ELLE (February 2001)
With Music, Guy Ritchie, and motherhood, Madonna has reinvented herself again. and has always, it’s ok to adore her. Just ask.
1. Three Sony TCM-313 tape recorders.
2. Six 90-minute HF Sony tapes.
3. Extra AA Energizer Advanced Formula batteries.
4. One Canon ZR10 digital camcorder, loaded.
5. Extra batteries for that.
6. One notebook.
7. One CIA spy pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, over grease, and in all weather conditions.
8. Four Sharpie Ultra Fine Points in blue, red, black, and green.
9. One can of mace.
I am ready to interview Madonna. Yes, I’ve got so much recording stuff strapped to me, I look like an S&M experiment run amok, but so what?
Soon after this magazine goes to press, I hear, Madonna is going to don a white dress designed by Stella McCartney, walk down the aisle, and exchange vows with bekilted British film director Guy Ritchie. I believe it is my duty as ELLE’s advice columnist, therefore, not only to interview Madonna for three or for days, but to advise her about the institution of wedlock.
So here I am waiting for her in the Blue Bar at the Berkeley Hotel in London. Advice-columning is a profession full of nutballs, dimwits, hacks, hysterics, romantic lunatics, and outright idiots. So naturally I did not expect to be invited to interview Madonna at her New York apartment, or her majestic $6.5 million estate in Beverly Hills, or her house in London, or the two-million-year-old Scottish castle where she’s reputed to be soon honeymooning, or her…ye gods–a short, slim girl wearing a shiny black coat is saying hello to me. Her strange, low, melodious voice is so familiar…
Holy crap! It’s Madonna! (Note: Because it is a rule of celebrity journalism, I will be italicizing as much as possible in this story. Also, due to my crazed worship of her, I want my words to look as if they are about to keel over.)
She breezes on into the blue Bar laughing in wonderment at herself for being nearly on time, skips to her chair, and announces she is "falling-down tired." I gape at her. "You look twenty-six," I say. "I feel eighty-six," says Madonna. "I just stopped breast-feeding. I flew in night before last. As soon as I got off the stage [at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, where she'd brought down the house at her first live show in five years], I got on a plane and came here. I didn’t even sleep on the plane. And except for one hour last night, I have not slept in two days."
I’ve always suspected famous people need less sleep than the rest of us, and here’s the proof. I contemplate her as we order cosmopolitans. I intend to study Madonna from all sides, like the Tower of London, and the first thing that strikes me (besides the crushing sense of my own pygmyness) is that the more children she gives birth to (her second child, Master Rocco Ritchie, arrived in August), and the more weddings she plans, the younger and prettier she looks.
To warm her up, I yammer about how great she was on Letterman four nights ago when she played guitar and sang "Don’t Tell Me" from her new album, Music. "Up until the moment I went onstage," says Madonna, "I kept saying to myself, ‘What am I f–ing doing? Who am I kidding? I just learned how to play guitar! Why am I doing this? Why am I challenging myself? Why am I torturing myself? If I play one chord wrong, I’m gonna look like an idiot. Why am I doing it?’ My guitar teacher showed up. And I kept saying to myself, ‘At any minute I can pull out. At any minute I can say I don’t want to do it.’ And I just went with it."
Madonna is so different from her rough, rude, wild-woman stage persona, it’s actually hard to believe she’s the same human being. "She’s just as interesting, God knows. Everything Madonna does is interesting. You know why? Because what she is doing 92% of the time is saying "Screw you," and the world trembles at a woman who says "Screw you." Frankly, it’s difficult for me to sit and look at her without wishing I’d spent my life saying "Screw you" so I could be rich and famous, too.
It also turns out she is small and quite beautiful. Madonna’s smallness is a big surprise. After watching her change images so rapidly through the years–reinventing herself with every new video, putting herself through an atom-smasher with every new album–she’s become like a giantess tromping across the continents, tall as a skyscraper, scattering cowgirl hats as big as soccer stadiums. It’s as if I have never seen her until this moment.
"You’ve made me feel so good!" I say, referring to her fear of fouling up.
"Really?" says Madonna.
"You are filled with doubts!"
"Oooh," says Madonna. She gives a demure shake to her Little Bo Peep hair.
"You! You! Madonna! You were scared to sing on Letterman and play guitar!"
"Well, I was incredibly nervous."
I swear to God, even though I know this "admission" is the established cliche in the celebrity racket, I still can’t help it. I want to grab her and propose to her myself.
Madonna puts her cosmopolitan on the table. "I think my biggest flaw is my insecurity."
Really, now. This is too much. I stand up and head toward the exit of the posh Blue Bar. "Stop the press!" shouts Madonna, laughing. "I know it doesn’t make any sense."
I sit back down. "Explain it," I say.
"Well," she says. She pauses a split second, bobbing her head trying to think how to describe it. I have every confidence she will find the words. This is, after all, the woman who wrote "Borderline," the greatest description of female orgasm in Twentieth-Century Art.
