It’s a warm night in Athens and there is a gentle wind blowing through the Pictures Restaurant, which is lit by candles, making it a perfect atmosphere for dinner.
My weekend hosts have joined me: the divine Atticus (a self-confessed Greek Diva with oodles of style, wit and charm) and his partner Count Alex, a man you can describe in one word, “Class”: this, and he is a walking encyclopaedia. Plus, Adam, my best pal, had jetted in from Asia. He has just started a course on sex addiction to add to his qualification as a counsellor. You can guarantee that tonight is going to be packed with fascinating conversation, debate and humour and (hopefully) good food.
Nonetheless, it is not too long into the conversation before the M word comes up (NO, not monogamy). Madonna.
She seems to have a way of popping into so many evenings as a subject in my life, and not just among my male gay friends. I have on occasion wanted to say, “LET’S NOT TALK ABOUT MADONNA” but how can we not, when so many of my friends are devotees of The Church of Madonna?
In fairness, Atticus has just managed to obtain a ticket to see Madonna, or her alter ego Madame X, at the London Palladium next year.
“I want to see the whites of my fans’ eyes and get up close and personal – give them something back,” she explained to presenter Rylan Clark on the BBC’s One Show, as an explanation for her choosing to do a theatre tour.
Atticus is sitting in great Royal Circle seats, but I enquire, “Will she be using binoculars to see the whites of your eyes?” He replies, “BITCH!’
A hint of jealousy on my part? No! To be honest I am thrilled for my friends who have tickets, but a little dig is always camp.
The subject stays on Madonna and that rather awkward interview she gave on The Graham Norton Show. Madonna was not the only guest that evening. Director Danny Boyle and actors Lily James and Himesh Patel were also on to chat about their new film, Yesterday. They were on first, and to be truthful I couldn’t wait for them to finish and M to appear. But finally, she appears: the audience goes wild, as do I (though only in my front room).
But for once Madonna looks a little uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the fact she’s dressed as Madam X, complete with a Betty-Davis-inspired eye patch from the film The Anniversary,making her look like she’s arrived at a fancy-dress party and no one else has bothered to make the effort to get a costume.
She was obviously on to promote her ninth number one US album, Madam X. It is her fourteenth studio album and deservedly also her biggest critical success to date, but you have the feeling she wants to go home and change. This sense is fortified when Graham asks her to take a seat and she seems to have problems sitting down on the couch
“I am not used to sitting with this many people. Is there room?” Madonna asks.
Then there’s a problem with the actual costume. “Someone’s tied my corset too tight, my boobs keep popping up,” Madonna points out as she sits down, pulling her jacket over her breasts.
The interview does not go well, and she actually says, when asked “Do you ever get anxious?”:
“Yes, right now.”
It’s a mile away from the fun she seemed to have with Rylan Clark on the BBC One Show. Madonna seemed to adore him. She managed to cap it all by seemingly insulting our “national treasure”, Sir Ian McKellen, by asking what he did.
Though it has been misquoted (she asked what he did on his one-man show), she was vague and rather distant.
“She is an introvert really,” says Atticus, and Adam agrees. They go on to say you can be a performer and still be an introvert.
Yes, I have met many introverts whose drug of choice has been exhibitionism, making them look like extroverts.
Once the mask is dropped for a minute or they’re not comfortable, they can make for awkward conversation, or if in the public eye they can often come over as rude in interviews.
The singer Cher says Madonna is not the best singer or dancer and to quote her, “She has taken straw and spun it into gold”: a little harsh. Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe, both of whom Madonna takes inspiration from, were not the best singers or dancers but their images captured the time and a nation’s heart.
Madonna is a brilliant creative genius who has captured the moments of many of our lives and mirrored them in her songs and her imagery.
Whilst Cher’s songs are pleasant bubble-gum music (despite dishing Madonna she asked her to write for her), Madonna has something to say to us as quoted in the hit song “Express Yourself”. From “Papa Don’t Preach” (talking about abortion) to the current “God Control” (talking about gun control), Madge has never shied away from preaching to us and we have lapped it up.
Madonna has been in my life since my late teens and I have related to her more than most people, as she seemed to be thinking what I was at the most crucial moments of my adult life.
A stunning Amanda Lear performance at Heaven in the early eighties left me spellbound as she entered the stage in white leather on a chauffeured motorbike. Jumping off, she took off her helmet and let fall her thick blonde hair, shortly to be joined by leather-clad male dancers. It was spectacular.
A year later and someone I had never heard of was on at Heaven. Madonna was billed as a New York club-scene darling. She had two dancers and was cute and wore a hat, but she did not have her act polished and certainly seemed to lack the stage presence of Lear. Still, she had something, and she stuck in my mind.
Not that it really compares but I’d just qualified as a hairdresser and was also finding my way and not quite polished, so I guess when she burst into the charts and I recognised her, there was a feeling of “Well done girl”. And I began, like many, to champion her. There was something that she had that’s important in a star – the public related to her quickly. Girls (and some boys) emulated the look: she could be your friend, lover or sister. She was the naughty girl in class we all secretly admired.
Too often, if someone looks too unattainable or perfect, people shy away from them as idols. The critics favoured Cindy Lauper and mocked Madonna’s early performances as she dropped her tambourine or sang off key. Much as Lauper was fun, it was the Material Girl we all wanted to be with.
By 1985, I was a busy hairdresser living in Brighton and a huge fan of Madonna. The number-one hairstyle, due in part to the film Desperately Seeking Susan,was the Madonna look, and my gang saw it several times: the camera just loved her. Apparently, according to the recent Channel 5 documentary, she studied Debbie Harry (Blondie) and the greats Marilyn and Greta Garbo to get that screen look. Those of you who have seen Madonna’s early audition for the movie Fame can see the giant improvement in her technique.
