Goodbye, Norma Jean.
The Material Girl is growing up just fine.
I’m sitting in a plush conference room within the confines of the Freddy DeMann empire when I hear a female voice in the front office holler, “Jesus Christ! There was some f*cking lunatic following me up in the elevator!”
Somehow I know that Madonna has arrived for our interview.
A recently released compilation album of her dance hits titled You Can Dance is now firmly lodged on the charts, she’s in the midst of developing five film properties (she’ll produce one and appear in the rest), and maintains the daily physical fitness regime of a professional athlete. She says she’s on vacation.
Madonna-bashing was more or less de rigueur among the cognoscenti during the refreshingly irreverent early years of her career. The critical tide definitely seems to be turning in her favor; moreover, now that the public is more or less at ease with Madonna’s somewhat intimidating blond goddess shtick, another side of her — a more subdued and thoughtful side — is beginning to emerge. This is very much the side I see during our two-hour conversation. Madonna is, in fact, not at all what I’d expected — she’s considerably prettier, for starters. Though I’ve always considered Madonna an unbeatable style – job, I’d never thought of her as a great beauty — which she is, despite a sleepless night (Madonna suffers from insomnia).
In the course of our conversation I learn that she’s a bit superstitious, her favorite period from the past is the twenties, and she loves Jimmy Stewart. Madonna’s a voracious reader (particularly Raymond Canter, Anne Tyler, and Louise Erdrich) and collects art deco and art nouveau. Munching on popcorn, she answers questions with unexpected candor. She seems to harbor few illusions about herself and has a good sense of humor. “Don’t be mean to yourself,” she advises me when she leaves.
What’s your earliest memory?
When I was really little, maybe three or four years old. I pushed another little girl down in our driveway. I can remember realizing that I’d been mean to that little girl. It’s terrible, but my first memory is of being mean to someone.
Were you punished or did you get away with it?
I got away with it. No one ever found out.
What do you think you represent to people?
Lots of things. To people who might not understand me, I think I represent someone incredibly ambitious, opportunistic, and manipulative — a strong person who knows what she’s doing and is a good businesswoman. To other people I represent a kind of liberation for females — and that’s something I’ve only recently come to understand. During my first tour there were all these young girls idolizing me and dressing like me and I couldn’t understand why it was happening. It was a mystery to me why they were copying my hodge-podge, tongue-in-cheek tart outfits, but it finally began to make sense. For so long young women have been told that there are certain ways they mustn’t look if they want to get ahead in life, and there I was dressing in a forbidden way and obviously in charge of my life and career. I was saying I can look sexy if I choose to and still be smart.
I feel awkward talking about myself this way because it sounds egotistical, but I think I also represent hope to people who come from nowhere and have no show business connections but want to be performers, because I basically came from nowhere and scratched and clawed my way to the top.
Have you had to be ruthless to achieve the success you’ve won?
Ruthless? I don’t think ruthless is the right word. What’s the definition of ruthless? Not caring? suppose there’s a thin line between being absolutely focused and being ruthless.
For our purpose let’s define ruthless as hurting people.
Then no, I haven’t been ruthless. But yes, I have been absolutely focused, and people who don’t understand that kind of focus — and not that many people have it — can feel hurt by it even though there’s absolutely no reason for them to.
What tradition do you see yourself as being a part of?
I get compared to lots of people — mostly Marilyn Monroe because of the sexually provocative image that I have, the bleached blond hair, and all that — but there are so many other aspects to my personality that I can be compared to lots of different people. Ultimately I don’t really identify with any one person or tradition because I don’t think anyone has done what I’m doing.
What’s the most widely held misconception about you?
I don’t know. What do you think it is? That I’m stupid?
No, I don’t think you’re considered stupid anymore. The press did a reappraisal of Madonna a while ago and decided that you’re not stupid. Generally speaking, I think that the press is very much on your side right now. Your last tour got great reviews.
That may be true, but they were pretty unforgiving when my movie came out. I don’t know what the misconception is now. They used to think that I had no talent and would drop off the edge of the earth in a couple of months. That didn’t happen — and I knew it wasn’t gonna happen — but I did have to put up with them saying that for quite a while. People thought I was unhappily married the week after the wedding, but who isn’t unhappily married on alternate days? That’s the state of marriage. Ultimately, I think the press is a little afraid of me because they don’t know quite what to think of me. The more unpredictable you are the more misjudged you are.
How did success affect your creative mechanism? Do you tend to think bigger now and gear your ideas to a global audience?
Yeah, I do tend to think the sky’s the limit when I’m developing certain kinds of projects. I’ve been around the world and made a fairly large impression — and many of my ideas go over much better in Europe and Japan than they do in America. Who’s That Girl — the film — is doing really well in Europe and I’m getting great reviews. I think the movie did badly in America because I upstaged it with my tour. People were confused about the connection between the record, the tour, and the movie because they all had the same title. I also think that there are people who don’t want me to do well in both fields. I had to really fight to get any respect from the music business and now I guess there are some people who feel that I ought to be grateful for that respect and stick with music.
