Smash Hits (Dec 30 1987 / Jan 12 1988)
What’s it like to be the most famous woman in the history of pop? Shortly before the news broke about her marriage to Sean, Madonna sat down and poured out her heart. Smash Hits listened.
“Do I ever wonder ‘God, what have I created?’”
Madonna nods. “Oh yes.”
It’s hardly surprising. Five years ago Madonna Ciccone was just another ambitious American girl in her early 20s. She’d tried to be a dancer but had given up. She’d tried to be an actor – even appearing in a low budget porn film called A Certain Sacrifice to get “experience” – but had got nowhere (A Certain Sacrifice was only released earlier this year to cash in on her success). She’d tried to be a singer but her groups – The Breakfast Club, Emmy, Modern Dance – had flopped and her six months spent in Paris as some pop entrepreneurs tried to turn her into a disco sensation were a catastrophe. She never gave up but at times she was reduced to living off rubbish bin leftovers, popcorn, the proceeds from waitressing and a little nude modelling for photographic students.
But once she had had even the merest glimpse of fame she was determined to become as famous as possible – constantly making bigger selling records, playing larger concerts and making films. Bar the odd hiccup it’s worked beautifully. Now she’s one of the most famous people on the planet. And slowly she’s realised that it isn’t always that nice …
“Like when Desperately Seeking Susan came out,” she reminisces, “and I was going with a well known actor (i.e. Sean Penn), then I announced my marriage, then the Playboy and Penthouse pictures came out. (In other words the “nude” pictures she’d done in her days of poverty appeared in pervy “men’s” magazines.) Everything sort of happened at once – one big explosion of publicity. No matter how successful you are you could never ever anticipate that kind of attention.”
And it wasn’t the kind of attention she liked.
“At first the Playboy photos were very hurtful to me,” she remembers, “and I wasn’t sure how I felt about them. Now I look back at them and I feel silly that I ever got upset but I did want to keep some things private. It was like when you’re a little girl at school and some nun comes and lifts your dress up in front of everybody and you get really embarrassed. It’s not really a terrible thing in the end but you’re not ready for it and it seems so awful and you feel so exposed. Also, Penthouse did something really nasty. They sent copies of the magazine to Sean.” She stops and shakes her head, still choked by the memory.
“That whole time was nearly too much. I mean, I didn’t think I was going to be getting married with 13 helicopters flying over my head. It turned into a circus. In the end I was laughing. At first I was outraged, but then I was laughing. You couldn’t have written it in a movie. No one would have believed it. It was just so incredible, like a Busby Berkely musical or something that someone would stage to generate a lot of publicity for one of their stars.”
It wasn’t meant as a publicity stunt though, and she makes it clear she’d be upset if people misinterpreted it. But she might not be surprised. She’s rather used to being misinterpreted, these days. When she played an AIDS benefit in New York last summer (an artist friend and ex-flat mate Martin Burgoyne had died from the disease) she was saddened that all newspapers like the New York Times could do was talk about “shallow, kitschy pop entertainment”.
“There are still those people,” she comments bitterly, “who, no matter what I do, will always think of me as a little disco tart.”
Likewise, she’s still shocked by the reaction – especially in America – to her “Like A Virgin” single.
“To me I was singing about how something made me feel a certain way, brand new and fresh,” she says with exasperation, “and everybody else interpreted it as ‘I don’t want to be a virgin any more’. That’s not what I sang at all.” She reckons that’s only a symptom of the general problem of how women pop stars are treated.
“People have this idea,” she explains, “that if you’re sexual and beautiful and provocative then there’s nothing else you could possibly offer. People have always had that image about women. And while it may have seemed that I was acting in a stereotypical way I was masterminding everything I was doing. I was in control of everything – when people realised that then it confused them. I wasn’t saying ‘don’t pay attention to the clothes, to the lingerie I’m wearing’; the fact that I was wearing those clothes was meant to drive home the point that you can be sexy and strong at the same time.”
Sitting watching her wrestle with these issues, it’s obvious Madonna takes them pretty seriously. She’ll debate with herself for ages whether she’s a feminist. (She doesn’t really decide, just concludes that she gives women “strength and hope, particularly young women”.) She feels angry that she gets criticised for being sexy just because she’s a woman – “I think ‘why aren’t they letting this stand in the way of appreciating Prince’s music?” And she reckons lots of women don’t like her because “they’re taught that to be strong and respected they had to behave like men or not be sexy or feminine and it pissed them off that I was being that.”
“Actually,” she considers seriously, “I can’t complain. Plenty of people are getting my message. I’m not going to change the world in a day. Maybe men and women will never be equal. I think it would be much too idealistic to say that one day we will never be discriminated against because we’re women. I don’t know,” she murmurs, lost in her thoughts. “Am I too cynical?”
