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Madonna Interview : Times

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 encouraging 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 defense 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 around 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 realize 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.”