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 walkes 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.
However, it’s one thing to epater le bourgoeis when you’re twentysomething, but it is neither cool nor classy – both of which Madonna aspires to be – for a grown-up woman in her forties to humiliate a member of her staff in front of a stranger. And for that matter. It’s pretty poor display of manners to the stranger, too.
The difficulty of getting into bed with Madonna, so to speak, is that she might already have got out of it the wrong side. Certainly, after our inauspicious start, proceedings for a while looked as though they were unlikely to go any more smoothly. Being a boring sticker for accuracy, I always make sure I’ve got my subjects’ ages right before embarking on the bigger stuff. “My age?” Madonna reacted as though it was, truly, the most flabbergasting thing she’d ever heard. “That’s a strange question.” (Coming up 44, she tells me; but since she was born in August 1958, according to Who’s Who and half-a-dozen other respectable reference books, I guess the extra year must have slipped her mind.)
She then let me know precisely where she stood on interviewing technique: “Here’s what I don’t like to do in interviews, I’ll just tell you right away. Usually people waste a lot of time asking if thousands of things are true or not true. In the end, it doesn’t even matter. That’s why when you asked my age, it’s, like, who cares? Who cares about that because, you know, the inaccuracy is always louder than the accuracy.”
When I have finished checking her children’s ages, their mother laughs impatiently and makes an attempt at crushing irony: “Do you know how much I weigh?” Do you want to tell me? “No.”
People normally ask how much you earn but I’m not going to. “I don’t even know.” But you’d know if people were messing up? “Yeah.” That would be annoying, right? “I always like it when they mess up and say that I’ve earned more than I earn. ‘You’re a BILLionaire.’ Hm-hmmm, that sounds good,” she cocks her head as though considering her billionaire-ness. “Not true, but sounds good.”
The conversation does, fortunately, pick up. But even when her brain starts to engage, there is something peculiarly awkward about Madonna’s body language. I might have put it down to the torpid atmosphere, or a grumpy mood, were it not for seeing her recent appearance on television with Jonathan Ross. There were no trace of cigar-chewing peroxide brashness of the Madonna whom the chat-show host had interviewed a decade previously – around the time of her Sex book, Erotica single, In Bed with Madonna documentary (aka Truth Or Dare) and movie, featuring S&M scenes, Body of Evidence.
That woman appeared as languorously at ease in her skin as a car, whereas this one was coiled and fidgety and complained about hating her looks. On the night, I attributed the change to the star’s adaptation to the English way of life (along with her taste for real ale and the Mini Cooper), where self-deprecation, rather than ebullient self-confidence, is the most effective way to go native. In other words, the likeliest explanation was that it was merely latest, although arguably oddest, in a long line of Madonna acts.
But here, in front of me, her fingers flutter around her mouth, she keeps placing her pale hand on her neck, as though attempting to strangle herself (now come on Madonna, the interview’s not that bad); she clutches a cushion, like a security blanket, to her stomach; this amalgam of twitchiness is so disquieting, I am moved to ask Madonna if she’s feeling OK and she says she’s tired, having struggled to read music and play the guitar all afternoon.
I’ve always loved the way Madonna puts herself together, from her plump-bellied cropped-Lycra multi bangled arrival in the mid-Eighties to her Pre-Raphaelite post-motherhood dreamy ringlets on Ray of Light in 1998 to her most recent hipster jeans and Kylie tribute T-shirt. but then, until we met – or, to be precie, until the unpleasant aftermath of our meeting . i’d been a Madonna fan for most of the past 20 years.
She seems to have taken fashion notes from the very young black American rapper Eve for her look today. It’s hotchpotch of styles: Barrow Boy, Great Gatsby, harlem, Shanghai Lil. Her sooty hair on American Life has reverted to her favored blonde, scraped back in a short ponytail beneath a herringbone flat cap. Her blue tweedy trousers are gaucho three-quarter-length flares with splits at either side and sit low on her hips; they should be ghastly nut they suit her. She’s sporting some sort of Seventies shirt and cardigan and Chinese embroidered slippers on her feet. She wears no make-up, and at times, particularly when her inner lip stops curling, she has a striking, although slightly drawn, beauty.
