Alan Jackson Interviews Madonna

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Madonna
Virgin Birth ... The Times Magazine, October 1996
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Outside, the afternoon is uncomfortably hot. It's 90 degrees and Los Angeles is traffic-hazed and humid. But here within her personal office (its style low-key contemporary, but with just a hint of boudoir) there is the low hum of air-conditioning. All is cool and calm.

An hour earlier, the woman sitting across from me was energetic and smiling, clicking around in high-heeled mules, executing the occasional curtsey to underline the irony of being so very rich, so very famous, and yet busy in acts of mock-servitude - fetching me a glass of water, finding exactly the right track on a CD. But now (unsurprisingly, since she is so heavily pregnant) she is tiring. Is tired. But still smiling.

When I was invited by her assistant to walk from the reception area at Maverick, her very own record label, past the ranks of employees' desks and into the expensive twilight of this room, I imagined I was to be left alone to hear the music in question. The star, I assumed, would arrive later or, if already nearby, would choose exactly the right moment at which to make her entrance. But on rounding a corner and passing through a doorway, I came face to face with a lemon-haired woman, perhaps in her early thirties, who was grinning at some private amusement and who extended her hand.

I wondered who she was and, because my own hands weren't free, simply smiled back and said Hello. "Hello to you," she said in reply. "I'm Madonna."

I'd brought flowers. Old-fashioned, pale-coloured, discreet, not too big, the bouquet was exactly what I'd asked for. But because of the heat, and because in my anxiety to get things right I'd quoted an extravagant figure, the florist had responded by delivering it ready-arranged in a beautiful blue glass bowl, full almost to the brim with water. And so, on finding myself face-to-face with Madonna, my arms full of flowers, not only was I unable to accept her handshake but water from the still-overfilled bowl was dripping down my right trouser leg. I looked like an incontinent.

She didn't seem to mind, swooped on the arragement with exclamations of pleasure, invited me to make myself comfortable, and then played me selections from the soon-to-be-released soundtrack to Evita - first a new song written especially for her by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, then her version of Don't Cry For Me, Argentina (she plays Eva Peron in the film). Her voice is left wholly exposed by self-important, unremittingly showbiz arrangements and yet is oddly impressive, strong and true. But as the opening bars of the second track filled the room, she had pirouetted away because, "Right now, I don't care if I never hear this song again." As it finished, she returned, confident on her heels despite her pregnancy, interested in what a man in wet trousers had to say about her version, and all the while giving me ample opportunity to admire her head-to-toe Versace.

Madonna, at 38, looks like no mother-to-be I have ever seen. One of the world's most body-conscious women, she remains impressively taut and toned: her upper torso and limbs are as thin as ever and her face, though perhaps enlivened, is otherwise unchanged. But beneath the cobweb stiches of a small black-knit bolero, beneath the dull pink film and frills of a transparent baby doll dress, low on her stomach but now very large, lies the evidence of her unborn daughter. One of the world's most famous women is famously pregnant and very soon to give birth.

"I'm hiding it," she had giggled, pulling waves of material down across the bump and towards her knees, when first she sat down. But as our interview progressed and she forgot herself, she relaxed into ever-more comfortable positions. Right now, the elegantly-shod feet are wide apart and her hands gently support the weight of her child. From time to time, unconsciously almost, she runs a thumb gently across her lower belly, as if to soothe the baby's brow.

MADONNA discovered she was pregnant when, having completed the Buenos Aires leg of filming for Alan Parker's much-anticipated release, she stopped off in New York, en route to a further round of shooting in Budapest. "There'd been moments in Argentina when I'd felt a bit seasick but it was very hot, we were shooting outdoors, the food was bad and everyone was complaining of upset stomachs. I just thought I was feeling the same thing as the rest of the team. Then I went to see a doctor ... Yes, you could have knocked me down with a feather."

It seems like you've been talking of potential motherhood for quite some time, I say. The observation makes Madonna, serene only a moment ago, sit bolt upright as if insulted. This switch in demeanour will occur several times during our conversation, and always when she imagines (wrongly) that there is some accusatory subtext to a question. For although highly articulate, open to a degree unusual among celebrities I have met and, ultimately, very likeable, she is also unusual in making absolutely no attempt to ingratiate herself professionally beyond the standard courtesies. The signal she sends out is an entirely fair one: I will respect you if you respect me.

