Barring heads of state and the fast-fading Liz Taylor, the Ten Most Famous Women in the World is a list of spouses — I married Ron; I married Gorbachev; I married JFK (before I married Ari); and so on. And then there is Madonna.
Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone was born poor and Italian-American in Bay City, Michigan. She is now thirty and worth a million dollars for every year of her age (some say two million). She didn’t marry her money. She made every last dollar herself. She couldn’t work harder if she ran a state department or a brokerage firm or a cola company. Every eight-year-old from here to Manila knows her name. It’s some achievement.
It’s not an achievement you see celebrated in the press. Madonna has a wild press. A sex-bomb press, a trash press. I read through two boxes of it and threw it away: it’s depressing stuff. Madonna claws her way to the top; she sleeps her way to the top; she has cancer of the womb; she gets pregnant; she loses the baby; she is trapped in her mansion by death threats; she has lover after lover after lover. She fires people in a second; is impossible to work with; fights like a hellcat; swears at reporters; wrestles paparazzi to the ground; can’t sing, can’t act; can dance a little. She is found Bound and Gagged; her husband is the likely culprit; she is Trussed Up Like a Turkey. She is in love; she is loveless; she is secretly a lesbian. Madonna doesn’t talk to the press much. All the quotes are attributed to “aides.”
“Everything you’ve read about Madonna has been wrong,” said Liz Rosenberg of Warner Brothers, who is Madonna’s press agent. We were driving around Hollywood in a rented Lincoln Town Car while “Like a Prayer” played on the stereo. I said the last thing I read was Trussed Up Like a Turkey. Liz snorted with laughter.
She said, “I’m really late. I hope Madonna isn’t hanging out on the street,” and lo, she was. We turned a corner and there was a little, volatile figure, by herself, hopping up and down on the dark, rainy sidewalk in a long Norma Kamali coatdress, satin slingbacks, and no hose.
Madonna got in back. She was tiny, size six or even four. I knew she was a pocket Venus, but it was still a surprise. She was beautiful, with luminous skin. Her hair was aubergine in the sodium light, with a blond lovelock in front. (Two days later, it would be back to platinum for her role as Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty’s new film.) Her face was pale. She seemed to be wearing no mascara, no blusher, no eyebrow pencil on her fabulous eyebrows. Only dark red matte lipstick in that signature V-shape under the bottom lip.
She heard “Like a Prayer” wafting around the Lincoln and snapped, “Turn! That! Thing! Off! Now!” Liz Rosenberg flicked off the tape and said evenly, “How was your day?” “Full of lawyers,” Madonna replied. As Liz nursed our car through traffic lights, a Cadillac swung out ahead of us. “Fuckhead,” said Madonna sweetly. Then she said, in a singsong little voice, “It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow, Liz. It’s the first time for years and years I haven’t had a valentine on Valentine’s Day.” Liz said, “The night is young. You’ll find one, Madonna. There’ll be someone.”
We drove to Musso & Frank, an Old Hollywood restaurant. Madonna does not hang back in lobbies, waiting to be hustled to a table. She marches straight ahead while girls dig their partners in the ribs and soundlessly mouth “MA-DONNA!” Waiters give her a big smile, a smile that says: “You’re the biggest star in the world, but I’m cool; I can handle this.” She gives them a smile back that says: “I know you can.” She can be normal here. How much of her time is normal? “A quarter,” she replied. Madonna took a six-second glance at the menu and ordered a salad chiffonade “with lots and lots of garlic” and a Perrier.
Madonna was a gracious interviewee. To my eternal shame, I didn’t ask her if she’d spent New Year’s trussed up like a turkey. I asked her who her role model had been when she was a girl. She said, “I was at a Catholic school. We didn’t read magazines or watch much TV.” Pause. “The only person I could have based my look on was the Singing Nun.” Madonna is a baptized Catholic, not a practicing Catholic. This has not stopped her from taking liberties with Catholic imagery in her songs and videos. Does she worry about causing offense? “I don’t make fun of Catholicism,” she said. “I deeply respect Catholicism — its mystery and fear and oppressiveness, its passion and its discipline and its obsession with guilt.”
Madonna polished off her garlicky chiffonade with real gusto. She gave my barely touched plate of tasteless California prawns many a glance. I asked if she felt like a rich person. “Yep,” she said. She felt like a rich person, OK, but she only just started feeling like one. “I hate waste and I hate to waste money. I don’t see the point of having more than one car. And I hate to waste food,” she added, as the waiter took my prawns away.
She doesn’t come across as a rich person. She doesn’t have those money manners — that sit-back-and-the-maid-will-do-it attitude. “Well, there’s a difference between being born into money and making money. I’ve made my money. I’m from a poor background, and basically I’m still a working-class girl in terms of my ethics.” She grabbed my hands to look at my rings. “Those are pretty,” she said. “Are they antique?” She had just lost her diamond earrings on the Pepsi commercial shoot. She made a sad face. “My beautiful diamond earrings. French, eighteenth-century diamond drops, set in platinum.” She bought them herself.
