I met Madonna in 1990, quite by chance, when a friend took me to a party in Los Angeles. Upon entering the house, I was suddenly surrounded by stars, and the only person I didn’t recognize was me. I searched the room for my friend who had seemingly been sucked into the celestial vortex, never to be seen again. Seated on a couch nervously pulling my wayward dress closer to my knees, I surveyed the land: Michelle Pfeiffer here, Jack Nicholson there, Al Pacino, Andy Garcia. Was there no end to this impenetrable wall of fame? Apparently not, because squeezed in between Sandra Bernhard and Warren Beatty sat Madonna. I had always been a fan of hers and had promised myself should I ever be in the same room as her I would be frightfully un-English and introduce myself to her. (Heavens above!)
As I sat on the opposite side of the room I was now listening to the endless twitterings of some starlet who was informing me of how she lost her virginity, aged 12. I could fake interest — but I was new in town and hadn’t quite mastered the art — or I could make good on my promise to myself. My eyes darted over to the buffet table, which, despite being laden with delicious-looking food, had no one around it. As if by magic — and in a way not uncommon to me in times of high stress – I scurried over to the chow.
I hardly noticed that Madonna was also heaping food onto her plate until there we stood face to face, each holding our grub. “How can you eat so much and stay so thin?” I blurted out. As opposed to treating me like Kathy Bates’ character from Misery, she told me how she was disciplined during the week, but ate what she wanted on weekends. She then invited me to sit with her and her friends. And so on the floor, cross-legged (difficult in previously described dress), I ate my dinner at the feet of Madonna. That is not to say that this is where I have stayed during my 10-year friendship with her.
It’s early 2000, and I have been dispatched by Jane to interview Madonna in New York about her new movie The Next Best Thing, which costars Rupert Everett. In it they play two best friends — he is gay and she is single — who raise a child together until her character falls in love with the tasty Benjamin Bratt. She is forced to decide whether she and her child should stay with Rupert or start a new life with her future husband.
I arrive at her Upper West Side apartment at the appointed time. (She is a stickler for punctuality). I am greeted by her assistant Ellie-Mae, who instantly returns to her computer and mobile phone in an attempt to keep the mogul’s life ticking like clockwork.
As I wait for Madonna — who has just finished yoga and is probably scanning her wardrobe for a pair of Jane-appropriate shoes — I find her daughter Lourdes (read: Lola) in the kitchen. She is patiently waiting for her nanny to make her toast before a trip to the movies with her father, Carlos Leon.
Madonna enters. Knowing she doesn’t have to impress me–after all – I saw her in labor — she is wearing her version of combat trousers, a black tank top (bra straps showing, natch) and a pair of divine intricately beaded slip-on Fendi shoes. Her blond shoulder-length hair, parted in the middle, is still wet. We make our way upstairs to her living room. The room has leather couches, red satin curtains and a colorful rug. The walls are dark green. She plops herself on the floor. “I’m going to do the interview lying down,” she announces as she lies flat on her back. Having interviewed her for MTV and ABC, I note a big difference today. Not only is she without the constraints and pandemonium imposed by film crews and makeup and hair people, but she is also in an excellent mood. This is the real Madonna: my friend, relaxed, funny and willing to poke fun at herself.
Myth #1: Madonna, the Party Girl
Searching for the reason for her sunny disposition. I blurt out, “So how was your New Year’s?”
“It was a night of decadence and debauchery,” she says, giving me her naughtiest look. “The best New Year’s I’ve had, funnily enough, because I didn’t expect to have a good one. I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to a dinner party and then a party afterward, no big deal.’ We took a boat across the bay in Miami to Donatella’s [Versace] house for dinner. People were dancing. I mean people who never dance were pogo-ing, jumping up and down on the furniture. I don’t know how many drinks I had. All I know is they kept sloshing out of the glass and pretty soon you have 20 half drinks and then it was 5 a.m. and I had really horrible blisters on my feet and I had to go home.”
As I make a mental note never to spend a Millennium’s Eve in L.A. again, I console myself with the fact that this woman — who is possibly the most clean-living person I know — must have suffered the next day. M, as she is sometimes referred to by her friends, is so healthy in fact that for years when I visited her in Miami for short vacations, and looking up to her as I do, I would try and get myself on the “Madonna regimen.” This was pre-yoga, when she ran eight miles a day. “I’m giving up smoking,” I would announce. “You’d better!” came her surprisingly puritanical response and off we’d jog without a trainer. The first time I did it I collapsed in a purple – faced heap as she continued on alone, followed by a car filled with three strange men who bullied and jeered at her. “I’m never doing that again,” she said, once inside her house, obviously quite shaken by the experience. “Neither will I,” I said to myself, thinking I’d never walk again, let alone run.