Since she first appeared people have always compared Madonna to the tragic film star Marilyn Monroe, mainly because they’re both blonde, independent and very very successful. Even though she deliberately copied a famous film sequence in which Marilyn Monroe sings “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” for her “Material Girl” video she’s never been too flattered by the comparison. She was only half-amused by an American story that she has a shrine to Marilyn in her bedroom.
“At first,” she admits, “I enjoyed all the comparisons between me and her. She was very sexy – extremely sexy – and she had blonde hair, and so on and so forth. Then it started to annoy me because nobody wants to be continuously compared to someone else. You want people to see that you have a statement of your own to make.
“But, yes,” she agrees, “I do feel something for Marilyn Monroe. A sympathy. Because in those days you were really a slave to the Hollywood machinery. I think she really didn’t know what she was getting herself into and simply made herself vulnerable, and I feel a bond with that. I’ve felt an invasion of privacy and all that – but I’m determined never to let it get me down. Marilyn Monroe was a victim and I’m not. That’s why there’s really no comparison.”
Nevertheless she does seem determined to spend more and more time on becoming an actress. She doesn’t really see that as a separate career though – her records are a type of acting too.
“For most people,” she explains earnestly, “music is a very personal statement, but I’ve always liked to have different characters that I project. I projected a very specific character for the ‘Like A Virgin’ album and then a much different character for ‘True Blue’. The problem is that in your public’s mind you are your image.”
And, she says, she’s not like them really.
“That’s why I called my tour ‘Who’s That Girl’, because I play a lot of characters and everytime I do a video or a song people go ‘oh that’s what she’s like.’ And I’m not like any of them. I’m all of them. I’m none of them. You know what I mean?”
She moves on to her marriage to Sean Penn. They’ve hardly had the easiest time of it, constantly on the front page of every paper. That didn’t surprise her.
“He had a sort of rebellious bad boy image and I had the same one only for a girl and I think the press really wanted to seize on the opportunity of that combination.”
Maybe what did surprise her though is that they seized on it so hard that sometimes it seems they’ve been willing her
marriage to fail just because it will make a good story.
“Yeah,” she agrees. “They couldn’t make up their mind. They wanted me to be pregnant or they wanted us to get a divorce. That put a lot of strain on our relationship after a while. It’s been a character-building experience and a test of love to get through all of it.
“A lot of times the press would make up the most awful things that we had done, fights that we never had. Then we would have a fight and we’d read about it and it would be almost spooky, like they’d predicted it or they’d bugged our phones or they were listening in our bedroom. It can be very scary if you let it get to you.”
Perhaps Madonna and Sean would have an easier time if they talked to the press more. Madonna shrugs.
“I’ve done numerous press conferences, numerous interviews. But I’m a lot more outgoing and verbal and at the beginning of my career I invited controversy and press and publicity and I don’t think he did at all. He was a very serious actor and it took him by surprise and therefore we deal with it quite differently.”
His way – quite frequently lashing out with his fists at nosey photographers – might be understandable but it’s hardly likely to win friends.
“I don’t like violence,” she says. “I never condone hitting anyone and I never thought that violence should have taken place. But on the other hand, I understood Sean’s anger, and believe me, I’ve wanted to hit them many times. I never would, you know, because I realise that it would just make things worse. Besides I vent my anger in other ways: I like to fight people and to manipulate them into feeling they’re not being fought.
“But, yes,” she says, “those were traumatic experiences and I don’t think they’ll be happening any more. I think Sean really believes it’s a waste of energy. But once they realised he was a target for that they really went out of their way to pick on him to the point where they would walk down the street and kind of poke at him and say ‘C’mon, c’mon, hit me, hit me.’ It’s not fair. And they insult me and they try to get him to react that way. You just have to have the strength to rise above it all.”
All rather horrible, and, by the sound of it, also rather too much for their marriage to stand. Sitting there now Madonna happily testifies to how much they love each other but since then the rumours about an imminent divorce finally seem to be coming true. No wonder that, even now, Madonna sometimes wonders whether being famous is really worth all this grief.
“Sure,” she considers quietly. “There have been times when I’ve thought, ‘If I’d known it was going to be like this I wouldn’t have tried so hard.’ But I feel that what I do affects people in a very positive way. And you can’t affect people in a large, grand way without being scrutinised and judged and put under a microscope and I accept that. If it ever gets too much or I feel like I’m being over scrutinized or I’m not enjoying it anymore then I won’t do it.
So what if she becomes even more famous?
“I don’t like to think about it,” she says. “It’s … distracting.”
But is the idea …?
“Is it scary?” she interrupts. “Sure. It’s both scary and exciting. Because who knows what will come out of it and what responsibilities I’ll have and what things will be taken away and what I’ll lose and what I’ll gain?
“I mean,” she concludes, “you don’t know until you get there…”
© Smash Hits