work with?
Madonna: Like to become the muse of? Well, I really wanted to have my picture taken by Helmut Newton, and I did. I love his stuff, too. But I didn’t have a relationship with him; he’s not available, or accessible. I also had my photograph taken by this other photographer who I adored, but the photographs never got used: Paolo Roversi, he does beautiful work. They were going to be pictures for my album cover – not this record but the record before – but the people at the record company were all too freaked out; they thought the pictures were too blurry, they weren’t going to read well – whatever.
Vince: In all of photographic history, who would you wish to have photographed you?
Madonna: Well, Man Ray – no question, no question. There are a lot of photographers that I admire, but I’m not sure that I would have wanted them to photograph me. Irving Penn, but not now – forty years ago. I can’t think of anyone else.
Madonna: Yeah, yeah. No question; he was amazing. But I think that’s it: Weston, Man Ray, and Irving Penn – not a shabby crowd.
Vince: Following that, who in the history of art would you like to have painted your portrait?
Madonna: Wow! That’s a good question. Well, Picasso would have been amazing. I’ve got a portrait of Dora Maar that’s un-believable. It wouldn’t have been a pretty picture, but we would have liked it anyway.
Vince: With Picasso it would have been so beyond just having your picture done.
Madonna: He paints your personality, he doesn’t paint your portrait; and he paints his personality, too. But I’m happy to share a canvas with Picasso. I would have loved Bouguereau to paint my portrait, because I would have looked really good. (She laughs) He doesn’t paint an ugly picture of anyone. Or Rembrandt, he would have been OK. (Said with the feigned unconcern, and sly smile, of a princess indulging in high nobless oblige. Then, after a long pause;) Oh, I know who: Edward Hopper. Love his paintings.
Vince: With your photographs, your videos, and your perfomances you’ve had a real impact on our ideas about femininity and, I think, masculinity because of the way you’ve pulled that into it. I’m curious about what influences you’ve had on your ideas about femininity and masculinity over the years. What were the defining influences, if there are any?
Madonna: I think a lot of the art that I have has influenced me in that way. I have a photograph in my office that Man Ray did of Lee Miller kissing another woman that I think is really powerful and that has really inspired me. I’ve also been inspired by – well, everything inspires me. A lot of the movies have inspired me – a lot of the movies of Visconti and Pasolini. With Pasolini, there’s a lot of religious ecstasy intertwined with sexual ecstasy, and when I think of Visconti’s films, I always feel sexually confused by them. For instance, did you see The Night Porter?
Madonna: You haven’t seen it? (She slaps a pillow like a disapproving school mistress.) Anything with Charlotte Rampling you must see. She is a genius! Images of women dressed in Nazi Gestapo uniforms – the vulnerability and fragility of a female but the masculinity of a uniform, and the whole sense of playing that out and performing, doing sort of cabaret – the movie Cabaret! The confusion: what’s male, what’s female? For me, David Bowie has a huge influence on me because his was his first concert I went to see. I rememer watching him and thinking I didn’t know what sex he was, and it didn’t matter. Because one minute he was wearing body stockings – the whole Ziggy Stardust thing – and the next minute he was the Thin White Duke in white double-breasted suits, and there’s something so androgynous about him. And I think androgyny, whether it’s David Bowie or Helmut Berger, that has really really influenced my work more than anything.
Vince: You project so many facets of femininity very strongly so it’s fascintating to me that androgyny is also part of the mix.
Vince: That definitely comes out in the Sex book.
Madonna: Yeah, but when you think of all the stuff that I did in my live shows with Gaultier and the costuming and having the two guys standing by my bed with the cone-shaped bras on. It’s always been about switching genders and playing with that whole masculinity / femininity issue.
Vince: What do you find powerful about that – or intriguing?
Madonna: I don’t know – the most interesting people to me are people who aren’t just one way. And obviously I’m attracted to it because I am a female but I have been described as being very male-like or very predatory or having a lot of male traits. But that’s because I’m financially independent, and I have spoken about my sexual fantasies in the sort of frank and blunt way that has been reserved for men. And the more people have criticized me for behaving in an unladylike fashion, the more it’s provoked me to behave in an unladylike fashion and say, I can be fminine and masculine at the same time.