I note the red string bracelet which marks her as a Kabbalah follower and which – according to Yehuda Berg, the son of Rav Berg, popularizer of the ancient Jewish text – “is worn on the left wrist, the receiving side of the body and soul, sealing protective angry within while intercepting negative influences that exist…”
Madonna and I settle into an enjoyable bitch about L.A. before moving on to how the pop star has learnt to make an accommodation with the pitfalls of celebritydom; her take on the latter, which partly accounts for her distaste with the former, is evident from the message of her most recent single, Hollywood. She says the family only comes to Beverly Hills because of work, and right now Richie is working on financing his new film: “I’m trying not to complain too much but I am crossing the days off the calendar.” One can assume that the director is having a bit of a tough time after the fiasco of his last movie, Swept Away, starring the wife, coupled with with the challenge that his new Kabbalah-inspired script must present to the money-men of Hollywood.
I ask her whether she thinks the Brits are chuffed that she’s chosen to live on our side of the pond. “I try not to concern myself too much with what people think of me in America or England,” she says, quite reasonably, “because if you feel flattered when people are happy that you’re in their country, then you get hurt when they say unkind things, too. So I just try to remain immune to it all.”
When Madonna first became famous, she says, now breaking into her arch, sing-song voice, a peculiar hybrid of Kristin Scott Thomas and Loyd Grossman: “I did mistake it for love and approval. Of course. Everyone does, I think at the beginning.” I press her to elaborate on and, at last, she begins to unbend. “For me it meant a lot of things because I grew up without a mother (her mother, after whom the singer was named, died of cancer at the age of 30 when her daughter was only five), and with a father who was loving but quite emotionally detached in his way. I mean he did the best that he could. I had eight brothers and sisters (two of whom were the offspring of his second marriage to the woman who had been the family’s housekeeper) and I felt very awkward and out of place in school. Not popular, not attractive, not special in any way; and I was longing for love and approval from someone.
“And I started dancing and my dancing is what brought me to New York and that’s what brought me to music and that’s what brought me to career that I have. But it wasn’t until I became successful that I felt like I filled up my emptiness; “OK, I am… am…somebody,” she stammers, “I…am…am special. I do mean something.” And of course that’s complete rubbish because none of that means that you’re special; none of that means that you’re loved.
“I made the mistake of thinking that people really loved me. But loving a pop star is so extremely conditional and we all know that real love isn’t, so…”
Her career nadir came in the early Nineties, when there was something of a Madonna backlash: too much fetishistic imagery (the toe-sucking, the orgies, the silver-toothed dominatrix of Sex and Erotica), saying “f***” 13 times on the Late Show with David Letterman, making a public exhibition of herself with the lesbian comedian Sandra Bernhard (still one her favored shock tactics; on stage at last month’s MTV Awards, in a new interpretation of Like A Virgin, she French-kissed Britney Spears, 21, and Christina Aguilera, 22). the residual memory of her married years with Sean Penn couldn’t have helped either: his insistence that his wife be addressed as Madam on various film sets, his beating up of photographers, their combined obnoxiousness prompting them to be dubbed The Poison Penns (which, Madonna, true to her f***-off form, then appropriated to sign the couple’s Christmas cards).
It is her view that although the early Nineties was an “extremely hostile” time for her, it’s always been a roller-coaster of “liking me, not liking me, loving me, hating me… and so after a while you figure out that your true value and worth has nothing to do with public approval”.
If anyone’s a “Je ne regrette rien” person. I say, it must be you… “C’est vrai,” Madonna responds perkily. “and I’m not apologizing in any shape or form (for those Sex years). That’s where my head was at the time, I was interested in pushing buttons and being rebellious and being mischievous and trying to bend the rules. You know, I can’t even begin to tell you the things I was trying to do, but I was trying to do a lot of things. There was a lot of irony in the Sex book and I am poking fun at a lot of things and I am being kind of silly and adolescent and I am being very ‘F*** you, if a man can do it, I can do it.”
“I was also kicking off my own issues of sexuality and sexual repression that I was raised with. (Madonna must be one of the most notorious lapsen Catholics, having personally angered the Pope with her conflation of religious and sexual imagery.) A lot of it came from a good place but I’m not sure how altruistic it was. I mean, what was the point of it? Was I really trying to help people? Was I really trying to liberate people? Or was I just being an exhibitionist and basking in the glory of being a diva and being able to do whatever I wanted, I think that probably was mostly what it was.”
