Revealing talk about her private regrets, her search for romance, and her old-fashioned take on motherhood. by liz smith
Boy toy. Pop tart. Diva. Cultural icon. Sexual revolutionary. Living legend. Good girl. Bad girl.
A lot of labels have attached themselves to Madonna, but none has sparked more curiosity than her latest: Mom. When Madonna gave birth to her daughter, Lourdes Maria Ciccone Leon, on October 14, 1996, the news generated international headlines. Had any other woman ever produced a child? It seemed not if one looked at the media coverage. (I had scooped her pregnancy by personal trainer Carlos Leon months earlier. Though I knew the story was big, I had no idea how big until I found myself chained to my desk for days, talking only about Madonna’s new baby.)
The press shows no sign of letting up should Madonna decide to add to her family. Shortly after this interview, the media had a field day speculating that Madonna was pregnant again. Although Madonna did reveal her family plans to me when we talked, she remained mum about a possible pregnancy. And wearing a belly-baring shirt and long-slung pants, she certainly wasn’t hiding anything. Still, the dramatic transformation she’s undergone since Lourdes’s arrival makes me feel that more children are in her future.
With the birth of her daughter came an "enlightened" Madonna, who explored her spirituality with the same fervor that she once explored — and flaunted — her sexuality. Some dismissed this latter-day serenity as a pose. But Madonna had long since become inured to charges that she cynically reinvented herself, using calculation rather than talent to keep her career afloat. Instead of striking hack, she expressed her feelings through her music, rethinking the rewards of fame, reassessing her life as a public figure, taking a closer look at religion, and celebrating motherhood. In 1998, she produced the album Ray Of Light, a contemplative work that brought her a shelf hill of Grammy awards.
Now, after a long cinematic hiatus, Madonna is starring in her first film since Evita. Her new movie, The New Best Thing a romantic drama costarring Rupert Everett and Benjamin Bratt, reflects the concerns of a woman in her 40s like Madonna: issues of children. family, and personal responsibility.
Recently, I spent hours watching the star at a London studio as she shot the video for the song "American Pie"; a remake of the Don McLean hit, it’s featured on the movie’s soundtrack. Most interesting was the chance to see Madonna close-up with Lola (that’s her nickname for Lourdes). The two laughed, sang, played games, and exchanged whispers and hugs.
The next night, still in London, I visited with Madonna and child. Madonna embraced me warmly; Lola was crying. She did not want Mommy to do an interview. Patient negotiating ensued, and at one point, Madonna even invited Lola to "sit quietly next to me while I talk to Liz." It was with some relief on Madonna’s part that Lola turned up her nose at this and marched downstairs to her playroom.
Madonna offered me tea, and ran downstairs to fetch it. But this was less about being a good hostess than about wanting to check in with her daughter. When she came back, Madonna smiled ruefully and said, "Oh, am I going to get it. I have a business meeting later, but Lola is going to punish me if I don’t go down there and play before I go. She’s at that age. She doesn’t want me out of her sight."
And so it was with one motherly ear on the hallway that Madonna began to open up about her life.
Liz Smith: In The Next Best Thing, you play a single woman who desperately wants a child and decides to have one with a gay man, who’s her best friend. I suspect there’s going to be some comment on your character — on how unglamorous and sensitive she is.
Madonna: She’s not a larger-than-life character — she’s just a woman of our time, with a lot of the problems women have. Bad luck with men. Finding the right relationship. Raising a child.
Do you think being a mother helped you get inside the character?
Absolutely. I was like the voice of reason in terms of what she would do in a certain situation. Rupert Everett, who plays her partner, and John Schlesinger, the director, don’t have children; when they weren’t sure what she should do, I would say, "No, there’s no way a parent would do that with her toddler in the room." So it was really helpful that I have a child. Otherwise, instead of drawing on my own experiences, I would’ve called my sister up every five minutes and asked her how a mother would behave.
Women, in particular, are going to find this story very moving — women who may have avoided your other films because of your racy image or whatever. (Laughs.) I think the idea of you as naughty and unfeeling is wrong. I’ve always seen you as vulnerable.
