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Madonna Interview : The Face

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that In Bed With Madonna, however good a film it is (and it is — check it now that the fuss has died down and see for yourself), was misinterpreted and caused her damage. It is easy to see that Sex — a collaboration, lest we forget, with top photographer Steven Meisel and top art director Fabien Baron, neither of whose reputations were tarnished as a result — only compounded this damage. The usual rescue remedy for American celebrities is the confessional: some expression of regret, followed by the public airing of a hitherto private problem, be it addiction to drink or drugs or childhood abuse. But Madonna is not up for such staged soul-searching. She isn’t after the sympathy vote. Instead, she has a theory, a theory she returns to again and again as we talk.

“I’m being punished,” she tells me calmly when we meet the next day. “I’m being punished for being a single female, for having power and being rich and saying the things I say, being a sexual creature — actually, not being any different from anyone else, but just talking about it. If I were a man, I wouldn’t have had any of these problems. Nobody talks about Prince’s sex life, and all the women he’s slept with. Nobody talks about any of their sex lives. You have to be intelligent about that and say, ‘OK, what’s being said here?’ I’m being punished for having a sex life. For enjoying it and for saying that I enjoy it. I really think it’s that simple.”

My meeting with Madonna is not as I’d rehearsed in my head. Approaching the house in daylight now, a miniature Jurassic Park is enacted under my feet, tiny herds of lizards fleeing before me as I walk across the courtyard. Caresse shows me the garden overlooking the bay, watching carefully in case Pepito falls into the swimming pool. Instead, he obligingly craps in a corner, a major development. And so it comes to pass that when she comes downstairs, my first conversation with Madonna is about dog shit, about the macho owners that have given pit bulls a bad name, and the fact that Pepito would have to be castrated and muzzled if I took him home to England. “I might still give him to you,” she jokes. “He’s eating all my shoes — I’m planning his murder even as we speak.”

The Madonna I meet is nothing like the Madonna in these photographs: she looks younger, smaller, less imposing. But nor is she the pale, spotty, plain woman many interviewers claim to have been greeted by. This Madonna has short, yellow blonde hair slicked back from a very pretty face with minimal make-up: black mascara, red lipstick. There are a couple of very fine lines on her forehead, but nothing more — probably rather less — than most people in their thirties. She is wearing a long black dress, black bra peeping fashionably out between the narrow straps, high-heeled mules, a pale blue ribbon tied round one ankle. She is relaxed, friendly, and has a loud, open laugh.

Nellee Hooper, she says, was a logical choice for the new album. “I decided that I wanted to work with a whole bunch of different producers. Bjork’s album is one of my favourite for years — it’s brilliantly produced, and I also loved Massive. So obviously, he was on the list. Nellee was the last person I worked with, and it wasn’t until then that I got a grip of what the sound of the whole record was, so I had to go back and redo a lot.”

Lyrically, I say, there’s not so much about sex and more about…

“Romance,” says Madonna. “Or the loss of. Unrequited love.”

So has the sex theme gone as far as it can?

“I feel I’ve been misunderstood. I tried to make a statement about feeling good about yourself and exploring your sexuality, but people took it to mean that everyone should go out on a f****fest and have sex with everyone, and that I was going to be the leader of that. So I decided to leave it alone because that’s what everyone ended up concentrating on. Sex is such a taboo subject and it’s such a distraction that I’d rather not even offer it up.”

She agrees that there is a defensiveness in some of the new lyrics, particularly “Human Nature”: “It’s my definitive statement in regards to the incredible payback I’ve received for having the nerve to talk about the things that I did in the past few years with my Sex book and my record. It’s getting it off my chest. It is defensive, absolutely. But it’s also sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek. And I’m not sorry. I do not apologise for any of it.”

The night before we met, while I was at her house listening to the record, Madonna was at the mall. She went with just one friend, no bodyguard, and they went to see a movie — Color Of Night with Bruce Willis and Jane March (“She’s so pretty. The only thing worth looking at in the movie, I have to say”). People stared at her. She saw them whispering, deciding that it couldn’t possibly be her. Inside, three girls sitting in front turned round to ask if anyone had ever told her she looks a lot like Madonna. And Madonna said yes, actually, she hears it all the time. She thanked them, and then they turned back and watched the movie.

It’s easier to do in Miami than anywhere else, she says, but she goes out like this often. I say it must be hard to stay in touch with reality, because her life must be so unreal most of the time. “That makes my life annoying, but it doesn’t make it unreal. It does get to be a pain in the ass — at times I wish I could be more spontaneous and just go outside my gate. But I try to make a point of saying dammit, I’m going to do it anyway. I don’t care if there’s 60 people outside my apartment in New York, I’m going out for a walk, and if they follow me, they follow me. I will not be a prisoner.”

But isn’t that dangerous?

“I don’t think about it. I just do it. I can’t afford to be so careful, to cut myself off from the rest of the world. I go out to clubs, I go running in Central Park, I go for bike rides and hang out with my friends, and people always say to me, ‘Aren’t you frightened? Where’s your bodyguard?’ But it’s all of that that attracts attention, and I just can’t function that way, I never could.