On the long bus ride from Houston to Austin, the green flatlands float past the window and Madonna settles down for an interview. She is wearing a Kelly green knit skirt, which is peeled down over her belly, and a Paisley shirt knotted above her waist. Her streaked blond hair is twisted into a bun and held in place by a big red bow. Her lips are painted bright red and exaggerated. Her voice is a little raw and raspy.
FATHER. My father is firstgeneration Italian. He was the youngest of six boys. My grandparents came from Italy on the boat. They went to Pennsylvania, a town right outside of Pittsburgh, because the steel mills are there and there was a lot of work. They lived in sort of an Italian ghettotype neighborhood, and my grandfather got a job in a steel mill. My grandmother and grandfather spoke no English at all. They are dead now, but when I was a little girl I would see them all the time. They weren’t very educated, and I think in a way they represented an old lifestyle that my father really didn’t want to have anything to do with. It’s not that he was ashamed, really, but he wanted to be better. I think he was the only one of all my grandparents’ children who got a college education. He got an engineering degree and moved to Michigan because of the automotive industry. I think he wanted to be upwardly mobile and go into the educated, prosperous America. I think he wanted us to have a better life than he did when he was growing up.
He was in the Air Force, and one of his best friends was my mother’s oldest brother. Of course he met my mother, and he fell in love with her immediately. She was very beautiful. I look like her. I have my father’s eyes but I have my mother’s smile and a lot of her facial structure. She was French Canadian but she was born in Bay City. The reason I was born in Bay City is that we were at my grandmother’s house. I’m the third oldest child and the oldest girl. There were six of us. Then my mother died and my father remarried three years later, and he had children with my stepmother.
My father was very strong. I don’t agree with some of his values but he did have integrity, and if he told us not to do something he didn’t do it either. A lot of parents tell their kids not to smoke cigarettes and they smoke cigarettes. Or they give you some idea of sexual modesty but my father lived that way. He believed that making love to someone is a very sacred thing and it shouldn’t happen until after you are married. He stuck by those beliefs, and that represented a very strong person to me. He was my role model.
I was my father’s favorite. I knew how to wrap him around my finger. I knew there was another way to go besides saying, “No, I’m not going to do it,” and I employed those techniques. I was a very good student. I got all A’s. My father rewarded us for good grades. He gave us quarters and 50 cents for every A we got. I was really competitive, and my brothers and sisters hated me for it. I made the most money off of every report card.
My father and I are still close. When I moved away for a long time we weren’t really that close. He didn’t understand what I was doing when I first moved away. First I was a dancer and I would call him and say, “Well, I’m dancing.” He never, well, he’s a sensible guy, and what’s dancing to him? He can’t imagine that you can make a living from it or work at it or be proud of it or think of it as an accomplishment. He could never really be supportive about it.
When I went to Paris, and I went from dancing to singing, I would call him . and say, “Well, I’m in France.” And he would say, “What are you doing there?” and I said, “I’m going to be a singer.” And he said, “What do you mean you’re going to be a singer?” I would always tell him not to worry and that everything was O.K., and he would say, “How are you surviving? Who pays for everything?” I would say, “They pay for everything.” And he wanted to know what I had to do for that, and I didn’t have to do anything really. I lived a handtomouth existence. I relied on friends and on money I could get here and there on short stints at jobs which I could never keep.
It wasn’t until my first album came out and my father started hearing my songs on the radio that he stopped asking me questions. I think now he has some conception of my success. He reads about me and people bother him and he has to change his phone number all the time. All of a sudden he’s popular, and my brothers and sisters are popular in school because of their association. If he didn’t know then, he knows now. He still works for General Dynamics. He’s an optics and defense engineer, and he makes a lot more money now. I never considered my parents incredibly wealthy, but at least now they can travel. They go to Europe, and they have enough to have a good life.
MOTHER. I was about six and a half or seven when my mother died. I remember her being a very forgiving, angelic person. I think my parents pissed a lot of people off because they had so many kids and they never screamed at us. My older brothers were very rambunctious and they would start fires in the basement or throw rocks at windows and my mother and father would never yell at them. They would just hug us and put their arms around us and talk to us quietly.
I have a memory of my mother in the kitchen scrubbing the floor. She did all the housecleaning, and she was always picking up after us. We were really messy, awful kids. I remember having these mixed feelings. I have a lot of feelings of love and warmth for her but sometimes I think I tortured her. I think little kids do that to people who are really good to them. They can’t believe they’re not getting yelled at or something so they taunt you. I really taunted my mother. I remember also I knew she was sick for a long time with breast cancer, so she was very weak, but she would continue to go on and do the things she had to do. I knew she was very fragile and kept getting more fragile. I knew that, because she would stop during the day and just sit down ! on the couch. I wanted her to get up and play with me and do the things she did before.