Do you think the public takes pleasure in seeing celebrities suffer or fail?
I think if someone becomes hugely successful the public becomes disgusted with them and begins to wish the star would slip on a banana peel. That’s a basic aspect of human nature.
How does your marriage affect the way you work?
I really respect Sean’s opinion. He has great taste and is a very brilliant man. When I was putting my tour together it was always in the back of my mind: “I wonder what Sean will think of this?” He’s extremely opinionated and has really high standards, and that sometimes pushed me into making decisions I wouldn’t have otherwise made.
Is he highly critical of your work or does he tend to be unconditionally supportive?
How has money been of use to you?
I can buy incredible paintings. I mostly buy art deco and art nouveau, but I also have pieces by Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and some other artists of my age group. Those pieces were given to me, though. I don’t really buy work by my contemporaries.
Is money overrated as a source of happiness?
Money’s a gas. I lived in New York for years and it was such a struggle, and it’s so much more of a pleasure to be there now. Money’s also great because it enables you to help people who don’t have it. At the same time, if I lost it all it wouldn’t be the end of the world because I could still work and I’d still have me. I’m not a materialistic person.
Why is popular music obsessed with the notion of romantic love?
Because love is the ultimate escape. And really, what’s wrong with channeling all your energies into love? I’m not saying that’s all there is to life, but it’s better to be obsessed with love than some of the other obsessions that are available to us. It’s easy to become cynical in this day and age, what with the threat of nuclear war, the stock market crashing, and little wars going on all over the world. Our political leaders are all crooks and everybody knows it, the poor keep getting poorer — I mean, there’s not a lot to get excited about on a day-to-day level. It’s better to focus on a positive escape like love than to concentrate on all the terrible things in the world — unless, of course, you’re in the position to do something about them.
Do you consider yourself a well-informed person?
What’s your idea of an important achievement?
Finding a cure for cancer or AIDS.
What are the responsibilities of a person with your cultural clout?
To be positive about life and promote the ideas of happiness and honesty. I know that a lot of people look up tome and copy me, so I’d certainly hate to be doing anything that might be harmful to anyone.
Does the enormity of your fame frighten you?
I don’t really think about it that often, although I’m forced to think about it when I walk out onto a stage and see 120,000 people staring at me.
Are you able to go about your life with relative ease or do people approach you everywhere you go?
At the moment I’m sort of on vacation, but even so, the press all know where I live and they make regular visits to Malibu. They know they can catch me running or riding my bike because they know I come out of my house basically unprotected. That kind of stuff used to make me angry but it’s gone on for so long that I’ve just accepted it. I can really tune them out now. The press is like shrubbery to me. Last week I flew to New York by myself and it was the first time I’d done anything like that in a long time. I don’t travel with a huge entourage but I usually have my secretary or some kind of security person with me — and it was very hard for me to force myself to travel alone. I was so frightened. People are crazy and they think they know you and they won’t leave you alone. I ended up sitting next to a very nice guy in advertising. He knew who I was because people kept coming up for autographs, but once he got used to the idea that he was sitting next to me everything was OK. I have friends who are celebrities who live very sheltered lives and won’t go anywhere without their bodyguards, but living that way would drive me insane. Sometimes I force myself to go shopping alone even though I know everyone will be looking at me and watching what I’m buying. It’s often uncomfortable, but it’s healthy for me to force myself to move about independently. It helps me touch base with reality.
What things must you do everyday in order to feet right with yourself?
Exercise. I work out for two hours every day and have a huge dance studio/gym at home with weights, Lifecycles, a trampoline and a pool. I alternate my workout so it doesn’t get boring. My trainer is a very well-rounded athlete and he really helped me get my shit together for my tour. I have a ten-speed bike and on alternate days I ride 25 miles up and down the hills a long the Pacific Coast Highway, and I also run the stairs at Pepperdine University.
Don’t people bug you when you’re working out?
Of course they do. People in Malibu are used to seeing me, so it’s no big deal to them. Some of them wave, but they pretty much leave me alone. The paparazzi make it out there about once a week and they get in their little cars and drive ahead of me and jump out and take pictures, then drive ahead some more and jump out again.
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome in your life?
I haven’t overcome any big obstacles — all my obstacles are still there. And ultimately, my big demons will always be there. I’d like to be able to say that I don’t care what people think about me and just want to do my work, but deep down inside I do care what people say. One of the hardest things I’ve faced in life was the death of my mother and that’s something I really haven’t gotten over to this day. Inside, I carry many deep wounds and they’re obvious in the way that I deal with people. All the things I’d like to say I’ve gotten over I haven’t gotten over.
