Madonna’s Back. But she never went away. After 30 years of ruling pop, she tells the truth about daring.
Truth or Dare ?
That is a catchphrase that’s often associated with me. I made a documentary film with this title, and it has stuck to me like flypaper ever since. It’s a fun game to play if you’re in the mood to take risks, and usually I am. However, you have to play with a clever group of people. Otherwise you’ll find yourself French-kissing everyone in the room or giving blow jobs to Evian bottles!
People usually choose “truth” when it’s their turn because you can tell a lie about yourself and no one will be the wiser, but when you are dared to do something, you have to actually do it. And doing something daring is a rather scary proposition for most people. Yet for some strange reason, it has become my raison d’être.
If I can’t be daring in my work or the way I live my life, then I don’t really see the point of being on this planet.
That may sound rather extremist, but growing up in a suburb in the Midwest was all I needed to understand that the world was divided into two categories: people who followed the status quo and played it safe, and people who threw convention out the window and danced to the beat of a different drum. I hurled myself into the second category, and soon discovered that being a rebel and not conforming doesn’t make you very popular. In fact, it does the opposite. You are viewed as a suspicious character. A troublemaker. Someone dangerous.
When you’re 15, this can feel a little uncomfortable. Teenagers want to fit in on one hand and be rebellious on the other. Drinking beer and smoking weed in the parking lot of my high school was not my idea of being rebellious, because that’s what everybody did. And I never wanted to do what everybody did. I thought it was cooler to not shave my legs or under my arms. I mean, why did God give us hair there anyways? Why didn’t guys have to shave there? Why was it accepted in Europe but not in America? No one could answer my questions in a satisfactory manner, so I pushed the envelope even further. I refused to wear makeup and tied scarves around my head like a Russian peasant. I did the opposite of what all the other girls were doing, and I turned myself into a real man repeller. I dared people to like me and my nonconformity.
That didn’t go very well. Most people thought I was strange. I didn’t have many friends; I might not have had any friends. But it all turned out good in the end, because when you aren’t popular and you don’t have a social life, it gives you more time to focus on your future. And for me, that was going to New York to become a REAL artist. To be able to express myself in a city of nonconformists. To revel and shimmy and shake in a world and be surrounded by daring people.
New York wasn’t everything I thought it would be. It did not welcome me with open arms. The first year, I was held up at gunpoint. Raped on the roof of a building I was dragged up to with a knife in my back, and had my apartment broken into three times. I don’t know why; I had nothing of value after they took my radio the first time.
The tall buildings and the massive scale of New York took my breath away. The sizzling-hot sidewalks and the noise of the traffic and the electricity of the people rushing by me on the streets was a shock to my neurotransmitters. I felt like I had plugged into another universe. I felt like a warrior plunging my way through the crowds to survive. Blood pumping through my veins, I was poised for survival. I felt alive.
But I was also scared shitless and freaked out by the smell of piss and vomit everywhere, especially in the entryway of my third-floor walk-up.
And all the homeless people on the street. This wasn’t anything I prepared for in Rochester, Michigan. Trying to be a professional dancer, paying my rent by posing nude for art classes, staring at people staring at me naked. Daring them to think of me as anything but a form they were trying to capture with their pencils and charcoal. I was defiant. Hell-bent on surviving. On making it. But it was hard and it was lonely, and I had to dare myself every day to keep going. Sometimes I would play the victim and cry in my shoe box of a bedroom with a window that faced a wall, watching the pigeons shit on my windowsill. And I wondered if it was all worth it, but then I would pull myself together and look at a postcard of Frida Kahlo taped to my wall, and the sight of her mustache consoled me. Because she was an artist who didn’t care what people thought. I admired her. She was daring. People gave her a hard time. Life gave her a hard time. If she could do it, then so could I.
When you’re 25, it’s a little bit easier to be daring, especially if you are a pop star, because eccentric behavior is expected from you. By then I was shaving under my arms, but I was also wearing as many crucifixes around my neck as I could carry, and telling people in interviews that I did it because I thought Jesus was sexy. Well, he was sexy to me, but I also said it to be provocative. I have a funny relationship with religion. I’m a big believer in ritualistic behavior as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. But I’m not a big fan of rules. And yet we cannot live in a world without order. But for me, there is a difference between rules and order. Rules people follow without question. Order is what happens when words and actions bring people together, not tear them apart. Yes, I like to provoke; it’s in my DNA. But nine times out of 10, there’s a reason for it.
