Madonna and I are sitting side by side on her navy silk Deco sofa looking at Sex. The perfume of decaying gardenias permeates her steamy New York living room, a space that has, despite a Fernand Leger over the fireplace, the solitary feel of a deserted, if elegant, 30s hotel lobby. Wearing ragged cutoffs and looking exhausted, her face blotchy and without makeup, she barely resembles the star auteur who flashes and slashes her way through the 128 pages of Sex, perhaps the dirtiest coffee-table book ever published.
I am not allowed to turn the pages. She turns them. As always, Madonna must be in control. “Pretend I’m not here,” the sex-for-sales matrix at the height of her power commands. Taking a break from 12-hour days in the recording studio, she is allowing me a first peek at what she hopes will be the worldwide publishing phenomenon of the year — her latest reinvention of her go-for-broke image: Pansexual Madonna, in your face hard, if not hardcore.
“She has a nipple ring? She pierced her nipple?” I ask weakly about a woman in one of the first images (some of the roughest trade comes right up front). “Everything in their body is pierced.” Madonna says of her two co-stars in the first section of Sex. The book is billed as the enactment of Madonna’s private sexual fantasies, brought to the page by her longtime collaborator, photographer Steven Meisel. Just to get things rolling, her first supporting actors are two unnamed, tattooed, and bare-breasted lesbian skinheads, who answered a casting call for the book, and whose appearance would probably cause Don King’s hair to go straight up to heaven.
“She’s showing me her clit ring. That’s why I have that expression on my face,” Madonna says. Her egad – I’m caught look in another pose, she assures me, “is supposed to establish the humor of the book.” Nobody is smiling, however, in the many bondage images of Madonna — her fondling and sucking threesomes with the two women, complete with props that include masks, knives, and whips. “This is pretty scary,” I say of a photo of one of the skinheads holding an unsheathed stiletto right under the crotch of Madonna’s black bodysuit. “It’s meant to be funny, not scary,” Madonna says curtly. In other words, it’s your fault. dear reader, if you can’t get it as fun.
Of course, we all know that the 34-year-old Ms. Ciccone has never been one for a gradual buildup to shock. She seems to have a deep and complete understanding of its value. “She is someone who has a highly charged sexuality, and, unlike most people, she neither disguises it nor is ashamed of it,” says Nicholas Callaway of Callaway Editions Inc.. the quality publishing house which is producing Sex for Warner Books. “She exhibits, explores, and displays it, and feels no compunction about doing so publicly. She also realizes it can be very profitable.”
In this latest mutation of the onetime pudgy boy-toy turned toned and hardened material girl, she is obviously twisted right from the git-go. In Sex, mainline heterosexual images are in short supply (the few there are mostly feature Madonna with rap artist Vanilla Ice, who, she says, reminds her of Elvis). The darker side of the sexual psyche seems much more in evidence — what Callaway calls “that grand tradition in sexuality, the relationship of love to aggression and violence.” He adds, “It’s a real high-low book, ranging from high to low constantly in content, form, and material. It’s a microcosm of what her career has been, a series of changing roles.”
Sex was shot in various locations, but mainly in New York — in a downtown sex club called the Vault, in the Chelsea Hotel, in Meisel’s studio, and at the Gaiety, a male burlesque theater. The word went out that Madonna was looking for people. “I said, `I’m doing a hook on erotica, like my erotic fantasies,’ ” says Madonna. “I wasn’t too specific.” In fact, according to Callaway, “sometimes she brought people in, and within minutes of first meeting her they found themselves without their clothes on, French-kissing Madonna.”
Madonna’s persona in the book is Dita Parlo, a name taken from an old French movie Madonna became enamored of. Dita is known as “the good-time girl,” and nowhere is that more in evidence than in the photos shot in Miami Beach, where Madonna staged “public nudity” scenes, playing “the housewife left alone too much.” On any given day in Miami, Madonna would ride around in a convertible until the right locale presented itself. She would pull up to a gas station, hop out in nothing but black lace leggings, and start pumping gas. Meisel would immediately start taking pictures while art director Fabien Baron shot super-8 film for a future video. One night Madonna, wearing only a fur coat, ordered a slice of pizza, and when it was served, she threw off her coat and began to eat. “Customers really didn’t seem to mind I was naked,” Madonna says, “but the woman who owned the pizza parlor turned on an alarm to summon the police, so we kind of got out of there pretty fast.”
Madonna’s major fantasy of being nude in public places was fulfilled when she started hitchhiking one afternoon in nothing but a pair of spiky black pumps and carrying a purse. Nobody recognized her. “A lot of cars just passed me by, believe it or not.” One cyclist, however, got right up close and “fell off his bike.”
The resulting photo album of the star who flaunts what others choose to hide is certainly unprecedented. But let us not neglect the debut of the writer here. Madonna’s whimsical aphorisms, such as “My pussy has nine lives,” and essayettes on the splendors of sex with other women are also part of the package, included, it would seem, to counteract the harshness of some of the images. In one lighthearted poem she says, “Her body was a weapon, not a fatal weapon / More like a stun gun / More like a fun gun / She did it to remind everybody she could bring happiness or she could bring danger / Kind of like the Lone Ranger.” There are also a series of “Dear Johnny” letters, which depict Johnny, a fictitious character, and Madonna sharing a girl called Ingrid, “a friend,” Madonna says, in real life.
Here are a few sample passages from the playgirl’s philosophy — and hardly the raunchiest. On being tied up: “Like when you were a baby your mother strapped you to the car seat. You wanted to be safe — it’s an act of love.” On sadomasochism: “You let someone hurt you who you know would never hurt you. It’s always a mutual choice…. I don’t even think S and M is about sex. I think it’s about power.” On enjoying being a woman: “I love my pussy. I think it’s a complete summation of my life.” Continuing the same theme: “I wouldn’t want a penis. It would be like having a third leg. It would seem like a contraption that would get in the way. I think I have a dick in my brain. I don’t need to have one between my legs.”
As we went through the pages — of Isabella Rossellini dressed like Mick Jagger in Performance hugging, of Madonna nude between black rapper Big Daddy Kane and black supermodel Naomi Campbell, also nude, and of Madonna shaving the pubic hair of a leather-clad male biker with a straight razor — I thought it not inappropriate to ask the just-how-did-you-ever-get-the-guts? question, followed closely by the and-just-how-do-you-justify-this-love-of-the-polymorphous-perverse? query.