Once again, Madonna has the world watching – her style, her body-and dancing to her disco beat. She reflects on her role as revolutionary, how marriage calms her, and why physicality is power.
Drones, the private London club Madonna has picked for tea, is a paneled, oaky affair with mirrored concertina screens at the back, suggestive of very grand adulteries, the muffled hum of elegantly wicked luncheon conversation, and supersize glitter balls like small planets suspended from the ceiling. Decorum with a generous scoop of disco stirred in – just as the lady likes it.
Madonna is a regular at Drones. She threw a birthday party here for her old man, film director Guy Ritchie-35 guests, four acoustic guitars, and jam sessions until two in the morning. For tea, however, the staff knows to prepare the table she likes at the back, beneath a treacly oil painting which I assume is an original Dufy, but which Madonna assures me (flirtatious smile, huge amused eyes, mobile brows) is absolutely “fake.”
If I’d been hoping for Madonna to show up in one of the Saturday Night Fever-esque spandex ensembles she’s been sporting of late, my expectations would be dashed. Rather, she’s dressed as chic as can be in black velvet custom Roberto Cavalli knickerbockers “made for me in every color-I’m obsessed with pants that go just below your knee,” a sexy little black sweater with keyhole decollete, a black Russian-looking Versace riding coat, striped Alice in Wonderlandover-the-knee “disco socks,” and black Louis-heel Miu Miu character shoes, which she twirls for both of us to admire. Her hair, worn smooth and close to the head with a side-parted ponytail tucked into the back of her coat, recalls the Eton crop of another Madonna, in her sometime androgyne Erotica days-much edgier than the soft Farrah flicks she has recently been fond of. Overall, I observe, the look is very Prince Charming, very principal boy. “Okay. Good,” she smiles, flashing the famous gap in her teeth. “I like chat.”
Today is Madonnas first day back in London after spending Christmas at Ashcombe, her country home on were a rough-and-tumble family time, affording fewer sleep-ins than she had banked on (sublime interludes: horse-riding lessons with her new instructor, William Fox-Pitt, a celebrated Olympic eventer). Still, Madonna is clearly glad to be back in the work saddle. “That’s the beauty of holidays, isn’t it? You suddenly remember why you left home in the first place.”
Madonnas 2006 schedule is as ambitious as you would expect. She wants to tour this year, and while this is by no means confirmed, she’s already met with conical-bra maestro Jean Paul Gaultier to talk costumes (inspiration: “English riding clothes, lots of black, black riding coats”). She’s also keen to direct a feature film and is at work on a script about the dancers she’s been working with lately, charismatic personalities whom, as the two show-and-tell documentaries of her career attest (1991s Truth or Dare and I’m Going to Tell You a Secret, released on DVD next month), she can’t help falling in love with. And tomorrow she starts roller-skating lessons in preparation for her video for “Sorry,” the second single from Confessions on a Dance Floor. “IVe got one of my assistants breaking in my roller skates for me right now,” she grins, “roller-skating all over the house.”
There is something very joyous and spirit lifting about Madonnas 21st-century disco reinvention. Her nonstop, unironicdanceathon is a glittering love letter not just to her own early career but to the kings and queens of sexy, thumping, many-beats-per-minute euphoric pop: ABBA, Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees. No wonder its irresistible.
As for Madonnas victorious comeback performance at the MTV Europe Music Awards in Lisbon last November-less than three months after she broke nine bones in a horse-riding accident on her birthday and 23 years after her first single, “Everybody,” became a hit in the New York clubs-it has justifiably earned its own chapter in the iconic history of disco, an “I Will Survive” for 2005. “Yeah. Well, I did survive 2005,” she smiles wryly. “It was a very tumultuous year. I felt like I came out of my disco bail like most people get shot out of a cannon. Forget about riding a horse again-I didn’t know if I was going to be able to dance again. When I shot the video [for “Hung Up”] none of the bones had gone together. Pharmaceuticals and my will got me through the shoot. So to come out of that, I felt so much inspiration and so much joy just to have my body back and to feel strong again.”
Of course, Madonna didn’t just look strong; in her spray-on leotard and fierce 1970s styling, bumping what can only be described as buns of steel, she looked absolutely jaw-droppingly fantastic. Did she do something different, exercise-wise? “I kind of started all over again. I used to be a freak about doing yoga, but I had to do a lot of Pilates to rehab my shoulder joint and get the use of my arm back. So I started really getting into Pilates and dancing more. My Pilates instructor was a dancer, so my workouts became much more ballet-oriented, rather than the visceral, gymnastic, ashtanga yoga thing.”
And this changed her actual shape? “I think it made me less muscular, believe it or not. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I stopped doing [yoga] and you shock your body. James D’Silva, my Pilates instructor here in London, is a genius. Now all my girlfriends go to him, and we’re fighting to have appointments.” She playacts imperious, queenly Madonna: “I’m very irritated.”
