Risque Business At Time Warner
Madonna Kicks Up Another Controversy For The Company. But While The Public May Find ‘Sex’ Distasteful, The Star’s Deal Is Sweet.
With the publication of “Sex,” Time Warner was again caught up in controversy. The Wall Street Journal attacked the company as “our era’s undisputed schlockmeister,” and Madonna, the faux dominatrix, as “a schlockmistress.” But will the pop diva’s Mylar-bagged fantasy become another “Cop Killer”? Not MY likely. While Ice-T’s murderous anthem provoked police boycotts and an uproar at the Time Warner annual shareholders’ meeting, “Sex” seems less an abdication of public responsibility than a violation of taste. “Here we’re talking about sexual diversity,” says an executive. “With ‘Cop Killer,’ you were talking about murder.” The police protests led to the pulling of “Cop Killer” and to toning down other rap acts. So far, the outcry over “Sex” has been limited to “lots of phone calls,” says Warner Books publisher Nanscy Neiman. “They damn me to hell or tell me that God loves me anyway.”
At the more upscale magazines of Time Warner, talk is turning to the company’s taste. “People are asking, ‘Isn’t there anybody up there who can say no?'” says one Time magazine staffer. But co-CEO Gerald Levin showed his support of “Sex” by turning up at the S&M-theme publication party-wearing a leather jacket with Bugs Bunny on the back. His main concern: maximizing profits from Madonna projects. Warner Books reportedly advanced the star $5.5 million for “Sex” and a future book–a deal separate from the reported $60 million multimedia agreement Time Warner signed with her last April. (A source close to Madonna says these figures are “substantially underestimated.”) The early word on “Sex” is positive: of 500,000 copies distributed in America, sales topped 150,000. Jessica Reif, financial analyst for Oppenheimer & Co., predicts that “the book will be incredibly profitable.”
What about the larger investment? On first look, the star’s reported seven-year deal for her own record company, HBO specials, videos, films, books, merchandise and more than six albums seemed to be an enormous gamble for Time Warner. Madonna’s advance for each album is believed to have jumped from $3 million to $5 million. Time Warner will reportedly put up $2 million for two HBO specials, spend $5 million a year to underwrite Madonna’s new record label and advance $2 million against her percentage of profits for each screenplay she develops. It’s a huge price tag, in line with recent deals made by Michael Jackson, Aerosmith and Prince. Such megapackages sound outrageous but could be very smart for the record companies.
In fact, Madonna’s deal looks good for Time Warner. The $60 million depends on her performance, and the company almost certainly has safety valves. If Madonna doesn’t earn million advance on an instance, Warner can st royalties on other albums. And her track record is comforting: her albums have sold an average of 9.5 million copies each. “Her catalog of records alone would recoup the risk,” says one Hollywood mogul. But before the company starts counting its money, it ought to think about production values. Disgruntled customers are complaining that the metal covers on “Sex” easily fall off. Warner Books first dismissed the incidents as a “few isolated reports” but later changed its no-return policy and asked stores to offer refunds on damaged books.
Talking With Madonna: The Unbridled Truth
A few weeks before the release of Madonna’s book, “Sex,” and her new album, “Erotica,” the star talked with NEWSWEEK’S David Ansen in Los Angeles. She was dressed in a striped jersey bodysuit and fashionably clunky shoes. Over one tooth she wore a gold cap with the letter D on it, for Dita Parlo, her alter ego in “Sex”–a book she says she hopes is shocking because “some people need to be shocked.” Some excerpts from the interview:
ANSEN: So do you really think that you can change people’s attitudes with this book?
MADONNA: I think that it can start the machinery going for change. I do in a way see myself as a revolutionary at this point. I think it will open some people’s minds for the good, and that’s enough, as far as I’m concerned.
You see yourself as a kind of sexual missionary?
I suppose that’s one way to look at it. But ultimately, I mean, sex is the metaphor that I use, but for me, really it’s about love. It’s about tolerance, acceptance and saying, “Look, everybody has different needs and wants and preferences and desires and fantasies. And we should not damn somebody or judge somebody because it’s different than yours.”
The pictures of you naked in public places in Miami-in a pizza parlor, a gas station, hitchhiking on the highway-how were they shot?
Spur of the moment, just catch as catch can …
The bystanders were real? They didn’t know you were going to take your clothes off?
They were real. I went in with my coat on. Steven Meisel [the photographer] went to the back, ordered a piece of pizza. I was naked underneath my coat and Steven positioned himself. Once he was in position, he’d say, “OK, go.” You know, I just dropped my coat, and I just sat there and ate the piece of pizza. People were constantly turning alarms on and calling the police, so we’d have to leave and go to the next place. It was so much fun. To walk down the street hitchhiking naked–I couldn’t stop laughing because, I don’t know–I traveled back to my childhood or something …
Like Halloween, without any costumes. Did people know who you were?
I don’t think so. We didn’t plan, we just drove around, and then we’d see something, go, “That looks good,” and jump out.
You always got out before the cops arrived?
Yes, I mean, it got to the point where we were almost trying to get in trouble because no one was paying any attention to us.
When people say you’re an exhibitionist, do you agree?
Yes. I think all entertainers are exhibitionists, admitted or not.
The idea that there are a million people around the world looking at your body In this book, is that a turn-on?
It’s funny. I never thought of it that way. I feel like I cast myself in this book I mean, I feel comfortable with my clothes off. I look in the mirror and go, “Ugh”; I think everybody does. I find all kinds of flaws. It’s like, “Oh, God, why couldn’t I be taller? Why do I have to have this color hair?” This is what I’m stuck with. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
Do you like your body now more since you’ve been working out?
