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Cover Story


As she nears 50, Madonna’s narrative is shifting. Yes, there’s another new super-pop album, Hard Candy, with Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams. But there’s also Filth and Wisdom, the feature film she’s co-written, produced, and directed, and I Am Because We Are, her documentary on Malawi, the aids-ravaged country where she controversially adopted her third child. Whisked to L.A. for an intense prep session, followed by an almost two-hour interview, the author explores the evolution of the Madonna myth as she harnesses her image-making genius to a cause, a philosophy, and the search for her true self.

by Rich Cohen  
May 2008

Photographs by Steven Meisel.

The world is a series of rooms, which are arranged like concentric circles, or rooms within rooms, joined by courtyards and antechambers, and in the room at the center of all those rooms Madonna sits alone, in a white dress, dreaming of Africa.

To reach her, you must wait for a sign. When it comes, if you are pure of heart, you begin to move toward Madonna, and move fast. One moment you are in Connecticut, wondering if it will snow, the next moment you are swept up by a force greater than yourself. You’re in a car on the highway, flashing past sleepy towns, moving closer and closer to the center, which you approach deftly and humbly, in the manner of a pilgrim. Like a pilgrim, you set off before first light. Like a pilgrim, you remove your shoes—to pass through security at the airport. Like a pilgrim, you read and reread sacred texts: profiles and reviews, the first published in the early 1980s, the most recent published just a second ago, which constitute a kind of record, the good news, the Gospel of Madonna.

Taken together, these chronicle the career of Madonna, each different, but each telling the same story, which is so established and archetypal it verges on folklore: the girl from suburban Detroit, which can stand for anywhere other than here; the early years in Eden, memories of which Madonna describes as “grainy and beautiful,” when her mother was young and alive; then tragedy, the wound that never heals, the death of her mother from breast cancer when Madonna was six; empty days plagued by tormented dreams. “You’re aware of a sense of loss, and feel a sense of abandonment,” she told me. “Children always think they did something wrong when their parents disappear.” Then her father’s second marriage, the stepmother, the drudgery, because she was the oldest girl in a house filled with eight children and so was pressed into adult service, cleaning and wiping and changing, when she was still a child herself; secrets and desires, her life before the mirror, which has followed her everywhere; high school, where she was beautiful, but punky and strange. “I didn’t fit into the popular group,” she said. “I wasn’t a hippie or a stoner, so I ended up being the weirdo. I was interested in classical ballet and music, and the kids were quite mean if you were different. I was one of those people that people were mean to. When that happened, instead of being a doormat, I decided to emphasize my differences. I didn’t shave my legs. I had hair growing under my arms. I refused to wear makeup, or fit the ideal of what a conventionally pretty girl would look like. So of course I was tortured even more, and that further validated my superiority, and helped me to survive and say, ‘I’m getting out of here, and everyone is a heathen in this school—you don’t even know who Mahler is!’?” She found refuge in dance class and went on to the University of Michigan to study dance, but for just a year, because then she was gone to New York.

Because this is mythology, a short struggle was followed by a quick ascent to stardom. When was it? Nineteen eighty-two? Nineteen eighty-four? The birth of the music video? “Borderline”? And just like that, every girl in every school is Madonna Ciccone, with her slutty magnificence and lacy driving gloves and bare midriff and spangles.

Here is my favorite quote—it’s an editor at Billboard talking to Jay Cocks in 1985 for Time: “Cyndi Lauper will be around a long time. Madonna will be out of the business in six months.”

I felt the presence of Madonna as soon as I landed at LAX. It was as if she had been there a moment ago, and, in fact, while waiting for my luggage, I scanned a copy of the New York Post and came upon a picture taken the day before which showed Madonna, having come through customs, holding her two-and-a-half-year-old son, David, whom she had adopted in Malawi in 2006, the cameras an inch from her face. “The paparazzi are out of control,” she would later say. “I haven’t been to Los Angeles in quite a while, and I don’t watch television here or in England, and I was told there’s now a television show where the paparazzi are the stars of the show—is that true? That they film each other doing paparazzi jobs? Which gives them more fuel. I usually found that type kept their distance—they definitely do in England, because it’s illegal to photograph children. But that’s not how it is here. They get this close, and don’t care how much they scare your children. Being famous has changed a lot, because now there’s so many outlets, between magazines, TV shows, and the Internet, for people to stalk and follow you. We created the monster.”