Well, I begin… but she hasn’t finished soul-searching: “You know, my consciousness was not on a very high level then. I think it was, ‘What am I gonna get out of this? How much money will I make? How much attention will I get?’ It was very self-involved and that’s kind of where I was then. I didn’t have any other, I didn’t have… my influenced at the time were people who were pretty much encouraging me to behave that way.”
It’s a long time since I saw the text and the photographs Madonna and I are discussing (her publisher, Callaway, apparently wasn’t able to find a copy of it), but at the time my impression was that it was an entirely legitimate exercise for the singer push the boundaries of sexual exploration. Other artists in other mediums had long been making their own forays into these fields; it’s just that she was the first female pop icon to go so far.
“There was that,” she agrees. “You know, I’d grown up with female role models like Frida Kahlo and Martha Graham and Anne Sexton – because they dared to be different, because they took the road less traveled. They were my inspirations and I got energy from them. I felt like I came from a very bland and repressed background and, you know, I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be that.”
She admired Kahlo, she says, because “She dressed like a man and she had mustache and managed to be glamorous. She smoked cigars and she drank whiskey and she competed in the art world and there weren’t any other woman at the time who were at the same level.”
(Madonna reputedly owns 18 Kahlo paintings and one of her purchases was the highest price paid for a female artist. As a result of the patronage, Kahlo has now eclipsed her husband, Diego Rivera, as the costliest painter to come out of Mexico.)
“And Anne Sexton’s poetry inspired me because she was very confessional… when I was making Truth or Dare, she was my muse in many ways because people kept saying, ‘People don’t want to know about how you feel’, and yet the women I responded to most all made their own self-portraits in a way.
“And Martha Graham did something incredibly scandalous which is she took the corsets off dancers and the pointe shoes and the bras. She liberated them and she had black women dancing with white women and she crossed all kinds of boundaries and she pushed buttons,” Madonna says and, when she is excited like this her enthusiasm is infectious. What a shame she doesn’t get off her high horse and let herself go more often.
“And all her pieces were based on Greek mythology and she would turn them around and she would be playing the male role,” she continues, “and they were very sexually provocative and powerful and they were about women dominating men. So I’m inspired by all that… and I don’t really know how it came to me, but in my own world – pop music – I wanted to do those same kind of things.”
Her final word on the Sex years is that she was trying to keep a theme going by immersing herself in all the different mediums: “But it makes perfect sense to me now how everyone would feel completely inundated and hit over the head by it. I mean, I have an extremely different point of view about sex now than I did then. But I needed to go through it, even if it’s means that I’ve come full circle.”
This is an interesting comment since it implies that Madonna has returned to the strict values of her upbringing; something to which we return towards the end of the interview. I ask her how she feels – apropos of some of the more graphically intimate shots in the book – about Lola seeing her in that way. It is clear when she does one of her clipped “Hm-hmmms” that Madam doesn’t much care for the question. “Well, I know she will one day.” she offers.
When I ask her whether she goes out of her way to protect her daughter from seeing those sort of images – and, alas, she only “artistically” snogged britney and Christina after we met – she says, again sounding like the voice of reason: “I protect her from sex full stop. She’s not aware of sexuality nor should she be. You know, we’ve sort of had little conversations about where babies come from but sex is not, and shouldn’t be, part of her repertoire right now.”
Nevertheless, I say, it will inevitably be strange for a daughter to see her mother in those poses, surely? “When she’s seven, yeah. But, maybe, when she’s 16 – not. I’d explain that’s me putting on a show. I’m playing a character, it’s not really me. I’m being an actress…”
We move on to the new book, which is just about as far removed from the old one as it is possible to be. The English Roses is the first of five children’s books written by Madonna, each loosely based on a different Kabbalah morality tale. The first one, certainly, is a delightful small object of desire, and one that every little girl I know would adore. It is gorgeously illustrated, in a sort of Madeleine meets David Hockney style, by Jeffrey Fulvimari. And it has a solid but unthumping message about why you shouldn’t be envious of others, make assumptions based on appearances, and ostracize people who seem different to you. Although I must say, to mention Madonna in the same breath as Roald Dahl and Raymond Briggs, as the Puffin MD does, brings new meaning to the word “puffery”.
