Living Legend Madonna: ‘She Has Exposed Her Body, But Not Her Soul,’ by Liz Smith”
wOw’s Liz Smith shares a piece she wrote for Q, the Quest magazine quarterly, spotlighting the most successful — and perhaps most misunderstood — female rock artist of all time.
Editor’s Note: Liz Smith profiles Madonna — the most successful female rock artist of all time — in Q, Quest’s quarterly magazine. Here we present the full story as Liz wrote it. To see the article as it appeared in Q, click here.
“I love Liz Smith because she has big balls, like me!”
Those were practically the very first words I ever heard, personally, out of Madonna’s mouth.
I was at the 1990 New York premiere of Madonna’s highly entertaining documentary, “Truth or Dare.” I wasn’t covering it, exactly. I was there being interviewed by ABC’s “Primetime Live.” They were doing a segment on me. So this event was an example of one of my “glamorous nights out.” And of course I was being pressed to speak to Madonna. I’d been writing about her exhaustively since 1984, so everybody assumed we were friends. In fact, I’d never clapped eyes on her. I told the ABC people, “Look, this is her premiere, I don’t think she wants to be part of my publicity!”
Somehow Madonna was corralled into a corner where I stood with the film crew. We exchanged hellos. Then the producer asked Madonna what she thought about me. She answered with the quote above, and we parted, laughing. (It couldn’t really be used on the air.)
So I had finally met this already-legendary creature of music, videos and controversy. She was in a brunette phase, and looked gorgeous under a heavy coat of makeup. She was wearing a glittering Versace bodysuit, legs bare, bosom up and out. Yet in the brief moments I spent with her, I sensed her less a sexual provocateur and more like a little girl dressed up outrageously in Mama’s finery. She seemed nothing at all like her sometimes vulgar, deliberately in-your-face image. As the years went by, and I got to know her better, I found her a much more serious and far more vulnerable person than she ever lets on. But she has been determined, right from the start, to never beg her audience (or the media) for sympathy. Sometimes it has been to her detriment to appear so strong; her critics and even many fans, don’t believe she has a softer side. She does, but that is one card she rarely plays. Not even for her work in the AIDS-stricken country of Malawi. She says what she means and means what she says. Without flourish. She controls the world (as she famously predicted she would to Dick Clark back in 1983). It does not control her.
No star, with the exception of Elizabeth Taylor, whom I’ve known since the early 1960s, has taken up as much space in my column as Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone. (In the case of both these famous women, I was frequently the recipient of the question, “How much is she paying you?”) What a laugh, as if either would dream of paying a gossip columnist for a positive mention. Both stars consider me “well paid” if they deign to speak to me, or give me access.
Funnily enough, I was not even that much interested in Madonna early on. I’d been charmed by her in “Desperately Seeking Susan” (and even more charmed when Rosanna Arquette, who was the real star of the movie, told me Madonna turned to her one day and said, “Wouldn’t you just give anything in the world to be me for ten minutes?”). But I didn’t listen to pop music on the radio and I was never glued to the MTV channel. I was missing out on what was making Madonna a superstar.
Then one day in 1985 Time magazine arrived with Madonna on the cover. I was surprised, to say the least, and bemoaned Time’s obvious cultural disintegration. It was one of my assistants, Denis Ferrara, who set me straight. “Liz, this girl is huge. She is going to be an enduring star. An icon. Surely you see this?” I didn’t, and was surprised at my intelligent assistant’s cultural disintegration! But Denis made himself a one-man army determined to make me see the error of my ways. He made me watch her videos — which increasingly became little works of art, like the haunting, “Bad Girl” or the hyper-glamorous “Vogue” or the Jesus-kissing, cross-burning “Like a Prayer.” (Perhaps my favorite Madonna is her rendition of “Vogue” live at the MTV Awards, all dressed up like Marie Antoinette, with her dancers as members of her court. Truly brilliant!) Her voice? Not ready for “Aida,” but a perfect pop instrument, urgent and sensual. Denis directed my attention to her interviews, her endless photo sessions and he noted with practicality, “Liz, everybody in the world is obsessed with her, get on board!”