The Full MadonnaMadonna

The many modes of Madonna have been on full display in the pages of Vanity Fair, beginning in 1986. See them all in our revealing slide show.

I was rushed to Century City from the airport, to the towering new office building of CAA, the talent agency that represents Madonna, and seated in an empty screening room, which was spooky in the same way an empty church is spooky. The lights went down, and for 90 minutes I watched a documentary Madonna has written and produced, I Am Because We Are, which is African folk wisdom that means something like “It takes a village.” It too is about community—about identity and how it’s rooted in place. The movie sings of Malawi, a landlocked little nation in sub-Saharan Africa, ravaged by aids, filled with orphans—a world without adults that has become, in her middle years, the great cause of Madonna’s life. With this movie, it seems, she hopes not only to raise awareness but also to explain her own obsession with the motherless children of Africa.

It opens with Madonna walking in a crowd of Africans. Then her voice, which is the voice of the upper Midwest painted in Oxford glaze: “People always ask me why I chose Malawi. And I tell them, I didn’t. It chose me. I got a phone call from a woman named Victoria Keelan. She was born and raised in Malawi. She told me that there were over one million children orphaned by aids. She said there weren’t enough orphanages. And that the children were everywhere. Living on the streets. Sleeping under bridges. Hiding in abandoned buildings. Being abducted, kidnapped, raped. She said it was a state of emergency. She sounded exhausted and on the verge of tears. I asked her how I could help. She said, You’re a person with resources. People pay attention to what you say and do. I felt embarrassed. I told her I didn’t know where Malawi was. She told me to look it up on a map, and then she hung up on me. I decided to investigate, and I ended up finding out much more than I bargained for, about Malawi, about myself, about humanity.”


To date, Madonna has adopted just the one child from Malawi, David, who has joined Madonna’s other children, 11-year-old Lourdes and 7-year-old Rocco, in a town house in London. It was the birth of Lourdes, in 1996, that put Madonna on the road that ended in Malawi. “If you have children, you know you’re responsible for somebody,” she explained. “You realize you are being imitated; your belief systems and priorities have a direct influence on these children, who are like flowers in a garden. So you start to second-guess everything you value, and the suffering of other children becomes much more intolerable.”

If anyone ever won a lottery, it’s this child, David, who one moment was living in poverty in Africa and the next had been flown to a palace in the great frozen North. You see him in the film, bowlegged and stocky in the endearing way of the destitute man-child, looking adult, wizened. It’s no mystery why Madonna picked David. Look at him, he’s adorable. It was this adoption—the fact that Madonna went into an orphanage of aids-infected children and somehow came out with a child who did not have aids and is not an orphan—that set off the furor, especially in the British press, that the movie seems meant to address. Laws had been brushed aside, the request expedited. As if the dynamic of colonialism or First World/Third World were being played out between this one superstar and this one child. Then David’s father, Yohane Banda, turned up. He told reporters he had placed his son in the orphanage only temporarily, and let him be adopted at the urging of authorities. “The government people told me it would be a good thing for the country,” he told The Christian Science Monitor. “They said he would come back educated and be able to help us.”

What a strange life for David, being carried off to London—like Pocahontas, the beautiful Indian girl found in wild America—because, as Conrad wrote of London, “this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” Like Pocahontas, who marveled at the brick buildings and endless streets and was shown off and fêted, but still lonely, because the Empire has everything but what is most important—a kind of purity or righteous connection to the land. “Africa is not doing great,” Madonna told me, “but, on the other hand, how much have they contributed to the destruction of the world? Nothing compared to what we have, and we have everything.” In other words, Madonna brings this boy into her house and gives him everything, but gets something in return: a living totem of life as it was lived before machines.

After the movie, I was brought to the office of Madonna’s manager, where I sat in a boardroom and listened to Madonna’s new record (Hard Candy) on an iPod. It was a long day. The morning flight, the articles, the movie, the record, then the interview. It was like being brainwashed. Like being dropped in a vat of Madonna. But it’s how they wanted it—how I was purified and prepared. Like they do in the cults. Make sure the mark is softened before he sits with the eminence. As Madonna herself told me, “I just wanted you to know where my head is at.”

