This is Madonna, but not quite as we know her. She is 39. Her hands are knuckly but useful, as they appeared in close-up on the cover of Like A Prayer. Her orange hair has the straggly, expensively unwashed look favoured by Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple et al. Her attire, loose-fitting drapes – orange again – exposing about five inches of trim abdomen, wouldn’t look out of place lolloping up and down Oxford Street irritating a tambourine and handing out pamphlets. The famed upper-lip beauty spot has disappeared, perhaps surgically. There is a startling sense of unfamiliarity about her – that is, until she begins to move. When she moves, suddenly she is quite definitely Madonna.
As she tucks into the tea, we remark upon the absence of security, entourage even. “I drive myself in L.A.” she puffs. “It’s one of the only reasons I like living here.” Emboldened, we proffer the pudding. “I love Christmas pudding”, she coos, maybe just being polite. Whatever, polite is good. Polite is, frankly, a relief.
Q: Is Los Angeles a necessary evil – the place in the world where you feel least bothered?
Madonna: Unfortunately. It’s the dullest town, therefore there isn’t much going on, therefore there aren’t a lot of paparazzi hanging about. It’s the one place I totally get left alone in. There’s so many people who work in the industry here, it’s not shocking to see famous people about, going shopping.
Q: You’ve been in London a lot over the last couple of years. Does it swing?
Madonna: I’ve been there recently, and for ten days it was incredible. I thought after the Princess Diana thing it would be so great and that I was going to be left alone so I rented a house in Chelsea. Then I found out that it wasn’t that they were leaving me alone, they just didn’t know where I was. And when they found out and the fans found out, then… then it was a nightmare. Then I wished I was in a hotel, because at least in a hotel you’re so high that you can’t hear them on the street. I would love to live in London but I don’t think I could handle the whole press thing. It’s pretty intense. It’s more intense even than New York, where the attention kinda comes and goes. In London it’s every day.
Q: There was a brief feeling after the death of the Princess Of Wales that it would stop. That it would change. Did you believe it would change?
Madonna: Yeah. Do I think it has? No. Not at all.
Q: Coming out of filming Evita straight into that – the tragic ironies must have been overwhelming. An iconic woman vocally mistrusted by pockets of the society she lived in, and yet inspiring this enormous, popular…
Madonna: …Fandom! Following! Yes, there are a lot of interesting parallels. On the one hand there seemed to be many people against Princess Diana, outraged by her behavior and constantly needing her, but when she died, how astonishing was that, the revelation of how truly loved she was by some? Which just goes to show you that meanness is a lot louder than kindness. You know what I mean? Because there really were a lot of people that loved her and supported her. It’s just that people who didn’t screamed the loudest. So that’s what you kinda got swept up in if you were reading the press and stuff.
Q: It caused a big debate about the British character. After being told for years, not at least by Americans, that we were tight-arsed and very bad at…
Madonna: …Expressing yourselves. Yes. Well, I mean no. I don’t think that at all. I know some really unhinged English people. But London’s great now – I’m good friends with Stella McCartney.
Q: The first words on the record are “I traded fame for love / Without a second thought”. You seem very ambivalent about fame and its cost. You’re not sure whether it’s been worth it or not.
Madonna: The ambivalence is true. I’m not going to sit here and say, Oh God, being famous is the worst thing that ever happened to me, but on the other hand it’s a real cross to bear, the real thorn in my side. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything – I’ve been blessed with so much. I’ve had so many privileges – but, being famous, it’s like agony and the Ecstasy. You get to meet people and have experiences that no-one else gets to have. On the other hand, you don’t have any anonymity. What I am very clear about is the place it’s had in my life certainly, at the beginning of my career, what it sort of took the place of. At the end of the day, though, I’m not gonna stomp all over it and say, This is shit, but I think I have much better perspective on it all than I’ve ever had. I realize, and I’ve been realizing this for years, that the approval, the headiness of being swept up and being popular and loved by people in universal ways is absolutely no substitute for truly being loved. But if you have to have a substitute, it’s about the best there is.