And Still I Rise – A meeting with Madonna : The Last Pop Giant On Earth
On a Sunday afternoon in October Madonna leaves her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and stands in the street. It is unseasonably warm – T-shirt weather in fall – and she has, she thinks, never been happier than the day before when she celebrated her daughter’s second birthday by holding a party at which a group of teenage Insian girls performed traditional dance. She approves of dance as an element in her daughter’s development; it encourages her to be creative, expressive, free. Anyway, to cut a long story short, she has lent her car to the indian girls to get them to the airport. She wants them to be taken care of.
Which is why she is standing in the street trying to hail a cab. The minutes tick by and she looks at her watch. She doesn’t like being late for appointments, she’s insistent on that: act professionally, do your job, even the bits you don’t especially like. Cabs come by, but only with passengers in the back. Even if you’re Madonna, and everyone knows your face as well as you do yourself, sometimes a beacon of yellow light just doesn’t come over the horizon. Imagine! The Most Famous Woman In The World, The Last Pop Giant On Earth, forlornly standing at the kerb waiting for her luck to change. The minutes tick by and, goddamit, there’s no cab in sight. The warm weather means there are a lot of people on the street and – Ohmygod! Isn’t that Madonna?! – her famous person’s disguise of black sunglasses wears thin. She’s rumbled. In the quarter-hour she’s on the street she is accosted by maybe 20 people. She loses count. Still no cab. She’d like to run. She’s been running all her life, these days mostly from what she calls her ‘demons’.
For years she ran from a middle-class, Middle-American upbringing in search of fame, chased it relentlessly and now, aged 40, she can’t get away, it defines her, possesses her. But she hatches plots and schemes to escape its clutches, to operate in a private space, finds way to work some much needed freedom. She is, if nothing else, her own woman.
The cavalry arrives. She jumps in and the car takes her off downtown. Maybe the driver recognizes her, maybe he doesn’t, this woman who has engineered herself so intensely through constant purposeful intervention. But it hardly matters, she is a person that we all think we know so intimately, so excessively – nakedly even – that we think that maybe there;s nothing else to know, no need for further familiarity. Madonna knows better than this, she knows that we hardly know her at all.
‘I ran to the lakes / And up to the hill / I ran and I ran / I’m looking there still / And I smelt her burning flesh… / Her decay / I ran and I ran / I’m still running today’ from ‘Mer Girl’ by Madonna
Madonna: For me [the] running is running from the idea of death, facing my own demons, facing my mother’s death and dealing with… whatever. People get obsessed by the idea of fame and being acknowledged by people and having approval and all these things for any number of mostly unhealthy reasons. So if you do start to better yourself you have to figure that one out – why? What is it that I’m looking for ultimately? What is it that I want? Why am I here? And so the running is a symbolic running really, from the truth of not wanting to face myself. Running from fear, running from being alone, running from being abandoned. All of these things.
Isn’t the only reason you’re now confronting these kind of existential questions because you’re succesful and materially fulfilled?
Madonna: But the things I’m thinking about are deep and profound. [They’re] not easy things to think about. In fact it’s quite the reverse. What I was thinking about and doing was much simpler, you know? To really, really try to figure things out, to go deep and examine myself and really say ‘OK, why am I here? Why is anyone here? What is my purpose?’ There’s nothing easy about it.
Why are we here?
Madonna: [laughs] I don’t think that’s something anyone can tell another person. Do you know what I mean? Because everyone is here for a different reason, but I don’t think we’re put on this earth just to work hard, earn a lot of money and die.
What is the purpose of Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone and her costumed, carnival pop life? This is a question she is currently in the process (as she is most likely to describe it) of trying to fathom, 16 years on from her first success in the New York clubs and a belt that read ‘Boy Toy’. To be sure Madonna is alone. There’s no one else left. The pantheon of Eighties pop stars who could rock a stadium from Rome to Rio has been sacked, its false idols collapsed or worn down by time. Madonna, the first woman to fill a stadium, knows this, although she tries not to think about it too much, tries to keep moving, and has been vindicated – 1998 has been a good year for her. She has released an album, Ray Of Light, which was enthusiastically received by press and public alike, the single ‘Ray Of Light’ swept the board at the MTV Video Music Awards, and she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from music channel VH1, although she picks awards up for just getting out of bed these days. Ray Of Light, which has now sold over eight million copies worldwide, saw her team up with English producer William Orbit to create fluid soundscapes that provide a lush backdrop and rhythmic mantra to what is lyrically a rawer, more vulnerable Madonna. ‘I hadn’t worked with her before,’ says Orbit. ‘But Ray Of Light was clearly very personal. She was really laying it bare.’