Madonna made the record with Justin Timberlake, who co-wrote five of the songs and sings on four, Pharrell Williams, and the producer Timbaland. “I didn’t have any idea what kind of music I wanted to make,” Madonna told me. “I just knew I wanted to collaborate with Pharrell and Justin. I needed to be inspired and thought, Well, who’s making records I like? So I went, ‘I like that guy and I like that guy.’ It’s not like we hit it off right away. Writing is very intimate. You have to be vulnerable and it’s hard to do that with strangers. I had ups and downs before everybody got comfortable, but I grew very fond of Pharrell and Justin.”

Many of the songs are hybrids, traditional Madonna super-pop, workout tunes giving way to white hip-hop, Justin Timberlake showering cascades of rhyme. I was listening to the music, and it’s a record I think Madonna fans will like, because it’s filled with songs you can imagine blasting from the room where they hold spinning class, but I kept thinking about Britney Spears. I mean, here is Madonna, singing with Justin, whose very public breakup with Britney marked the moment the pop tart began her battle with the furies. And, of course, I was also thinking of those MTV Video Music Awards in which Britney, already well on her way to madness, frenched Madonna. In light of this record, and all that’s happened, I wondered if, in the course of that kiss, Madonna somehow extracted Britney’s soul from her body, or implanted the crazy chip. When I began to ask Madonna about Britney—specifically in relation to the paparazzi—she stopped me (before I even said Britney’s name) with a raised hand, saying, “Yes, I know. I know exactly what you’re going to say. It’s very painful. Which leads us back to our question: When you think about the way people treat each other in Africa, about witchcraft and people inflicting cruelty and pain on each other, then come back here and, you know, people taking pictures of people when they’re in their homes, being taken to hospitals, or suffering, and selling them, getting energy from them, that’s a terrible infliction of cruelty. So who’s worse off? You know what I mean?”

I took notes as I listened to Hard Candy. There are a dozen songs. Now and then, I took a break. Now and then, my mind drifted. Now and then, Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s longtime publicist, who wore heavy glasses with dark frames, came in to see how I was doing. Later, when I looked over my notes, I found just a few bits worth preserving:

•Madonna is turning 50 in August.
•Madonna made her fortune selling sex—what will she sell when the thought of sex with Madonna seems like a fetish?
•What if there were just the songs—no videos, no movies, no concerts. How would we judge Madonna?
•How closely does the movie career of Madonna parallel the movie career of Elvis? (With the first film being the only one that matters.)
•First you sit alone in a screening room, watching Madonna among Africans, then you sit alone in a boardroom, hearing Madonna with rappers.
•To reach Madonna, you must pass through many rooms.
•The lyrics to her song “Candy Shop”:
   I’ll be your one stop
   Candy shop …
   Have some more …
   Sticky and sweet


This is a big moment for Madonna. There is the documentary and the record, but also a dramatic film, Filth and Wisdom, which she co-wrote, produced, and directed. Madonna’s debut as an auteur. The movie, which started as a short and grew into a feature, will be released on iTunes, which, depending how you see the world, is a desperate act or a bold gesture. Its first showing was at the Berlin Film Festival, where it received some snotty reviews (much mocked was a press release in which the names of two of Madonna’s heroes, Godard and Pasolini, were misspelled) and some positive. “Madonna has done herself proud,” James Christopher wrote in The Times of London. “Her film has an artistic ambition that has simply bypassed her husband, the film director Guy Ritchie. She captures that wonderfully accidental nature of luck when people’s lives intersect for a whole swathe of unlikely but cherishable reasons. Altmanesque would be stretching the compliment too far, but Filth and Wisdom shows Madonna has real potential as a director.”

“I’ve been inspired by films since I started dancing, and I’m married to a filmmaker, and I think it was one of my secret desires, but I was afraid to just say, ‘I want to be a director,’?” she told me. “But then one day I said, O.K., stop dreaming and do it. But I didn’t want to do it the Hollywood way, and talk through agents. I decided it all had to be generated by me, so I wrote it.”

She then said, “It was my film school.”

Filth and Wisdom stars Eugene Hütz, the Ukrainian lead singer of the downtown New York gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello, whose vocal style is somewhere between Joe Strummer and Borat. Hütz is lanky and wears an elaborate mustache, and is so charismatic he holds the movie together, almost, while it follows a half-dozen people around London as they search for truth.