Madonnas music is back in the soundtrack to our lives, so the back catalogue of her looks is feeding the imagination of fashion designers. In fact, the Spring 2006 collections are a veritable Madonna retrospective: “La Isla Bonita” at Yves Saint Laurent; her gamine matelot tee from “Papa Don’t Preach” updated on Jean Paul Gaul tiers runway; Balenciaga’s sublime collection, so “Like a Virgin”; “Nothing Really Matters” geisha echoed in the sexy dresses at Lanvin. Meanwhile, the Stella McCartney three-piece Madonna rocked at Live 8 last summer has ushered in a wholesale revival of the white suit.
Of the above, Madonna is most excited by her geisha look (“Love. Obsessed with that whole world”) and the full-on froth of “Like a Virgin” (“Cool. Because I wasn’t trying too hard”). Essentially, she is a woman at peace with her fashion past. “Some of the early ’80s looks I’m not terribly fond of.” Surely she’s not referring to her Keith Haring fluorescent-graffiti tube skirt (top tip: neon’s going to be big)
One has only to Google “Madonna, leotard” to see how provocatively bothersome the sight of a physically potent 47-year-old waggling her sexy booty is. “Well, I think passive beauties have their place in the world,” she says. “It’s hard for me to relate to that because I’ve never been a very passive person. Physicality, feeling strong, feeling empowered was my ticket out of middle-class Midwest culture. So I equate movement and strength with freedom.”
Propelling herself from a Catholic childhood in Michigan from one reinvention to the next, each stage of Madonnas 200-million-plus-album-selling career has been expressed not just in music and movement but in an arresting, eye-popping visual. And just as for fall-this is a key reference)? “No! I love that skirt. But in those days I was collaborating with people like Warhol, Keith Hating, Jean-Michel Basquiat-not fashion people. I was kind of wearing other peoples art, if you know what I mean.” Amused eyebrows. “It wasn’t necessarily flattering.”
Fast-forward to an interesting moment in I’m Going to Tell You a Secret Madonna says she likes to think of a concert as an art installation. It’s a little psychological trick she plays on herself to overcome first-night nerves, because at an art performance mistakes don’t really matter. Ironically, the territory Madonna has been staking out and exploring so fearlessly for the past 20 years in pop-sexuality, identity, the body, religion, taboo breaking, autobiography-is precisely the stuff that preoccupies many contemporary artists today. Madonna is far too savvy to make high-art claims for her own oeuvre; however, she does say she feels particular kinship with artist Tracey Emin (whose work she admired long before she invited Emin to join her posse of British friends) “because her work is very confessional. I think most female artists are that way. Maybe not in pop music, but if you look at the work of Sylvia Plath or Frida Kahlo or the poetry of Anne Sexton, a lot of female artists take what they’ve experienced in their life and put it into their work. I don’t think I’m so original or unusual in that respect. Maybe people aren’t so used to it in pop culture.”
I’m To Going to Tell You a Secret is an eclectic melange of Madonna moments. Through all the wild juxtapositions-the on-the-road reportage, the sweetly domestic Ritchie family video diary, the soft-focus consciousness-raising ads for spirituality in general and Kabbalah in particular-the one thing that consistently floats to the surface is her humor, sometimes bawdy, often surprisingly self-deprecating. Madonna is hilarious kvetching with her glam squad that Guy is more intimate with his jiu-jitsu partners (often members of her security staff, whom he usurps for his own purposes) than he is with her. Jump-cut to Madonna all dressed up in her Lacroix stage corset: “What’s the difference between a pop star and a terrorist?” she vamps. “You can negotiate with a terrorist.”
Madonna is pleased with the film, but she’s pretty sanguine that not all her creative efforts will be welcomed with open arms. “It’s not good for you to always be well received,” she shrugs, referring to the response to her last album, American Life, and its overtly antiwar message. “It makes you try harder and gives you a strength and conviction to go against the grain and stand up for what you believe in-and it’s fuel for my fire because I like being a rebel.”
Of all her incendiary incarnations, what does she regard as the most risky? “The one that freaks people out the most? Having a spiritual life. That freaks people out way more than taking my clothes off and having pictures of myself taken and put into a book.” Droll pause. “Ironically.”
Whether or not she consciously sought it out, Madonna has become a potent role model for contemporary womanhood. “I just love women who are strong and tough. I like Christiane Amanpour-she’s cool, and also a friend of mine. Hillary Clinton…” She falters, clearly racking her mental search engine. “In the world that I’m in, the entertainment world, I don’t find a lot of women to look up to. There are loads of great actresses and singers, but I don’t find a lot of women visionaries, people who take risks, who are revolutionary in some way. Those are the kinds of women I am inspired by.”
What does she think of Kate Moss, another conspicuous female agent provocateur but one who chooses to say very little? “She’s very beautiful. I don’t know her that well, I know she’s taken a lot of crap lately and had a lot of bad press. I’d like to think she’s going to come back and surprise us. We can’t all be beautiful and have a champagne glass in our hand for the rest of our life. We have to come up with other things,” Madonna says, very calm and sage. “She’s got a lot of spunk and a rebellious spirit in her, and it would be great if she could channel that into something a bit more creative. She’s always been very sweet and lovely when I’ve run into her. I haven’t got anything bad to say about her.”