“So how was your hangover?” I just can’t help myself from asking. “Um, it was forceful,” she giggles.
Myth #2: The Workaholic
It’s a couple of days after the hangover and she is about to return to London to resume house-hunting and work on her latest album with collaborators William Orbit (Ray of Light) and French producer Mirwais. (I say resume house-hunting because she tells me that, due to architectural codes, she will not be able to make the house in Chelsea she bought late last year paparazzi-proof and secure.) “Everybody I’m working with lives in England. I love London. I’m having a love affair with England. Har, har. I used to hate it,” she laughs. Which is true because she had the audacity to miss my wedding there because of her dislike of the place. “It’s exotic for me. I’ve lived in America for 40 years. I’ve lived in L.A., New York and Miami and I grew up in Michigan, and in a way you feel when you go to another country that you can sort of start all over again. I don’t want to say the word reinvent because that’s so boringly overused on me, but for me its a different culture. It’s exciting. I like how formal everyone is.” Can she be serious?
“Mind you, I probably couldn’t take it all the time because I wasn’t raised that way. I like the eccentricity that is bred with all that repression and formality. It makes for good creativity. I feel really inspired when I’m there. I love to take a walk to a nice pub.” Now I’m beginning to wonder.
Me: Madonna in a pub? / know . . . and I never in a million years could have imagined myself sitting in a pub drinking. And what do you drink (still smiling at the thought of it)? A pint, of course. A pint? Yes. Oh, God. Well, I have to. What kind of beer do you like? Guinness.
I point out that since she recorded the music for Evita in London, she has made an awful lot of new friends there. “What I love about it is that most of my friends aren’t in the business. There’s nothing I hate more than actors or singers or performers sitting down and talking about their work. I just find it deadly dull. Dreadfully dreary, darling.”
That last part sounds a little like Lady Bracknell from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. I’ve been practicing my posh accent all week. I’ve been getting really good grades. For any purpose … or just to annoy people?The only one who’s annoyed is my boyfriend. He likes to keep me on my toes. He says, ‘American birds really get the upper-class accent down, but nobody can do a good London accent.’ I say ‘Okay I’ll work on that.’
Myth #3: The Man-Eater
Despite attempts to the contrary. Madonna has managed to keep who she really is a bit of a secret, especially when it comes to men. In fact, I’m sorry to say — since technically I’m a member of the press — we have given Madonna and her friends a jolly good laugh on more than one occasion. Every day during her last visit to London, a new story appeared in the papers, each more far-fetched than the other: Madonna Having Paul McCartney’s Baby!
While it doesn’t make good copy, the reality is that Madonna wants what we all want: a happy, long-term relationship. She is the most optimistic, romantic and giving person when it comes to that sort of thing. Her new boyfriend is Guy Ritchie, the adorable and down-to-earth 31-year-old British director of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He has just finished directing Brad Pitt in his latest film Snatch. The couple was introduced to each other some time ago by another relatively new British friend, Trudie Styler, wife of pop star Sting. Well done, Trudie. I thoroughly approve!
Do you want to discuss — No. — your boyfriend? Oh, God, no — only in an extraneous way. He’s bound to come up, especially if we are talking about England, pub-going and accents. Aha, the instigator of the pub episodes. A bit of a lad. Oh, God, you are trying to get me to break one of my rules: I never mention boyfriends. I feel like it jinxes everything. In the last few months there’s been so much about you being pregnant. I know. Isn’t it time to clear up some rumors? So you are not pregnant? No [as if to say "don't be silly"]. And what about getting married? No, just trying to have a proper relationship. One thing at a time. I read about a study that said the best marriages were where the women were in charge. Would you be happy in one like that? I have no interest in being in a relationship with someone who is a pushover. I think the recipe for a good relationship/marriage is that two people really enjoy their life and love what they’re doing. If you’re both busy and working, then you’re going to spend some time apart and when you come back you are filled with new experiences to share. I quite like the way Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn did it: Houses a couple of blocks away from each other. It’s good to miss someone. It’s horrible to take someone for granted.
The one person who she rarely misses, since they are always together, is her daughter, Lola.
I remember you telling me a story recently about Lola looking through a magazine and pointing to all the people she knew personally. Has she been affected by your fame? She’s too young to understand what celebrity is. All I really care about is that she’s surrounded by good people with positive energy and love. She’s just as fond of someone who isn’t in a magazine as she might be of someone who is, and just as suspicious when she first meets anyone. She knows what paparazzi are and she says they’re yucky. But she doesn’t really understand what it’s all for. I don’t think anyone could at that age. Would you like to have another baby? Yeah, I would, but I want to be in a stable relationship. I think Lola should have a brother or a sister. I think she’s incredibly spoiled. She needs a bit of competition.