“I feel this film was seriously influenced by Godard,” Madonna said. “He’s the one filmmaker I was always inspired by, but I have a lot of other filmmakers I was inspired by, all dead Europeans. I went to the University of Michigan for one year, and fortunately they had a foreign-film cinema, and I discovered it, and I thought I died and went to heaven. I discovered Fellini and Visconti and Pasolini and De Sica and Buñuel.”

The movie is organized around Madonna’s philosophical notions, beliefs she has taken from Kabbalah, which is a Hebrew word for the teaching. Kabbalists believe there were two revelations on Mount Sinai: what God told Moses to write on the tablets, and a secret teaching, what the Infinite whispered to the Finite, which was then passed from father to son. Most celebrity religions, which is what Kabbalah became in L.A., offer distinct levels of understanding—one for the masses, another for the elite—which echoes the existing celebrity worldview: outside or inside, onstage or plunged into darkness. For Madonna, Kabbalah, as taught at the Kabbalah Centre, had the advantage of seeming to reinforce what she already felt to be true: there is no good and evil, no right and wrong. All such distinctions are artificial. “Ultimately everything’s good,” she told me. “Even bad is good, because bad is there to help you resist it. You need to have that resistance to be good, and, let’s face it, the worst things that happen are always the best things that happen. If you look back at your life and say, Well, what did you learn? What happened that changed your life, that made you strong, that made you grow, it’s always things you perceived as bad.

“So is there bad?”

What’s Madonna’s genius?

It’s not her work as a singer, nor as a songwriter, nor as a director, certainly not as an actor, nor as a maker of videos, even if that’s what Norman Mailer said in 1994 in his Esquire interview with Madonna: “She not only made the best music videos of them all, but they transcended personality. She was the premier artist of the music video, and it might be the only new popular art form in American life.”

In the end, Madonna will be remembered as a minter of images. Think back on her career. It’s not songs you remember, or not primarily, nor films, nor videos; it’s the scenes or little tableaux. Madonna is the Joseph Cornell of pop music. You recall her career as a series of lit boxes, face cards in a marked deck: Madonna as a street urchin, in spangles; Madonna as Marilyn, in satin; Madonna as a deflowered virgin, writhing onstage in a wedding dress; Madonna as Saint Francis of Assisi, covered in icons and weeping for fragile things; Madonna on the Cross, like Jesus, but better, because did Jesus ever come down from the Cross to sing a song?

Fashioning images: images that riff on Scripture, images that riff on junk culture, images that riff on other images—that’s been her genius. If you go back and consider her career—because Madonna is one of the stars of the age so presumably tells a story greater than her own, about her people or time—you will see there has been nothing but images, spun off one after another, like souls flying off the mighty wheel. Beautiful artifice, puzzles, surfaces, masks. So you decide that only the first Madonna was real, the sexy round-faced girl in lacy gloves, but when you go back and look, you see this Madonna too was borrowed—as she borrowed from Marilyn, as she borrowed from Evita. It came from the downtown dance joints and club kids, the last of the 70s punk and art scenes. (In the early 80s, Madonna dated the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.) So you decide that only Madonna before Madonna was real, the girl whose mother died, who let hair grow on her legs, who pestered her father to send her to dance class, then lit out. But when you go back and really look, the details seem so vague and generic that that too dissolves. It’s like a tub filled with suds, and you search and search but never find the naked lady. I think Madonna is aware of this, which, in part, explains her interest in Kabbalah, which is a search for timeless things, for depth. She is hunting for what might be salvaged, for what will remain when she is 65, when she is 70. For a pop star, there are, in a way, two deaths—or maybe more: maybe a pop star dies again and again.

I interviewed Madonna for almost two hours. Liz Rosenberg took me in. We went down a nondescript hall, made two turns, went through a door, and here, finally, was the room at the center of the maze. Madonna sat bolt upright on a leather couch. She wore a white dress—at least, that’s what I think she was wearing. She was stunningly beautiful. I mean, you’ve seen this person only on TV or in movies, in two dimensions, now here she is. What’s more, when I was in high school, I dated so many girls because they looked like Madonna that I had the feeling I had slipped off my chains and made my way out of Plato’s cave and was seeing the real thing at last.