Most people who make these assumptions don’t know me, have never spent time with me. And they get swept in these ideas…
Do you think more about your "image" now that you have a child?
Of course I think more about what I say and what I do. From the moment I got pregnant, I started looking at life in a different way. Suddenly it was like, "Oh, my God, there’s someone else to think about." You cannot be an anarchist if you have children. I mean, you can still be rebellious, but you always have to pause first. I haven’t come to a place where I’ve said, "Oh. no, I can’t do that, because it would upset Lola at another date." But for instance, I was offered a play that I thought was so dark. And I thought, I can’t do monologue about killing a child. I just can’t. So there are a lot of things that I can’t — not won’t, can’t — do anymore because I have a kid. It’s not on the level of, "What will Lourdes think?" but about my own sensitivity now.
Absolutely, you’re a mother now. No turning back.
Listen, I did my sexual rebellion thing. I took it as far as I could go. I shaved my eyebrows. I’ve been naked in every state and country…I’ve dated the NBA. I mean, there’s nothing more! I did it. I dealt with my sexual rebellion. I worked it out of my system.
I thought it was pretty great that you did it publicly.
Well, you’re in the minority. (Laughs.)
You’ve said you want the public to understand your work and to like you. Of course, you’ve also said that if they never did, you were satisfied that the people close to you understood.
Even as a child, I never felt my ideas were terribly popular. And I was never terribly popular. I knew people were interested in me. but they thought I was a weirdo. So I kind of accepted it – that it’s better not to expect approval from people, because you’ll just be disappointed, and you just have to be who you are.
How did you feel when you were criticized by the press for your boldness and "bad behavior"?
It’s part of the game — I’m not one to go around screaming, "Look at what the press has done to me!" We make our choices and live with them, or we get out of the business.
So are you saying, "No regrets"?
Everybody has regrets, but mine are private. Intimate. They have nothing to do with my public life, my career.
Your spiritual quest and your interest in yoga and Eastern religions have caused a lot of comment.
Well, I’ve talked about it, so the media’s going to pick up on it. But while I do feel spiritually enlightened, and while my daughter has completely changed my life. I haven’t become a saint! I’m the same person. Only better, I hope.
It was interesting watching you with Lola the other day at the video shoot, singing together. And, you were reminding her to be polite — when she asked for something, you said, "How do we say that?"
We do insist on having good manners.
Are manners a big issue?
Oh, God, yes. The last thing I want is to raise a brat. We could definitely go down the wrong road. I don’t want Lola to have everything she wants. I want her to appreciate things, and not to be presumptuous. I want her to have manners and social graces. It’s so funny, because sometimes she gets really carried away. We were washing her hair the other day and I go, "Lo, would you like some conditioner?" She goes, "No, Mommy, but thank you for asking. (Laughs.) I asked her if she wanted some of my soap that doesn’t sting her eyes. "Thank you for asking, Mommy," she said. [Every time I offered something] she said the same thing. And I’m like, "God, who went to town on her today?" She does like to sort of play the "Lady of the Manor," you know?
Does she spend much time with her father?
She’s absolutely smitten with Carlos. She reminds me every day that Mommy’s the queen, that Daddy’s the king. "And I’m the princess, Mommy." Obviously, when we’re traveling he doesn’t see her as often, but he is incredibly present in her life. He loves to come and take her to the movies. His parents live very close to my apartment in New York City, so she’s always up at their house having Cuban food and playing with all of her cousins. I love that she has another element in her life besides my world. I think it’s great.
How do you spend the day with Lourdes when you’re not working?
Even when I’m working, I have one day alone with her every week. I like to get rid of everybody, so it’s just us. And we do everything: We choose each other’s wardrobes. We paint each other’s nails. We have meals together, and then we either go to the park or go shopping; she loves going to Sephora or those big makeup stores. She wants to be a makeup artist! It’s all about doing the most mundane things together.
Do you watch movies together?
