Living in a wilderness of mirrors and media glare, Madonna has fun through every image in the pop-culture canon-from rebel to tart, icon, and glamour queen – over the past 15 years. Since the birth of Lourdes, in 1996, she seems to be trying to learn about life beyond the lens. Listening to the rhythmns of Madonna’s world and of her extraordinary new CD, Ray of Light, Ingrid Sischy hears a woman on the verge of becoming herself.
I was The Bell Jar. – Madonna
Look what can happen in this country, they’d say. A girl lives in some out of the way town for nineteen years … and ends up steering New York like her own private car. Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself…. I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo. – The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.
“From the minute I arrived in New York,” Madonna tells me, “it was ‘This is where I am, this is where I’m staying.’ I knew I was going to suffer. I knew it was going to be hard. But I was not going back, and that’s how it was, period.
“I used to go and sit at the fountain at Lincoln Center and watch all the people and cry,” she continues. “I’d write in my journal, ‘Will I ever know anybody?’ It was pathetic,” she says. “It was a scene from a bad movie. But I always say, If you can’t say ‘I’ll die if I don’t do it,’ you should not do it”.
The setting is the entertainer’s Central Park duplex, where, in Madonna’s 1991 documentary, Truth or Dare, Warren Beauty accused her of not wanting to live off camera. Now Madonna — who has been lying relatively low since the birth of her daughter, Lourdes, in October 1996, and the release of Evita a few months after — is trying to learn about life beyond the lens. Daily yoga sessions keep her focused and relaxed. It’s the 90s, and the woman appears more spiritual than material. Again, she is right on the Zeitgeist; after all, she is Madonna. She says, “I think people are turning inwards, going, ‘Who am I? What am I doing?'”
This could sound high-and-mighty. But Madonna I found didn’t act as if she had all the answers. “She’s not like a saint,” a close friend says. “She’s not always logical. Or always sweet. She is a human being.” Warner senior vice president Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s longtime press adviser, reports: “She’s 39, a little bit older. She’s evolved, grown up, matured, and she’s not so mad.”
My first encounter for this profile came earlier at the Versace town house in Manhattan, where a few people gathered for dinner with Donatella Versace. I arrived around dessert time. There were bodyguards outside; in the dining room was a paparazzo’s dream. Beneath Frank Moore’s very American paintings — which Gianni Versace commissioned — were Donatella and her husband, Paul Beck; Michael Stipe; Courtney Love and daughter, Frances Bean; Lori Goldstein; Madonna herself; Ingrid Casares, co-owner of Miami’s Liquid nightclub; and Madonna’s brother Christopher Ciccone, a designer and artist. The first thing Madonna said to me was “Oh, you just missed the baby.” I notice her huge eyes and dark, Sally Bowles nail polish.
“Madonna and Courtney together are like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and it’s hard to tell who’s who.” one of the guest whispered later, after we had moved to the living room, where Picasso’s surround shimmering Italian glass. After much ringing of cellulars, some of the guests decided to move on to the Spy bar. Madonna headed home. I never took the chance to discuss our work; there was too much voltage. Later, on the phone, I began, “I’m sorry we didn’t talk. I got shy, I guess.” Madonna replied,”Well, in that room, someone had to be shy.”
Upon my arrival at her apartment, Madonna and Lourdes — whom her mother calls Lola — greet me, hand in hand. The baby, her hair pulled back in two perfect knobs, wears plaid. Madonna’s dark outfit, however is immaculately understated. These days, the hair, engineered by the great minds of the International Follicle Set, is nonplatinum and running toward the Pre-Raphaelite. It says: “Don’t notice me.”
Madonna and daughter are in New York after spending Thanksgiving in Miami, where Madonna has a place in Coconut Grove and a boat called Baby Pumpkin, from which she feeds the dolphins. Though she has been spotted house-hunting everywhere from Nyack, New York, to London, she now lives mostly in Los Angeles — “because there’s a yard,” she says, adding that she feels the drift back East, where she wants Lourdes to be educated.
Madonna’s California home is a comfortable but inconspicuous place in Los Feliz, a hip neighborhood between Hollywood and downtown L.A. It was purchased in the hectic days just before Lourdes was born, when her mother was struggling to complete Evita and the remix on the soundtrack album. Madonna, it was said, was determined to avoid bringing the baby back to her old L.A. residence, a grand, high-in-the-Hollywood-Hills, and very visible lair where she was harassed by a particularly zealous stalker.