all about Madonna

15 years online

When it’s too late for lusty, a rock chick can be formidable

Summertime, and the living is easy . . . so naturally American Vogue prints a photo-shoot of the English countryside, showing how the cream of English society disports itself during our brief but ravishing belle saison.
Now, who is this patrician figure, clad in buttermilk chiffon and cashmere, her wheat-blonde hair curled into immaculate waves, laughingly enacting a Petit Trianon charade of feeding her flock of happy hens from a dainty porcelain bowl, while in the background there looms the rose brick frontage of some small but perfectly formed English country house?
Here she is again, on horseback this time, dressed in hacking jacket, breeches and a slightly peculiar pair of boots. Last and prettiest of all is the set piece with evening dress and small children. A flowing silk skirt, the creamy smile of a woman who knows that she has fulfilled her destiny in every possible way, and two angelic moppets, a little girl in fairy frills, a small boy in chain mail, brandishing a sword as big as himself.
So go on, who is she, the girl in the pictures? Matriarch, countrywoman, grande dame. I give you one guess. The hens are the clinching detail. It’s the Duchess of Devonshire, isn’t it? Archive pictures from the Thirties, showing her at the height of her beauty. Odd about wearing chiffon to feed the poultry, but that’s eccentric Brits for you, right?
Wrong. The rose-and-blonde aristo, posing so charmingly with hens, hunter and lovely home is, in fact, none other than the Material Girl herself — Madonna, fetchingly got up for the photographer from American Vogue as Our Lady of the Manor. Fancy that!
Not, it is true, that Madonna’s latest incarnation comes as a total surprise. Between her dizzying variety of personae — the nasty-mouthed dominatrix in spiky fetish gear, the studious seeker after Kabbalistic knowledge, the sweet, Prada-clad librarian of her book launches — Madonna has been offering for some time periodic glimpses of herself in tweeds and wellies as the Country Wife.
Still, isn’t it a trifle rum that she chooses to offer up this vision of herself as an English gentlewoman at a time when the English gentry has never been more unfashionable or more energetically reviled? Do you think she’s losing the keen edge that has kept her ahead of the game for so long? Well, no, of course she isn’t. In fact, I think what she has done is to take a long, keen-eyed look into the future to see what awaits her there, and come up with a wonderfully pragmatic solution.
I’m always amazed when I read the things that fat, ugly, balding male journalists allow themselves to write about Madonna, their fabulously well preserved contemporary. “Menopausal” and “the old girl”, were a couple of the milder descriptions that appeared after her performance at the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park. Yeah, right, Mr Love God, and just look at you, I always think, on reading the painfully misogynistic prose of these barrel-shaped boobies.
However, I suspect that the secret of the Madonna phenomenon is a certain restlessness which ensures that she doesn’t sit around fulminating about patronising press but is instinctively always moving on to the next thing, and the next, and the one after that. The trouble is that, at 46, you begin to run out of next things.
However fabulously well preserved, an intelligent woman (and Madonna is certainly that) knows that there is no mileage after a certain point in pretending to be luscious. The result is simply sinister, as a brief tour d’horizon of Botoxed and desperate former beauties will confirm. So, what’s the alternative?
In the States there is no alternative. Unless you’re Barbara Bush, you just carry on getting thinner and thinner, more and more wide-eyed, sadder and madder, until you vanish altogether. You’d think Madonna might have been able to thrive in France, where allure is reckoned to be ageless, but the French are so intolerant of eccentricity (and their music scene is so peculiar). Besides, she’s married to an Englishman.
So, what have the Brits to offer a 46-year-old rock star — apart from an unpleasant claque of paunchy, sex-starved male journalists? Actually, more than you’d imagine. One always thinks of Latin nations as being supremely matriarchal, but in Britain we entertain a long and robust tradition of pale, willowy beauties who deal with the transition from flower-like nymph to middle age and older by becoming Formidable.
Even luckier for Madonna, our version of Formidable comes in an assortment of incarnations. There is Rock Chick Formidable, as modelled by Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithfull and Jane Birkin, all of whom are quite as much adored now — wrinkles, shattering life experiences and all — as they were in their dewy prime.
But if Madonna is too grand for that slightly down-at-heel form of celebrity, luckily we do a fabulous line in straight-up Dowager Formidable, which might suit her down to the ground. Consider the picture of the 50-year-old Queen Mary, or (to bring the matter up to date) Lady Annabel Goldsmith. Observe the wonderful posture, the ineradicable self-belief, the immense quantities of diamonds (or glitter of some sort, at any rate), and tell me if you don’t see there the very pattern of the Material Girl in later life.
Looking again at those Vogue pictures, I think Madonna has made a clever choice. At 46 she is still pretty enough to conceal the power behind the charm. Catch her again in 30 years’ time and she’ll have turned into one of P. G. Wodehouse’s aunts. Rock chick, bellowing to rock chick, like mastodons across the primeval swamp.

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