The opening line of the album ‘I traded fame for love’ suggests that she now has a more intricate relationship with her fame than ever before, although to speak of fame to Madonna is like asking someone who has lived with a condition for so long to see themselves anew. When asked about it she slips into the impersonal, as if fame were a universal experience, something we have all undergone.
‘Fame does a funny thing to you,’ she says. ‘Everyone thinks that they know you. Perfect strangers coming up to you and asking very personal things and touching you and taking liberties and asking you for thing. And if you weren’t famous then people would have too good manners to actually do those kind of things. Even though everyone’s paying attention to you, actually they don’t know you at all, which you feel just kind of exaggerates everything.’
Maybe this is modesty, shying away from the funereal toll of the subjective pronoun through defence. maybe it’s more than that – a separation of the person who brushes her teeth and has a daily disco with her daughter from the pop Frankenstein that she has created. Maybe it’s the way a middle-class girl from Michigan who took New York before conquering the world copes by putting some distance between the person she still is (or at least the person she feels she is) and the person she always wanted to be. Like many, she thought that fame would make her complete, furnish her as whole. What she discovered was that performing on a stage in front of 100,000 hysterical people can be as lonely as anything you can imagine.
She has been driven at speed through the Place de l’Alma underpass in Paris where Diana’s car crashed, has been pursued by paparazzi through the gloomy expense. There were mutterings when she was staying in London last March that photographers tried to flush her out of her hotel by setting off a fire alarm, nevertheless she concedes that the press, particularly in London, has given her a bit more room since Diana’s death and dismisses any suggestion that the video to her single ‘Substitute For Love’ , in which she is hounded by photographers in London, is in any way a reference to Diana’s death. ‘I was kind of confused and bewildered that people were drawing those kind of comparisons because that’s my life. I get chased by paparazzi to, and why people said I was trying to imitate her I don’t know. It really was like a night in the life of me.’
I ask her how it feels, now that Diana is dead, to be the most recognizable female face on the planet.
‘Really?’ she says. It’s odd that she appears not to have thought about this before, to have prepared a stock answer for a not unsurprising question. She stares into space for a few seconds as if trying yo think of someone else more famous. Really famous. Madonna famous. ‘It just seems so absurd,’ she says, eventually and not unkindly. ‘Anyway, it’s pretty strange thing to sit and think about: “I’m the most famous woman in the world.”‘
Maybe not; not if you’re Madonna. Fame is the defining aspect of her life – more than her music, or style, or movies she will be remembered for being one of the most relentlessly self-realized people of the century. Along with Monroe and Ali, Madonna will be remembered for defining the times by inventing and changing and promoting herself and ambition and, in so doing providing us with a way of understanding ourselves and remembering what we used to dance to, who we used to be.
Do you think about your own death?
Madonna: All the time.
Madonna: Why not?
Because it’s morbid and might depress you.
Madonna: It depends on how you look at it. If you start practising yoga the whole idea is that you learn detachment and ultimately this is preparation for your death, and so you can’t help but thinking about death. There are actual positions in yoga that activate a feeling in you that supposedly – and this is based in ancient Vedic text – is very similar to the fear that you experience when you’re facing your death. And the idea is to bring yourself closer and closer to that feeling and actually make yourself really comfortable with it.
So the idea is not to fear death…
Madonna: Yeah, exactly. Which I still do. But I’m more comfortable with the idea of thinking about it. I mean, I grew up… [this seems a little difficult for her, she halts slightly]… I grew up incredibly fearful of death and obsessed with it because my mother died when I was so young, so I was very fixated on the idea.
How would you like to die?
Madonna: Really. I’d like to die ready.
Famously, Madonna smells nice. She first appears from the gloom of the concrete-and-steel hotel lobby, her face glowing pale. She wears a black ribbed jumper, loose trousers, black-wedged Spice Girls shoes. She is petite – even the Most Famous Woman In The World is smaller than you thought! – frailer even, although the body is athletic, all business. The shoulders are square, the walk, rangy and loose-hipped. The walk of an athlete. We sit down and mmmmm! – doesn’t she smell good? We sit in a circular room lined with padded faux leather. Perched on a stool Madonna leans against the wall. The lights are dimmed and the air conditioning is on too high. The room is separated from the rest of the lobby by a velvet rope. (Madonna spends more time than she would perhaps like in private nooks and dens and fuselages that you and I will never see.)