"I’m terribly insecure," she says. "I’m plagued with insecurities–24/7."
"So that means you do what you’re afraid to do?" I say.
"All the time," says Madonna.
Her eyes are great, wide-set, beaming things. They are a magnificent blue, the color, actually, of the room we are sitting in. The diamond ring given to her by Ritchie sparkles on her finger, her well-brushed hair shines in the candlelight, and what with the radiant smile, the glinting eyes, and the shiny overcoat, I feel I’m soaking up the rays thrown off by a full moon.
"If I’m afraid of it," says Madonna, "that generally means I have to do it."
Before we turn to the historical portion of this story, I’d like to note three facts: One, Madonna stays as slim as a lettuce leaf by practicing yoga every day. Tow, she’s spending a reported $1.5 million on her wedding. And three, she says that getting older is "the cycle of life and that you just have to accept."
"But what about all the young girls coming up behind you, filling the magazines and the movies with their prettiness?" I say.
"Oh," says Madonna, slitting her eyes like a cat, "they’ll get old and wrinkled and die, too."
Now, for the refresher course on Madonna’s background: Chrysler engineer Sylvio "Tony" Ciccone, a handsome first-generation Italian-American, and his wife, Madonna Louise Fortin, a captivating French-Canadian, had a happy family of sex children. Madonna Lousie "Veronica" (the name she chose at confirmation), born August 16, 1958, was their third child. The Ciccones lived in Rochester, Michigan. Madonna was only six when her mother died of breast cancer.
A show-off, a boy-chaser, a young genius at getting attention, Madonna flew to New York in 1977, asked a taxi driver to take her "to the center of everything," de-cabbed in the middle of Times Square, and in less than three years, the straight-A student schooled by nuns metamorphosed into the stunning star-to-be. Are you refreshed yet?
By 1984, she was a worldwide phenomenon with her songs "Holiday," "Lucky Star," and "like a Virgin."…Let’s speed things up here: So we have Sean Penn, "Material Girl," Desperately Seeking Susan, "Papa Don’t Preach," the wrath of Planned Parenthood, "Express Yourself," "Cherish," "Like a Prayer," condemnation to everlasting hell by the Vatican, Warren Beatty, Dick Tracy, "Justify My Love," MTV ban, first artist to sell her videos in stores, flabbergastingly rich, Truth of Dare, A League of Their Own, the book Sex, a new hailstorm of controversy, Evita Golden Globe award (for Evita), birth of her daughter, Lourdes Maria, in 1996, Ray of Light, Guy Ritchie, birth of Rocco Ritchie, global hit with Music. At present she is wearing black tweed trousers and a short black sweater in the Blue Bar of the Berkeley Hotel and looking too fabulous.
So fabulous, in fact, that a couple of businessmen in dark blue suits are looking at Madonna like two English bulldogs eyeing a slice of Italian ham. At last they can bear it no longer and come over.
"Ahem, excuse me," says the first businessman, genuflecting before her. "I know you’re busy. But can you sign an autograph for my 11-year-old daughter, Gemma?"
Madonna smiles at him like Catherine the Great.
"All right," she says.
He hands her a large sheet of paper and a pen.
"Thank you," he says. "Gemma with a G."
"Uuuuuuh, Britney Spears," says the second businessman. Both men are big and handsome and in their early thirties. "You were wearing that T-shirt"–a picture of Madonna wearing a T-shirt with Britney SPears written on it has run in papers all over the world. "It didn’t explain it in the newspaper."
Madonna looks at him kindly with her luminous blue eyes. He bobs in front of her in awe, even terror. "Why was I wearing it?" she says. "Why not?"
"It looked very good, actually," says the businessman. "I think you looked good in it."
"I love Britney," says Madonna earnestly, handing over the autograph. "Britney Spears became my talisman for the week"–the week she did Letterman and the show in New York. "I became obsessed with wearing [Britney] T-shirts. I slept in them, as well. It was like I felt it would bring me luck. And it did."
I sock myself on the head so hard when Madonna says this, I almost knock myself off my chair. Here is a woman who has controlled every aspect of her own career, who has had more hit singles than any singer or band in the history of the world except for Elvis and the Beatles, who has changed her image faster than a harem of New York fashion editors, and she sleeps in Britney Spears T-shirts for good luck! It just bowls me over.
"Who do you think is better-looking," I say to the two businessmen, "Madonna or Britney?"
"Oh!" shrieks Madonna softly. "Stop!" She turns a lovely pink.
"Shhh!" I say to her. "We got two guys here, and I want to know: Who’s better-looking?"
"We’re different!" says Madonna coyly. "Apples and oranges."
"No, no," I say, looking up at the two businessmen, who are practically clinging to one another in nervous excitement. "Who is better-looking? Britney or Madonna?"
"You’re more gorgeous in person," says the first businessman.
"Oh!" says Madonna, tilting her rather feline eyes up at him and smiling sweetly. "Thank you very much."