At 35, I was divorced and looking for love in all the wrong places. I decided that I needed to be more than a girl with gold teeth and gangster boyfriends. More than a sexual provocateur imploring girls not to go for second-best baby. I began to search for meaning and a real sense of purpose in life. I wanted to be a mother, but I realized that just because I was a freedom fighter didn’t mean I was qualified to raise a child. I decided I needed to have a spiritual life. That’s when I discovered Kabbalah.
They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears, and I’m afraid that cliché applied to me as well. That was the next daring period of my life. In the beginning I sat at the back of the classroom. I was usually the only female. Everyone looked very serious. Most of the men wore suits and kippahs. No one noticed me and no one seemed to care, and that suited me just fine. What the teacher was saying blew my mind. Resonated with me. Inspired me. We were talking about God and heaven and hell, but I didn’t feel like religious dogma was being shoved down my throat. I was learning about science and quantum physics. I was reading Aramaic. I was studying history. I was introduced to an ancient wisdom that I could apply to my life in a practical way. And for once, questions and debate were encouraged. This was my kind of place.
When the world discovered I was studying Kabbalah, I was accused of joining a cult. I was accused of being brainwashed. Of giving away all my money. I was accused of all sorts of crazy things. If I became a Buddhist—put an altar in my house and started chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”—no one would have bothered me at all. I mean no disrespect to Buddhists, but Kabbalah really freaked people out. It still does. Now, you would think that studying the mystical interpretation of the Old Testament and trying to understand the secrets of the universe was a harmless thing to do. I wasn’t hurting anybody. Just going to class, taking notes in my spiral notebook, contemplating my future. I was actually trying to become a better person.
For some reason, that made people nervous. It made people mad. Was I doing something dangerous? It forced me to ask myself, Is trying to have a relationship with God daring? Maybe it is.
When I was 45, I was married again, with two children and living in England. I consider moving to a foreign country to be a very daring act. It wasn’t easy for me. Just because we speak the same language doesn’t mean we speak the same language. I didn’t understand that there was still a class system. I didn’t understand pub culture. I didn’t understand that being openly ambitious was frowned upon. Once again I felt alone. But I stuck it out and I found my way, and I grew to love English wit, Georgian architecture, sticky toffee pudding, and the English countryside. There is nothing more beautiful than the English countryside.
Then I decided that I had an embarrassment of riches and that there were too many children in the world without parents or families to love them. I applied to an international adoption agency and went through all the bureaucracy, testing, and waiting that everyone else goes through when they adopt. As fate would have it, in the middle of this process a woman reached out to me from a small country in Africa called Malawi, and told me about the millions of children orphaned by AIDS. Before you could say “Zikomo Kwambiri,” I was in the airport in Lilongwe heading to an orphanage in Mchinji, where I met my son David. And that was the beginning of another daring chapter of my life. I didn’t know that trying to adopt a child was going to land me in another shit storm. But it did. I was accused of kidnapping, child trafficking, using my celebrity muscle to jump ahead in the line, bribing government officials, witchcraft, you name it. Certainly I had done something illegal!
This was an eye-opening experience. A real low point in my life. I could get my head around people giving me a hard time for simulating masturbation onstage or publishing my Sex book, even kissing Britney Spears at an awards show, but trying to save a child’s life was not something I thought I would be punished for. Friends tried to cheer me up by telling me to think of it all as labor pains that we all have to go through when we give birth. This was vaguely comforting. In any case, I got through it. I survived.
When I adopted Mercy James, I put my armor on. I tried to be more prepared. I braced myself. This time I was accused by a female Malawian judge that because I was divorced, I was an unfit mother. I fought the supreme court and I won. It took almost another year and many lawyers. I still got the shit kicked out of me, but it didn’t hurt as much. And looking back, I do not regret one moment of the fight.
One of the many things I learned from all of this: If you aren’t willing to fight for what you believe in, then don’t even enter the ring.
Ten years later, here I am, divorced and living in New York. I have been blessed with four amazing children. I try to teach them to think outside the box. To be daring. To choose to do things because they are the right thing to do, not because everybody else is doing them. I have started making films, which is probably the most challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done. I am building schools for girls in Islamic countries and studying the Qur’an. I think it is important to study all the holy books. As my friend Yaman always tells me, a good Muslim is a good Jew, and a good Jew is a good Christian, and so forth. I couldn’t agree more. To some people this is a very daring thought.
As life goes on (and thank goodness it has), the idea of being daring has become the norm for me. Of course, this is all about perception because asking questions, challenging people’s ideas and belief systems, and defending those who don’t have a voice have become a part of my everyday life. In my book, it is normal.
In my book, everyone is doing something daring. Please open this book. I dare you.
© Harper’s Bazaar