Vince: It’s seems to me you’ve always been about blasting away old ideas about what is feminine and what is masculine. To say that you’re not feminine because you take charge – that’s an old idea about what femininity is.
Madonna: And, by the way, artists through the centuries have been into role-playing. I mean Frida Kahlo always dressed like a man. And so did Lee Miller for a time. There are lots of people sort of switched back and forth, but that was always reserved for fine art; in pop culture, you’re expected to behave in a socially acceptable way.
Vince: In a sense it’s easier for guys – from Bowie to Jagger to Boy George – to f*ck around with that.
Madonna: Absolutely. Because men feel safe about it. Men feel safe with men dressing like women; they do not feel safe with women dressing like men. You’re not feeling intimidated by a guy who dresses like a female, but you might feel intimidated by a woman who walked around in a pin-striped suit with her tits hanging out, grabbing her crotch – who absolutely doesn’t need you for anything. Except for one thing, but even then, you can leave after that.
(Here, inspired by the film Elizabeth, which she’d seen in London, Madonna digressed into retelling the history of Elizabeth I, including her unconventional life, her ascension to the throne, and her eventual triumph as a queen. She led up to this point:)
Madonna: But she never had public favor; it was a bit like the Hillary Clinton thing. She did all the right things for her country, but she wasn’t ultimately revered. So she had a conversation with her confidant-adviser. She asked him, when have they ever looked up to or idolized a woman? Only one, he told her, the Virgin Mary. So she said, Then I will become like the Virgin Mary, and she did. She created a facade for herself; she stopped having lovers; she became like a virgin. She became sexless, and painted her face in a white alabaster way, and turned herself into an icon that was untouchable and sexless, and then she had everybody’s respect.
Vince: At what cost?
Madonna: I know, but for me it was a very enlightening moment.
Vince: But it is a terrible cost – to give up everything in order to rule?
Madonna: Right, but if you are a powerful female and you don’t play the traditional role that you are supposed to play when you get married and have a family and everyone feels safe with you, then you are going to be intimidating to people. And that idea has always been running through my work. Accepting it, not accepting it; accepting it, not accepting it. And shoving it in people’s faces. I mean that whole crotch-grabbing thing was just so like, OK every other rock star in the universe has done it, so I’m going to do it. And you know how freaked-out people got about it. Whatever. But we got off the subject.
Vince: Is there an early influence on your ideas about femininity and masculinity?
Madonna: I think probably my earliest influences probably came from the world of dance, especially with Martha Graham, because I studied at her school and I read all about her and saw the movies of her dances and performances. She freaked people out, too, because she brought to life all of these Greek myths and she reenacted them in her dances. And she was always turning things around; she was always the agressor who trapped the men. And her dances were very sexually provocative, very erotic, and very female-assertive, and I know that that really influenced me. And also ballet is such a female thing, and when I was younger, being surrounded by male ballet dancers – to me, that’s gender confusion. I mean, a bunch of guys walking around in tights putting their toes up in the air, and they’re incredibly effeminite men. Being surrounded by that on a regular basis when I was growing up – I mean, I wanted to be a boy when I was growing up because I was in love with all of the male dancer I know and they were all gay. And I thought, Well, if I was a boy, they’d love me. So I got into role-playing then. That’s where it began. I remember when I was still in high school, I had cut my hair off really short, and I was totally anorexic – I had no boobs – and I would dress like a boy and go to gay clubs and my goal was to trick men into thinking I was a boy.
Vince: Did it ever work?
Madonna: It did actually, a few times. Yeah, it really started in the dance world.
Vince: And when you got into music, it wasn’t in the rock and roll world, which is a lot more gender-defined, but through disco, which was much more fluid.
Madonna: And I’m sure that’s really influenced me, because from the dance world to the music world, my social strata was mostly gay men. That’s who my audience was, that’s who I hung out with, that’s who inspired me. For me, it freed me, because I could do whatever I wanted and be whatever I wanted.