When Madonna wants something, she goes shopping. In L.A. she shops at Agnes B. and Maxfield; in New York, at Agnes B., Comme des Garcons, Parachute, Charivari. “But lots of people give me clothes. Azzedine gives me clothes. Rifat Ozbek gave me some nice things, and Gaultier … “
Up to our table loped a very beautiful, grinning boy, with a beat-up jacket and a look on his face that Madonna sees all the time. He was clearly someone who knew Madonna but was clearly aware of the hideous possibility that she might not remember him. “Hey, uh, hi!” he said. “So what’s going on? Whaddaya whaddaya doin’ out here?” Madonna gave him a motherly smile and plenty of time to finish his question. Then she said, “I live out here, silly rabbit.– To me: “This is Sasha Mitchell. Have you seen Spike of Bensonhurst? Paul Morrissey’s movie? Well, he’s in it. He was wonderful in it. He’s the star.” Mitchell the star gave Madonna a great big bashful shrug while she praised him, and scuffled his toes in an aw-shucks kind of way. As he shambled off, she said to me crisply, “Model turned actor.” But she added, “He was really good in the movie. Perfect for the part.”
The other name comes up; Sean Penn drifts in and out of her conversation like a sleepy fly. Sean said this, Sean did that. “Sean taught me how to work a stick shift when I was thinking of getting a Porsche.” (She got a Mercedes 560SL.) “Sean’s the only person I know who’s a native Californian.” I asked if she was depressed about getting divorced, and she clammed up for a full minute. “No.” Pause. “No, I’m not depressed about getting divorced. Sad. I’m sad about it.” Long pause. “Very sad. You can’t be married to somebody for three and a half years and then just forget him.” Does she ever see him now? “No.”
Madonna is again a single woman. She is also in the piquant position of being both a creative artist and tough chief executive of a multimillion-dollar corporation, Madonna Inc. On her new album, she brings together all three roles. The most memorable song, “Till Death Do Us Part,” is the sound of a shrewd talent laying bare the private details of a public event — her marriage. She sings, “You’re not in love with me anymore … it cuts me like a knife. I’m not your friend, I’m just your little wife.” She knows that people will accept the lyrics as a confession, a fact. She shrugs it off. “People don’t see that you can take some of your experiences from real life and use part of them in your art. They try to make everything an absolute truth.”
Madonna hasn’t had a holiday since her honeymoon. “I have companies to run, people to pay, records to promote. Anyway, by the third day of a holiday, I feel guilty.” How many people does she employ? “Thousands.” But how many directly, I meant. “Hundreds. I keep Warner Brothers in work!” What about personal staff? Maids? “Yeah,” she said, “but I clean, too. I’ve been known to wash a dish or two. Make a bed or two. Sean used to make fun of me.” She turned to Liz. “You know those cutoff jeans I wear? Sean would bring someone back to the house, and I’d be wearing those with my hair all erghh and washing dishes — I mean, I would be looking like a hag. And he’d bring in a friend and drag me over and say, ‘Look at her! She’s one of the richest women in America! She cackled with laughter.
“You could never look like a hag, Madonna,” said Liz Rosenberg.
“Never be photographed in anything you wouldn’t wear yourself,” states Madonna as piles of Paris dresses are shown to her, explained to her, turned inside out and upside down. “This is too intense,” she says of a Christian Lacroix dress with a Proustian bustle and train. It is thrown over an armchair. But she accepts the matching jacket, bordered in silk flowers. It may be the saint of hope emblazoned on the back that pleases her most, for, though lapsed, Madonna retains clear memories of her Catholic girlhood. Nonetheless, she insists it be worn with nothing underneath but her alabaster skin.
Clearly, Madonna has turned her style around. “Fluid, full skirts, very romantic, I like that,” she had informed Vogue before her photo shoot. “I like Louis heels. Bring a lot of slingback shoes. I’m not into any high heels, and no stilettos.” Her favorite new shoe is a low-heeled black slingback she wears for the entire day of the shoot, moving from room to room while her new album blasts throughout the house.
Madonna is definitely into basic black: her Kabuki-like closets are full of black coats, stacks of black lacy French corsets, black kidskin gloves. Even her three-piece luggage set is black. Pieces by Vivienne Westwood hang next to Norma Kamali OMO, with a Lacroix here and there. There are rows of black-leather biker’s jackets and her famous cutoff jeans.
When it comes to the decor of the house itself, Madonna says simply, “Speak to my brother Christopher. He has the most impeccable taste of anyone I know.” To prove her confidence in him, she pretty much left him to his own devices.
Christopher Ciccone looked at twenty-five possibilities before choosing this ten-room house. And though he achieved the near impossible — “I decorated the whole place in two weeks” — he firmly states, “I refuse to be called a decorator.
“I really wanted to avoid the overstuffed, California look,” he says. This despite the fact that his sister’s new home is high in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking Los Angeles. “The house has the feeling of a grand New York penthouse, except the view is better and there’s a pool.”
The twenty-eight-year-old artist admits, “I really didn’t know what to do. The one thing I knew I would never do is use chintz. I just started looking for pieces. As I found them, I found places for them.” Among his discoveries are eighteenth-century chairs and a pair of candelabra from Italy. “We both love Italian furniture,” he explains. “It’s grand without being gaudy like French furniture.” Ciccone purchased everything for Madonna’s house — from the art (a Leger, a Diego Rivera, and a Tamara de Lempicka) to potato peelers to pots. “In an Italian home, socializing always centered around the kitchen, so Madonna and I both know the value of a good pot to make a big batch of pasta.
“Madonna and I were very close,” says Ciccone of their childhood in Michigan, with six other brothers and sisters, “although we had become distant for about five years. It was difficult for me to find my niche in her world. We have a certain sibling dependency, and we spend a lot of time fighting. Yet we are each other’s best critics.”