Madonna’s hair was blond and pulled back from her face, which was porcelain and perfect in the way of Grace Kelly in Rear Window, when she moves in to kiss Jimmy Stewart, who is sweaty. Something clean in a dirty world. I turned on my tape recorder. Liz Rosenberg sat in the corner, working on her BlackBerry.

Madonna spoke of Africa: “If you’ve got one iota of compassion, you can’t ignore what’s going on. You have to figure out a way to be a part of the solution.”

Madonna spoke of New York, how it’s changed: “It’s not the exciting place it used to be. It still has great energy; I still put my finger in the socket. But it doesn’t feel alive, cracking with that synergy between the art world and music world and fashion world that was happening in the 80s. A lot of people died.”

She spoke of the music business: “Well, there’s one thing you can’t download and that’s a live performance. And I know how to put on a show, and enjoy performing, and I’ll always have that.”

She spoke of the long career: “Honestly, it’s not something I sit around ruminating about. Who is my role model and how long can I keep this going? I just move around and do different things and come back to music, try making films and come back to music, write children’s books and come back to music.”

She spoke of Guy Ritchie: “We make different kinds of movies. I don’t have the technical knowledge he has. He’s got a vision, and his films are very testosterone-fueled. Mine are much more from a female point of view, and I can’t help but be autobiographical in everything I do.”

She spoke of having children, how it changes everything. I asked her to name her favorite children’s books. She said Winnie the Pooh, Pippi Longstocking, Horrid Henry. I told her I had never read Pippi Longstocking.

madonna: Do you have a daughter?
me: No, three sons.
[Madonna looks at me accusingly.]
me: I didn’t choose it—it just happened.
madonna: Do you believe that? You think things just happen?
me: I think that just happened.
madonna: Mm-hmm.
me: So who’s making the decision?
madonna: You are, you and your missus.
me: About what kind of kids we want?
madonna: You chose it. Your soul chose it.
me: No. Do you believe that? That my insides wanted boys?
madonna: Unconsciously. Yes.
me: I kind of like the idea, three sons—it’s like having a little army out in the woods.
madonna: And all the work they can do, and you can teach them carpentry and then build houses for you in Old Greenwich, or wherever you live.

I asked Madonna about Kabbalah. She looked at me as if to gauge the nature of my interest, then spoke.

“A lot of people join the group, but don’t know why,” Madonna said. “I was raised a Catholic and was never encouraged to ask questions, or understand the deeper meanings or mystical implications of the New Testament or the history of Jesus, or the fact that he was Jewish, or anything, you know? So I rejected that, because who wants to go through life being told you do things because you do things? When I started going to classes and studying [Kabbalah], I did it out of curiosity. I was told it was the mystical interpretation of the Old Testament.”

She said Kabbalah is a philosophy, a way of understanding, lessons.

“Like what?” I asked.

The Full MadonnaMadonna

The many modes of Madonna have been on full display in the pages of Vanity Fair, beginning in 1986. See them all in our revealing slide show.

She said, “One is that we are all responsible for our actions, our behavior, and our words, and we must take responsibility for everything we say and do. When you get your head wrapped around that, you can no longer think of life as a series of random events—you participate in life in a way you didn’t previously. I am the architect of my destiny. I am in charge. I bring that to me, or I push that away. You can no longer blame other people for things that happened to you.

“The other is that there is order in the universe, even though it looks like chaos. We separate the world into categories: this is good and this is bad. But life is set up to trick us. It’s a series of illusions we invest in. And ultimately those investments don’t serve our understanding, because physicality is always going to let you down, because physicality doesn’t last.”

She looked out the window. Los Angeles was there, the hills studded with houses, marbled by streets and ablaze in light, rising and falling, ending at the sea. It seemed to beckon in the way of those crystalline landscapes in old Flemish religious paintings, where Jerusalem looks just like, say, Holland, not because the painter was stupid, or untraveled, or did not know, but because, when you believe, every city is Jerusalem. “You have to get to a point where you care as little about getting smoke blown up your ass as you do when you become a whipping boy in the press,” Madonna said, “because ultimately they both add up to shit. You just have to keep doing your work, and hope and pray somebody’s dialing into your frequency.”

She then said, “If your joy is derived from what society thinks of you, you’re always going to be disappointed.”

Rich Cohen is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone and is the author of Sweet and Low: A Family Story and Tough Jews, among other books.


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