So, is this a book, or what? Well, yes and no. Madonna’s Sex — her raunchy, trashy, cheesy, phenomenally successful 128-page collection of shock-by-the-numbers erotic fantasy — certainly lives up to Warner Books’ advance billing as the “publishing event of the year.” There are the sheer numbers: 500,000 U.S. copies reportedly sold in a week, and the same number of international copies are going just as fast (Warner says that despite the demand, the million-copy initial shipment is Sex’s only printing; the books are individually numbered and designed to be collector’s items). There are the much-discussed paraphernalia — the whips, the chains, the knife, the leashes, the gags, the prophylactic-like Mylar wrapping, the metal covers, the self-destructive binding. And there are the cries of outrage and amusement: the denunciations by critics and conservatives, the chorus of more confused comments. More than a half-million copies in a week? This isn’t the publishing event of the year, it’s the publishing event of the century.
But the key word here is event: Sex is less a book than a slickly contrived, shrewdly marketed happening. People aren’t buying it for the aesthetics of its photos and text, which rarely rise above the level of Penthouse. They’re buying it because of who is in the photos and who wrote the text. Sex is hype.
The charge is hardly new to Madonna. Every product of her decade-old career has contained a dollop of serious intent fused with a heaping measure of shock and image massage. But nothing the 34-year-old dollarwise diva has done matches the pose and tease of this book. Sex is her masterpiece of media manipulation, and here — blow by blow, kink by kink — is how she pulled it off.
In the beginning was the idea, but whose was it? Madonna has said she got the notion for Sex in the summer of 1991, between takes on the Indiana set of A League of Their Own. Judith Regan, a vice president and senior editor at Simon & Schuster, begs to differ. She claims she flew out to L.A. for a meeting with Madonna and Freddy DeMann, her business manager, in March 1991, armed with a proposal for a similar collection of photo-erotica. Regan says Madonna “loved” the idea and shook hands on a deal but never got back in touch.
“Sleazy and stupid,” is how she describes Madonna’s behavior. “I wouldn’t have minded if she sent me a note,” says Regan, “but she showed no graciousness, no manners.”
Madonna’s publicist, Liz Rosenberg, refuses to confirm or deny the story, but this much is certain: Before League wrapped last fall, Madonna had made Sex her next project. The first person she approached was New York photographer and her longtime collaborator Steven Meisel. The book would be titled X (she changed it after Spike Lee claimed the letter for his film Malcolm X), and Meisel, a soul mate since he shot 1984’s Like a Virgin album cover, would shoot it.
“Madonna and I can keep up with each other,” says Meisel, 34. “I’m doing things to make people think too. It’s not really to antagonize or to push people’s buttons. It’s really to present another way of seeing things. We also have our sense of humor in common, so a lot of the work we do together is tongue in cheek.”
Meisel immediately began assembling the Sex team. It included art director Fabien Baron, 33, who has revamped such high-end magazines as Italian Vogue, Interview, and Harper’s Bazaar; fashion stylist Paul Cavaco, 40, a former partner in the powerful fashion public relations house Keeble Cavaco & Duka; hairstylist Garren, 39, who has coiffed the likes of Farrah Fawcett and Audrey Hepburn; and French makeup artist Francois Nars, who made over Isabella Rossellini, Jessica Lange, and Lauren Hutton. Their one common denominator: “All of them have done provocative work in their own right,” Meisel says.
Next to join was editor Glenn O’Brien, 45, creative director of the chic Manhattan store Barneys New York and a former editor of Interview and Spin magazines. During League’s breaks and over weekends, Madonna and O’Brien firmed up the concept and discussed which sexual scenarios would work best in book form. The secret to their good working relationship, says O’Brien: “I’m a good listener.”
The project was designed as almost-anything-goes, although Madonna and Warner drew the line at pedophilia, violence, and sex with religious objects. “Strangely enough,” insists stylist Cavaco, “Madonna’s a very moral person. She’s also very romantic.”
Finding models willing to embody Madonna’s explicit romantic fantasies required a massive casting search — sort of a kinky cattle call among fashion, club, and social circles. Socialites Daniel de la Falaise, nephew of Parisian fashion maven Lulu de la Falaise, and Tatiana Von Furstenberg, daughter of designer Diane, made the team. So did Julie Tolentino, colorful empresaria of Manhattan’s lesbian Clit Club. Meisel and Madonna also called on several high-profile friends to participate in Sex. Meisel contacted Isabella Rossellini and supermodel Naomi Campbell. Madonna has said she wanted Vanilla Ice to add a certain “kitsch value.” “There were black and white, long and short, even a dog,” says art director Baron. “We were looking for hip people with an edge.”