She doesn’t watch TV or videos at home, so the movie going experience is a special thing. And I don’t take her to the movies so much, because I’d rather do things where we’re interacting more.
She doesn’t pay any attention to TV?
She does not look at a television set longingly. And I’m very happy about that. I’d rather have her develop her imagination and her language skills now. I’ve got her so trained: Whenever I go to see Rosie O’Donnell — we have this running joke, because Rosie does every thing the opposite of me. She’s got three kids now, and she lets the older ones eat junk food. She lets them watch TV. During the holidays we went over to Rosie’s house, where the playroom is next to the room where the grown-ups were. Lola comes running in, going, "Mommy, Mommy! Chelsea and Parker have the television on." And I’m like, "Okay, it’s their house." Then she says, "But, Mommy, what am I supposed to do?" And I said, "Well, you can watch it or you can leave the room." And she’s like, "Okay, I’m going to stay here with you." I didn’t even ask her to do it. It was just funny the way she chose not to.
You didn’t watch television much as a child, either?
No. And when you come home from school, if you can’t watch TV, then your entertainment is going to he a book. So that’s good.
Have you done your child-rearing by instinct so far?
Totally. I’ve obviously talked about it with friends who have kids, and with my younger sister Paula. She’s got an 8-year-old boy and a daughter close to Lola’s age. So if I don’t get something, or I think I’m doing something wrong, I call her. But pretty much, it’s the feel-as-you-go scenario.
What is Lourdes’s favorite book?
Anything with a princess in it.
Does she have a favorite food?
Am thing with sugar in it.
Does she have a favorite article of clothing yet?
She loves wearing long princess dresses wherever she goes. At the playground, or the beach. She has to have long dresses — anything that resembles a ball gown.
What do you do to make your daughter laugh?
I make up songs. They’re completely nonsensical — strung together, full of people she knows and characters in books. She sits on the floor like it’s a show, and she thinks it’s the funniest thing she ever saw — laughs hysterically. But kids laugh at the silliest things. At one of Lola’s birthday parties, we had an entertainer — a woman strumming a guitar and making squeaky noises, and telling ridiculous stories. The children were laughing hysterically. And I was laughing at the children laughing, because I thought it was so funny that they thought it was so funny….And I’m babbling about nothing! Stop me! This is what happens once you have a child.
Let’s talk about whether Lourdes is like you when you were young.
I don’t know. If my mother were around to tell me, perhaps I would; usually you have your parents around to say, "That’s exactly what you did when you were little." So I’m not sure. But people around me tell me, "She’s so you!" I can’t see it. I mean, to me, she’s my little girl. But she’s very willful, and I know I am too. So I can see that.
Does Lourdes realize you’re a celebrity? She said yesterday at the video shoot that you get very tiny when you’re on that video screen!
I don’t know if she’s getting it yet. Bur most of my friends are in the business. So you know, if she goes through a magazine, there’s that person who was just over at the house, and there’s that person; so far, everyone’s in a magazine.
Bette Midler will not allow her daughter, Sophie, to see videos of her early shows, with the bawdy jokes and profanity — she’s very self – conscious about all that. Do you want to control what Lourdes sees or will see?
The few times when she does watch TV, I’m editing or working on a video and I want to see different cuts — I do put my videos on then. And so she sees most of them. But they’re all benign — usually it’s me dancing like a maniac or something. I’ve never said, "Oh, she can’t watch this," or, "She’s got to leave the room."
Is there anything you’ve done in the past that you wouldn’t be happy for her to see?
There’s probably a couple of movies I’ve made, including Body of Evidence, [an R-rated thriller] and then my book, Sex, that I wouldn’t want her to see until she was older, because she wouldn’t understand. You know, when I can explain to her what my intentions were, then I would let her. I’d wait till she was older, not because I’m embarrassed or ashamed but because I didn’t mean for any of those things to be for children — anybody’s children.
How does being a mother affect the way you deal with the public?