I like the voice of the narrator which is appealingly bossy.
After we have introduced to the gang of four girls, the eponymous Roses, we meet the beautiful and nice but sad and lonely Binah. So why won’t the Roses invite Binah around for a cup of tea is she’s wonderful? Because they were a little bit jealous: “Well, maybe more than a little. haven’t you ever been green with envy? Or felt like you were about to explode if you didn’t get what somebody else had? If you say, “No”, you are telling a big fat fib and I am going to tell your mother. Now, stop interrupting me.”
The Roses’ Damascene moment comes when they are whisked off in the night by their fairy godmother, another splendidly no-nonsense character with a penchant for pumpernickel, and taken to Binah’s home incognito. There they discover the girl that they envied so much working like Cinderella in the kitchen, while upstairs in her frugal bedroom, next to her bed, there is a photograph of her beautiful mother who died long ago, The story, of course, has a happy ending and makes clear that it is definitely uncool to be unkind.
The death of your mother, so young, is likely to cast a long shadow over your whole life. On Ray of Light, the lyrics of Mer Girl could hardly express this more plainly: “I ran from my house… from my mother who haunts me / Even though she’s gone… I ran to the cemetery / And held my breath / And thought about your death… And I smelt her burning flesh / Her rotting bones / Her Decay / I ran and I ran / I’m still running today.”
One can see how writing stories for children might reconnect you to the time when your own mother read stories to you; perhaps it signals the completing of another circle in Madonna’s life. When she played Evita, Madonna tells me that she inevitably drew on the connection between her character’s early death through cancer and her mother’s. As for the parallels between Binah’s motherlessness, down to the photograph the singer keeps on her bedside table, and her own: “Well, yes, I did put that in because that’s my own personal experience and I needed to come up with things for her character where kids would stop and go, ‘Wow! What would that be like?'” It was reading at bedtime for her own daughter – her impatience with the traditional “princess” stories, the lack of spiritual instruction in most contemporary children’s fiction – that galvanized Madonna into doing it for herself.
“You know, the women in Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or Snow White are really passive. They don’t move the plot along at all. They just show up, they’re beautiful, they get snapped by the prices, the princes tell them they want to marry them and then they go off and live happily ever after. And I thought, ‘Well, what’s a girl supposed to get out of this? That’s such a load of crap,'” Madonna harrumphs magnificently. “I’d read to the end and I’d say to Lola, ‘Wait a minute, nobody asked her what she wanted!’ and ‘Don’t you think it’s silly that she doesn’t say she loves him?’ And Lola would say (child humoring parent voice), “Yeah, Mum, that’s really silly.’ You know, it was always, ‘If you’re pretty, you get this; if you’re pretty, you get that.'”
Madonna says that Lola played a large part in this first book, in particular. The English Roses actually exist and are, in fact, named after Lola’s English friends and classmates – Nicole, Amy, Charlotte and Grace – at her French-speaking London school, the Lycee. It was Lola’s teacher who referred to the four girls thus (although the story, it should perhaps be stressed, is not about them): “And I though, ‘The English Roses,’ that’s funny. And I was already writing some of the other stories and I really wanted to write one about girls for girls about jealousy and envy and always wishing that you had something that somebody else had.
“But my daughter is also, to a certain extent, a little bit of Binah as well because in school often children can be quite mean and ostracize her because I’m her mother. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes, you know, everyone thinks, ‘She’s got everything, so we won’t pay attention to her.'” And then again, “She can think that people like her, that they only talk to her because she’s… so sometimes I feel like she needs to be bigger than she is. That she needs to be really fabulous so that she can get the same kind of attention she sees from people when they respond to me.”
Most children of the mega-famous face that conundrum, I suggest, taking the example of Paloma Picasso and the struggle she had defininf herself as her own person: “Well, I certainly don’t intend to ignore my children in the way Pablo did.”
It’s not the press – Hallelujah! – which worries Madonna vis-a-vis the emotional well-being other children, so much as their classmates’ parents. “Whatever it’s here in Los Angeles or in London, the kids are constantly bringing in magazines like OK! or Heat and coming up to my daughter and saying, ‘Look, Lola! There’s a picture of your mum! And there’s a picture of you! and I just… I just don’t know why people let their kids go to school with that crap. I don’t understand it, and I don’t want her to be thinking about it.”