In December, Sex screen tests were held in Meisel’s studio. Nightclub go-go boys and long-haired male models paraded before the author, who presided over a mock casting couch. She asked two key questions: “Are you afraid of nudity?” and “Would you mind kissing me?” Not surprisingly, most were game. One doorman-hunk for the Manhattan club Live Bait conducted his entire interview with his fly open. Madonna’s coquettish response: “That’s a good start.”
Then came the all-important discussion of image. “She’s like a chameleon,” says makeup artist Nars. “She loves to change. She really gets into it.” Although Madonna allowed the stylists free rein on hairstyle, makeup, and erotic accessories, a showdown developed over one crucial issue: hair color. At the time, she was happily a natural brunet, but Garren desperately wanted to bleach. As he recalls, “Madonna said to me, ‘I finally got my own hair back. I don’t want to bleach it.’ I said, ‘This is your book. If you want to be a brunet, fine. But in black and white, blond magnifies better. Blond says more!”‘
Two days before the first shoot, in January, Madonna got a rush bleach job.
No one on the team recalls exactly how Madonna ended up thumbing a ride on a South Florida highway, wearing nothing more than high-heeled pumps, a chic Azzedine Alaia purse, and a thin layer of tan body makeup.
Like many of Sex’s more shocking scenes, it happened spontaneously. One morning during the four-day Florida shoot (the rest of the photos were shot in New York), Madonna was simply cavorting around nude on the grounds of a 14-bedroom Miami mansion (she later bought it for $4.9 million). Suddenly someone jokingly suggested she take her strip show on the road. “And boom,” remembers Baron, “the next thing we’re in the street.” That would be Ocean Boulevard in Miami Beach, where cars screeched to a halt, motorists whistled, and one entranced cyclist fell off his bike.
Soon a can-you-top-this? dynamic developed between Madonna and her crew. Based on scenarios concocted in the planning meetings, Meisel structured the photo sessions like loosely scripted fashion shoots, with the character, location, and costumes spelled out but the rest left to chance and whim. “It was a challenge,” admits Baron. “She’d do something crazy and then we’d come up with something even crazier.” During one of the Florida sessions, for example, Campbell and Madonna were enjoying a nude poolside romp when Nars interrupted. “I had an idea that I wanted Naomi just lying on the ground and I gave Madonna my bottle of Lubriderm lotion,” he says. “Madonna started throwing cream at her (in a very orgasmic way). It was a pretty wild scene — there was lotion all over the place.”
Such head games also provoked one of the book’s most disturbing photographs, the one showing two postpunk lesbians flanking Madonna and one of them holding a knife to Madonna’s crotch. “One of the girls had the knife in her pocket,” says Baron. “So we said, ‘Why don’t you play with the knife?’ The girl was going to cut Madonna’s bodysuit. And suddenly Steven said, ‘Freeze!”‘ Of the 20,000 photos shot for the book and the 475 printed, the knife-at-the-crotch image is the most violent.
At the other end of the spectrum, some of Sex’s funniest, most lighthearted images occurred just before the final wrap in Florida. “We’d gotten everything we wanted,” says hairstylist Garren, “and then we thought, let’s go for it.” It being the idea of Madonna tooling around town with nothing but a black body stocking on beneath her fur coat. Pumping gas at a service station and posing outside an adult theater, Madonna quickly drew crowds of curious onlookers. Somewhere during the jaunt, Madonna doffed the body stocking and the crew stopped for a slice at a Miami pizza joint. After getting hers, Madonna discarded her fur — causing the addled restaurant manager to set off the store alarm. “She got a little scared her customers would get upset,” says Baron. “But there was never a problem with the cops,” he says, with obvious disappointment.
With the photos finished, Madonna turned her attention to her area of true genius — marketing. The first that many people heard about Sex was that Madonna was working on a book so incredibly controversial it had to be produced under a veil of secrecy that would make even the Pentagon envious. “Sex had the potential to be explosive,” says Nanscy Neiman, the Warner Books executive vice president and publisher who oversaw the project. “That had to be managed.” The ensuing cloak-and-dagger tactics also managed to raise the public’s interest thermometer to record highs.
