Goodbye, Norma Jean.
The Material Girl is growing up just fine.
I’m sitting in a plush conference room within the confines of the Freddy DeMann empire when I hear a female voice in the front office holler, “Jesus Christ! There was some fucking lunatic following me up in the elevator!”
Somehow I know that Madonna has arrived for our interview.
A recently released compilation album of her dance hits titled You Can Dance is now firmly lodged on the charts, she’s in the midst of developing five film properties (she’ll produce one and appear in the rest), and maintains the daily physical fitness regime of a professional athlete. She says she’s on vacation.
Madonna-bashing was more or less de rigueur among the cognoscenti during the refreshingly irreverent early years of her career. The critical tide definitely seems to be turning in her favor; moreover, now that the public is more or less at ease with Madonna’s somewhat intimidating blond goddess shtick, another side of her — a more subdued and thoughtful side — is beginning to emerge. This is very much the side I see during our two-hour conversation. Madonna is, in fact, not at all what I’d expected — she’s considerably prettier, for starters. Though I’ve always considered Madonna an unbeatable style – job, I’d never thought of her as a great beauty — which she is, despite a sleepless night (Madonna suffers from insomnia).
In the course of our conversation I learn that she’s a bit superstitious, her favorite period from the past is the twenties, and she loves Jimmy Stewart. Madonna’s a voracious reader (particularly Raymond Canter, Anne Tyler, and Louise Erdrich) and collects art deco and art nouveau. Munching on popcorn, she answers questions with unexpected candor. She seems to harbor few illusions about herself and has a good sense of humor. “Don’t be mean to yourself,” she advises me when she leaves.
What’s your earliest memory?
When I was really little, maybe three or four years old. I pushed another little girl down in our driveway. I can remember realizing that I’d been mean to that little girl. It’s terrible, but my first memory is of being mean to someone.
Were you punished or did you get away with it?
I got away with it. No one ever found out.
What do you think you represent to people?
Lots of things. To people who might not understand me, I think I represent someone incredibly ambitious, opportunistic, and manipulative — a strong person who knows what she’s doing and is a good businesswoman. To other people I represent a kind of liberation for females — and that’s something I’ve only recently come to understand. During my first tour there were all these young girls idolizing me and dressing like me and I couldn’t understand why it was happening. It was a mystery to me why they were copying my hodge-podge, tongue-in-cheek tart outfits, but it finally began to make sense. For so long young women have been told that there are certain ways they mustn’t look if they want to get ahead in life, and there I was dressing in a forbidden way and obviously in charge of my life and career. I was saying I can look sexy if I choose to and still be smart.
I feel awkward talking about myself this way because it sounds egotistical, but I think I also represent hope to people who come from nowhere and have no show business connections but want to be performers, because I basically came from nowhere and scratched and clawed my way to the top.
Have you had to be ruthless to achieve the success you’ve won?
Ruthless? I don’t think ruthless is the right word. What’s the definition of ruthless? Not caring? suppose there’s a thin line between being absolutely focused and being ruthless.
For our purpose let’s define ruthless as hurting people.
Then no, I haven’t been ruthless. But yes, I have been absolutely focused, and people who don’t understand that kind of focus — and not that many people have it — can feel hurt by it even though there’s absolutely no reason for them to.
What tradition do you see yourself as being a part of?
I get compared to lots of people — mostly Marilyn Monroe because of the sexually provocative image that I have, the bleached blond hair, and all that — but there are so many other aspects to my personality that I can be compared to lots of different people. Ultimately I don’t really identify with any one person or tradition because I don’t think anyone has done what I’m doing.
What’s the most widely held misconception about you?
I don’t know. What do you think it is? That I’m stupid?