When Madonna had mentioned that she had been isolated and friendless at school it did strike me as odd. Possibly because if I think of how I’ve admired her, it’s closer to the feeling I last had at school – nothing so obvious as a crush – but the way in which when you’ve just entered your teens, there are certain girls in the sixth form who dazzle with their difference, their rebelliousness, and they are nearly always leaders of the pack, rather than packless.
It’s always surprising, even given the sadness of loosing your mother, to hear that her home life in Bay City, Michigan, was not a happy one. She describes scenes of her father, Tony Ciccone, sitting in the hallway telling stories about talking vegetables while all her older and younger brothers and sisters drifted off to sleep… which sounds positively Waltonsesque in its tribal cosiness. But she has also written, rather less cosily, about her stepmother regularly presenting her with a wooden spoon with which she would later be spanked.
There were no books back at home but a number of teachers encouraged her reading habits: “They’re all dead now,” she sais, rattling off their names, “but they were amazing human beings, I adored them and I think they could see that I didn’t feel quite right about my peer group, so they were ecouraging me to be an artist and to be different – ‘It’s OK, you know.’ They were always giving me books to read. Some people think of home as their escape from school but – because I loved my teachers – school was my escape from home. I was looking for a mother figure, if you know what I mean.”
So by the time she was in her early teens, Madonna – daughter of a blue-collar worker who rose through the ranks to become a well-paid defence engineer with General Dynamics – had read Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor, although she is less fluent talking about them or their books than she is about any of her female role models. She particularly loved J.D. Salinger: “His characters were so eccentric and self-possessed and unusual, kind of. I really admired them and saw myself as them.” When she goes on to say that she also identified with Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar, I look alarmed and she actually laughs: “Haaaaa-ha. No, I’m not gonna off myself.”
Although Madonna is unguarded about how she was always looking for a mother figure, when I mention that her first manager Camille Barbone, noted something similar – the singer starts rolling her eyes. “I’ll have none of her armchair psychiatry,” she snorts derisively.
She’s equally dismissive about her former lover Warren Beatty and his devastating line, “She doesn’t want to live off camera, let alone talk,” which he had the brass (or balls) to make about Madonna while appearing in her documentary. “That wasn’t devastating, by the way,” she corrects me. “Not for me. And all I have to say is ‘Listen to the pot call the kettle black’,” this delivered with an exquisitely airy languor. “I mean, you know, if Warren Beatty didn’t want to be in my movie, he could have not signed a release form and not been on camera either. So… we’ll humor that remark.”
And just for the record: “I may have been more open about my personal life before I was married and had children, but did the public know everything about me? Absolutely not.”
When I was swotting up on Madonna before our meeting, I was struck by a comment she’d made quite early on in her career along the lines that if her mother had been around, she’s sure she would have grown up to have better manners. It made me wonder whether that abrasive quality she has was, in part, a consequence of being brought up in one of those domineering Italian-American families where the male rules… without the mediating influence of a strong, loving woman around.
I ask her to what extent she thinks her character was defined by her mother dying so young. “I think I’m less defined by it now than I was when I was younger because I have children,” she says, “and I have a family of my own and I don’t have this aching, yearning, longing feeling. I always think mothers must gave daughters a sense of themselves. Like, if you can look at your mother, you can watch her grow and change and mature and everything. It must give you an idea of who you could be. And I don’t know, I think I might have had… I know this will sound shocking, but I think I would probably have had more natural confidence if I’d had a mother.”
At times like this, committing Madonna’s words to the page – without any editorial intervention – gives one the oddest sense of being responsible for creating a sort of lie, or at least, a false impression, since she comes across so much more sympathetically in print than she did, to be frank, in person. She can be bright and thoughtful and amusing. But, more often than not, sitting there in that dark room, there was a striking dissonance between what she came out with, which was often heartfelt and articulate and the atmosphere aound her as she did so: her reined-in posture; her cool gaze; her tight clipped way of talking; the air she had of defying you not to take her seriously. And in the flesh, of course, you do not separate one from the other. She is also prone to being tiresome defensive – barking at you like a bully to define exactly what you mean by each question, if she doesn’t like the gist of it – which is liable to make even the most generously disposed interviewer feel edgy. And, at the end of the day, for someone who prides herself on being so smart, that’s pretty dumb way to behave.