The face is fragile. It’s not conventionally beautiful, but unexpectedly beautiful, like a painting that starts to reveal itself the more you look at it. She looks at you sometimes, and although you’ve seen the face a thousand – no, many more – times before there is much about it that you haven’t taken in. The greenness of her eyes, for instance, which contrast dramatically with her pale face. She looks better with dark- or honey-coloured hair than she did in her peroxide days when it seemed she would do anything to shoehorn herself into the vestiges of fuck-me pop stardom.
She knows that all the things that you have read about her are mostly false. What is true is that Ray Of Light affirms the belief that she’s at her best when she’s riding the prevailing cultural mood, when she is in harmony rather than discordant, truculent troubled, as she seemed to be at the start of this decade when she reached a personal law after releasing Erotica, publishing Sex, and suffering poor reviews for the Movie Body Of Evidence during 1992. She is not the kind of person to let things creep up slowly upon her, so we must deduce that Sex was an attempt of a kind to engage us in some kind of discourse.
‘I see a lot of things I did in my Sex book now in advertising and I think, well, I was happy to get the shit kicked out of me so that you guys could have this freedom.’ she says, laughing long and hard.
There was a part of you that wanted to provoke?
Why? Because you wanted to change things? Because you felt that America needed it?
‘Because I was dealing with my own demons.’ she says. ‘Because I couldn’t deal with the fact that people were constantly saying, “Oh, she’s sext and she’s this and that, but she doesn’t have any talent.” And it really irked me that you couldn’t be a, you know, sexually provocative creature and intelligent at the same time. So I went to the extreme and pushed the envelope to kind of prove to myself more than anything that that was bullshit.’
And you think that you achieved that?
‘Yeah. Uh huh.’
Do you feel like you’ve changed things for women?
‘Yeah. I sort of lived out a lot of things that they wanted to do,’ she says. ‘ You have to go through a process. I sort of grew up in public. I went through a whole period of saying, “Fuck you, I will wear what I want to wear and act in a way I want to act and I will grab my crotch if I want to and I will say fuck on TV and I will do all the things that men are allowed to do and you’re just going to have to deal with it.” And that was me trying to figure things out, because ultimately a lot of women are very different, and you don’t have to act like a slovenly pig [laughs] to get respect. But you do have to go through things. I grew up in a very repressed home, in a very strict kind of Puritan family environment and, in a way, America is that way too. So, you know, you have to get to the other side and everyone has to go through their form of rebellion to figure out that they didn’t actually have to do so much kicking and flailing.’
Do you think that you provoke such a string reaction because America doesn’t like the idea of a woman being sexually liberated?
‘Or anyone being liberated. I mean look at what they’ve done to President Clinton. [She takes on a stern English voice] We do not have sex in America.’
Not with interns.
‘Not with cigars.’
She is famous for having sex. With men, with women, with herself. She has sex with the famous, and people become famous for having sex with her, but the fact remains that she cannot have sex with anyone more famous than her. Not anymore. Mostly she cannot meet anyone who has not seen her naked. She practices yoga for two hours a day and doesn’t eat lunch but returns phone calls instead. She has revealed herself to us intimately in a book and in the movies, but rarely in interviews. To read interviews with Madonna is to encounter a set of different women, all of them smart and talented, but some waspish, other compliant; some warm, other distant. She is bored easily and likes to be active. Madonna likes to do things and some of these things get her into trouble of a kind. At times she has offered us hope and a belief in the power of self-creation and at others she reminds us that getting what you want, arriving at a place of your own conception, can offer as bleak a vista as any.
She is wary of being misunderstood, even though she talks eloquently and at length and favours explanation over occlusion. She changes her opinions just like normal folk, and maybe just because she might have heard a question before. She uses a lot of British vernacular, including the word ‘bollocks’, and is the only American who can say the word ‘wanker’ without making a fool of herself. She looks like a woman of 40, which is just fine, because this is her age and she is The Last Pop Giant On Earth. She has never known the zero-degree freeze of failure.
