The American Rose
For the past 20 years, Madonna has reigned as the mistress of reinvention — from pop star and actress, to wife and mother, and now her latest incarnation as children’s author. Here, in the most intimate interview of her career, the icon talks to Ginny Dougary.
If a novelist wished to alert his reader to his heroine’s earnest endeavor to become a humbler person and the obstructiveness of her own character in realizing that goal, he might well present us with a striking vignette in order to reveal the distance she has to travel. Let’s say Madonna were a fictional character – she has, on occasion, suggested that’s exactly what she is – and one’s intention was to convey the singer’s singular lack of self-awareness, it is doubtful whether a more vivid illustration could be invented than the one I witnessed at high summer in her Beverly Hills home.
I arrived at the appointed hour of 5pm at the security gates of her Spanish-style mansion, designed in 1926 by Wallace Neff, purveyor of palaces to the original Hollywood aristocracy. Madonna bought it from Diane Keaton in 2000, and by the end of the year she’ll be moving to a less “aesthetic”, more family-friendly home nearby. It’s dark and faintly oppressive inside with no breeze, no fans or air-conditioning. Within minutes, you can feel the energy draining out of you.
There’s disconcertingly familiar self-portrait of a mustachioed and turbaned Frida Kahlo staring at each visitor who walks through the front door.
Turn left into a living-room, past half-a-dozen guitars on stands – one is a model of Bob Marley’s original, another had an intricate pattern of mother-of-pearl around the fretboard. Behind them, in the corner, is a baroque-style grand piano in pale wood.
A pair of french windows opens on to a modest oblong of lawn. Stepping back into the dark brows and caramel shadows of the room, to the right of the fireplace, you see a Picasso prong which is slipping down from its mount, and to the left another Frida Kahlo painting – the one Madonna said she loved so much that anyone who didn’t share her feelings could no longer be her friend. Husbands are clearly exempt – or, at least, this one is – since she later tells me that Guy Ritchie cannot stand it. But then, by the end of my time with Madonna, I have the distinct impression that the director of the headbutting gangland films, Lock, Stock… and Snatch, is a man of surprisingly delicate sensibilities.
The painting is of a woman, presumably dead because of the sheet which is pulled over her head a baby’s wizened face staring out between the splayed legs of the late mother. Next to them is a pool of blood. When I say to Alison, my interview’s well-meaning personal assistant, that the work is so much smaller and more muted than I expected, she says, “You know, it’s funny, that’s what a lot of people say about Madonna, when they first meet her, too.”
Beyond the door of the living-room, I see what one presumes are various employees come and go. Somewhere there is a woman speaking French and then a little girl – it is the singer’s first child, Lola, nearly seven – answers back as she walks down the stairs, looking like a perfect dark-skinned Degas, black hair pulled into a net, white tutu and leotard. Her mother is still nowhere to be seen.
Ten minutes later, a slight figure, not many inches higher than five feet, appears at the door, walks across the room and stops at the coffee table in front of me. She points to a neat stack of music next to a glossy book on Maria Callas and diamonds, boot-faced, to know who is responsible for the transgression of tidying up. Alison, the assistant, admits it was her and apologies, her boss berated her saying she was about to blame another member of her staff, and then fives a martyred sigh: “Ohhhh… I guess I’ll just have to sort it out later.”
So this is what it feels like to come face-to-face with the most famous woman in the world; one who has spent the past seven years in her Kabbalistic pursuit of infinite compassion and unconditional kindness. Actually, to be strictly accurate, at this stage it is not quite a case of face-to-face, since Madonna has yet to acknowledge my presence.
I boldly go over to introduce myself, only to be met by an intensely tepid response. Some years ago, an interviewee told me: “There are plenty of nice people in the world already. Why should I be one of them?” And that’s just the kind of line you can imagine the younger Madonna of Desperately Seeking Susan, with her studied air of nonchalant truculence, might have uttered. Back then her very charmlessness seemed to be part of her charm.