"And you know," he adds, "we’ve grown up with you."
Madonna’s smile fades.
"Let me put it this way," I say quickly, trying to smooth things over, or rather, smooth them under, "If you were on an island and you got to choose between Madonna and Britney Spears, who would you choose?"
For a moment, the second businessman appears to believe I am actually offering him his choice. Then he catches himself and smiles. "Gotta be Madonna," he says, "absolutely."
"Can I just say," Madonna says after the two businessmen, almost mad with glee, leave the room, "that I find it really irritating that everyone beats up on Britney Spears. I want to do nothing but support her and praise her and wish her the best. I mean, she’s eighteen years old! It’s just shocking. I wish I’d had my sh-t together when I was eighteen. I was so gawky and geeky and awkward and unsure of myself. I didn’t have a tan! I didn’t know how to dress! (Now you tell us, after we ran around covered in convent-loads of rosaries.)
"It’s just so different, " says Madonna, whose Il-Makiage makeup probably costs more than her whole 1983 wardrobe. She sweeps her hand out in a gesture to indicate the world. "It’s a real reflection of society right now."
"What would happen if you came to New York a little nobody today? Could you make it?"
Madonna gives me a frown like she could eat me without sauce. "Yes," she says. "I could. Because I’m a survivor." She grins at herself. "I’m like a cockroach. You just can’t get rid of me."
After we order two more cosmopolitans, we talk about the azurine lighting in the Blue Bar. Madonna says she loves it and that she hates "supermarket lighting."
"Phooo!" I say. "When was the last time you were in a supermarket?" "I’ve been in a supermarket," says Madonna. "I’ll give you 50 pounds if you were in a supermarket in the last year," I say. "I definitely was," says Madonna. "You definitely were not," I say. "Here in England I have been," says Madonna. "I’m talking about American supermarkets," I say. "No, not in an American one," says Madonna.
She looks at me and raises one eyebrow expectantly. "Oh! Okay! Okay! I’ll give you 25 pounds because you were in an English supermarket!" I say, pulling out my wallet. "I collect all bets," says Madonna, smiling and flopping out her hand like a big cod.
"I’ve been popular and unpopular, successful and unsuccessful, loved and loathed, and I know how meaningless it all is, therefore I feel free to take risks," Madonna says.
I look at her and think, This poor woman’s about to don the hideous Robes of Hymen. She’s yakking about ‘risks,’ and yet her cheeks are glowing like strawberry ice cream. I never say anybody so happy! Even worse, I hear Guy Ritchie, her handsome fiance, thinks Madonna will make a great wife! He’s obviously besotted and should be locked in the house. I had better advise her about wedlock right away.
And just as I begin…just as I am forming the first words and wallowing in Madonna’s total, undivided attention–her friend David Collins arrives with a big bouquet of chrysanthemums. He is the Irish designer who did the Blue Bar and Madonna’s New York apartment, and let me tell you, if there had been a bucket of paint handy, I would have painted his buttocks blue!
Because, alas, this is it for the interviewer.
Oh, I could drag it out, gentle reader. God knows I’ve brought enouch tape. But unfortunately, just as David Collins is saying how "time has stood still" for Madonna, I get so flustered I sort of heave a full glass of water all over her.
"Wooooo!" she cries and jumps out of her chair, sopping wet from waist to boot.
As the waiters descend on her with enough napkins to sop up the English Channel, she laughs and says, "That was unpredictable!"
"Have you got any food?" I say. "I could hurl that on you next!"
And before I know it, everyone has their coats on; I’m jamming my stuff back into my bag, and in the midst of waving and throwing kisses, I find myself outside on the street in front of the Berkeley Hotel.
Man! What a scene! I say, chuckling to myself.
As I walk to my own hotel through Knightsbridge, I think back to what Madonna said earlier about performing. She’d been talking about being onstage for the first time in five years in New York (where she’d been so awesome in her rockingness–more awesome than ever–that poor old yours truly nearly passed out from screaming).
"I don’t see the point of doing a show," Madonna had said, "unless you’re really going to make some great theater. I’m pretty bored with most live shows I see.
I don’t want to go and watch someone just stand onstage and play music. I want my senses overwhelmed.
I hadn’t been onstage in a while. The last time was pre-children. And before I went on [at Roseland], my kids were backstage, and I thought, This isn’t how I usually do it. I’ve got kids, and I’m thinking, This is weird. It’s weird juggling children on your knee while you’re in your rhinestone outfit. And I’m thinking, Okay, I’m gonna go out and do a show and I’m gonna be Superwoman! But I’m not really, ’cause I’m a mom. It’s all very strange."
Yes, indeed, Madonna, you’re a superwoman all right.
And it is all very strange. But you’ve freed more females than Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan put together, and make the world a more entertaining place. I’m walking along, thinking about what a marvel Madonna is, and it suddenly occurs to me that I have stuck her with the check.