With a new movie, another hit record and a world tour, she’s bigger than ever. But does anybody really know the person behind the celebrity?
It is a severe, wind-swept Saturday night in the teeming city of Tokyo, and Madonna – the most notorious living blonde in the modern world – sits tucked into the corner of a crowded limousine, glaring at the rain that is lashing steadily against the windows. “We never had to cancel a show before,” she says in a low, doleful voice. “Never, never, never.” With her upswept hairdo, her cardinal-red lips and her pearly skin, she looks picture perfect lovely – and also utterly glum.
Madonna has come to Japan to launch the biggest pop shebang of the summer, the worldwide Who’s That Girl Tour, and since arriving at Narita Airport several days ago, she’s been causing an enormous commotion. By all accounts, the twenty-eight-year-old singer, dancer, film star and lollapalooza has been fawned over, feted, followed and photographed more than any visiting pop sensation since the Beatles way back in 1966. All this hubbub is nothing new. In America, Madonna has attracted intense scrutiny throughout her career: from fans, inspired by her alluring manner; from critics, incensed by what they perceive as her vapid tawdriness; and from snoopers of all sorts, curious about the state of her marriage to the gifted and often combative actor Sean Penn. But in Japan – where she enjoys a popularity that has lately eclipsed even that of Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen – Madonna is something a bit better than another hot or controversial celebrity: she is an icon of Western fixations.
Tonight, though, Madonna’s popularity in the Far East, may have suffered something of a setback. Just a couple of hours ago, after spending a difficult day trying to wait out a minityphoon, Madonna and her management were forced to cancel the opening date of a three-night stand at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium. It was a necessary decision, but it was also immediately unpopular: fans had traveled from all over the nation to attend these shows, and the late cancellation was seen by some media commentators as an affront. Now, as Madonna sits in the back seat of a car en route to a dinner that she has arranged as a morale booster for her band and crew (many of whom worked the entire day in the rain), things get worse. The show’s cancellation, she learns, sparked riots when many of the 35,000 fans refused to vacate the concert site. In fact, some admirers are reportedly staying in the stadium, chanting prayers for the rain to go away and pleading for Madonna to appear. For the woman who has always told her audience, “Dreams come true,” this is proving a disillusioning day.
A bit later, seated at the middle of a long dining table in an elegant Italian restaurant, Madonna pokes at a salad and sips halfheartedly at a liqueur as various members of her team, among them musical director and keyboardist, Pat Leonard, choreographer Shabba Doo, drummer Jonathan Moffett and thirteen-year-old dancer Chris Finch, offer their support.
Then, suddenly and quietly, a Japanese girl is standing at the end of the table, staring hard at Madonna. The girl – who appears to be about fifteen – is clutching an armful of Madonna souvenir programs to her breasts and looks as if she’d been out in the rain for several hours. Apparently, she was among the many fans who spent the afternoon waiting at Korakuen, and though nobody can figure how she has come to know that Madonna is in this restaurant, the girl is nonetheless standing here, her face quivering with adoration and disappointment. Madonna meets her gaze, and the room fixes on their silent exchange.
“Please, please, so sorry, so sorry,” the girl says in broken English, bowing deeply several times. There is something in her manner that says she is deeply embarrassed about how she is presenting herself, but it seems she can’t help doing it. A waiter rushes over to remove her, but Madonna signals him to stay back.
“Let her stay,” she says. Still meeting the girl’s eyes. The girl holds forth her souvenir books with a pleading look, indicating she would like Madonna to sign them, and Madonna nods. Watching the singer sign the programs, the girl begins to sob uncontrollably, and watching the girl cry, several people in the band and crew also give way to tears.
When Madonna is finished signing the books, the girl again apologizes profusely and signals that she would like to come closer. Gingerly, the girl moves down the length of the table until she is standing across from the singer. Then, reaching out gently, she clasps Madonna’s hands and kneels before her, bowing her head, tears falling from her eyes and landing on the tablecloth in widening pools.
After a few moments, the girl stands, gathers her books and, bowing deeply a few more times, backs out of the room, to applause from the band and crew. A half-hour later, when it is time for Madonna to leave, a few dozen photographers have gathered outside the restaurant. It’s the typical shoot-the-celebrity scene, and Madonna strides through it all wearing an exemplary mask of poised unconcern. But off to one side stands the Japanese girl, still clutching her treasures, still crying, and for her, Madonna saves her lone smile.
“When people make themselves that vulnerable,” says Madonna of the Japanese girl, “they always endear themselves to me. I mean, I was touched by it. She was obviously acting that way because she gets some kind of joy out of what I have to offer. And yet there was something so servile about it, all that bowing and stuff. Sometimes it makes you feel like you’re enslaving somebody, and that’s a creepy feeling.”