“She seems the intrinsic deficiencies of fame.” Keshishian adds. “At a party in Los Angeles, this well-known singer came over and said something like ‘Oh God, my album sold 300,000 copies this week, I’m really happy. How many have yours been selling?’ Madonna just went. ‘Oh God, I have to leave here, I can’t deal with this.'”
For a long time, Madonna has lived inside her dream of stardom, creating personae — from gamine waif with a pack on her back to sexual provocateur — suitable for public consumption. A human identity seems to have sometimes been sacrificed. She and her constant circle of friends have shared a fierce loyalty, but many who know Madonna well say that intimacy hasn’t always come naturally. Her one marriage — to actor Sean Penn, who filled her childhood fantasy of a passionate “cowboy poet” — ended hard. Other men — sometimes famous, sometimes decidedly not — have followed. Most, since Penn, have appeared easily controllable, but Carlos Leon may not have been as malleable as he looked. Now her relationship with Lourdes’s father is over, and her references to him are careful. “He is ever present in Lola’s life and we are friends,” she tells me. “And I’m very happy. It took a while for us to get to this place.”
On the professional front, Madonna has loyalists who’ve worked with her through the years, but you notice the number of acquaintances who speak of her lack of warmth, her need to always be the girl with the right answer, and her habit of jettisoning those whose purpose has been served. Yet she arouses sympathetic reactions, too, from those who describe the little girl — always determined, sometimes bossy, sometimes touching — behind the woman obsessed with getting everything right. They mention the personal phone calls when she’s running late or forced to break appointments, cite her basic decency, her private acts of support, and her wry humor. (At a restaurant, when I drag my sleeve of my best interview sweater across a place of olive oil, she assures me, “Don’t worry, Miuccia Prada strikes me as an olive-oil-on-your-sweater type of girl.”)
But she’s got her moods. Other stars bring Madonna’s tendency to denigrate those she feels threatened by, and dwell on her rudeness and lack of interest in others. Someone who has known her well since the early 80s says, “Sometimes I wonder if there is a real heart beating in there.”
I think there is. But she’s a master at swallowing feelings of pain and loss. She tells me, during our discussion of a song, how she hates saying good-bye, isn’t good at it, and — characteristically — avoids doing it.
You get the feeling that she’s been more than aware of her seeming lack of feeling, and that she’s paid. “Open your heart” Madonna pleaded — perhaps to herself — in her 1986 singles, and by 1994 she was going further, “Love tried to welcome me but my soul drew back.” she wrote. In “Frozen,” Ray of Light’s first single, Madonna sings, “You’re broken when your heart’s not open.”
“Some of the lyrical sentiment in ‘Frozen’ was drawn from my own personal experience,” Madonna tells me. But she says that, ironically, the song’s visual images were inspired by the movie The English Patient, specifically scenes where Ralph Fiennes’s character makes his way across the desert to get help for the woman he loves. “I know it sounds dorky,” she says, “But it really moved me. I wept, and I can’t even tell you why. For me, it was just — oh, to be loved in that way; oh, to love someone that way.”
Remembering the look I saw on her face when Lourdes was with us, I say, “Don’t you have someone like that? What about Lourdes? You obviously love her unconditionally.”
“It’s what it feels like to have her in my arms. I knew that having a child would be an incredible healing experience … because I didn’t have a mother. I just knew my Karma was to have a girl, and I instinctively had a longing for her. But I didn’t know what it was going to be like.”
Wonder if she thinks that motherhood is the only way to experience these feelings, I bring up my cat and she smiles, nodding her head. “A companion is a companion,” she tells me.
Newspaper accounts notwithstanding, she doesn’t appear to be looking to further her single parenthood. “I would love to have another child. But I’d like to be in a stable relationship. Sometimes you want to look over at somebody and say, ‘What do you think we should do?'”
As we all know, Madonna hasn’t always been blessed with restraint. After all, this is the person she treated the world to the following and worse in her 1992 book, Sex: “I love my pussy, it is the complete summation of my life …. My pussy is the temple of learning.”
Who am I to say that it isn’t? But it wasn’t the site of the great, revolutionary work of art that the Sex hype promised. And it led to a broad question of its author’s much-bally-hooed ability to intuit the public’s desire. Sex felt like pure titillation, a calculated matter, a rp-off of those who had genuinely put themselves on the line to fight AIDS-era repression. She served that task better, more vitally and authentically, in her music.
No one has ever known what sort of explosions Sex set off within the Ciccone family. I ask Madonna about her father’s reaction. “My father keeps expecting to shoe up and see a production of Little Bo-Peep,” she replies. “He talked to me about Sex in an indirect way. He said something like ‘Why did you feel the need to do that? I didn’t answer. But he never came out and said he disapproved. That’s not my father’s style.”
I wonder how Madonna, in hindsight, regards the project. “It was my own personal rebellion against my father,” she tells me, “against the way I was raised, against the culture, against society, against everything. It was just a huge, massive act of rebellion — and it was also about having fun.”