Eventually I did get on board. It was hard not to be impressed with her story — restless, ambitious girl from Michigan, the third of six children, lost her mother at age six, resented her father’s re-marriage, leaves home as a teenager in 1977 to find herself a career as “a modern dancer” in New York. But despite talent and energy, she does not become a dancer.
Madonna spent the next six years knocking around, even traveling to Paris at one point, dancing in the troupe of disco star Patrick Hernandez. Her music career arrived in fits and starts, she played drums and guitar and sang a bit for several small bands. She found she had a talent for songwriting and with a former boyfriend, Stephen Bray, put together a series of dance songs that eventually brought her to the attention of Sire Records mogul Seymour Stein. Her voice and style impressed him and so did her brash, even bratty confidence in herself. It was Stein who famously remarked, “Had I been in my coffin with one hand hanging out, Madonna would have made sure that hand signatured the contract!” (Stein was actually hospitalized when he signed Madonna, and felt that not even his death could stop her.) She released her first album in 1983.
What marks these early and often difficult years, was Madonna’s absolute, innate belief that she was special. She behaved, always, like she was somebody, even when she was less than nobody. If she was insecure, few ever saw it.
Early in her career, once it really got rolling, she was often compared to Marilyn Monroe, because of her witty “Material Girl” video, which was a tough homage and send-up of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” But Madonna was nothing like Monroe. She was in the great tradition of those grand diva-egomaniac/perfectionists Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. And there was a lot of Mae West, that autonomous sexual revolutionary.
Madonna, like Mae, took her sex like a man, and could talk about it like a truckdriver. But unlike West, in her art — her songs, and some of her ravishing videos — Madonna channeled traditional romance like no other star. (Once, years ago, I commented on the lush, sad, “Take a Bow” video: “Madonna, underneath aren’t you a closet romantic?” She replied, “What closet? I am very romantic. But don’t ask me more.”)
Madonna refined her image (gone were the rags in her hair, the belly shirts, the rubber bracelets) and re-worked her body (gone were the round curves that writhed so provocatively down the giant wedding cake at the first MTV Awards). She could not — and did not wish to — remain a teen sensation. Especially as she was an experienced full-grown woman of 25, who had more to convey than she felt, “like a virgin, touched for the very first time.” (She recently laughed about that song, one of her few hits she didn’t write: “I mean, how can you feel like a virgin?”)
Madonna seemed to want to free society of sexual inhibitions, to expose and denounce homophobia and to show herself as a woman in control of every aspect of her career, if not, unfortunately, her personal life.
That personal life has never been … a mess, in the way we expect stars to be messy. Two ex-husbands, both of whom she really adored, many lovers, four children. But there has been no drinking, no drugging, no hysterical public scenes or dramatic too-intimate press releases. No Twitter, thank God! In a way, for all we think we know; we don’t. She has exposed her body, but not her soul. And this goes back to her resistance to overt, public sentimentality. (Which perhaps goes back to the shock of losing her mother at such a young age.)
And since “freedom,” a celebration of self, was one of her basic artistic mantras, there was no place for self-pity. Introspection, yes. But life is for the living.
She declared herself (and you!) free to love who you want, as long as you wear a condom.
Free to wear anything or nothing.
Free to say what you want.
Free to choose your friends, and not care what other friends think.
Freedom to enjoy the fruits of your labors, without apology or false humility. To the latter, she is clearly driven by the profit motive — she is never off the Forbes List as one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the world. But she is absolutely sincere when she talks about her art. She sometimes de-rails (the “Sex” book, the so-bad-it-was-fabulous “Body of Evidence” movie or the more recent hanging herself off a crucifix in concert).
