ELLE (May 2008)
Enlisting Timbaland, Pharrell and Justin Timberlake to help craft her boundary-burning record Hard Candy Madonna sits down with fanboy and fashion maven Simon Doonan to discuss the state-of-the-art dance album, her new film that will save the world, and why Lourdes loves to shop with mom.
Wednesday, February 20, is quite possibly one of the most surreal days of my life. Things get off to a wacky start when my cabdriver – I am barreling toward JFK at some ungodly hour — insists on calling me “ma’am”, throughout the journey. In an effort to generate it bit of respek, I tell him the purpose of my trip. “I’m off to L.A. today, to interview Madonna,” I say in a manly, confident kind of way.
“That, nice for you, ma,am,” he replies in a skeptical tone revealing that he believes me to be not just a woman, but it thoroughly deluded woman.
The surrealism continues: On the plane, I make a complete spectacle of myself by sobbing all the way, through the 80-minute documentary I Am Because We Are. Madonna produced this devastatingly powerful film to highlight the plight of the orphaned and HIV-afflicted population of Malawi, in southeastern Africa. If her goal has always been to engage the emotions of her public, this may be Madge’s most successful venture ever.
After a recuperative nap, I plug in Hard Candy, Madonna’s new CD, and indulge in a session of age-inappropriate jiggling. As I groove and shimmy and sing along – “My sugar is raw / sticky and sweet” – and contemplate the increasingly multifaceted tour de force that is Madonna Louise Ciccone, a serious thought occurs to me: Could it be that Madge has made the transition from diva to deity?
My admiration for La Ciccone is long-standing. Her trajectory and desire for glamour and self-expression have inspired and awed me for more than two decades. What irks some writers about Madonna – her discipline, her drive, her lack of self-destructive tendencies — is exactly what makes me love that little spitfire more and more. By clawing her way to the top, she gave me, and millions of marginalized freaks just like me, permission to claw our way to the lower half of the middle – and I, for one, am hugely grateful. In an era when downward aspiration is applauded and rewarded, Madonna, thrusting, szooshy positivity remains an exhilarating force.
This year, Madonnaworld is reaching a bewildering apotheosis that has even die-hard Madge-ophiles like me reeling backward on our disco roller skates. In addition to her documentary, she has directed an independent movie titled Filth and Wisdom. Girlfriend has also become a globally respected philanthropist. One more hit song and she could beat Elvis’ record for racking up the most top-I0 singles of all time. Diva to deity.
As I drive down Sunset to rendezvous with our lady, of the cone bras, I realize that 1 am insanely nervous. Even though I have met her, albeit briefly, on a couple of occasions, I feel as if I am about to encounter God – or have a colonoscopy, or both. I try to stay calm, but it’s not easy. I am a big, screaming gay fan who, if he doesn’t get a grip on himself, runs the risk of making Kathy Bates’ character in Misery look like a happy, well-balanced enthusiast.
Madonna lives in an incredibly glum Gloria Swanson-esque Hollywood mansion, and when I say lives, I mean lives! The chicly opulent decor, the paintings (some of which, like my day, are extremely, surreal), the landscaping, and the bustling retinue reveal that Mr. and Mrs. Guy Ritchie are totally large-ing it. We’re talking Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
The lady of the house appears in the doorway of her music room.
Catherine Deneuve said that as a woman ages, “Il faut choisir entre le visage et le derriere.” Rough translation: She has to decide between a big ass or a haggard face. Madonna never got the memo. She has both a tight face and it tight ass. She is perfection.
ELLE: My cabdriver thought I was a woman and kept calling me “ma’am.” Do I look like a woman to you?
MADONNA: No. But maybe is the Paul Smith shirt. [I look down and clock my hallucinogenic art-nouveau Liberty-print button-down and realise that she may be onto something.]
ELLE: Enough about me. Let’s talk about your outfit. I want details.
Madonna’s elegant at-home ensemble is a symphony in beige and cream: Think Faye Dunaway in Network with a bit of Jean Harlow thrown in.
M: The heels are Miu Miu. The blouse is Diane von Furstenburg. The cardigan is H&M, from my own collection. Undies? Can’t remember, ’cause I always cut the tags off. The pants are from River Island, one of Lola’s [Lourdes'] favorite shops on Oxford Street. I’m having a high-low day.
ELLE: Do you ever go shopping incognito?