“It was like a nuclear weapon,” says Warner Books spokeswoman Ellen Herrick of the project. “Everybody had part of the key.” Only 20 people actually got their hands on Sex during production; all were required to sign strict confidentiality agreements. After burglars ransacked the office next door to his, Baron installed an alarm system and a paper shredder, which he used to destroy more than 5,000 photocopies. Most dramatically of all, on orders of Nicholas Callaway, whose Manhattan-based printing house, Callaway Editions, produced the book for Warner, eight guards stood by as Sex rolled off the presses.
There was one apparent major breach of security (or so the Madonna folks say), involving a former female employee of Manhattan’s Lexington Labs, where Meisel had his film processed. The Madonna camp’s official story is this. Photographs from Sex were stolen from the lab and offered for $100,000 to the London tabloid News of the World. Instead of buying the photos, the tab got in touch with Gavin de Becker, Madonna’s security consultant, and decided to cooperate with him in exchange for a story about the sting. The prints were recovered in L.A., where a contact of the former employee was met by an FBI agent (posing as an editor from the newspaper) and by members of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, who took the man into custody. News of the World reported on May 31 that the accomplice was questioned about transporting stolen property across state lines; no charges have been filed, but the FBI confirms that it is still investigating the matter as a possible extortion case. The Los Angeles U.S. Attorney’s office and De Becker refuse to comment.
But it’s a slightly different story over at Lexington Labs. Kim Zorn Caputo, Lexington’s co-owner, says that in January the lab received from Meisel an unmarked bag of film, which was processed and returned to him. Several weeks later, Caputo says, an ex-employee called to say she had been questioned by a “former FBI agent working for Madonna” about stolen prints. Caputo then received a letter from Madonna’s lawyers seeking a $50,000 settlement to avoid further legal action.
Caputo says neither she nor the former employee knows anything about any stolen prints. The ex-employee, Caputo points out, still has not been charged, and there has been no follow-up to the settlement request. “The whole thing is ridiculous,” she says. “We think the incident was hyped for publicity’s sake.” Warner Books’ Neiman will say only that Madonna called the FBI to look into the case and emphatically denies that the incident was staged.
So what has Madonna accomplished here? Well, she has proved that her bottom line grows more commercially seductive with each new scandal. Although the hoopla over Sex has overshadowed her new album, Erotica (despite the its 4 million in sales worldwide), the book’s stunning performance at the cash register reaffirms Madonna as a major entertainment force. Sex is her first project since signing her $60 million multimedia deal with Time Warner, and its success is her first step toward presiding, like Andy Warhol did in his Factory, over her very own cultural movement.
And, yes, Sex has brought more protest down on the heads of Time Warner. After Ice-T pulled the incendiary “Cop Killer” from his album Body Count in late July, there were rumors that Time Warner was also considering censoring Sex’s more explicit scenes. Neiman of Warner Books denies it. “If Warner had been afraid of controversy,” she says, “we’d never have had our first meeting. We were very well aware that Madonna equals controversy.”
Some of Madonna’s confidantes, however, are concerned about a possible Sex backlash. “Everybody around Madonna thinks about it,” admits makeup man Nars. “Of course, we’re all worried. Madonna doesn’t need to do it, but she wants to push buttons. So she does.” Has she pushed the right buttons with Sex? Her teammates think so. “Madonna is somebody who doesn’t want to be just normal,” says Nars. “She doesn’t want to be what Kevin Costner accused her of being in Truth or Dare — you know, ‘neat.’ I don’t think she likes normalcy. She’s an extreme person and she chases extremes.”
Garren speculates that Sex also has something to do with Madonna’s desire to stake out her erotic turf before time takes its toll on her power. “It’s better that she does this now, while she has control of it,” he says, “instead of people reading about it in the tabloids after she’s dead. You know, ‘This one was involved with that one.’ This is it — this is what Madonna does and this is what she likes to do. And it’s your problem if you can’t handle it.”
But what’s left? Her film career is still in high gear, with Body of Evidence to be released in mid-January; there are no immediate plans for a new album. Her editor, Glenn O’Brien, suggests that “maybe she’ll write a book about philosophy.” Oh? And what would it be called? O’Brien responds, with only the slightest trace of irony, “Well, this one’s titled Sex. So I guess that one would be called Philosophy.”
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