Vince: Knowing that your audience is ready to be f*cked with.
Madonna: Totally. Ready to be f*cked with and certainly not intimidated by a strong female. So the problem arose when I left that world and went into the mainstream. Suddenly, there was judgment. But before that I was in my little gay cocoon.
Vince: But you certainly fed off the judgment.
Madonna: Well, absolutely. As soon as you tell me I can’t do something – And that’s how I’ve always been, starting from when I was a little girl. The boys could wear pants to church and the girls couldn’t. And I used to say, But why? Is God going to love me less if I don’t wear a dress? It just irked me – the rules. So I would put pants on under my dress, just to f*ck with my father. And after church, I would tell him I had pants and I’d say, See, lightning did not strike me. And I guess I’ve been doing that ever since.
Vince: Do you have a feminine ideal? Is there someone who seems like perfection – and I mean totally in your own terms?
Madonna: Well, a lot of the artists that I collect and that I admire: Lee Miller, Tina Modotti, Frida Kahlo – that whole group of females that kind of started off as muses and became artists in their own right and absolutely worked in a lot of different worlds and moved in a lot of different worlds and were artstic and political and still had their femininity about them. I can’t think of anybody now. That’s a tough one. I’m sitting here and combing all the areas; Is there an actress? Is there a singer? Is there an artist now? Help me!
Vince: For some reason, Liz Taylor came to mind, but most of the stars around today are complicated because they’ve made so many compromises along the way.
Madonna: Hollywood is about playing the game, and I can’t think of any successful actresses who didn’t play the game. there’s a lot more renegades in the music business, from Patti Smith to Janis Joplin.
Vince: So Lee, Tina and Frida, but neither of us can come up with someone working now who could qualify.
Madonna: It’s lonely out there.
Vince: Is there a masculine ideal, either now or in the past?
Madonna: I would say David Bowie, absolutely. I was terribly inspired by him and I still think he’s an amazing human being. He keeps pushing the envelope in his way. I can think of a lot of male artists that I admire, but everytime I start to think about them, and how they behaved, they were all real shits. F*ck-faces. And the thing is, all those women that I names – I know a lot about them. I’ve gotten into their work and then read their biographies and really followed them and really studied them, and they’re women that I really look up to. Whereas the men, I haven’t followed as much; I haven’t felt the desire to know more about them. I mean, everybody knows what a shit Picasso was. But all of those guys – they were all pigs. I’m sure Man Ray was a pain in the ass, too.
Vince: But is there an ideal image of masculinity, one that doesn’t depend on biography?
Madonna: I got back and forth. For me, a male image that I’m really moved by is somewhere between of Oscar Wilde type of a male: the fop, the long hair, the suits, too witty for his own good, incredibly smart, scathingly funny – all that. But then my other ideal is more like the Buddhist monk – the shaved head, actually someone who sublimates their sexuality.
Vince: Not exactly like anybody you’ve ever been involved with.
Madonna: I wouldn’t say that.
Vince: I shouldn’t assume.
Madonna: No. Like one of my yoga teachers, for instance. He has a Jesus-like quality to him. I know he’s heterosexual, he wears earrings and he’s got a very androgynous look to him and long hair. But he has an aesthetic and a humility about him that I think is very appealing and something to aspire to.
Vince: Interesting. When I think of you and males, I think of all the guys in your videos, most of whom have been like thugs.
Madonna: Hunky boys? Yes, I am attracted to a thug. I like that quality, but I like the other side of it, too. Because all guys who go around behaving in macho ways are really scared little girls. So you have to look beneath the surface. There’s a difference between my ideal man and a man that I’m sexually attracted to, believe me. Therein lies the rub.
Vince: What is your overriding visual inspiration?
Madonna: The crucifix. It’s the first image that sticks in my mind from my childhood. I’ve used it a lot in my work; I’ve used it in my videos; I’ve used it on stage. The whole idea of the crucifixion and the suffering of Christ is all kind of intertwined with masochism and Catholicism is a huge part of my upbringing, my past, my influence. And it’s a very powerful image.