M: Lola likes us to do that. The incognito never really lasts very long, because everyone knows I wear baseball caps. So I guess I don’t really, have an incognito.
ELLE: What’s the dynamic among your three kids?
M: Lola [age 11] rules the roost. She is extremely maternal toward David [the much talked-about Malawian toddler, age two and a half, the circumstances of whose adoption are clarified in Madge's documentary]. He is the apple of everyone’s eye right now. Lola is in major competition with Rocco [age seven], but he’s starting to fight back. But when nobody’s looking, the two of them still creep into bed and cuddle. It’s a closet kind of love.
ELLE: Who does the disciplining between you and Guy?
M: Oh, definitely me. Guy’s a softie when it comes to our kids.
ELLE: How do you strike a balance?
M: Work is important to both of us. We have to be highly organized and navigate family responsibilities.
ELLE: When was the last time you took a family vacation?
M: Guy and I and the kids went to India over Christmas. We really got away from it all.
ELLE: Does he share your passion for Malawi?
ELLE: What’s his favorite hobby?
M: Jujitsu. I don’t get it – grown men throwing each other around. But he loves it.
ELLE: What do you talk about in bed?
M: None of your business!
Kubbitzing about her husband puts a definite twinkle in Madge’s eye.
ELLE: Do you guys watch Catherine Tate (the groundbreaking UK comedy sensation now on BBC America)?
M: Yes. She’s brilliant. Lourdes does a great imitation of the character who keeps telling everyone she’s “not bovvered.” She likes to play the chav. [Chav refers to a genre of uncouth UK citizen.]
ELLE: On the topic of Brits: Why is a nice Jewish girl like Amy Winehouse covering herself in tats and dating prison inmates? Can’t you kabbalah some sense into her?
M: It You better ask her. If she’s not ready, then kabbalah can’t do too much. She’s talented, but I have not been following her dramas. I don’t read the tabloids.
ELLE: Arent you glad you got famous before the era of selfdestruction, rehab, and crotch-flashing?
M: I came on the heels of punk. There was lots of stuff going on, but there wasn’t the coverage. This new Hollywood generation is not punk rock. They are more bourgeois. It’s time to flash something new.
ELLE: Speaking of trying to get attention: You and I have both spent years trying to get our respective fathers’ attention via shock tactics. I once told my dad that instead of getting a job, I was going to sell my body on the Left Bank to rich old men (Madge has a good chortle at this, which greatly eases my nerves]. Needless to say, he rolled his eyes and ignored me. What’s the most insane thing you ever said to your dad to get his attention?
M: “I’m not going to church anymore.”
ELLE. Is your dad going to vote for McCain?
M: I try to stay away from political discussions with him. We agree to disagree.
I am finally starting to relax. Madge may be a deity, but she is an interesting, cultivated, hamische kind of a deity.
ELLE: What are you reading?
M: I’m alternating between The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
ELLE: Listen, to?
M: When I’m working out, Timbaland, Britney, Kylie, Rihana, Nelly Furtado, all the dance-hall queens. When I’m not working out, it’s about movie soundtracks: Almodovar, Nino Rota; I’m loving those guys who did the soundtrack to Hamam.
ELLE: When Cher works out, she watches Cops, allegedly.
M: I don’t watch TV.
Madonna’s chef enters with a platter of yunmey tofu desserts.
ELLE: Are you still macrobiotic?
M: I’m not so strict. I eat steak once in a while. And potato chips, or “crisps,” as you Brits call them.
Elle: August l6 [Madonna's fiftieth birthday] ? Let’s discuss. Are you mad, sad, glad, or afraid?
M: I haven’t thought about it.
Maybe I am a deranged fan who has drunk the Kool-Aid, but I actually believe her. Madge is busy. Madge has other fish to fry. And since Madge looks like a well-preserved 38, why would she wish to bum herself out by planning festivities to mark her half century?
ELLE: Andy Warhol said, “If you can convince yourself that you look fabulous, you can save yourself the trouble of primping.” Are you ever tempted to surrender to middle age and Spanx and chocolate cake?
M: Wearing Spanx is primping. Plus, I already enjoy chocolate cake. And P.S. Andy Warhol cared a lot about the way he looked. That’s why he always wore those fluffy wigs.
ELLE: Let’s talk about Hard Candy.
M: Which is your favorite track?