It’s not that I like my body more, it’s just that I like me more. I mean, certainly, one message I hope is in the book is that people should learn to enjoy their bodies and to love your body regardless.
You bare all in the book, but there’s only one picture of full frontal male nudity.
There is? Oh, that’s in the the Gaiety [an all-male stripper club], right? Well, the only guys that would take their clothes off were the guys at the Gaiety. Most of the men that were in the pictures were very shy.
These S&M pictures of you with tattooed women are probably the photos that will upset most people. But it struck me that they’re very playful.
I think there’s a lot of humor in the book. If you miss that, you’re going to miss a lot.
What is it about bondage and interesting to you?
I don’t know, maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing. When I was growing up, there were certain things people did for penance; I know people that slept on coat hangers or kneeled on uncooked rice on the floor, and prayed for hours. And for me as a child, I think somehow things got really mixed up. There was some ecstasy involved in that.
And the whole thing of crucifixion-a lot of that, the idea of being tied up. It’s surrendering yourself to someone. I’m fascinated by it. I. mean, there’s a lot of pain-equals-pleasure in the Catholic Church. And that is also associated with bondage and S&M.
Also, just the idea of role-playing. If a person is really aggressive and in control in their everyday life, the idea of changing that role around and being tied up, being able not to be the person that’s running the show, cracking the whip. There’s something titillating about it, certainly for me.
But let me just preface all of this by saying that for me, it’s always about mutual consent, never about being forced or taking advantage of someone.
A lot of the images in this book are auto-erotic. Having sex with yourself …
I think that’s where eroticism begins, with the way that you relate with your body and how you see yourself, and how in touch you are with yourself.
Let’s talk about your music. The love songs on the “Erotica” album aren’t about love but about breaking up. There’s a certain bitterness. A lot of lyrics are about pain and being hurt and hurting.
Right. Well, like anything, the more you know, the more you grow, the deeper you go. The pain and the grief and the bitterness and all that stuff has always been there. It’s just that I wasn’t ready to deal with it. But now I am.
Would you say that the romantic side of you is more skeptical now?
Well, I wouldn’t say that. I’m still a romantic at heart, absolutely. And I still believe in the happiness and joy of love and all those things. Of course, everyone grows more cynical with experience. If you really want to see the extremes of humanity, just get really famous. All of a sudden, it’s just thrown at you, you see it every day.
Aren’t you concerned about the effect this book will have? Won’t it up the level of craziness?
There are so many psychos out there bothering me anyway, what’s five more? I just can’t think about those things when I’m doing this stuff.
Do you still talk to Warren Beatty?
No (laughs). I wish. I mean, say we’re enemies or anything like that. He’s married and has a family and I just feel like he’s in another country. But he’s a great guy. He really is, and I learned a lot from him.
You’ve always channeled things into the mainstream from the subculture, like vogueing. Do you feel you’re now bringing the sexual underground to the general public, the world of gay strip clubs and S&M dubs like The Vault?
I’m bringing what most people consider subversive ideas about sexuality into the mainstream, yes.
When you go out club-hopping in LA. or New York, do you feel that’s a night out for you or are you scouting?
It depends. I’m always scouting. I’m a sponge and I see things and I reinterpret it, regurgitate it or whatever; I’m also very inspired by it. I like to watch people at The Vault just as much as people at the Beverly Center [an upscale L.A. mall]. I mean, there are freaks everywhere. And the best thing in the world about being anonymous is that you can watch people instead of being the person that’s watched.
Do you ever get sick of being Madonna?
Yes, I do. I do. Sometimes, I just want to go to a movie and not have someone pull on my shirt, you know what I mean? I mean, I can’t go grocery shopping, and a lot of times, my secretaries don’t get me what I want. And I think, “God, if I could just go myself, I’d get the right kind of cereal.”
What’s the distinction for you between eroticism and pornography? Is there anything you consider pornographic?
A snuff movie. The issue is consent, mutual consent.
Did everything you wanted in the book get in the book? No problems from Warner Books?
No, there was not one image that I really wanted that somebody said, “You can’t do this.” It was great.
Have you read Camille Paglia’s controversial essays on you? You’re a kind of goddess to her.
I know that I’m mentioned in all of her articles. She thinks she knows me really, really well. I’ve read lots of things she’s said about me. She was reviewing my appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show” with Rosie O’Donnell, and I think I disappointed her because I just was being completely silly. I think Camille was expecting me to come out there and be some sort of feminist warrior for her.
Do you have any interest in meeting her?
First, I’d like to see her across the room and then I’d like to decide whether I want to approach her.
Are you aware that there’s this huge academic industry in writing about you?
Yes. It’s very amusing. It’s flattering.
Did you ever imagine …
See, I never imagined any of this. I never imagined any of it. But now it’s happened. It’s my life.
When you do a book like this, everyone asks, How is she going to top it? What do you have to do to got attention after you do “Sex”?
That’s implying that I just did it for attention. I mean, it’s an incredible insult. When De Niro does a great performance in a movie, does everyone say, “Well, what’s he going to do next?” So why do people do that to me?
Because there’s always a certain amount of scandal in your career.
But to me, the scandal is only a reflection of other people’s hang-ups. If only people would just judge it for what it was. Is it a good song, is it a good video, is it a good movie, is it a good book?
It’s just that the arena that I choose to express myself in is sexuality, and sexuality has always been a taboo subject. But I’m trying to change that. When people say, “What are you going to do next?” I just laugh, because I’m just going to do what I do, and I’m going to keep doing it.