The interview takes a turn for the worse, unfortunately, when I take the suggestion that we should perhaps talk a bit about the Kabbalah (pronounced kab-a-lah with equal stress), which she has been studying for seven years. “Yes, let’s talk about the most important thing,” she replies, then proceeds to do so far many minutes.
Fragmentation, a bad thing to be avoided, is a buzz word which she uses a lot: “The philosophy of the Kabbalah is that there is no fragmentation. We are all one… so do I think I am better than this person, do I think I am less than this person?…” When I interrupt her with a question, she snaps: “Look, this is really important to me because obviously it defines almost everything that I am. And it is a struggle for me because I live in a world and work in a world this is about popularity and who’s better-looking and who’s not, who’s richer and who’s not, who’s at the top of the list and who’s at the bottom of the list. So to come to this place in my life and realize that I have a responsibility to bring people together and to help people realise there is no such thing as fragmentation, but then to keep working in a world that is basically completely defined by that in the ultimate challenge for me.”
There is an awful lot more of this, and I don’t intend to impose it on the reader… although when I ask Madonna whether she’s finished after a particularly long burst, she says, “No.” You don’t feel you’ve finished? I ask anxiously. “No, I’ve never finished talking about the Kabbalah.” Well, that could be her sense of humor, on the other hand it could be what she really means.
We start talking about 9/11 and she says that her business manager was killed in the attack. And then she says that since she believes in personal and global karma, “It’s only a matter of time, when people are negative, and the majority of people are, for us to open things up to an entity, for people like Osama bin Laden or Hitler. So the fact that they can do the evil deeds that they do, eventually that’s our respondibility. We created it. We created an opening with our desire to ‘receive for only ourselves’ mentality. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have compassion – because I was personally affected by it – but it’s not about being a victim. It’s not about saying, ‘Oh, God, that’s so horrible, we were hurt, we were attacked, those horrible people.'”
What hooked Ritchie, a commited Darwinist, was the Kabbalah’s scientific thrust. “It’s challenging. It’s like a physics lesson, the bridge between science and spirituality. (I’m intrigued to read that the list of figures the Kabbalah is said to have influenced include Pythagoras, Plato, Newton, Shakespeare and Jung.) And, sure, Guy was cynical about it at the beginning,” she says. “When I first met him he was taking the wind out of the sails of Christianity, and saying it was a load of bulwarks.”
Bulwarks? “Sorry, it rubs off on me,” Bulwarks? “I don’t say it with the right accent?” No, you say ‘bulwarks’ when it should be ‘bullocks’, sorry, anyway… “That’s OK.” Anyway… “Bar-lax? Bullocks?… BOLL-OCKS!” Yes, yes, that’s it!
“So I was studying and I’d say. ‘Come to a class with me,” and people do those things for people they love. And to make a long story short, my husband took a very long time before he would actually start saying, ‘I study Kabbalah’ because I think he would actually start saying. ‘I study Kabbalah’ because I think he was kind of emberrassed and he doesn’t want to subscribe to anything that’s preceived as being religious, whic it’s not, and he wanted to be his own person, and a lot of hhis Jewish friends were saying, ‘What are you studying that for? It’s like a kind of provate sect of Judaism’ – and whatever. But the bottom line is that it’s very scientific and that’s what appeals to Guy.”
I ask her whether she considers that she’s bossy. “Oh yes, definitely. Sometimes. Not always, My husband’s bossy, too. We take turns bossing each other around.” Do you have a lot of rows? “Yeah, but we don’t fight as much as we used to.” So is it the kabbalah that’s made you all lovely and calm and serene? “I would hardly define us as calm and serene. But I would say that’s a lot of it. ‘Cos a lot of what we used to fight about is really stuff based on out ego and taking things personally; and when you really take it down to the root of what’s really bothering you, you relise it’s pretty ridiculous. So it’s easier for us to take wind out of each other’s sails… ‘What yre you doing that for?’ ‘You know, you’re just reacting – that’s not you,'” she slips back into her sing-song voice, “‘that’s your eee-go.'”