But she does know what it is to feel alone, to feel pain. And having a child has both alleviated and exacerbated this. We talk about mortality and she says: ‘I was thinking about that the other day. I was carrying my daughter to bed, and I just thought some day she’s going to be a very old woman and someone’s going to be carrying her. And the thought just devastated me.’
Listening to taped of our conversation over the following weeks I am struck by the number of time she yolks intimacy and death.
She has a reputation for control, or wanting to control, although I suspect that much of this is down to the fact that she is powerful woman and women are not allowed to be powerful unless they are also perceived to be manipulative. Men often fear her. She had not be sanctified like a Diana, Jackie or a Marilyn., but then she is no victim and is big enough to make her own errors, of which there has been more than one. Clearly there are parts of her life, namely her work, over which she still insists on exerting almost total mastery, but there are other areas where she feels freer. We talk about the song ‘The Power Of Good Bye’.
‘It’s about not wasting so much energy,’ she says. ‘It’s really about accepting [things] and the freedom that it gives you. I did waste a lot of time trying to hold on things and control things. The song is also about facing death because ending a relationship is a kind of death – that’s why it’s so hard to break up with people. If you become emotionally intertwined with someone else it is a kind of small death in a way.
‘So, you know, it all leads to the same place – fear of the unknown, fear of letting go, facing your own death. All of that is connected to the idea that life does go on and the reason that people don’t want to let go of people or things is because they see everything as finite. But, in fact, I don’t believe that is true. And if you can embrace that then saying goodbye to things can be very empowering.’
In her answers he uses the language of self-help a great deal, talking of ‘empowerment’, ‘the growing process’, and ‘the next place’. She is clear that music is central to her own ‘development’ and throws her guard up sharply when it’s suggested that the fickle nature of pop music might not be a place for a grown woman.
‘Am I a grown woman?’ she asks.
You’ve turned 40, so society would say you’ve grown up.
‘So? That’s bourgeois society. I’m not interested in that.’
So you’re going to continue to do everything on your own terms.
‘Why not? I mean the thing is I do think that what I do is art. And does an artist, does the creative, you know, mind turn off at 40? Did Picasso stop painting at 40, youknowadimean?’
Are you still going to be having number one records when you’re 50? 60?
‘I don’t know. But, you see, that’s not how I define myself.’
Have you lived the best life you could have had?
‘Yes,’ she says without equivocation, without a doubt.
Her life, its actions and meaning has been the subject of much conjecture that she will never know or care about. From trashy cobbled-together supermarket biographies to a volume dedicated solely to dreams about her, there is much to read if you wish to experience the full gamut of opinion. The internet makes scary reading. (‘Hey Madonna whats up [sic]… I’m not some freako that wants to stick a dildo up your ass or something. I’m a little Asian girl that would love to chill with you some time,’ is just one gem.) Of little greater worth is the furious debate conducted by feminist academics as to the effect she had had upon womankind…
Once, her life was private.
Madonna was born in Bay City, Michigan, the eldest of eight children. Her father, Tony, was an engineer at Chrysler, her mother, whose name she was given, a housewife. Later the family was to move south to Pontiac where she shared a room with two sisters. As a girl Madonna spent her summers working in her father’s vegetable garden weeding and spraying insecticide, or she was sent to her grandparents’ house in Pennsylvania where she would be expected to work on the house and garden. The regime was rooted in instilling a work ethic: church before school, housework that was assigned by her dad’s chore chart, and no TV. (This, incidentally, is her top tip for successful parenthood: no TV.) Madonna was expected to defrost the freezer, wash the dishes, baby sit, vacuum. She was a voracious reader and loved the stories her mother told her about a garden involving vegetables and a rabbit.
The family was devoutly Catholic. On Good Friday her mother would place a purple cloth over all the religious pictures and statues in the house. This was before she fell ill with breast cancer, which would take her life when Madonna was six. Like many children who lose parent, Madonna expected her mother to return. But nobody talked about it. For years it seemed that way. Three years later her father married again, this time to the family housekeeper whom Madonna never acknowledged as a mother.
She learned to dance to get out of the piano lessons that her father insisted the children took. ‘I loathed sitting still,’ she says. ‘[Dancing] gave me a sense of belonging. I was very derailed by my mother’s death and I never really felt I fitted in very much at school and things like that. When I started to dance it meant that I was good at something. It made me feel special, so it helped my confidence.’
