Whenever Madonna saw photographs of Diana, Princess of Wales, she detected the look of a hunted animal, cornered by the enormity of her fame, and too petrified to flee. It took one to know one.
And when Diana’s life hung between the news of the crash and the announcement of her death, the 39-year-old singer felt herself hurtling down the same Paris tunnel, at the same breakneck speed, with the same cameras flashing in her face, and the same fate at her journey’s end.
“I was crying out, ‘please, God, let her live,'” says Madonna, her voice unusually ragged with emotion. “I have been chased through that same tunnel so many times that I have lost count.”
“I felt outraged and helpless. I really freaked out. Oh God, let her survive, because it is going to mean something so frightful, so horrible if she dies. Anyone who has ever been chased like that, and who has had to live that sort of life hit the wall with her.”
While she is speaking, the news is coming through that the driver had been drinking. This does not deflect her rage from the paparazzi.
“People say that if she had been travelling with her sons, it would have been all right, but that’s bullshit. They don’t draw the line like that.”
“When I came to Europe to promote Evita, I was in Rome and the paparazzi didn’t even give me time to strap my baby into the car. We were driving at about 90 miles per hour, and we were being followed, and flanked and surrounded”.
“OK, so if there weren’t such large offers of money, then these people wouldn’t go to such extremes to take the pictures. Then you have to look at the editors and ask who is responsible for this. But even that does not dig deep enough. As much as I want to blame the press, we all have blood on our hands. All of us, even myself. I bought those magazines and I read them. Until we no longer feel that it is our right to read about people’s private lives, and until we lose our fascination with scandal and sensational journalism, we are never going to act. It is all our faults.”
Madonna and Diana met just once. It happened two years ago in London, at a charity cocktail party hosted by the Duchess of York. The singer was in England to record the soundtrack for Evita. She was suffering from a heavy cold at the time, and says she would probably have stayed in bed if there had not been the possibility of a meeting with the Princess.
“I happened to be a friend of her stepbrother, and he kept trying to arrange tea for us because we both wanted the chance to sit down and talk properly. But she had a really hectic schedule, and so did I.”
“We must have talked for about ten minutes. I said I had always sympathised with her position, and made some joke about how the only person who seemed to get more attention than me was her. She said ‘I think you handle the press better than I do,’ and I said ‘You will have to get skin as thick as an armadillo.’ She said: ‘We must get together and you can tell me how,’ and we agreed to meet when I was over in England again. And that’s it. I had wanted Diana to host a royal premiere of Evita, but for some reason we couldn’t put it together. And we never did meet again.”
Madonna is at present in Miami, where she has a home. She says she would love to live in New York, but the press interest in her every move makes it unthinkable.
“I can’t spend time there because there are kids on electric bikes, with video cameras, and they are holding onto the bumpers of my car. And I think, they don’t care if they die. I mean, what have we created?”
She expresses an equally strong love for London, but an equally strong fear of being hounded by the British press. In the States, she says, it has reached the point where the press dictates to her where she can and cannot live. The irony of her own “imprisonment” is that she finds herself effectively barred from the places that draw her, and driven to the ones that do not. She mentions Los Angeles in particular. “It’s the most boring place. That’s why I’m there.”
Has it all become so much more acute since John Lennon left England for New York in order to be left in peace by the press and the public, only to meet his own death? ‘Oh yes, that was 17 years ago. The media has changed immensely since then. And you really cannot win. If you ignore them or run away, they think you are being uncooperative.
“If you co-operate, they say you are being manipulative. They were constantly doing that with Diana. I find what they are doing now just as unforgivable. They were so awful to her, and now they are f***ing – excuse my French – now they are putting her on a pedestal and saying she is so great and fabulous, and yet two weeks ago they were ripping her to shreds.”
The problem, she says, is not confined to America and Europe. When she was in Argentina filming Evita, the paparazzi were paying young children to lie under her car so that she would accidentally run them over and they (the photographers) would have a picture. She was more fortunate with her driver than Diana. He spotted the boys and stayed put until they had gone. Not that this stopped the pictures being taken anyway, some of them posed to make it look as though the boys were trapped under the wheels.
On the surface it looks as though Diana was right: Madonna has handled her press relations more effectively than the Princess, and has acquired a protective layer nearer to armadillo-thickness than Diana ever managed. If you do believe our tabloid press, then she has even imposed a vow of public silence on Carlos Leon, her partner and father of their 11-month-old baby daughter Lourdes.
