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 destabilise 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.
Both are self-educated. “It’s what I was attracted to in Guy because, like me, he is hungry for knowledge,” says Madonna. “When I first met him he was reading voraciously. His thing was Darwinism and the evolution of the species and we would get into these philosophical debates about Christianity versus atheism and Darwinism versus Genesis. I had never had these conversations with anyone before. And I found them thrilling.”
Juggling life as mother, wife, singer, dancer and writer – as well as the CEO of Madonna Inc – is tough. “I get frustrated. I think I can manage my day and fit it all in. But it gets to eight o’clock and I go, “Shit, I promised I would read to the kids”. The thing I have sacrificed here is a social life. I don’t go out much. If I want to do my job, pay attention to my children and have a relationship with my husband, I don’t have time to go out with my friends. If it wasn’t for e-mail, I would fall deeply out of touch with everybody.”
But family overrides everything for Madonna: “Everyone needs to be stopped in their tracks by parenthood and marriage, otherwise you are just selfish satellites spinning in space.”
Madonna’s early days in New York were fraught with the tensions of poverty and potential failure. “I remember having very little money and starving and budgeting myself, alternating between being able to buy a packet of peanuts and a container of yoghurt one day, and a large bag of cheese popcorn and a container of cranberry juice the next. That was my diet. But I refused to accept that anything but success would happen.”
And if it had all failed? “That was not an option. I was not going back to Michigan, no matter what. I’m not going to depend on anybody, no matter what.”
Madonna was just five when she lost her mother to cancer. “I remember her death and everything about it,” she says. “I remember not really understanding what it meant but accepting that she was never going to come back. I remember being so frustrated at not having the words to express my feeling of loss.
“My dad had to deal with so many things and we kind of got farmed out to people’s houses. I went down the street and lived with this family for a while. This poor woman had to put up with my rages and tantrums and I was told to put on this dress and I was so angry I ripped it off. The woman had a daughter in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy who I thought was luckier than me because she had a mum.
“I no longer feel sorry for myself. But I look at my daughter or son and think, “Oh my God, that was how old I was when my mother left”.”
She is tender but tough with Lourdes and Rocco: “I’m pretty strict about their diet. I have a macrobiotic chef. We don’t eat dairy, there are treats once in a while but they generally don’t have sugar.” Coca-Cola? “No sodas, no Coca-Cola – disgusting! No video games, nothing that I would perceive as a mindless timewaster.
“My daughter is a voracious reader and I know it’s because she doesn’t watch TV. She came home from school quite crestfallen the other day. She said, “Guess what my new name at school is?’ Everyone had to fall into a category and she was the bookworm. I said it was a compliment. And she said, “But it means I’m a nerd and a geek.’ I said she would change her mind in a few years.”
Home is definitely England (despite the vitriolic press that Ritchie’s latest film Revolver received) and she loves being here with her diamond-geezer husband. She has taken to English traditions such as shooting. But, although pheasants are still reared at her home, Ashcombe, she has put her Purdey to rest.
“That all changed when a bird dropped in front of me that I’d shot. It wasn’t dead. Blood was gushing out of its mouth and it was struggling up this hill and I thought, “Oh God, I did that. I am not a vegetarian and I understand animals die for my meals. I respect that. But I just couldn’t do it any more. I haven’t shot since.”
Madonna is used to people saying that everything she does is connected to Kabbalah. “I find it frustrating because my life is always interpreted through a filter of misinformation.” So what’s the truth about her changing her name to Esther? “I didn’t. I took on another name. Nobody calls me by my Hebrew name, Esther. How it works is that everyone calls me M.
“That’s how it has always been and always will be, but names have energy. From a spiritual point of view, I wanted to attach myself to a name that had a lot of strength. I was named after my mother, Madonna, but my name means something else in the Catholic church. I was reading about all the women in the Old Testament and I thought Queen Esther was an amazing figure.”
So did you become Madonna Esther? “No. It is completely metaphysical. Nobody calls me that name. When I was confirmed I took on the extra name Veronica. In the Catholic faith you align yourself with someone. I took on the name Veronica because she was the one who wiped the face of Jesus on his way to being crucified. I just liked her chutzpah because she walked out in front of this crowd and he was sweating and crying and she took the cloth and helped him. It was a beautiful symbol of compassion.”
Madonna mixes the sacred and the profane like nobody else. Just a few minutes earlier we had been discussing her swearing and why she uses the F-word: “Because it just feels so good to scream it out loud, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. And I just love how much it irritates everyone.”
With that, Guy’s missus is off, into the streets where a drizzle is falling. “Come on, who needs an umbrella?” she says. “Let’s just get wet.” And, with her two super-smart assistants, she disappears.
Confessions on a Dance Floor is released by Maverick on November 15. I’m Gonna Tell You a Secret is on Channel 4 on December 1
© Tatler Magazine