It’s not about who takes the rubbish out, I suppose? “No. But I have accepted that my husband’s a snob and I’m the one who tidies up.” Are you anally retentively tidy? “Yes, I am. Guilty as charged. And I do stand like a headmistress when my husband comes into the bathroom and dumps his clothes on the floor and I stand there (she points to the floor) and go, ‘Ahem!'”
Does he call you Madonna? “No, he doesn’t. Ever.” He must call you something, I imagine. “He calls me ‘wife’ – ‘Wife, where are you?’ Or ‘wiff’. And he calls me Missus. And if he ever does call me madonna, I say, ‘Did you call me Madonna?’ (with amazement) It’s usually when we’re having a discussion and he forgets that I’m his wiff, and he actually says my name, and I go, ‘What-a-a-t? Say that again, it’s nice.’ So does he say, ?Hey, wiff, have you seen my socks?” “Yes. He calls me Mum sometimes, too.” Oh God! How awful, I say, shocked, you’ve got to stop him doing that immediately – and she giggles, very engagingly, as though realising that she’s admitted something quite dreadful.
She’s romantic, she says, very sentimental, very affectionate and, yes, “I enjoy sex”. She didn’t do any of the pre-maternal body-prep work for the birth of Rocco that I underwent, and looks a bit appalled when I bring it up – but then Americans, even when they’re Madonna can be awfully prudish. “I left my husband out of all that stuff,” she says. Oooh, I say, intrigued, are you one of those French-ey women who believe in mystique or marriage and never letting your husband catch sight of you shaving your legs? “Yes.” Are you, really? “Uh-huh.” Well, good for you. She laughs quite nicely.
I say that it’s interesting how different her two husbands have been from her lovers; the latter tending to be dark and Latino, with Valentino good looks – “Well, they were chosen for the wrong reason. Clearly,” she says, ome eyebrow shooting up – and the latter who are more, well, less fine-featured and very – “Macho”, Madonna helps. And of course, Penn and Ritchie both had successful careers of their own, so were financially independent, unlike most of the boyfriends. I say that she probably wouldn’t have been able to beat marrying someonme she didn’t consider her equal. “I guess that’s true and I guess the other relationships – I don’t want to diminish them,” she says, mindful perhaps of Lola’s father. carlos Leon, her former trainer, “but I probably wasn’t really interested in having a terribly serious relationship or a relationship where I was going to be challenged, so I made decisions based on how they looked more than – What do we have in common? Will he intellectually stimulate me?”
As we are talking, Rocco, three, his flaxen hair gleaming on the brightness outside, is being pushed by a tricycle along the drive by his nanny. I think I glimpse his father, Guy Ritchie – back view in a T-shirt – and Madonna mentions that he has probably just come back from fishing, his new passion. (Along with the shooting, presumably, on their Wiltshire estate of Ashcombe House which was once rented by Cecil Beaton.) Becoming a parent has definiutely brought out some traditional values in Madonna. Both television and swearing are banned: “If anyone swears (which includes saying ‘shut up’, ‘stupid’ and ‘the hate word’) they have to put money into a pot, and I have had to put a few quarters into that pot,” she says, mock-ruefully. “My kids are like the swearing police.”
Has motherhood put a distance between her and her old partying friends? “Not really,” she says. “If anything has put a difference between me and my friends it’s that I’m on a spiritual passage and they’re not. Because now I look at life differently, and I can’t stand being around people who whinge and act like victims.”
Where things really go wrong is when I make the mistake of mentioning the Andrew Morton biography. She is talking about visiting children in a tertminal cancer ward: “And you just think, ‘How can I ever complain about anything again? I’m so lucky; I’m so blessed,’ and you spend the next couple of weeks feeling really luck, and then it goes away.” Oh I say, I didn’t know that you made those visits until I read the Morton book. Now, I’m no particular fan of the writer, but – as I pointed out – unlike some of her other trashy biographies, there was at least an attempt made by him to extricate the myths from the reality.
She now turns to me and asks in a very nasty tone of voice indeed: “Don’t you want to ask me any more questions aboute the book? Which is why I’m doing the interview.” And I suppose I must have given her a look, because then she says, ?Or did I say enough about the book? “The children’s book.” Is there anything else you feel you wanted to say about it? “I guess not.”