But her aim is…well, I asked her once about her desire to provoke: “I want my audiences to think I want them to make up their own minds about what I’m doing, or what I symbolize.”
“But you want them to have fun, too, right?” I asked
“Of course I want them to them to have fun, and get up and dance and celebrate life. But if you celebrate life you have to be part of life that isn’t fun. Like babies dying of AIDS in Africa. I shouldn’t have to explain that to anybody. My audiences understand.”
And they also understand her incredible work ethic. Only through tireless effort can you achieve your goals. And that effort — sometimes quite obvious — is what her most devoted fans love. Madonna really is the hardest-working woman in show biz. And, for all the sensation, the most sensible, too. She has not followed Janis, Jimi, Jim, Elvis and Michael Jackson to drug degradation and death.
What came to amuse and fascinate me about Madonna as the years rolled on, was … the years rolled on! Despite constant gleeful media predictions that she was no longer “relevant” and soon to be “over,” she never was. Massive articles were written on her career demise; obsessive, backhanded compliments to her power and cultural significance.
Although her movie career, with a few notable exceptions — “A League of Their Own,” “Dick Tracy,” “Evita,” her stark emoting in the little-seen “Dangerous Games” — has been sliced and diced by critics, her failure to become a movie star has been as epic a tale as her success. And what does she care, anyway? She is the Most Successful Female Rock Artist of All Time. Madonna has sold over 200 million albums, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, even today, despite the haters and critics who “don’t like her new music” and “her arms give me the creeps,” maintains her position as one of the most influential women in music. Not to mention the top live female concert act in the world.
“This is who I am/like it or not” goes the lyrics to one of her recent songs. So true! Because like it or not, Madonna remains, after a quarter-century, a fact of our daily lives. Just the other day, photos from Italy of Madonna, her children and her beautiful young lover, Jesus Luz, were all over the place. This is being over?!
On the personal side, I have always found Madonna warm, without projecting a phony intimacy, funny, gracious — even if the situation might warrant otherwise. I come away from each encounter feeling oddly protective. This mythological symbol of Fame is really a good girl. She is trying to make sense of her life, tend to her family, experience her spirituality and satisfy her unbending artistic instincts as well as the demands of her fans. Shockingly, I have found her … nice, that most prosaic compliment. (This has been my Madonna experience. To others who have found her less tractable, less vulnerable? Leave her to heaven.)
The first time I really interviewed her, for TV, we sat chatting amiably before the cameras rolled. She suddenly said, “You’re not afraid of me. I like that.” I replied, “Madonna, I’ve interviewed Elizabeth Taylor, now that can be scary, because she only says ‘yes’ or ‘no’!” She loved that. (Madonna can be similarly matter-of-fact in her replies.)
I asked her once why so many of her songs in recent years seem to examine the pros and cons of fame. She said: “I guess I’m always taking it apart and dissecting it, Because I — and everyone who achieves public recognition — am always at odds with it. One minute you are so grateful you have an audience and people are paying attention. The next you feel over-analyzed and invaded. But I’ve come to terms with that part. I ask rhetorically now, maybe when I’m tired, ‘Is it worth it?’ Fame is really an illusion, a trick. It can’t last. But I am going to blaze out and give the best illusion I can!”
And what of her age (51) and retirement, which the media wants to push her into? Madonna sighs deeply: “Oh, please! Why should there be a time limit on working or giving of yourself? Or on love and looking attractive? Or trying to give back and make a saner world? Look, work isn’t everything, because if it was, I’d never have tried marriage, I never would never have had children. But one set of circumstances does not complete you. Maybe nothing ever does. So you work on your life and you work on your work and you try to live every single day like it’s your last. And you try to be better, to yourself and to others. I don’t always succeed. But I try and it’s my goal.”
And then Madonna added, “Liz, I’ll retire when you do. But I think we are going to be the last gals at the rodeo!”