If there is one quality that marks my long professional relationship with Madonna, it is her matter-of-factness. She never ever beats around the bush, acts coy, promises what she cannot deliver. When I got through to her here in Manhattan, on the eve of her six-night sold-out stand at Madison Square Garden, the star said, “Liz, I’m glad to do this for you, but what more do you need to know about me? You know more about me than I do myself.” I promised I wouldn’t ask her more than 20 questions. She laughed, “Oh, I’ve heard that before!”
The funny thing is, for all the column space I have devoted to this remarkable woman, I had to be prodded to pay attention to her, back in the day. She was already a big star by the time she appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1985, but I was keeping my distance. Others then clued me into MTV, to her videos, her persona, her daring. When I spoke to Rosanna Arquette, on the eve of “Desperately Seeking Susan” being released, she claimed Madonna – who had a supporting role in the film – said to her, “Wouldn’t you give anything to be me for just an hour?” Rosanna demurred, but I loved that remark. It reminded me so much of other great ego-driven stars – Streisand, Diana Ross, Mae West!
And so Madonna became a column constant. I didn’t always agree with what she said, or what she did, but the hysterical over-reaction to her caused me, if not to defend her, then at least try to put a more balanced perspective on her astonishing ongoing saga – which the rest of the media kept insisting was just about to end. She gave me access and trusted my judgment. She gave me the scoop on her first pregnancy – “Liz, I’m pregnant!” she barked without preamble, all the way from Budapest, as filming began on “Evita.” She was generous. When I met her face to face for the first time, at the premiere of “Truth or Dare,” I was being profiled for “Prime Time Live.” The producers wanted her to talk about me. I did not think this would happen. I was wrong. Madonna said, “I like Liz Smith because she has big balls, just like me!”
And, at the height of her “Sex” book/”Body of Evidence” notoriety, Madonna called from the out of the blue. “Hi, it’s Madonna,” getting right to the point. “I just want to say thanks for the all the support. I know you get a lot of crap because of it.” I did. I still do. And I couldn’t care less.
Liz: Are you happy to be back in New York, performing your shows at the Garden?
Madonna: I am always happy to be back here, because, as I’ve often said, this is where it began and I still consider New York home. I didn’t leave Michigan and go to Hollywood. I came to New York, which was the center of the world to me then. My connection to this city and its people will always be very strong. I’ve had plenty of fun in this city and the audiences are always fabulous.
Liz: You say it was the center of the world “then.” No longer? You prefer England?
Madonna: England is where my husband is from and I made the choice to live there with him. But the center of my world is my family. We travel back and forth and I feel privileged to be able to live in the U.S. and in Britain.
Liz: If your family is your center, why do you work so much?
Madonna: Because I love my work, too, and I have much to say and so much to do.
Liz: What’s the best part about being a mother?
Madonna: Not thinking about yourself all the time.
Liz: And the worst?
Madonna: Not thinking about yourself all the time!
Liz: And marriage?
Madonna: Diane Sawyer once said that marriage is a contest of generosity and I agree but sometimes I lose and sometimes I win. But I am still in the game and this game has taught me the art of compromise and the art of diplomacy. These two qualities have served me well.
Liz: Did kaballah help you adjust?
Madonna: Having a spiritual life has forced me to be less selfish. Not that I’m serene by any means. I’m still driven by big fat ego and all my insecurities, but I manage better.