I don’t get freaked out when people come up and seem to be genuinely happy for me or inspired by me. But if I say to somebody with a camera, "Please don’t bother my daughter" or whatever, and they just get in my face and snap away, right then and there, I have violent thoughts, which I completely subvert. Those are the moments where you go: "Don’t you think of me as being human? I have a child. So at least get the idea of a mother and child into your head." I know they can fathom it, because I know all these people have mothers. But still, it doesn’t register.
Would you like to have another child someday?
I would. I’d love to have that experience again. I don’t want to have just one child — I would like my daughter to have a brother or a sister.
Would you ever consider getting married again?
I’ve thought about it. It’s an interesting old scary concept. Sometimes I think about it, and it makes perfect sense. Other times I think, "What’s the point?" I’m very conflicted about it.
It seemed to me that you were very, very much in love with Sean Penn — that when you took those vows in 1985, that really meant something to you.
It did. And it does. I’m very Catholic, and I’m generally a woman of my word. It was devastating for me that it didn’t work out, and it was really hard to throw in the towel. Because I’m one of those people who will fight and fight and fight to make something work — to the end. So that has a lot to do with my squeamishness, because I would never want to make that mistake again. I mean, I don’t want to get married again and get divorced. I want to honor that vow.
You’ve never seen marriage as a casual thing.
No. Absolutely not. And you really have to get to know someone. Courtship, the whole idea of courtship is such a boring, dated thing, but I am a big fan of it. I think most of the relationships I’ve had that have not worked out, or had started really passionately and then crashed and burned, were because I didn’t spend enough time getting to know the person. But I definitely entertain the notion of another marriage — the idea of it.
You are romantic?
You’re 41 now. Have you made peace with being a celebrity?
There is a turning point, where I think if you’re getting beaten tip on a lot, or everybody seems like they want a piece of you, if you hang in there long enough, you get to the other side of it. And then you can take a breath. Anti you can have a sense of humor, and you do get…my confidence has definitely grown. I mean, I had confidence when I started, but I didn’t have the self-awareness that I have now. You know, you grow into it. And you start feeling comfortable about who you are.
Is it difficult living with a reputation like yours? Because sacrificing your privacy and facing judgment from the public seems to be part of the equation for celebrities who mine their sex appeal. And I guess you can never go back after you’ve captured their imagination.
The thing is, you can’t be a sexually provocative creature one day, and then the next day go, "Leave me alone!" Once you invite them in, you have to accept a certain level of privacy invasion. "That’s the way it goes. "That’s the rule of the game. But not everybody has the personality for it. You definitely have to have the resilience of…help me out here…
A rhinoceros. (Laughs.) Really thick skin.
Even so, you must have been surprised by the magnitude of your fame.
Of course. But you take it on board and you accept it, and you get on with your life. And you somehow figure out ways around it, and find friends who aren’t threatened by it — and life goes on.
I see you as a performer for your entire life. You’re so vital that I can’t imagine you…
Yes. But it seems to me that as soon as a star reaches 35 or so, she starts getting truly obnoxious questions like, "What are you going to do when you retire?"
Yeah. ‘The other thing that’s funny is that until you reach a certain age, they don’t print your age. Then suddenly when you’re 40, they print your age. It’s really weird. It’s like, "She’s only got a few more minutes."
But you know, in terms of retirement, I can’t imagine not working. Obviously I’m going to change and grow and be interested in different things. But I can’t remember when I wasn’t doing this. I mean, when I was a teenager, I was throwing myself into dance and doing crazy musicals, and I have not stopped since then. I cannot imagine not being creative in some way. I can’t live without it. I don’t know what I’ll do, but I’ll do it. No retirement. So there!
a few of her favorite things :
Sound: "My daughter’s voice when she wakes up and she’s in a really sweet mood: ‘Hi, Mommy.’"
Novel: "Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres. It’s so romantic."
Makeup: "Concealer, because I have adult acne."
Item of clothing: "My low-rider linen pants that Stella McCartney [sir Paul's daughter] made for me."
Drink: Lemon Drop, a shot of vodka and lemon juice in a sugar-rimmed glass.
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