Three years shy of 50, Madonna – mother of two, devoted wife, Kabbalist, children’s author and pop icon – has lost none of her ability to startle.”I like to wake people up,” she says quietly, as she sips a glass of iced tea at Home House, the private London club where she has entertained friends Demi Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow. I’m Gonna Tell You a Secret, her documentary of 2004’s Re:Invention tour, which airs on Channel 4 next month is bound to make us sit up, as is her new album, Confessions on a Dance Floor.
The queen of all that is mad, bad and most deliberately dangerous to know has always set out to destabilize the status quo. “If I had an aim,” she says, “it was to show that you could be sexy and have a brain. It was always going to be a wake-up call.”
In black tracksuit and baseball cap, she is direct, relaxed, curious, quick-witted and occasionally ironic, with a sexually charged charisma. Her hair is unfussily arranged under her cap and the makeup is minimal. She is small (5ft 41in), even delicate, which makes all the more remarkable the stadium scenes where she has 30,000 fans eating out of her hand.
At a party she can seem almost invisible: no diva-like entrance or sparkling, show-off outfits. She is modest and, in fact, easy to miss – until she turns her attention to you. Her private life is a million miles from showbiz pizzazz. At home she likes it cosy: snuggling up on a sofa with a book, chatting to friends.
The bio-doc – which shows her merrily swigging a pint in a pub with her husband, Guy Ritchie, swearing and laughing at blue jokes – is very Madonna. She doesn’t do conformity or convention: “Life is a paradox and I’m not a saint,” she says. “I don’t claim to be righteous or anything.”
The film (cut from 350 hours to just under two) is the most revealing take on her life ever. “I married Guy for all the wrong reasons,” she declares provocatively at one point. It starts with a voiceover reciting a doom-laden warning from the Book of Revelation that the material world will be our undoing. That’s right – a spiritual health warning from the Material Girl. Kabbalah is to Madonna what the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was to the Beatles. “I have a huge ego,” she says. “I needed to change. Knowing is the beginning.”
Material Girl was, she says, never meant to be taken at face value. “Somehow people have always missed my sense of irony. Irony’s not big in America. I have never been a material girl.
“I don’t need to drive around in flash cars and I don’t need to show off. I’m perfectly happy to go for walks every day for a month at my house in the countryside. That doesn’t mean I can’t have expensive tastes, like nice sheets on my bed, or enjoy architecture and pictures. But I do know what makes for a healthy balance in life.”
The biggest change in her life has been Ritchie. Asking to be introduced as Mrs Ritchie when she presented the Turner prize in 2001 was no playful conceit – her personal letterhead says Mrs Ritchie. Marriage is a big deal for her, which brings us to that “marrying for the wrong reasons” comment. “I just meant I went into the marriage saying, “He’s fantastically talented, very witty, very smart. He’s going to make me laugh and look good because he’s so successful and, of course, he’s gorgeous, sexy and handsome”.
“But none of those things mean anything after you’ve been sharing a life together for a few years and you’re dealing with raising children and scheduling and finances. You have to go back to what is the point of this marriage. You go to school to learn how to learn and I think marriage is about learning to learn as well. Diane Sawyer (the US television journalist) once said to me that a good marriage is a contest of generosity – I thought that was a good thing to say.”
She is adamant that marriage is far better than just living together. “When you live with someone you don’t really respect the union completely. There isn’t the same sense of responsibility. You can leave whenever you like.”
Was committing to marriage scary? “No, I wasn’t scared at all, not the first or the second time. That is the domain of men,” she retorts. Of her marriage to Sean Penn she says: “I just wasn’t ready to be married before. I was completely obsessed with my career and not ready to be generous in any shape or form.”
In a cameo appearance in his wife’s film, Ritchie comes across as very much his own man. He is unshaven, classless, comfortable with himself and “the missus”. They banter away sweetly. “Aren’t you going to wish me luck?” she asks just before she goes on stage. “Go on, bird, fly,” he says. He is very, very normal, very English – he likes to sing old English country ballads with friends over a pint or three in his local – and this stands in contrast to the craziness of a pop tour.