"It's not something I've been consciously trying to achieve for some time," she then allows. "But for some reason, a couple of years ago people started to press me about when I was going to have children - part of a smear campaign almost, certainly in America."

A smear campagin?

"Yes, I think they were trying to use it against me. 'Oh, she can't even have the baby that she wants.' In answer to the question in interviews, I'd always say, "Well, of course, I want to some time soon ...' So perhaps it seems like there was this huge period of time when I was wishing for it, but actually I was just responding to everybody's nosy enquiries."

But once you knew, did the fact of your pregnancy feel as good as you'd imagined? Having made her point, she is friendly again and grins. "Well, it scared the shit out of me. I certainly wasn't planning for it to happen when it did. I had more than enough things to worry about, just getting through the movie. On top of all that, to take on board motherhood? It was like, 'Oh God, this is the last thing I need. I don't want to do anything that could sabotage the film.' But everyone involved has been so supportive of me and I was so prepared for what I was doing in my work that, in the end, everything's been fine."

The father of the child is said to be a 29-year-old fitness trainer, Carlos Leon. Tabloid reports have suggested variously that the relationship is flimsy at best, doomed at worst; that he has been unfaithful to her consistently throughout the pregnancy; that he is actually no more than a sperm donor to her - handsome and in prime physical condition, therefore a source of good seed. Does such speculation upset her?
Madonna looks at me long and hard. The words she chooses in reply do not quite answer the question but, in the not-doing-so, perhaps tell us what we need to know.

"It's all just part of the view the media likes to have of me," she says eventually. "That I'm not a human being. That I don't have any feelings and don't really care for people. That I'm just ambitious, cold and calculating. It's all just part of the image that unhappy people like to construct for me. I'm not surprised by it."

So you have a genuine, on-going relationship with Leon. "Yes. Uh-huh."

And those reports that you made him sign an agreement forfeiting all paternal rights to the child? An impatient sigh, then: "Just one of the nonsense things that people who don't know anything about it like to invent about something which, quite truthfully, has nothing to do with them. I'm incredibly offended by it. It's nobody's business what kind of relationship I'm having and what I plan to do."

I am, perhaps, on shaky ground now: these are personal questions and she may well say I have no right to ask them. But few public figures have made themselves, well, quite so public as she, so I am emboldened. "You've admitted, in a previous interview, to having had abortions," I begin hesitantly. "I wonder if the fact of being happily pregnant, of feeling a wanted child growing inside of you, makes you feel differently about those earlier choices?"

She answers quietly and slowly, appearing not to be offended at all.

"You always have regrets when you make those kind of decisions, but you have to look at your lifestyle and ask, 'Am I at a place in my life where I can devote a lot of time to being the really good parent I want to be?' None of us wants to make mistakes in that role, and I imagine a lot of us look at the way our parents raised us and say, 'I definitely wouldn't want to do it quite that way.' I think you have to be mentally prepared for it. If you're not, you're only doing the world a disservice by bringing up a child you don't want."

You don't get the occasional feeling that, were I to have made a different choice at a particular time, I might already have a son or daughter of five, 10, or whatever age?'"

"Yes. But you know what? Things happen when they're meant to happen and if it comes along again (the chance of parenthood) and you're ready, you'll do it. And that's all there is to it."

So you feel more evolved as an individual, more able to be a good mother, than at any time in your past? "Most certainly. Absolutely."

MADONNA was six years old when her own mother died of cancer and she, her four brothers and two sisters were brought up in Catholic, working class Michigan by a father she will be seeing again the day after she and I meet. "He's anxious to see me with this extra weight on my body," she grins. "One of my brothers is getting married and I'm going home for the wedding, so at last he'll get his chance. He's thrilled for me, as are all my family."

Commenatators have consistently used as grist to the mill this absence of an ongoing maternal role model in her life. It's what causes her to be a relentless high-achiever, they say. It explains why she so demands the spotlight, both in her career and in her private life. It's why she must be the object of total emotional and erotic thrall, both for her audiences and for any man she becomes involved with. She herself feels the theory is overworked. "I have lots of friends who have mothers, yet who are completely consumed by their work and who don't want a family. A lot of women are, like me, waiting until they're in their late thirties to have children. Possibly the absence of my mother has made me want to have a child even more than I would otherwise have done, in order to understand the make-up of a relationship I didn't really know. But ... there were a lot of other things I wanted to do first."