Madonna-she’s come a long way, baby. Thank motherhood: She cites the birth of her daughter, Lourdes (by onetime fitness trainer Carlos Leon), nearly 10 years ago as the catalyst for her spiritual quest. Also thank marriage to Guy (10 years her junior and father of their five-and-a-half-year-old son, Rocco), a union that has categorically changed her. “You become less impulsive, less reckless, less careless, less selfish. In chose respects I’ve changed a lot.”
Madonna and Guy celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in December by getting “very drunk in a pub,” a regular Ritchie haunt in the middle of Dorset, where they don’t mind Madonna bringing in her own Krug Rose. “It was really sweet and intimate,” she says, almost shyly. “I usually have rather grand affairs: I insist that all my friends put on shows in my country house, or I have a big party in the city, or we go back to Scotland, where we got married. But this time I decided to do it very low-key because it’s been a really hectic year.”
And how is matrimony five years in? “I must admit, I have to pat myself on the back. Its not easy to be married, to have a successful career, to have children, to be with someone who is as strong-willed and ambitious as I am. Guys not a househusband, and I’m not a typical wife. So you can imagine, we have our clashes. But I think we always keep our eye on the ball; that is, our marriage- the union of us, the things that we create together-is bigger than the petty fights we have.”
What, I wonder, is the recipe for a perfect Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie vacation? A wry pause. “We have slightly differing tastes when it comes to holidays, my husband and I. I’m not into lying out in the sun. He loves the sea and fishing and being on a boat, outdoors, nature stuff. I’d rather go to India and check out all the temples or go to Bhutan,” she sighs good-naturedly. “We have had this discussion, and he’s got to start doing more of the holidays I like to do. We could go to India for a week and do my version. The second week would be the Maldives-sea, sun, and frolicking on the beach.” She groans. “I’m no fun in the sun.”
Co-ed vacations aside, it must be said that Madonna is terrific fun at fashion-and-beauty girl talk over a pot of Earl Grey and a chocolate truffle. For those frantic to know how she keeps her skin looking so sickeningly porcelain doll-like, she reckons the secret is the oxygen facials she’s been indulging in for just over a year. In fact, she’s invested in an oxygen machine for each of her houses. “You can also take the oxygen machine and inhale if you’re feeling really tired or jet-lagged, which is one of the reasons I have them at home. You just lie down for 10 minutes and put it in your nose,” she giggles. “They are really great.”
Her verdict on which jeans make a girl s ass look the cutest: “Right now I would say Stella McCartney for H&M jeans.” The item currently in her wardrobe that instantly imparts a feeling of fabulousness? “Well, I am rather addicted to my YSL boots, which have been custom-made for me in every color-square toe, laced up the front, and very high heels.”
And where does pop’s rebel queen buy her knickers (that’s “panties” to you, but as Madonna and I are speaking in Mayfair, we use the British parlance)? “Everywhere. From Marks & Spencer, your standard white cotton underpants- one of my husband’s favorites. Selfridges has a fantastic lingerie department, La Perla, Deborah Marquit, who does a lot of custom-made underwear and bras. She designed some stuff for one of my tours, so she knows how to make underwear and bras that really fit me.”
The afternoon is drawing on. In the spirit of Madonnas film, would she like to share a secret? “What can I tell that I haven’t already told?” she does a campy German accent. “I probably work too much, but that’s not a secret, is it?” she asks, looking faintly appalled that she can’t think of anything more outrageous. “Probably the most irritating habit I have is that I’m too organized. If someone throws something on the floor or over a chair, I have to pick it up and hang it up.” Excruciating pause. “I have a taste for very expensive wine and champagne, but that’s not a secret. I love Bordeaux. I’m rather obsessed with drinking red wine.” And luxurious foodstuffs on occasion: “Once a year I indulge and have foie gras, which is one of my favorite decadent-eating pleasures. I get this foie gras from Paris-you have to drink Chateau d’Yquem with it.” A solo vice, or are others allowed to join in? ‘This year I went to Christmas Eve dinner at Sting and Trudie’s, and I shared it with them. That’s an indulgence.”
The club is empty now. Nearby, a waitress is ironing pristine linens on tables where they have already been spread. “That’s brilliant,” murmurs Madonna, her inner neat freak entranced. I ask her if she could write a letter to her 19-year-old self, the one who pitched up in New York almost 30 years ago with $35 in her pocket, what would she say to her?
“You’re not going to believe what’s going to happen to you…” she speaks slowly, choosing her words carefully. “But remember these things: Never take any of it personally. If you really want to be a revolutionary, you have to be prepared to be unpopular. Don’t do it if you don’t really mean it, and-what else?” she says, staring at her Miu Miu heels, a subtle smile creeping up on her lips. “None of it is real.”
© Harper’s Bazaar