ELLE: I love “Dance Tonight” and “4 Minutes.” My favorite is “Give It 2 Me.” I can really see myself getting into some wild, old-school aerobics with that song.
I flash to a memory of doing aerobics next to Madonna at some cheesy West Hollywood exercise studio in the early ’80s. She wore her RayBans during leg lifts. I was impressed.
M: I’m totally getting back into those ’80s exercise moves.
ELLE: Give me a couple of words to describe each of your collaborators on this record. Pharrell?
M: Smooth operator.
Elle: Justin Timberlake?
M: Cheshire cat.
Elle: I’m not familiar with the process of making a record. Is it agony, or is it fun?
M: Sometimes you get stuck, and it’s agony. The best songs you write in 20 minutes. There’s a flow. When you start overthinking everything, you’re in trouble. It can get painful.
ELLE: “Spanish Lesson” is a fierce track. Is that a euphemism for something naughty?
M: No, it’s just me being silly. But maybe I will make it into a euphemism for something.
ELLE: Are any of the songs on Hard Candy autobiographical?
M: Not consciously or explicitly. When I write, I’m often channeling and collaging from my life without being conscious of it. Then it hits me later. Art imitates life.
ELLE: As a pop star, you have more freedom to create and evolve, I think. Serious art can get heavy and constipated. Paul Valery apparently said, “Everything changes, except the avant-garde.” Discuss.
M: I disagree. Whatever is avant-garde eventually becomes mainstream and changes the norm. Maybe avant-garde music stays the same, but avant-garde visual art and style, that’s what has real influence and inevitably becomes mainstream.
ELLE: Let’s talk about Malawi. I Am Because We Are is truly one of the most harrowing things I’ve seen. Was that intentional?
M: I wanted to tell the truth. Believe me, I took out some of the incredibly harrowing stuff. My goal was to make a film that would serve the interests of the people of Malawi. I think it ends on a hopeful note.
ELLE: There are so many memorable people in the movie. I’m mad for that lady in the floral muumuu who gives the slum tour.
M: Her name is Theresa. She runs a community-based program to get drugs for people with AIDS and to get the orphans – there are one million out of a population of 12 million — into school.
ELLE: Are the Malawians surprised that you are so dressed down and supercasual? Why not give them the whole Madonna treatment? Sequined corsets! Bonjour!
M: They are not thinking about such fripperies. And when I first went there, the Malawians had no idea who I was. It was only when the press showed up that they found out.
ELLE: How much money did you raise at the UN blowout?
Madge and Gucci cohosted a flossy fundraiser at the UN on February 6. It was major. There were so many celebs that I thought I had wandered into Madame Tussaud’s. When Rihanna did “Umbrella.” TomKat got jiggy. The goody bag contained a Guccy Love NY purse.
M: About $5.5 million
ELLE: Mazel tov! I was very impressed that you kissed the auction’s winning bidders, especially during cold and flu season.
M: I’m a bit of a germphobe, but when people are being generous they deserve a hug and a kiss.
ELLE: What’s the next step on your African journey?
M: I’ve planted many seeds. I’m buying land and getting permission to build a girls’ school. The women will play a big role in the future and the rebirth of Malawi.
ELLE: How can ELLE readers get involved?
M: Go to the website, lambecauseweare.com. We have a scholarship fund, a special-needs kids fund. There’s so much to do.
This iteration of Madonna — Mother Theresa Madge — sparks another memory: I saw her at a party in the mid-’80s with her AIDS-stricken artist pal Martin Burgoyne. Martin was blighted with Kaposi’s sarcoma. Back when people were reluctant to be in the same room as someone with this stigmatized disease, Madge stayed with him and held his hand all night; she was wearing a denim jacket that he had painted.
The plight of the people of Malawi and its resonance with the dark days of the AIDS epidemic have made us both a little sad. The mood shifts when we embark on a jolly discussion of the comparative merits of the C-word – yes, the one that Jane Fonda recently used on the Today show. Madonna the deity has not lost her bawdy sense of fun. Much of what was said is unprintable, but here are the general conclusions: Madge and I are big fans of the word. We are, however, both sensitive to the fact that, while the Brits love to sling it around like an okl feather boa, it must be used with infinite caution on this side of the Atlantic.
Having clarified our position on this important issue, we shake hands and bid each other farewell. As I said, it was a surreal kind of day.
© ELLE Magazine