Having exerted such control over her body in the past (it is a nice irony that so avid an exerciser should be made pregnant by her personal trainer), Madonna admits it required a considerable mental adjustment to accept it being taken over by something - someone - else. "Some days are great. You feel really good and have the best feeling about how you look. Then on other days you look in the mirror and just go, 'Ugh. I'm a whale.' So when you find yourself getting tired after walking up just a couple of flights of stairs, you can only go, 'God, this is so-oo different!' It's temporary too though, and what you get for a very small amount of suffering is quite worth it, I'd say."

But she speaks (as obviously I do myself) as someone who has not been through labour ... Madonna raises her hands to her ears at this point, as if to block out a persistent clamour. 'I know! I know!' she laughs. "And I'm all prepared for more suffering. I've had so many people tell just what I'm in for that by this point I'm like, 'Enough! No more horror stories, thank you very much!'"

She learnt the sex of her child early in the pregnancy and says she had no prior preference for a boy or a girl. "It's a big mistake to wish for something. I think God gives you what you're supposed to have." And she denies that she has already chosen a name, the reported Lola or any other. "No. I need to see her first."

I ask if she knows Philip Larkin's poem This Be The Verse and, because she doesn't, I quote her its opening lines: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to, but they do/ They fillyou with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you." She claps her hands, laughs out loud, then nods her head to acknowledge the truth behind its words: that a child is a blank canvas on which can be imprinted all of a parent's limitations and neuroses, as well as its good qualities. Yes, she says, that aspect of motherhood concerns her.

"It's a huge responsibility. But I think the best way to be a good parent and role model is to be happy - with yourself, with what you do in your life. I think that, a lot of times, the big mistake parents make is that they don't ever really do what they want for themselves. They grow up, have their kids, then either live vicariously through them, pushing them to do the things they never could, or else they're bitter about something and keep them down so as not to highlight their own lack of accomplishment. I think it all starts with your own happiness and self-esteem, your self-possession, and then radiates out from there. We've all seen it. A child who are raised by parents who are happy is different from one who's raised by those who aren't, and who are bitter."

All else apart, any child of Madonna's is going to be brought up in an atmosphere of great privilege, I say. But won't it also be a rather tough thing, being the daughter of a music icon? "Why?" she demands. Well, because of the way in which she will be subjected to media scrutiny, of course.

"Let the media scrutinise. But they're not going to have access to her in the way that they have to me. I'm not going to drag her out in front of the world to be photographed. I'm not going to exploit her in any way, shape or form. I want her to have as normal a life as possible. Yes, on the one hand, she will have a privileged upbringing because I, her mother, consider myself to be a very evolved, intelligent human being." (I had actually been referring to material privilege but Madonna chooses another interpretation). "But she's still going to clean her room, make her bed and do all those kind of things. And I'm not just going to send her away to boarding school either. I guess I'm just not as worried about that aspect of things as everyone else seems to be. I'll find a way."

I wonder, then, if she views personal security for her child as a particular concern, given that she had to testify in a Los Angeles court in 1994 to get action against one among a string of men who have attempted to stalk or unwantedly approach her? "I don't live in fear," she says firmly, curtailing further discussion of the subject, "and I don't think my daughter will do either."

At this point, it's clear Madonna feels I have explored fully enough the potentially negative aspects of what she views - quite naturally - to be a wholly positive experience. In placation, I ask if she is enjoying pregnancy enough to think she might want to have more than one child, possibly lots? "Yes, I do want to have several children," she says, softening again. "Definitely. I love them and have spent a good deal of my life taking care of them." Then she laughs heartily. "Grown-up children, that is. So you could say I've had enough practice."

GROWN-UP CHILDREN? Sean Penn, whom she married in 1985 when just 26 years old, and whom she divorced four years later? Warren Beatty, with whom she had a much-publicised romance? Or those other, less famous and, usually, significantly younger men with whom she began to be linked once her own celebrityhood/ notoriety spiralled off into the media stratosphere, at which point equals-on-an-equal-footing was no longer an achievable option? Did she really play the predator in affairs with model Tony Ward, baseball star Dennis Rodman and poet-musician Henry Rollins, or in a reportedly unsuccessful come-on to actor Rufus Sewell?