I know she tried to keep her feelings inside, her fear inside, and not let us know. She never complained. I remember she was really sick and was sitting on the couch. I went up to her and I remember climbing on her back and saying, “Play with me, play with me,” and she wouldn’t. She couldn’t and she started crying and I got really angry with her and I remember, like, pounding her back with my fist and saying, “Why are you doing this?” Then I realized she was crying. (Madonna stops talking and covers her face with her hands and cries.) I remember feeling stronger than she was. I was so little and I put my arms around her and I could feel her body underneath me sobbing and I felt like she was the child. I stopped tormenting her after that. That was the turning point when I knew. I think that made me grow up fast. I knew I could be either sad and weak and not in control or I could just take control and say it’s going to get better.
Then my mother spent about a year in the hospital, and I saw my father going through changes also. He was devastated. It is awful to see your father cry. But he was very strong about it. He would take us to the hospital to see her, and I remember my mother was always cracking up and making jokes. She was really funny so it wasn’t so awful to go and visit her there. Then my mother died. I remember that right before she died she asked for a hamburger. She wanted to eat a hamburger because she couldn’t eat anything for so long, and I thought that was very funny. I didn’t actually watch her die. I left and then she died. Then everything changed. My family was always split up and we had to go stay at relatives’.
STEPMOTHER. As soon as my father started hiring housekeepers we were all back together again. He just kept going through housekeepers because we never got along with them. Then he married one of our housekeepers. I don’t really want to talk about my stepmother. I was the oldest girl so I had a lot of adult responsibilities. I feel like all my adolescence was spent taking care of babies and changing diapers and babysitting. I have to say I resented it, because when all my friends were out playing, I felt like I had all these adult responsibilities. I think that’s when I really thought about how I wanted to do something else and get away from all that. I really saw myself as the quintessential Cinderella. You know, I have this stepmother and I have all this work to do and it’s awful and I never go out and I don’t have pretty dresses. The thing I hated about my sisters most was my stepmother insisted on buying us the same dresses. I would do everything not to look like them. I would wear weirdcolored knee socks or put bows in my hair or anything. I also went to Catholic schools, so I had to wear uniforms that were drab. I guess that was the beginning of my style.
KID STUFF. My father made everyone in our family take a musical instrument and go to lessons every day. I took piano lessons but I hated them. Finally, I convinced my father to let me take dance lessons at one of those schools where you get ballet, jazz, tap and baton twirling. Anyway, the dance school was really like a place for hyperactive young girls. I was pretty rambunctious.
I wasn’t really a tomboy. I was considered the sissy of the family because I relied on feminine wiles to get my way. My sister was really a tomboy and she hung out with my older brothers. They all picked on me, and I always tattled on them to my father. They would hang me on the clothesline by my underpants. I was little, and they put me up there with clothespins. Or they’d pin me down on the ground and spit in my mouth. All brothers do that, don’t they? I wasn’t quiet at all. I remember always being told to shut up. Everywhere, at home, at school, I always got in trouble for talking out of turn in school. I got tape over my mouth. I got my mouth washed out with soap. Everything.
Mouthing off comes naturally. Every time there was a talent show or a musical in school, I was always in it. Cinderella and the Wizard of Oz and Godspell and My Fair Lady: the ingenue role was always mine. But when there was a role for, like, a forward, bad girl, everybody sort of unanimously looked over at me when they were casting it.
VIRGINITY. I remember when I was growing up I remember liking my body and not being ashamed of it. I remember liking boys and not feeling inhibited. I never played little games; if I liked a boy, I’d confront him. I’ve always been that way. Maybe it comes from having older brothers and sharing the bathroom with them or whatever. But when you’re that aggressive in junior high, the boys get the wrong impression of you. They mistake your forwardness for sexual promiscuity. Then when they don’t get what they think they’re going to get, they turn on you. I went through this whole period of time when the girls thought I was really loose and all the guys called me nympho. I was necking with boys like everybody else was. The first boy I ever slept with had been my boyfriend for a long time, and I was in love with him. So I didn’t understand where it all came from. I would hear words like slut that I hear now. It’s sort of repeating itself. I was called those names when I was still a virgin. I didn’t fit in and that’s when I got into dancing. I shut off from all of that and I escaped.