Myth #4: Box-Office Poison
On one of the days I visited the set of The Next Best Thing in Los Angeles, Madonna and Rupert were doing a scene where, dressed in ’30s evening wear, they danced a la Fred Astaire around the home of Rupert’s employers. Take after take, Lola sat quietly on her nanny’s lap–that is, until the director yelled “cut,” whereupon she applauded and laughed loudly as if Madonna were doing this solely to entertain her. “That was funny, Mommy!” Lola would say. “Thanks, Lola,” Madonna replied each time, giving her daughter a wink and a smile.
This is her first movie since Evita. In light of the enjoyment she seems to get from acting, I ask her why she waited three years to make another film. “Evita was such a full, all-encompassing experience, incredibly stimulating on every level. I just thought, ‘I’m never going to do another movie again unless it’s all those things.’ I’ve made too many mistakes in the past where I liked certain elements about things and I just thought, ‘Oh, it will get fixed’ and then it never did. And then I paid the price for it. I just don’t want to take those chances.”
Why do you think you haven’t been as successful in your career as an actress as you have been in music? Acting has always taken a backseat to music. I don’t think I was as scrupulous in my choices. I’ve made 10 movies now, I think half of them have been good and half of them have been shit. I’ve got two things working against me: One is that I’m really successful in another area and it’s really hard for people to let you cross over into anything else. Also, because I was in a series of really bad movies, it’s given people license to say, ‘Oh she can’t act, she can’t do this. she can’t do that.’
Why did you want to do The Next Best Thing? It’s a real statement for the 21st century. I think few people have conventional family situations. Look at me. I have a baby with somebody I’m not with. I’m really good friends with him and I value my relationship with him a great deal. When I had the baby with him I had every intention of being with him, but things didn’t work out. Would you be able to do what your character does, have a baby while not in a conventional relationship with the father? I have too much Catholic guilt. I would never be able to carry that out
Myth #5: The Jaded Cynic
Madonna’s ego. unlike a lot of celebrities’, does not require her to socialize exclusively with other famous people. At the star-studded Oscar parties we have attended, you will not find her surveying the room for more interesting people to talk to — she would rather talk to her friends. When I saw her presenting an award to Paul McCartney recently she did, however, look a little “verklempt” so I can’t help asking…
What was it like to meet him? I was probably a bit starstruck, because I didn’t really hear what he said. I thought he was hysterically funny. I don’t know how that rumor started that he came back to my apartment, but it was a strange rumor. Everyone knows I like younger men! [Note to Paul: That's a joke. Love, Madonna.] And what about your friend Stella McCartney? When I met her she was sewing dresses and suits and selling them out of some tiny room of some third-floor walk-up in some horrible place someone dragged me to in London. I thought she was a genius. I admire her because she did not rely on her family name. She really, really works hard. People think I’m a workaholic, but I don’t know how anyone could have a line of clothes. You have to stay on top of it and you have to lick every fashion editor’s butt.
And what about Gwyneth [Paltrow]? Oh, I don’t rat on my friends. No — go ahead. She always refers to you being like an older sister, do you in turn see her as a younger sister? She’s experiencing the upsides and the downsides of being famous for the first time. That’s a lot for someone to take. I wish I could have had someone to turn to at that time in my life. I don’t think I would have taken a lot of things so personally. So I’m happy to help her. She is sophisticated for her age. Both of her parents are in the business and I think that has allowed her to see a side of things, so she’s not taking it too seriously. Mostly she just wants to know where I get my handbags. It’s funny Even though I’m 13 years older than her, girls are just girls– coveting each other’s wardrobes. ‘I want those shoes. I want that handbag. Where did you get that?’ It’s relentless.
I have time for one last question before Madonna has to return to her room to finish some writing for her new album: Having had a chance to relax in Miami, has she thought about what she’d like to achieve in the new century that she didn’t in the last one? “I looked back at the last 20 years of my life and I’ve accomplished a lot. I tend to be really hard on myself, saying, ‘I’m not good enough — you have to work harder.’ But on this vacation I had a chance to look back and relax and say, ‘Okay, you don’t have to win any races. Pat yourself on the back and take a deep breath.’ The pressure is not really coming from anyone else but myself. You look around and you see people doing things and there are always those twinges of jealousy or envy. You know about what other people have, and then I think, ‘But do you really want that life?’ And the answer is: ‘No. So shut up!’”
“I mean ’shut up’ to myself,” she qualifies. And then she turns away and smiles.