This seems the right time to ask Madonna why she felt it necessary to lend her iconographic status to the Gap, by appearing in their automn advertising campaign. Her Kabbalah shtick about how “We are all one” and global unity and lack of fragmentation, sits pretty oddly with a multinational company which has been very publicly accused of allowing sweatshops practices in its Third World factories. Since Madonna doesn’t not read newspapers, she tells me, and we know she doesn’t watch television, she obviously cannot be expected to evaluate whether or not such a partnership is a responsible or not. But doesn’t she have any friends or employees who are more aware of what’s going on in the world ?
She chooses not to discuss the ad campaign, in which she and Missy Elliott get into the groove of corduroy – (a Gap spokesperson tells me that her fee of $10 million in the press has been “greatly exaggerated”) – but focuses on the children’s book deal instead. “Well, they’re helping me, so I did it for different reasons than you think, because they’re selling the children’s books in their store, and all the money is going to the Spirituality for Kids Foundation, so that’s why I did it. It’s not for me. I didn’t get paid for it.
And then, she says: “But that said, there’s exploitation going on in every part of the world and God only knows who has suffered for any of the clothes I’m wearing: the hat I’m wearing or the shoes I wear or…” But shouldn’t that be a concern which has an absolute bearing on her kabbalistic way of thinking? She doesn’t seem to hear me: “I hear that people who grow coffee beans don’t get paid very good wages and they’re treated really badly but I don’t wanna stop drinking coffee, so…” But surely, I ask, there’s Fair Trade coffee, if you’re really serious about thinking globally…? “Yes but one has to educated about these things and I didn’t know.”
We did manage, and this must be partly to Madonna’s credit, to get back on to an even keel after this. She was quite funny on the legendary “imbued with healing through meditation” Kabbalah water she drinks: “I’m not gonna sell it but it works for me, and it has gotten rid of my husband’s verrucas and he’ll tell anybody his boring verrucas story.” And, I never felt more bonded with her – on a basic woman-to-woman level- than when she explained why she was trying to have another child. She said: “The last two times I’ve been pregnant I’ve been sort of basket case wondering – Do I want to stay in this relationship? Am I gonna get married? Is this a good thing? What am I going to do? Now, of course, it’s very different. “But because of my exercising and this, that and the other. I’ve kids of screwed up my cyyle a bit and I’m going to the doctors to make sure I’m OK to have a baby. So wish me luck.” And, of course, with all my heart, I do.
Lola appears at the door – with mother hardly ever calls her Lourdes – and Madonna asks me if I would like to meet the quintessential girl. She introduces us impeccably and is absolutely lovely with her daughter, plying her with questions: “Who was your teacher today? Was it Katherine? Is she nice? Are you tired? Are you in a funny mood? Are you really hungry?” And all I can say is I’ve rarely seen a face so suffused with tenderness.
Lola I look at her mum’s book together and she picks out her favorite pages and then Madonna signs it for me – against express instructions from her publisher – and she does some autographs for my kids, and then she takes off to sort out Lola’s supper – hand in hand with her daughter – and waves goodbye, saying she’ll take me to Kabbalah meeting as her guest next time she’s in London. “Bye, Madonna.” “Bye, Ginny.”
I leave for the airport feeling that she had been hard work, and occasionally tricksy, but that between the two of us we had managed to get a revealing, truthful portrait of one of the most public figures of our time, one who – despite her all-too-human flaws – was seriously trying to get her life on balanced footing. Good for Madonna, I thought.
What followed was any journalist’s idea of a nightmare. The very next day the rumbles started, with complaints about “tabloid” questions. This escalated into a full-blown inquiry with her people threatening to stop dealings with The Times unless they had full approval and control of the interview; something that had never been discussed at any point. The number of people representing the pop star seemed to multiply; her personal publicist in America, her personal publicist in Britain, her published in the US, her published in the UK, her publishers’ publicists, and super-agent Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie. The discussions went on for four weeks and were eventually resolved, with the result that this interview is appearing as it was intended, without any interference.
Flicking through Yehuda Berg’s new Kabbalah book, The 72 Names of God, I was struck by one meditation: “You bring forth the powers of observation to see the truth,,, and the courage to handle it!”