DANCING. When I was in the tenth grade I knew a girl who was a serious ballet dancer. She looked really smarter than your average girl but in an interesting, offbeat way. So I attached myself to her and she brought me to a ballet class, and that’s where I met Christopher Flynn, who saved me from my high school turmoil. He had a ballet school in Rochester. It was beautiful. I didn’t know what I was doing, really. I was with these really professional ballet dancers. I had only studied jazz up to then, so I had to work twice as hard as anybody else and Christopher Flynn was impressed with me. He saw my body changing and how hard I worked.
I really loved him. He was my first taste of what I thought was an artistic person. I remember once I had a towel wrapped around my head like a turban. He came over to me and he said, “You know, you’re really beautiful.” I said, “What?” Nobody had ever said that to me before. He said, “You have an ancientlooking face. A face like an ancient Roman statue.” I was flabbergasted. I knew that I was interesting, and of course I was voluptuous for my age, but I’d never had a sense of myself being beautiful until he told me. The way he said it, it was an internal thing, much deeper than superficial beauty. He educated me, he took me to museums and told me about art. He was my mentor, my father, my imaginative lover, my brother, everything, because he understood me. He encouraged me to go to New York. He was the one who said I could do it if I wanted to.
NEW YORK. I saved up enough money for a oneway ticket and flew to New York. It was my first plane trip. When I got off the plane, I got in a taxi and told the driver to take me to the middle of everything. That turned out to be Times Square. I think the cab driver was saying, like, “O.K., I’ll show her something.” I think he got a chuckle out of that. I got out of the cab and I was overwhelmed because the buildings, you know, are really high. I walked east on 42nd Street and then south on Lexington and there was a street fair. It was the summer and I had on a winter coat and was carrying a suitcase. This guy started following me around. He wasn’t cute or anything, but he looked interesting. I said hi to him, and he said, “Why are you walking around with a winter coat and a suitcase?” And I said, “I just got off the plane.” And then he said, “Why don’t you go home and get rid of it?” And I said, “I don’t live anywhere.” He was dumbfounded. So he said, “Well, you can stay at my apartment.” So I stayed there for the first two weeks. He didn’t try to rape me or anything. He showed me where everything was, and he fed me breakfast. It was perfect. (In Southernlady accent) I relied on the kindness of strangers. So then I auditioned and got a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey school. I wasn’t worried about not getting anywhere as a dancer. I knew I was a decent dancer. It was great. I moved from one dive to the next, I was poor. I lived on popcorn, that’s why I still love it. Popcorn is cheap and it fills you up.
IDOLS. Growing up I thought nuns were very beautiful. For several years I wanted to be a nun, and I got very close to some of them in grade school and junior high. I saw them as really pure, disciplined, sort of aboveaverage people. They never wore any makeup and they just had these really serene faces. Nuns are sexy.
I also loved Carole Lombard and Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe. They were all just incredibly funny, and they were silly and sweet and they were girls and they were feminine and sexy. I just saw myself in them, my funniness and my need to boss people around and at the same time be taken care of. My girlishness. My knowingness and my innocence. Both. And I remember Nancy Sinatra singing These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ and that made one hell of an impression on me. And when she said, “Are you ready, boots, start walkin’,” it was like, yeah, give me some of those gogo boots. I want to walk on a few people.
AMBITION. I am ambitious, but if I weren’t as talented as I am ambitious, I would be a gross monstrosity. I am not surprised by my success because it feels natural. When I was younger I never said, “O.K., this is the plan. I’m going to be a dancer and that’s going to lead to singing and that’s going to lead to acting.” My calculation was that I knew I had to apply myself and work. And that devotion and that ambition and that courage was going to take me to the next step. So, that’s my calculation.
I don’t see music and movies as being unrelated. I think when you are singing & a song, you are making yourself very vulnerable. It’s almost like crying in front of people. Acting is about that too communicating and being honest and just projecting a feeling. It’s just a different way of doing it. I also love making videos. They’re like little movies. After I made my first video, it was just so great I wanted to make a movie. The next thing I want to do is make a really, really big movie, but nothing is definite. I see myself directing eventually.
I will make more albums. I love performing, but the rockstar life on the road is a grueling thing for me. At the moment, with the music and Desperately Seeking Susan, I think I’m affecting people in the same way either way. My personality is getting across. I really see myself as a comedian. In 20 years I know that I will be an actress. I aspire to be a great actress.