Like many provincial teenagers she knew that she would leave for the big city as quickly as she could. She says that she knew she wanted to leave Michigan from the age of five. She lasted one term at her home-state university on a dance scholarship. Her heart wasn’t in it. Even though she’d never visited, there was really only one place for her: New York, the true home of the ambitious.
She arrived, in her late teens, at La Guardia airport and took a taxi to Times Square. She had no money or connections and lived hand to mouth, eventually settling in a tenement on the Lower East Side at 4th and Avenue B. Every weekend she went clubbing in search of A&R personnel and DJs who might be able to assist her career. She recalls dancing to ‘Don’t You Want Me’ by the Human League at New York’s famous Danceteria club.
‘I didn’t know what I was going to become,’ she says when asked if it ever crossed her mind that she might fail, ‘but I knew that I was good at what I did. When I came to New York I wanted to be a dancer and I had an enormous amount of confidence in that area.’ Her voice hardens a little. ‘I didn’t have any choice because I wasn’t going back to Michigan. So, for me, there was just no way that I was leaving. I was just going to stay in New York and learn how to survive. How that manifested itself I didn’t know.’
Enamoured by New York nightlife, she met people who could help her career and befriended influential DJ Mark Kamins who, after being impressed by a cassette of her music, produced the singles ‘Everybody’ and ‘Burning Up’ which brought Madonna her first success in the dance charts. On the strength of this she was signed to Sire records and released ‘Holiday’ which was produced by Jellybean Benitez and hit the top spot in the US dance charts before crossing over to become a worldwide hit in 1983. When she first arrived in the public realm, she seemed like nothing more than a cute little pop missile of the month. This was not the case. At 25, she was an adult, which perhaps partly explains the longevity of her career: she had fought, struggled and experienced much before tasting success. This was no overnight thing, no teen sensation.
With her first royalty cheque she bought a synthesizer and a bike which she had to carry up all six flights to her new apartment, a loft on Broome and West Broadway. Deep down she also carried much resentment about her family, was often unhappy and relied greatly on music, which she had written was ‘a vehicle for transcending misery (the story of my life)’ to get her through thin times. Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ meant a great deal to her. Yet, within five years, she had made two of the definitive pop albums of the decade – True Blue in 1986, and Like A Prayer in 1989 – creating a world of opposites and attraction, the plus and minis, the virgin and whore, which sparked a change of electricity that ran up and down the spine of pop culture. She understood the power of image on a way that only Michael jackson had done before, starring in elaborate theatrical videos that introduced her to a global market via TV. In 1989 her video for ‘Like a Prayer’ was censured by the Vatican, but no matter, she was off and running, working like a bastard, touring, recording, acting. This is the story of her life: she believes that the important things must be earned, must be learned.
She has never stopped and talks about needing to make another album, going back on the road again. Her work has been her passion even though she has realized she might never get the recognition from her father that she once craved.
His favorite female artist is Celine Dion.
Still, she has dreams. She says she dreams about all kinds of things, works out her demons (that phrase again) dreaming about her past, dreaming about her daughter. She dreams of those who make a strong impression on her and dreamed of Sharon Stone, of Courtney Love. recently she went to see some musicians playing ancient instruments. One of them played a device that was shaped like a gourd, with three strings on it. beneath there were 32 minute strings which resonated when a bow was drawn across it. ‘He was sitting in the lotus position and I was completely fascinated by him,’ she says. ‘There was something that looked really fragile about him, like he was going to kick the bucket any moment, but also something really magical and powerful. He seemed otherworldly to me. He was completely detached from everyone in the room and all the other musicians.’
That night Madonna had a dream. She dreamt that the man could fly. ‘I want you to fly,’ she said to him. ‘I know you can fly, and I want you to show me.’
The man was irritated by the request. He didn’t want to have to prove his powers. he wanted Madonna to have faith. But Madonna wanted to see him do it and she got her way. The man lifted off the ground hovering above her, flying around.
She believes that dreams are a way of communicating, that when we sleep we ‘plug into some kind of universal memory bank’, that the physical world is only ‘one per cent of what’s actually going on out there’. She tells a story in which she was staying at a friend’s house and had a dream about having to beat rats off. In the morning she discovered that someone else sleeping in the same house had to leave a retreat because of a rat infestation.
‘I am 100 per cent sure that I was visited by someone in my dreams last night,’ she says.
