If there is one quality that marks my long professional relationship with Madonna, it is her matter-of-factness. She never ever beats around the bush, acts coy, promises what she cannot deliver. When I got through to her here in Manhattan, on the eve of her six-night sold-out stand at Madison Square Garden, the star said, “Liz, I’m glad to do this for you, but what more do you need to know about me? You know more about me than I do myself.” I promised I wouldn’t ask her more than 20 questions. She laughed, “Oh, I’ve heard that before!”
The funny thing is, for all the column space I have devoted to this remarkable woman, I had to be prodded to pay attention to her, back in the day. She was already a big star by the time she appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1985, but I was keeping my distance. Others then clued me into MTV, to her videos, her persona, her daring. When I spoke to Rosanna Arquette, on the eve of “Desperately Seeking Susan” being released, she claimed Madonna – who had a supporting role in the film – said to her, “Wouldn’t you give anything to be me for just an hour?” Rosanna demurred, but I loved that remark. It reminded me so much of other great ego-driven stars – Streisand, Diana Ross, Mae West!
And so Madonna became a column constant. I didn’t always agree with what she said, or what she did, but the hysterical over-reaction to her caused me, if not to defend her, then at least try to put a more balanced perspective on her astonishing ongoing saga – which the rest of the media kept insisting was just about to end. She gave me access and trusted my judgment. She gave me the scoop on her first pregnancy – “Liz, I’m pregnant!” she barked without preamble, all the way from Budapest, as filming began on “Evita.” She was generous. When I met her face to face for the first time, at the premiere of “Truth or Dare,” I was being profiled for “Prime Time Live.” The producers wanted her to talk about me. I did not think this would happen. I was wrong. Madonna said, “I like Liz Smith because she has big balls, just like me!”
And, at the height of her “Sex” book/”Body of Evidence” notoriety, Madonna called from the out of the blue. “Hi, it’s Madonna,” getting right to the point. “I just want to say thanks for the all the support. I know you get a lot of crap because of it.” I did. I still do. And I couldn’t care less.
Liz: Are you happy to be back in New York, performing your shows at the Garden?
Madonna: I am always happy to be back here, because, as I’ve often said, this is where it began and I still consider New York home. I didn’t leave Michigan and go to Hollywood. I came to New York, which was the center of the world to me then. My connection to this city and its people will always be very strong. I’ve had plenty of fun in this city and the audiences are always fabulous.
Liz: You say it was the center of the world “then.” No longer? You prefer England?
Madonna: England is where my husband is from and I made the choice to live there with him. But the center of my world is my family. We travel back and forth and I feel privileged to be able to live in the U.S. and in Britain.
Liz: If your family is your center, why do you work so much?
Madonna: Because I love my work, too, and I have much to say and so much to do.
Liz: What’s the best part about being a mother?
Madonna: Not thinking about yourself all the time.
Liz: And the worst?
Madonna: Not thinking about yourself all the time!
Liz: And marriage?
Madonna: Diane Sawyer once said that marriage is a contest of generosity and I agree but sometimes I lose and sometimes I win. But I am still in the game and this game has taught me the art of compromise and the art of diplomacy. These two qualities have served me well.
Liz: Did kaballah help you adjust?
Madonna: Having a spiritual life has forced me to be less selfish. Not that I’m serene by any means. I’m still driven by big fat ego and all my insecurities, but I manage better.
Liz: You never seem insecure, in what ways are you?
Madonna: Ha-ha. Don’t get me started, I’m never good enough.
Liz: Why do you continue to provoke such controversy in your work?
Madonna: Because I want my audience to think. But I also want them to have fun. I think the two can co-exist in entertainment.
Liz: So the crucifix you are suspended on –
Madonna: Is what you make of it. If you want to be shocked, be shocked. As I’ve said, I don’t think Jesus would be mad at me, as my message during that song is not so different than his. I want to help make the world a better place. I want to open people’s eyes to the suffering that’s going on in especially the children still dying of AIDS in Africa. Besides, Jesus was not the only person who died on a cross.
Liz: Are you as manipulative with your image as you are often accused of being?
Madonna: All entertainment and art is some form of manipulation. There is nothing wrong with it. The question is what is the intention? To make people laugh? To seduce people into being sheep? Or to wake people up and make them think and ask questions. The latter is obviously my game.
Liz: I heard you are doing a sequel to you enchanting children’s story “The English Roses.”
Madonna: The sequel is coming out in the fall. It’s called “The English Roses-Too Good To Be True.” My daughter and I really had a great time following up on the adventures of these five close friends.
Liz: And you’re expanding into the retail world?
Madonna: Yes, another reason to go on calling me “The Material Girl!” Actually, my dancers and I just shot an ad campaign for H&M. I worked with their designers on a track suit that will be in the stores by August. It’s Gaultier onstage and H&M off.
Liz: You were already around 25 when you hit really big, a grown woman, with a lot of experience. Do you think that helped you – that you didn’t become a sensation at 18 or younger?
Madonna: I was hardly a grown woman at 25, but it was good to have that much time to be anonymous and learn how to survive privately. I certainly knew what I wanted by the time I was able to get it. But, I wasn’t prepared, could never have been prepared for the scope of what happened to me. You might fantasize about being famous – and I did! – but never that famous. Luckily I really have managed to carve out a life for myself that is mine and mine alone.
Liz: There’s a major equestrian theme in this show, yes?
Madonna: Yes, I love horses. They are the most beautiful creatures I think I may have been one of Henry the VIII’s knights in another life, riding through the great forest.
Liz: What did the success of this album mean to you?
Madonna: Well, first of all – and nobody believes this when I or any artist says it – I don’t write songs or record because I’m thinking “big hit!” I have to be satisfied with what I do. Not that I ever am. I mean, I’m always thinking something can be done better. But, I absolutely appreciate commercial success and it means so much if my fans, who have been devoted through thick and thin, like what I do. When this album debuted at No. 1, when it was No. 1 around the world at the same time, I opened up a bottle of champagne and I cried.
Liz: Is it true you’ve given up on movies?
Madonna: Actually, I’m more interested in directing at this point. I have so many tales to tell. Making movies for me was never about being a big movie star, it was about being a good actress. But it’s not easy with critics going after you before the movie is even released. It’s easier to be a visionary as a director.
Liz: Do you have any beauty secrets?
Madonna: Somebody told you to ask me that, right? I love it. I have no secrets. I get incredible facials. I take good care of myself. I eat healthy food. And when and if I ever decide to have plastic surgery – because I know that’s the next question – I’ll do it. But I won’t be holding a press conference.
Liz: Hmmm … I think I’ll skip the retirement question then.
Madonna: Oh, no, please. When I was 30, it was all … “she’s 30, when is she going to quit” … then 35, 40 …all this speculation that once you reach a certain point you have to stop doing what you love doing. And don’t you dare look good doing it, either. It’s the furthest thing from my mind. I tell you what, Liz. We’ve known each other for a really long time. I’ve always admired your energy. I’ll quit when you do.
Liz: Madonna, you and I will be the last girls standing at the rodeo.
Madonna: Yeah, we can ride off into the sunset together.
© New York Post