IMAGE. My image to people, I think, is that I’m this brazen, aggressive young woman who has an O.K. voice with some pretty exciting songs, who wears what she wants to wear and says what she wants to say and who has potential as an actress. Sex symbol? That is such a weird question. I guess I would be perceived as that because I have a typically voluptuous body and because the way I dress accents my femininity, and because a lot of what I am about is just expressing sexual desire and not really caring what people think about it. Maybe that would make you a sex symbol, I don’t know. There is a very modest side to me too. How far away is the image from me? It’s about 20 steps away.
PHENOMENON. I’m not really sure what is going on. My fans come from a wide age range. I think it goes beyond sexuality. Maybe my fearlessness and courage give people a good feeling. I think I have a real sweetness inside and love for life and a good sense of humor. Maybe people see that. I think a lot of people are afraid to express themselves that way, so maybe they feel they can attach themselves to an innocence and joy. I believe that dreams come true: that you can do what you want to do. I don’t mean that in a Rocky III kind of way either. I don’t mean you have to go out and conquer the world and be a star. I mean, I came from a boring sort of middleclass lifestyle and a big family and I wasn’t born with a perfect body.
It all has to do with an attitude and loving yourself the way you are. Think of all the anorexics and suicides. Young people seem to be obsessed with not liking themselves. I don’t think that what I’m trying to say is hard to understand. I don’t go overboard really in any direction. I don’t shave the side of my head. My hair is not pink. I don’t feel that I’m putting on a costume. It’s part of my personality and the mood that I’m in. Also I think that for the last ten or 20 years, that part of a woman has been suppressed. There has been the feeling that it’s not right to want to dress up and be feminine, because women think that if they indulge in that, men won’t respect them or take them seriously. Maybe kids now see someone in the public eye doing what I do. Maybe that’s the phenomenon and why young girls are dressing up like me because finally someone else is showing that it’s
FEMINISTS. To call me an antifeminist is ludicrous. Some people have said that I’m setting women back 30 years. Well, I think in the ’50s, women weren’t ashamed of their bodies. I think they luxuriated in their sexuality and being strong in their femininity. I think that is better than hiding it and saying, “I’m strong, I’m just like a man.” Women aren’t like men. They can do things that men can’t do. If people don’t get the humor in me or my act, then they don’t want to get it. If tenyearolds can get it and laugh, then an adult surely can.
FAME. I love being onstage and I love reaching out to people and I love the expressions in people’s eyes and just the ecstasy and the thrill. But I have to have a bodyguard around me for security reasons. When I finish a show I can’t stop on the street and sign a few autographs because I would be there three years. Sometimes when I go back to my hotel room there are people hiding in the ice closet, waiting. That is scary.
I feel caged in hotel rooms wherever I go. In New Orleans, after the show we took a cab to Bourbon Street. I put a hat on and pulled it down low, but I stepped onto the curb and one person said, “There’s Madonna,” and then everybody said, “There’s Madonna.” We started walking down the street looking in windows and watching some jazz groups, and the more we walked, the more people started to follow us. The people don’t want to hurt me. They just want to be near me. Actually it hasn’t gotten to the point where I never go out. I still go running on the street and shopping. I don’t send people out to do everything for me. I want to try to do as many things as I can in that regard, because I think if you really separate yourself from people, you start to have a scary opinion of the world. I don’t want to feel that way.
I don’t sit around and contemplate my fame or how popular I am. I know my manager sometimes looks at me with dismay when he tells me I’ve sold 6 million records or sold out in 17 minutes, and I just say, “O.K.” I’m glad but that’s not what interests me, numbers. What interests me is what happens in my confrontations with people every day and in my performances every night. Not figures on a piece of paper or how much money I have in the bank or any phenomenon. I don’t think money has changed my life. I never had money until now, and I never felt the lack of it. I buy more clothes. Right now I live out of a suitcase. I don’t own a car. Just before the tour, I took driver’s ed. and got a license for the first time. I rented a car and it was a thrill.
DRUGS. I don’t take drugs. I never really did. They don’t do anything for me. All the feelings I think drugs are supposed to produce in you, confidence or energy, I can produce naturally in my body. The only problem is going to sleep. But I don’t take sleeping pills. I drink herbal teas.
THE NAME MADONNA. My mother is the only other person I have ever heard of named Madonna. I never had trouble with the name. Not in school or anything, of course. I went to Catholic schools. And then when I got involved in the music industry, everybody thought I took it as a stage name. So I let them think that . . . It’s pretty glamorous.
