Two days before the first shoot, in January, Madonna got a rush bleach job.
No one on the team recalls exactly how Madonna ended up thumbing a ride on a South Florida highway, wearing nothing more than high-heeled pumps, a chic Azzedine Alaia purse, and a thin layer of tan body makeup.
Like many of Sex’s more shocking scenes, it happened spontaneously. One morning during the four-day Florida shoot (the rest of the photos were shot in New York), Madonna was simply cavorting around nude on the grounds of a 14-bedroom Miami mansion (she later bought it for $4.9 million). Suddenly someone jokingly suggested she take her strip show on the road. “And boom,” remembers Baron, “the next thing we’re in the street.” That would be Ocean Boulevard in Miami Beach, where cars screeched to a halt, motorists whistled, and one entranced cyclist fell off his bike.
Soon a can-you-top-this? dynamic developed between Madonna and her crew. Based on scenarios concocted in the planning meetings, Meisel structured the photo sessions like loosely scripted fashion shoots, with the character, location, and costumes spelled out but the rest left to chance and whim. “It was a challenge,” admits Baron. “She’d do something crazy and then we’d come up with something even crazier.” During one of the Florida sessions, for example, Campbell and Madonna were enjoying a nude poolside romp when Nars interrupted. “I had an idea that I wanted Naomi just lying on the ground and I gave Madonna my bottle of Lubriderm lotion,” he says. “Madonna started throwing cream at her (in a very orgasmic way). It was a pretty wild scene — there was lotion all over the place.”
Such head games also provoked one of the book’s most disturbing photographs, the one showing two postpunk lesbians flanking Madonna and one of them holding a knife to Madonna’s crotch. “One of the girls had the knife in her pocket,” says Baron. “So we said, ‘Why don’t you play with the knife?’ The girl was going to cut Madonna’s bodysuit. And suddenly Steven said, ‘Freeze!”‘ Of the 20,000 photos shot for the book and the 475 printed, the knife-at-the-crotch image is the most violent.
At the other end of the spectrum, some of Sex’s funniest, most lighthearted images occurred just before the final wrap in Florida. “We’d gotten everything we wanted,” says hairstylist Garren, “and then we thought, let’s go for it.” It being the idea of Madonna tooling around town with nothing but a black body stocking on beneath her fur coat. Pumping gas at a service station and posing outside an adult theater, Madonna quickly drew crowds of curious onlookers. Somewhere during the jaunt, Madonna doffed the body stocking and the crew stopped for a slice at a Miami pizza joint. After getting hers, Madonna discarded her fur — causing the addled restaurant manager to set off the store alarm. “She got a little scared her customers would get upset,” says Baron. “But there was never a problem with the cops,” he says, with obvious disappointment.
With the photos finished, Madonna turned her attention to her area of true genius — marketing. The first that many people heard about Sex was that Madonna was working on a book so incredibly controversial it had to be produced under a veil of secrecy that would make even the Pentagon envious. “Sex had the potential to be explosive,” says Nanscy Neiman, the Warner Books executive vice president and publisher who oversaw the project. “That had to be managed.” The ensuing cloak-and-dagger tactics also managed to raise the public’s interest thermometer to record highs.
“It was like a nuclear weapon,” says Warner Books spokeswoman Ellen Herrick of the project. “Everybody had part of the key.” Only 20 people actually got their hands on Sex during production; all were required to sign strict confidentiality agreements. After burglars ransacked the office next door to his, Baron installed an alarm system and a paper shredder, which he used to destroy more than 5,000 photocopies. Most dramatically of all, on orders of Nicholas Callaway, whose Manhattan-based printing house, Callaway Editions, produced the book for Warner, eight guards stood by as Sex rolled off the presses.
There was one apparent major breach of security (or so the Madonna folks say), involving a former female employee of Manhattan’s Lexington Labs, where Meisel had his film processed. The Madonna camp’s official story is this. Photographs from Sex were stolen from the lab and offered for $100,000 to the London tabloid News of the World. Instead of buying the photos, the tab got in touch with Gavin de Becker, Madonna’s security consultant, and decided to cooperate with him in exchange for a story about the sting. The prints were recovered in L.A., where a contact of the former employee was met by an FBI agent (posing as an editor from the newspaper) and by members of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, who took the man into custody. News of the World reported on May 31 that the accomplice was questioned about transporting stolen property across state lines; no charges have been filed, but the FBI confirms that it is still investigating the matter as a possible extortion case. The Los Angeles U.S. Attorney’s office and De Becker refuse to comment.
But it’s a slightly different story over at Lexington Labs. Kim Zorn Caputo, Lexington’s co-owner, says that in January the lab received from Meisel an unmarked bag of film, which was processed and returned to him. Several weeks later, Caputo says, an ex-employee called to say she had been questioned by a “former FBI agent working for Madonna” about stolen prints. Caputo then received a letter from Madonna’s lawyers seeking a $50,000 settlement to avoid further legal action.
Caputo says neither she nor the former employee knows anything about any stolen prints. The ex-employee, Caputo points out, still has not been charged, and there has been no follow-up to the settlement request. “The whole thing is ridiculous,” she says. “We think the incident was hyped for publicity’s sake.” Warner Books’ Neiman will say only that Madonna called the FBI to look into the case and emphatically denies that the incident was staged.
So what has Madonna accomplished here? Well, she has proved that her bottom line grows more commercially seductive with each new scandal. Although the hoopla over Sex has overshadowed her new album, Erotica (despite the its 4 million in sales worldwide), the book’s stunning performance at the cash register reaffirms Madonna as a major entertainment force. Sex is her first project since signing her $60 million multimedia deal with Time Warner, and its success is her first step toward presiding, like Andy Warhol did in his Factory, over her very own cultural movement.
And, yes, Sex has brought more protest down on the heads of Time Warner. After Ice-T pulled the incendiary “Cop Killer” from his album Body Count in late July, there were rumors that Time Warner was also considering censoring Sex’s more explicit scenes. Neiman of Warner Books denies it. “If Warner had been afraid of controversy,” she says, “we’d never have had our first meeting. We were very well aware that Madonna equals controversy.”
Some of Madonna’s confidantes, however, are concerned about a possible Sex backlash. “Everybody around Madonna thinks about it,” admits makeup man Nars. “Of course, we’re all worried. Madonna doesn’t need to do it, but she wants to push buttons. So she does.” Has she pushed the right buttons with Sex? Her teammates think so. “Madonna is somebody who doesn’t want to be just normal,” says Nars. “She doesn’t want to be what Kevin Costner accused her of being in Truth or Dare — you know, ‘neat.’ I don’t think she likes normalcy. She’s an extreme person and she chases extremes.”
Garren speculates that Sex also has something to do with Madonna’s desire to stake out her erotic turf before time takes its toll on her power. “It’s better that she does this now, while she has control of it,” he says, “instead of people reading about it in the tabloids after she’s dead. You know, ‘This one was involved with that one.’ This is it — this is what Madonna does and this is what she likes to do. And it’s your problem if you can’t handle it.”
But what’s left? Her film career is still in high gear, with Body of Evidence to be released in mid-January; there are no immediate plans for a new album. Her editor, Glenn O’Brien, suggests that “maybe she’ll write a book about philosophy.” Oh? And what would it be called? O’Brien responds, with only the slightest trace of irony, “Well, this one’s titled Sex. So I guess that one would be called Philosophy.”
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