‘I don’t want to talk about it. You know when you do an interview, I don’t want to bring up names. But I think that happens all the time.’ She pauses. ‘And now you’re sure I’m completely bonkers.’
Bonkers, no, although her search for spiritual enlightenment had led her, once again, to be put in the pillory, this time for flirting with panacea merchants and gurus who claim to administer parts of the future as well as a number of different organized religions. She has used Catholic iconography, explored Buddhism and is now studying Kabbala, an ancient Jewish mystical tradition.
‘I subscribe to the school of being incredibly well informed before buying into things,’ she says. ‘I’m not just jumping on a bandwagon going, “Vote for that person”. It’s about experience.’
What do you get from Kabbalah?
‘Looking at my life from a different perspective,’ she says. ‘Studying comparative religions in general, the mystical interpretation of any text is going to be interesting and fascinating and going to have some truth that you can relate to. The whole thing about spirituality is that at the end of the day everyone thinks you’re a wanker and you’ve lost your marbles and trivialises it. The fact is that it’s hard to explain. It is very personal. And, you know, you change your mind all the time to. So, that’s the other thing – I don’t want to commit to anything.’
Which has been the case, in greater or smaller measure in other aspects of her life. She has yet to find an enduring love, although has a daughter and the memory of her mother looms large. In 1985 she married actor Sean Penn while 13 news helicopters hovered above them. By 1989 the marriage was over, and although she has referred to Penn as her ‘one true love’ you suspect that still the most overpowering relationship she has had has been with her own fame.
Maybe she will never see her for what she is, never be able to properly make out what is in her heart, so we choose to interpret her as a woman in cast-iron balls, the girl who asked for everything and got it, and by the same token forever prejudiced her relationship with humankind. Or most of it, for occasionally, she meets people who have no idea who she is. A few weeks before she had gone to watch a performance by a group of Indian musicians and singers. She slipped into the room with no fuss and sat and watched the performance. Afterwards they approached her and asked her who she was, what did she do? The man who had invited Madonna told them she liked to sing. ‘Oh, you’re a singer!’ the musician said. ‘That’s wonderful.’
Her voice quietens a little, when she tells the story, although it is laden with pleasure. “They were just relating to me as a human being,’ she says. ‘And I liked it. It was nice.’
Someone else who relates to Madonna as a human being, specifically a mother, is her daughter Lourdes, who was born by Caesarean section weighing 6lb 9oz in October 1969. Named after the most celebrated Christian healing shrine, Lourdes has offered her mother catharsis of a kind. “The great thing about having children,’ she says, ‘is that for the most part it turns us back into human beings.’ Having a daughter has caused her to think about her own mother’s death, to confront pain she has carried around for a lifetime and write about it explicitly in songs like ‘Mer Girl’.
There’s nothing like having a baby to make your face your own… mortality or immortality or however you want to look at it,’ she says.
When the birth was imminent, photographers stalked out every maternity ward in beverly Hills in pursuit of the $350,000 reward offered for the first shot of the baby. With that in mind, can Madonna offer her daughter a life with a semblance of normality?
‘I think it’s going to be gradual,’ she says. ‘She comes and she watches me rehearse for things, and she watches me on stage, and she watches me shooting things, and she watches me on stage, and she watches me shooting things, and I think she’s very clear that what I do for living very expressive, music has a lot to do with it. She sees what’s going on. So when she sees me on stage she just thinks I’m being silly, which I occasionally am being. So it’s not going to come as big shock when she grows up one day and realises thatI’m an icon, as you say.’
What’s been the most surprising thing about motherhood?
‘How much I could love something,’ she says. ‘That’s been the most incredible… You say that you feel it with other people, with lovers and such, but you just can’t imagine it.’
Lovers and such. If Madonna had as many lovers as catalogued in the press then she would be hard pressed to achieve mush else. What we know is that Lourdes’ father is Carlos Leon, as personal trainer who was 29 when the pair met in Central park. There have, reportedly, been other men since the birth of Lourdes, although Leon, who has seven per cent body fat, remains close to both of them.