Yet even her staunch defence of privacy has an effect on the market, inflating the scarcity value of Madonnabilia. When she was about to give birth, there was a stake-out of every maternity ward in Beverly Hills, and a reward of $350,000 (about =A3220,000) offered for the first shot of the baby. The parallels between the two women are obvious, if misleading. Both have been intrigued and alarmed by the power of their fame. Both have been single-minded single mothers whose quests for love were turbulent. One achieved stardom through the membership of a particular family; the other went the opposite, American way, made regal by the movies. Neither dreamt at the birth of their public selves that they would embody the fantasies of masses, or become snagged for real in such soap-operatic plots. Both have been called icons, and although it is a vague designation it is given to very few. In the tragic absence of the one, the other is as famous a woman as the world has to offer.
The implications of that status, she agrees, are grave. “Yes, it’s true, people had the same fixation with her that they do with me. You were never allowed to make mistakes without being hanged in the public square. You also just got taken apart in the papers, and this time I don’t mean the photos, but the psychiatric kind of pieces that claimed to have an insight into your character. Then there was this idea that neither of us could have a relationship with a man; that we would never find one who we could connect to because our marriages had failed; that we were unlovable.”
Did this ever feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy?
“Well, it takes a pretty brave guy to go out with someone like that [us]. You’re going to be in the public eye, even if you are a janitor. You have to expect that if you are involved with someone like us. I have always said God bless the man with that kind of courage. There aren’t a lot of people like that in the world.”
So what is going on if this same press that makes her unlovable is also adulating her? Is it trying to make out that mere mortals wouldn’t be good enough? Is it being possessive, in some perverse way, on behalf of its public?
“They [the papers] certainly want to perpetuate the idea that a mere mortal would never satisfy me, which is hardly true, I can assure you.”
Is there, then, a fundamental need to create people who are too good for us?
“I would say absolutely. We all need people to look up to. The bravest and most dignified thing about Diana was that while she exposed herself to the public she also said ‘I’m not perfect, I have my problems.’ I’m not saying that I agree with everything she ever did. But look, what we need is not role models who get up there and say ‘I’m perfect,’ but ones who say ‘I’m flawed, and I’m vulnerable and I am going to try to change and be a better person.’ We need those people now more than ever, because everywhere we look, whether it is the movies or TV or even fashion photography, we see the glamorising of death and violence and drug addiction.”
She talks of the resources she has been able to use in her struggle for a healthy relationship with her own fame. It is here that resemblances between herself and Diana finally, poignantly, break down. For these resources are no more and no less than her friends. If she had not been able to unburden herself regularly to her own “incredible” close ones, she does not know how she could have survived. “I sensed a kind of desperation from her, and I realised that she just did not have the same kind of support from friends as I have. That, I guess, is what makes this all the sadder, because here [Dodi] was someone who she really got on well with, and who was part of a family.”
Family. The word, an ominous one from the very start of Diana’s life, strikes an odd note once more. Then comes the related word, monarchy. Madonna goes on talking, but the shadow of the word hangs over her speech like an old, entrenched front of English weather.
Monarchy, Diana’s embracing enemy, was something Madonna did not have to contend with. The closest counterpart, in terms of oppression and manipulation, would have been Hollywood, but that institution was an amateur by comparison.
“Thank God,” she continues, “I have my friends, and not a monarchy round my ankles like a ball and chain.”
I ask her if she has any answers to the questions of overwhelming fame, and by way of reply she says that she is losing sleep over how to protect her daughter. She then makes a plea similar to the one made by Libby Purves in yesterday’s Times for some truce with the young. “The first thing we need is a law that says the photographers can’t take their pictures before a certain age. Let’s face it, they didn’t ask to be famous. Let them at least have the semblance of normality in their early years. They would have to be strong laws. People say they exist in France but that’s baloney. I was talking to Demi Moore and she was saying that when she went to France with her children the photographers followed her everywhere, and in the end they couldn’t leave the hotel.”
“Freedom of the press, yes, I’m all for it. Write whatever you want to write. But you cannot stalk people and take pictures of them inside their bedroom windows, or chase them through towns at 100 mph. Like I said, we are destroying the things we love.”
It is no longer family and monarchy that hang over the speech, but freedom and destruction. They are there again, with the same sad proximity they always had in Diana’s life. “I mean, the woman was caged,” says Madonna, with the utmost bleakness. “The only hope I can see coming from all this is that…”
Is that what? She pauses for a moment and I wait for her to say something about the Princess not dying in vain if we learn the lessons of her tragic death. But this is not Hollywood and the words don’t come.
She tries again: “The only hope I can see coming from all this is that… is that now she is free.”
© The Times