CATHOLICISM. Catholicism gives you a strength, an inner strength, whether you end up believing it later or not. It’s the backbone. I think maybe the essence of Catholicism I haven’t rejected, but the theory of it, I have, if that makes any sense. I don’t go to church but I believe in God. I don’t say my rosary but I think about things like that. The thing that has remained with me most, I guess, is the idea that you do unto others as they do unto you. It’s not right to steal or lie or cheat. I think it’s pretty creepy when guys cheat on their wives and the other way around, stuff like that. When I was little, I had all the usual feelings of guilt. I was very conscious of God watching everything I did. Until I was eleven or twelve, I believed the devil was in my basement and I would run up the stairway fast so he wouldn’t grab my ankles. We had the kind of stairway where there were spaces between each step.
CRUCIFIXES AND ROSARIES. I think I have always carried around a few rosaries with me. There was the turquoisecolored one that my grandmother had given to me a long time ago. One day I decided to wear it as a necklace. I thought, “This is kind of offbeat and interesting.” I mean, everything I do is sort of tongue in cheek. It’s a strange blend a beautiful sort of symbolism, the idea of someone suffering, which is what Jesus Christ on a crucifix stands for, and then not taking it seriously at all. Seeing it as an icon with no religiousness attached to it. It isn’t a sacrilegious thing for me. I’m not saying, “This is Jesus Christ,” and I’m laughing. When I went to Catholic schools, I thought the huge crucifixes nuns wore around their necks with their habits were really beautiful. I have one like that now. I wear it sometimes but not onstage. It’s too big. It might fly up in the air and hit me in the face.
BELLY BUTTONS. The picture inside the dust sleeve of my first album has me, like, in this Betty Boop pose with my belly button showing. Then when people reviewed the album, they kept talking about my cute belly button. I started thinking about it and I said, “Yeah, well, I do like my belly button.” I think there are other unobvious places on the body that are sexy and the stomach is kind of innocent. I don’t have a really flat stomach. I sort of have a little girl’s stomach. It’s round and the skin is smooth and it’s nice. I like it.
BOY TOY. About four years ago, I used to live in the East Village. I used to love hanging out at the Roxy with all the break dancers and graffiti artists and the deejays. Everybody had a tag name they would write on the wall like “Whiz Kid” or “HiFi.” The thing was to see how much you could “throw up” (get your name up) everywhere. It was a very territorial thing. One day I just thought of BOY TOY, and when I threw it up on a wall, everybody said they thought it was funny too. They understood the humor of it. I can see how the rest of the world thinks I’m saying “Play with me” and “I’m available to anyone.” Once again, it’s a tongueincheek statement, the opposite of what it says. I had BOY TOY made into a belt buckle. Then I started doing stuff outside New York City and I kept wearing the Boy Toy belt, forgetting that no one outside of the Roxy was going to get it. I don’t wear it any more because it’s just become ridiculous. I think it’s funny but not too many other people do.
CLOTHES. I like to combine things but in a humorous way, like a uniform skirt and fishnets. Sometimes I like really expensive things. I like Vivienne & Westwood, Commes des Garcons and Jean Paul Gaultier. But I get a lot of stuff in thrift shops too. I really love dresses like Marilyn Monroe wore, those ’50s dresses that were really tailored to fit a voluptuous body. A lot of stuff made now is for an androgynous figure, and it doesn’t look good on me. I have always sort of elaborated with my dance clothes. I used to live in my dance clothes, my tights and leotards, but I always personalized them. I’d rip them all up and make sure the runs got really big and had a pattern to them. I started wearing bows in my hair because one day when my hair was long, I couldn’t find anything to tie it back. So I took an old pair of tights and wound them around my head, and I liked the way that looked.
MARRIAGE. I do want to get married and have kids. I don’t know when, but I think getting married is probably something very exciting and very challenging, and I would definitely like to have a child. I’ve only heard wonderful things about it from people I know who are near my age. I’m saying it like it’s baking a cake or something.
LOVE. I’m at the end of my patience with this interview. I want to run down the hallway and finish writing a song. I won’t sing it, but I’ll tell you the hook. “Love makes the world go round.” It’s really trite, but that’s what it is. Love makes the world go round and straight and square and squiggly. Now leaning back, her dancer’s legs straight up, with ankles crossed on the back of the seat in front of her, Madonna toys with the dial on her portable radio. She says, “I have to stop talking. I have to rest my voice.” Would she add anything, maybe after the show tonight? She turns her head and looks out the window at Texas, then says slowly, “I can’t focus after a concert. I have to talk to my boyfriend for a long time before I go to sleep.”