January 1987. I had made it to L.A., California, and my career as a hairdresser had really taken off. People were open and friendly, and it seemed to take only hours before invites to parties arrived, thanks to meeting a man on the plane who lived in Malibu and (to quote him) “knew everyone”.
Madonna’s True Blue album was never off my car radio and Mexican food (something strange in the UK at the time) was fast becoming my favourite.
Having a partner, I stayed away from the Malibu and Laguna beach crowd as I knew it would spell trouble. The mention of a, b, c parties put me off.
We were lucky enough to make friends with a rancher called Very Magnusson, who made us welcome. His ranch grew avocados and he had a sweet, illegal Mexican ranch hand called Ernesto working there and living there. He had a one-room hut covered in Madonna posters. He was full of smiles and hope. I really felt for him, although he spoke no English.
Madonna had released Whose That Girl (the movie and soundtrack) and she was touring. I managed through a friend there to get two tickets, ten rows from the front, to her concert in Anaheim. My partner was not taken with Madonna. So, who to take?
I decided it would be great and a dream to take Ernesto.
Vern seemed shocked. “Are you sure??”
July 18th. .There I am, all excited with Ernesto for Madonna to come on. But there is a problem: the security has checked Ernesto’s ticket for the sixth time and not mine.
“HE IS WITH ME,” I snap. Some of the people in the row are giving looks too.
I am beginning to realise that there’s a real preconceived attitude towards the Latino community in the US.
This is cemented when the man from Malibu comes running up with two friends. “Honey, how fab to see you, who are you with?”
When I say with Ernesto, they actually back off and can’t wait to get away. (There was even a sneering, “How do you know him?”)
Bigotry or hate I cannot abide. Much as anti-LGBTQ behaviour was a day-to-day issue in my life, a person being treated like this because of their race and class had my blood boiling and it was around about the same time that Madonna started telling us all to love one another.
If she had seen how a young Mexican boy was being treated at her concert, she would have told them to do more than “Open your Heart” – the opening song to her Who’s That Girl concert.
Sadly, Ernesto got involved in a local gang and was found dead two years later.
June 1988, and I was in New York, sitting in the front row of the Royale Theatre, about to see Speed the Plow, a three-handed play starring Madonna. I never asked for the front row, but a PR friend booked the seats and thought it would be great.
I was studying acting at Adam Hill in Los Angeles in my spare time, so I was keen to see her stage work.
Madonna comes on with brunette hair, holding a tray. She is visibly shaking (as the glasses on the tray are moving) and it is not part of the play. She is incredibly attractive in the flesh, close up. Sadly, Madonna is like a first-year drama student doing a monologue full of promise but has not yet refined the craft. The critics were lukewarm at best.
But the play is good and a modern classic.
Still, apart from David Bowie when I was 17, it’s the only time I’ve waited to see a celebrity by the stage door. When Madonna came out, eventually, in a chic Chanel suit, she looked straight down and got into the limo. It did make me feel like a stalker. What was I going to say to her if she had stopped? “Fancy a drink, Madonna?”
Later, on a US television interview, she says, “Why do we always listen to the one critic over those that praise us?” It is so true: ten people can say something nice and the one person who is negative or says something of a passive-aggressive nature, I’ll be thinking about for weeks to come.
I never got to see the Blonde Ambition tour live. Still, we all loved the 1991 film Truth or Dare or, as it was known outside the US, In Bed with Madonna.It’s the one where she apparently outs people and demonstrates with the aid of an Evian bottle how to give oral sex.
Her moving speech at the GLAAD Media Awards in May this year, wearing Elizabeth Emmanuel:
“I had no idea it was going to inspire so many gay men to, A, give blow jobs to Evian bottles, or, B, just have the courage to come out and be free and take a stand and say this is who I am, like it or not.”
Sadly, some of the dancers, in my opinion, betrayed her and once their 15 minutes were up, took her to court, as documented in the film, Strike a Pose.
We have all been there: you help someone and they turn on you. There is no doubt she is a taskmaster and a perfectionist, but what an incredible start for anyone in the business. She taught us to forgive and stuck with the format of hiring new talent.
The 1992 coffee-table book Sex had fans queuing up at book shops around the world. Though she came under fire from critics, many saying her career was over, the silver-foil-covered soft-porn book is still a collector’s item.
Much as fetish clubs in New York and London, such as Torture Garden, were springing up, showing us, “a different way to love”, S&M has been around since the start of time. She opened the way for people, and in particular women, to talk about fantasy sex. Though her song “Hanky Panky” from the Dick Traceymovie soundtrack “Breathless” said she just wanted to be spanked, later she retracted this, saying, “Just try it”.
She had us all talking about SEX though, encouraging us not to be afraid of our desires. I still have a framed Madonna Sex cardboard cut-out.
“Erotica” was one of the first tracks she performed at her concert The Girlie Show in London in 1993. My best pal Lester Middlehurst from the Daily Mailwas working on the now defunct Today newspaper and he had VIP press tickets for the show. “Darling, you have to fly over for the weekend at least.”
Not to be ungrateful, there I was in the VIP press area in the gods. I was still at the age, I guess, where I liked to see the whites of the eyes of the performers and be with the crowd. Bless my departed friend, I don’t think he even liked Madonna.
I could write for hours about my experiences relating to Madonna. The second part will have to wait till near her concert time.
Madonna the introvert, the exhibitionist, the good Catholic girl at heart, the mother or lover. There is one thing for sure – she keeps one eye well open at all times when it comes to everything she’s doing, and both feet on the ground.
Where other icons have failed and gone to heaven, you just know the material girl will keep Vogueing on ‘til she drops. Or maybe she will surprise us and “Take a Bow” after this tour.
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