The newspaper clippings maintain she did, portraying Madonna as an increasingly desperate individual, abasing herself in the search for, if not sexual and emotional fulfillment, at least a father for her child. (If this theory is correct, Carlos Leon would seem to represent its apotheosis). She herself would say that such speculation reeks of sexism, is an example of how society stereotypes women who achieve wealth and fame on their own terms. The fall-out from her iconography all of us, and perhaps men especially, are liable to have a wildly cartoon-like image of her. Doesn't that make new relationships all but impossible to form?

"I agree that men don't know what to expect from me, in a dating sense at least. In fact, most people have had so many things about me rammed into their subconscious that, by the time they meet me, they can't predict what on earth I'm going to be like."

So they shrivel up, back away, fail to interact with her?

"If they do, why would I want to have anything to do with them? That doesn't just apply to men but to friends, the women that I meet. One always hopes to find someone who has a good sense of their own self and who empowers themself by their own accomplishments, so that you can operate with them on an equal level."

But I wait in vain for even the smallest expression of love for Leon - if not verbal then at least the hint of a smile at the mention of his name - or of her instinct for coupledom with him. Nothing. And this nothingness, contrasted with the ocean of tenderness for that extension of herself growing within ("You become immortal when you have children," she tells me at one point), makes me wonder if now she is just too strong, too self-sufficient, ever to allow a man really to share her life.

When I ask if marriage retains any sanctity for her, and if she might like to marry again, she admits to strong feelings about the estate itself but uncertainty as to its relevance to her own current situation. "I don't think marriage is a religious thing. It's an economic thing. It's more about money than anything else. It evolved out of women not being able to take care of themselves financially and so having to become a man's possession, promising to love, honour and obey him. So I don't know what I think about marriage any more, other than that it's an institution which grew out of a very sexist way of thinking and living."

But there can have been no financial imperative for her to marry Penn who, although at the time a successful young actor, had an earning potential significantly less than her own?

"True, but I was also younger and I hadn't thought things through properly," she smiles. "I don't know if I believe in it any more. I don't know what function it could have in my life. Because if I love someone and want to be with them, there isn't a piece of paper or a ceremony in the world that is going to keep me away from them. And if I don't want to be with them, the reverse applies. I think marriages are more about what society expects from you than about what God does. Are you married? Yes? Oh, sor-ree!"

WHILE SHE enjoys my blushes, I ask about one particular related statement attributed to her in a past interview: namely, that she had never been as mistreated within any relationships as in those she had had with black men. Given that the entertainment industry is so hobbled by political correctness, I was surprised she had actually said this, if indeed she did. "Well, I don't want to name any names or get specific," she says, uncertainly.

Well, could she at least say if there had been much reaction to her comment? "Not much, truthfully. Maybe people just thought I was qualified to speak. I don't know if it's that black men have a problem in relation to women, or just in relation to white women. I'm not really sure, though I've tried to form all sorts of opinions about it and really figure it out. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they've been so downtrodden in our society that it's really difficult for them to treat anyone with respect. And perhaps because of what I, a white woman with money and in control, represented to them, there was an unconscious need to humiliate me. A double misogyny? A reverse racism? Whatever.

"I think that black men, certainly in America, are probably more narrow-minded than any other group I can think of. They're incredibly homophobic and sexist. There's such a huge fear factor and maybe a lot of it has to do with the fact that they haven't had the same chances as we white people to be educated or exposed to things that make you more evolved. That's really the main reason why I said what I said."

Her hands are supporting her stomach more firmly now It is clear she's growing tired. Wrapping up the conversation, she remarks how pregnancy immediately reorders your priorities, makes you see everything in a different light. "In the end, the most important thing right now is her, not me," she says, caressing the bump. "That fact trivialises all the other silly little things that used to bother me, like the nasty stuff people said about me in the newspapers. It's like a built-in bliss factor. You can just go, 'So what?' Which is great. It regulates everything."

Playing devil's advocate, but also to discover her reaction to it, I recite the last verse of that Larkin poem: "Man hands on misery to man/ It deepens like a coastal shelf/ Get out as early as you can/ And don't have any kids yourself."

Madonna looks at me carefully, asks if I have any children of my own and, when I say no, gives me a significant look. "Well, go have some," she instructs and then giggles, making as if to push me out of the door. "You don't know what you're missing, so get to it. Go on! Hurry! Go forth and multiply!"

Copyright © 2012 Alan Jackson

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