Then there is the personal fortune of around $200 million and her successful record label Maverick, set up in April 1992 by Madonna’s ex-manager Freddy DeMann and of which she is enormously proud. According to the contract, Madonna must come up with seven albums, each of which receives an advance of $5 million as well as offering a platform for books, movies and other recording artists. Warner Bros has a 50 per cent stake in the company. There were teething problems. Maverick’s first project was Sex, its first music signing, Proper Grounds, disappeared without a trance, and its attempt to sign Hole got a famous finger from Courtney Love. But in 1994 everything changed when Maverick signed Alanis Morissette whose Jagged Little Pill sold in excess of 25 million copies. And when America woke up to the enormous success of The prodigy it was Maverick who secured the rights to distribute them there. With a long, sharp laugh she says that the main thing she has learned from Maverick is ‘what a pain in the ass artists are’.
‘Oh God. All I think about is: “God, if I was as rude to my record company as these people are to us…” It’s unbelievable.’
I ask how Maverick changed her relationship with Warner Bros. ‘They’re still buggers to me,’ she says. ‘They still treat me like… Ugh! Fahgeddit! I don’t want to even go there! Warner Bros still act like I still have to prove myself. After all the records I’ve sold for them, the success of the label, you have no idea. I mean Guy, my partner and I, we scratch our heads every day, we think they should be kissing our asses.’
She says that at the moment she’s happiest when she’s in London, where she is currently looking for a home. She has sold up in LA after a stalker, Robert Dewey Hoskins threatened to slash her throat and twice broke into her estate. The second time he was shot and wounded by one of Madonna’s bodyguards, and was sent down for ten years last March. Currently she is in New York where she lives near Central Park in the duplex where Warren Beatty famously accused her of not wanting to live off-camera. She has no photos of herself but an art collection, including a Picasso, a Leger and a Basquiat, which she has described as her most prized possession (she dated Basquiat and when they split he demanded she return the paintings he’d given her). It’s at this apartment that William Orbit one day appeared fresh off a plane with a bag of cassettes which he tipped out on the floor and rummaged among to find what might become the sound for her new album. There is also a picture of Muhammad Ali inscribed: ‘To Madonna. We Are The Greatest’.
Strange rumours occasionally surface. My favorite featured a visit last year to a pet psychiatrist when Madonna’s Chihuahua, Chiquita, was acting up. The amazing diagnosis was that the animal had become jealous of her daughter. Madonna does not have a favourite piece of newspaper tittle-tattle, finds most of it ‘tiresome’ and is quietly resentful of the suggestions made in some areas of the media that she was an unsuitable parent when it was announced that she was pregnant. ‘That was annoying,’ she says dryly and in a way that makes you understand the extent to which it pained her.
She does not like to be called a pop star, preferring instead the phrase ‘performing artist’. I suggest that despite the acres of newsprint devoted to her and the best efforts of our telephoto democracy she has survived relatively unscathed. She lets loose a big, breathy laugh and hunches a little. ‘Relatively,’ she says, by way of qualification. ‘Well, I am resilient, I’ll give myself that.’
Why are you [still] doing it?
‘Because I have something to say,’ she replies firmly. ‘It’s a growing process for me. An adventure.’
Ray Of Light suggests that Madonna has regained her understanding of the moment. When her last album, Something To Remember, was released in November 1995, she complained that ‘very little attention gets paid to my music’. And while the collection had its attractions it was clear that this kind of brawny balladeering should be left to the caged imaginations of the Celines, Mariahs and Whitneys. In one album we saw what Madonna, God forbid, might become: a twenty-first-century Barbra Streisand.
It’s not a pretty thought, admittedly, but at least it offers some perspective on Madonna’s core talent: Persistently staying in touch, mirroring and exploiting the fault lines of contemporary culture, in essence staying interested, giving us what we want.
You ask the woman whose life is a work in progress, if she has a motto. ‘Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends,’ she laughs. It’s a line from John Maybury’s biopic of Francis Bacon, Love Is The Devil. It makes her laugh. She says it’s ‘the mutt’s nuts’ which is as good a piece of vernacular as you’re likely to pick up all week. She won’t tell me a joke though, she says she never remembers them. And I don’t tell her a joke. She just won’t get it.
The afternoon has passed and Madonna’s answers are shorter. She is tired of accounting for herself and maybe even a little bored. The voice that we have lived with almost as long as she has, fades with the daylight. She smiles and it occurs to me that while she may sometimes feel lonely, she is never really alone for we measure ourselves against her journey, her extraordinary vault from the humdrum to the universal. And what a life, what a face. She has lived with it and she will surely die with it. But she’s alright with that. She’ll be ready.