Do you feel loved by the public?
Basically, yes. At least more than five people love me, so yes, I do feel appreciated and loved.
Has the love you feel from your audience made you more at peace with yourself, or has it brought on a new anxiety — the fear of letting them down?
First the first thing happened, then the second thing happened — and I think that’s what drives a lot of entertainers. Every time I write a song, I might think it’s great for a second, then instead of being happy about it, I worry if I’ll ever be able to do it again.
What’s the most significant change you’ve observed in yourself over the past year?
I’ve become much more tolerant of people and human error. Being constantly scrutinized and criticized as I am, you simply have to become tolerant — and a bit passive, I suppose. Either that or you spend all your time telling people to f*ck off. It’s easy to get into that habit.
What quality in yourself do you take the most pride in?
My sense of humor — and now that I think about it, that might be the thing about me that is most misunderstood. People either think I have no sense of humor, or they misunderstand it. I can remember in the interviews I did early in my career I’d say the most outrageous things and people thought I was serious.
Who are your heroes?
Most of them are women and a lot of them were painters; Georgia O’Keeffe, Frieda Kahlo, Tamara DeLampica. All those women were married to successful, ambitious men, yet they managed to retain a strong sense of themselves, and do their own work, while maintaining relationships with brilliant men. They suffered a lot in order to do it too, because its not easy for people like O’Keeffe and Stieglitz — people with so much ego — to be together. To be that kind of person and be with that kind of person is the ultimate challenge.
What do you no longer have time for that you miss?
What would you like to change about yourself at this point?
I’d like to have the ability to sit still and do nothing without getting totally neurotic. I occasionally force myself to do that, cold turkey, and it’s incredibly hard for me.
How do you see your work evolving? How does your recent work differ from the things you did early in your career?
There’s a side of me I’m finding less and less inhibited about expressing, and that’s a side that has to do with a real pain and sadness that I feel.
What’s your sense of the future of popular entertainment? What sods of things do you think audiences will want to see, say, ten years from now?
That’s not remotely predictable. The future isn’t random — people generally follow patterns — but I’m not the sort of person who studies those patterns. I would say, however, that when MTV had its initial impact on the culture things moved very fast for a while. All of a sudden every band had a video, and, like Andy Warhol predicted, everybody was famous for 15 minutes. All you had to do was get your video on television. But the power of videos seems to be decreasing. They used to be real interesting to me, but now I find them boring because they’re no longer new. It leaves you wondering, what can possibly come next? Video is an incredibly efficient form, so where do you go after the ultimate in entertainment technology? Will everybody go back to playing acoustic guitars and watching plays?
When was the last time you surprised yourself?
The other day I wrote a song and that really surprised me. I returned from my tour feeling so burned out I was convinced I wouldn’t go near music for quite a while, but Pat Leonard, the guy I write with, who was musical director of my tour, built this new studio, so I went down to see it — and within an hour we’d written this great song. It amazed me because after the tour I said to myself, “Hey, I don’t ever want to hear any of my songs ever again and I don’t know whether I’ll ever write another one.”
Do you have structured writing habits?
I do two kinds of writing. Every day I try to write in a journal, jotting down thoughts or maybe something I read that impressed me. My songwriting often grows out of things in my journal. If I’m writing a song and get stuck, I’ll often open my journal for inspiration and take pieces out of it. Other times a song will just come right out of my head.
How would you define glamor?
Knowing how to make the most of your features. You needn’t be conventionally beautiful to be glamorous and there area lot of people who aren’t classic beauties who are extremely glamorous. It has to do with carriage, grace, dignity, and the way you present yourself. I don’t think there are a lot of glamorous people around anymore.
So much is known about public figures these days that it’s virtually impossible for them to have any mystique. Stars used to be much more inaccessible and that played a big part in the glamor they had. Beyond that, actors and actresses today don’t seem to want to be glamorous. For instance, I don’t think glamor is important to Meryl Streep, and you have to value it to have it.
What’s the chief occupational hazard of being a pop star?
Having people assume that whatever image you project is exactly who you are and that there’s nothing more and nothing less.
How big a role did television, movies, and pop music play in the shaping the ideas and attitudes you developed about life as you were growing up?
A major role. I didn’t watch a lot of television when I was growing up because my father didn’t approve of it, but I saw lots of old movies and I really loved them because they allowed you to fantasize. I’d watch them and think about what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Does pop culture give people false expectations of life?
I think your parents give you false expectations of life. All of us grow up with completely misguided notions about life and they don’t change until you get out into the world. It’s like someone telling you what love or marriage is; you can’t know until you’re there and then you have to learn the hard way.
Do you feel grown-up now?
I feel more grown-up than I did a few years ago and I still have a lot more growing up to do. But yes, I do feel like an adult, and that’s something I say begrudgingly. I’d rather be a girl all my life.