Barring heads of state and the fast-fading Liz Taylor, the Ten Most Famous Women in the World is a list of spouses — I married Ron; I married Gorbachev; I married JFK (before I married Ari); and so on. And then there is Madonna.
Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone was born poor and Italian-American in Bay City, Michigan. She is now thirty and worth a million dollars for every year of her age (some say two million). She didn’t marry her money. She made every last dollar herself. She couldn’t work harder if she ran a state department or a brokerage firm or a cola company. Every eight-year-old from here to Manila knows her name. It’s some achievement.
It’s not an achievement you see celebrated in the press. Madonna has a wild press. A sex-bomb press, a trash press. I read through two boxes of it and threw it away: it’s depressing stuff. Madonna claws her way to the top; she sleeps her way to the top; she has cancer of the womb; she gets pregnant; she loses the baby; she is trapped in her mansion by death threats; she has lover after lover after lover. She fires people in a second; is impossible to work with; fights like a hellcat; swears at reporters; wrestles paparazzi to the ground; can’t sing, can’t act; can dance a little. She is found Bound and Gagged; her husband is the likely culprit; she is Trussed Up Like a Turkey. She is in love; she is loveless; she is secretly a lesbian. Madonna doesn’t talk to the press much. All the quotes are attributed to “aides.”
“Everything you’ve read about Madonna has been wrong,” said Liz Rosenberg of Warner Brothers, who is Madonna’s press agent. We were driving around Hollywood in a rented Lincoln Town Car while “Like a Prayer” played on the stereo. I said the last thing I read was Trussed Up Like a Turkey. Liz snorted with laughter.
She said, “I’m really late. I hope Madonna isn’t hanging out on the street,” and lo, she was. We turned a corner and there was a little, volatile figure, by herself, hopping up and down on the dark, rainy sidewalk in a long Norma Kamali coatdress, satin slingbacks, and no hose.
Madonna got in back. She was tiny, size six or even four. I knew she was a pocket Venus, but it was still a surprise. She was beautiful, with luminous skin. Her hair was aubergine in the sodium light, with a blond lovelock in front. (Two days later, it would be back to platinum for her role as Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty’s new film.) Her face was pale. She seemed to be wearing no mascara, no blusher, no eyebrow pencil on her fabulous eyebrows. Only dark red matte lipstick in that signature V-shape under the bottom lip.
She heard “Like a Prayer” wafting around the Lincoln and snapped, “Turn! That! Thing! Off! Now!” Liz Rosenberg flicked off the tape and said evenly, “How was your day?” “Full of lawyers,” Madonna replied. As Liz nursed our car through traffic lights, a Cadillac swung out ahead of us. “Fuckhead,” said Madonna sweetly. Then she said, in a singsong little voice, “It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow, Liz. It’s the first time for years and years I haven’t had a valentine on Valentine’s Day.” Liz said, “The night is young. You’ll find one, Madonna. There’ll be someone.”
We drove to Musso & Frank, an Old Hollywood restaurant. Madonna does not hang back in lobbies, waiting to be hustled to a table. She marches straight ahead while girls dig their partners in the ribs and soundlessly mouth “MA-DONNA!” Waiters give her a big smile, a smile that says: “You’re the biggest star in the world, but I’m cool; I can handle this.” She gives them a smile back that says: “I know you can.” She can be normal here. How much of her time is normal? “A quarter,” she replied. Madonna took a six-second glance at the menu and ordered a salad chiffonade “with lots and lots of garlic” and a Perrier.
Madonna was a gracious interviewee. To my eternal shame, I didn’t ask her if she’d spent New Year’s trussed up like a turkey. I asked her who her role model had been when she was a girl. She said, “I was at a Catholic school. We didn’t read magazines or watch much TV.” Pause. “The only person I could have based my look on was the Singing Nun.” Madonna is a baptized Catholic, not a practicing Catholic. This has not stopped her from taking liberties with Catholic imagery in her songs and videos. Does she worry about causing offense? “I don’t make fun of Catholicism,” she said. “I deeply respect Catholicism — its mystery and fear and oppressiveness, its passion and its discipline and its obsession with guilt.”
Madonna polished off her garlicky chiffonade with real gusto. She gave my barely touched plate of tasteless California prawns many a glance. I asked if she felt like a rich person. “Yep,” she said. She felt like a rich person, OK, but she only just started feeling like one. “I hate waste and I hate to waste money. I don’t see the point of having more than one car. And I hate to waste food,” she added, as the waiter took my prawns away.