Interviews & Articles


Madonna: The Last American Hero

  She ditches TV, makes a sit-com appearance, and explains both female rage and her love of costumes. [Mon. May 05.2003]


In an exclusive interview at her London home, Madonna bares her soul about the joys and challenges of marriage and motherhood and her very personal, and provocative, view of faith.

By Jeanne Marie Laskas


On a crisp spring afternoon in London, Madonna’s house is filled with the scents and sounds of Saturday. A yummy dish spiced with apples is cooking in the kitchen, laughter is drifting down from upstairs and Madonna’s 8-year-old daughter, Lourdes ("Lola”), is running around excitedly in a back room. "Look how cool, Mommy!” she is saying eagerly. "Isn’t this cool?"

The house is straight out Mary Poppins, grand and old with gloriously high ceilings and massive woodwork painted elegant black, situated in a quintessentially British neighborhood within kite-flying distance of Hyde Park. A lone vase of fresh-cut red roses sits beneath a majestic museum-quality oil painting in the foyer, where a member of Madonna’s staff has asked me to wait. The feel of this place, which was entirely renovated by Madonna, is decidedly more European manor than Material Girl McMansion. Could this be the sign of yet another new Madonna?

Happily married to second husband, Guy Ritchie, for four years, Madonna, 46, has found in marriage and parenthood the most satisfying second act of her life. The mother of two, with son Rocco now a 4-year-old learning to play chess with his dad, Madonna is a devout student of the ancient Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah, a spiritual quest she credits for her decision to start writing children’s books. Her first, The English Roses, became an international bestseller in 2003, and she is just now releasing her fifth, Lotsa de Casha. She donates all her profits from the books to the Spirituality for Kids Foundation, an education and outreach arm of the Kabbalah Centre.

"Hello,” she says casually, quietly appearing in the foyer. She’s dressed in a navy-blue workout suit, Nikes and a trucker’s cap pulled tight over her head, shadowing her eyes and a face unadorned with makeup. In person, and even in this unambitious outfit, she is beautiful, perhaps even more so than she appears on film and video. She has a chiseled bone structure, creamy skin and wide, intelligent blue eyes.

She leads me to her office, a spacious room strewn with manuscripts from her children’s books and featuring big windows that open to a lush garden courtyard. This, she says, is where she spends most of her time when the kids are in school and Guy is off working on his movie projects. The couple also have homes in Los Angeles, New York City and the English countryside, but London is where the business of raising her family happens.

We sit together for hours, while she casually wraps her legs in a lotus position. (She is perfectly fit and famously flexible from years of yoga.) She ponders each of my questions carefully, seriously, and occasionally gets lost in thought while toggling or chewing on her zipper. It occurs to me that this Madonna isn’t so much reinvented as she is reintegrated. Having almost single-handedly redefined pop culture in the 1980s and 1990s, the Madonna of the new millennium is softer, wiser—an artist with a social conscience, a spiritual seeker refusing easy answers. This Madonna is every bit as powerful as the old one, but—look out, world!—this one has a purpose.

Madonna: You’ll join me in some tea? You’ve come to London, you must have tea!

Interviewer: Of course! Can you tell me how you came to decide to live in London?

Madonna: I moved her for love. Yeah, no other reason. I never thought in a million years I’d live in London. In fact, I quite disliked the place for a while. When I first started coming here, when I was just starting out my career as a singer, the press was so terrible to me. In those days I paid attention to what people wrote about me, and it hurt my feelings. So this was always a place I’d get in and out of as quickly as possible. Then I met my husband. I realized that if I didn’t live here, I wouldn’t get to see him very much. We had a long-distance relationship for a year where we would both take turns going back and forth to see each other, and I would be in Los Angeles making a film, or New York, and he’s come, but it was very inconsistent. The way I looked at it is, I’ve established my career already, and I have the ability and the freedom to move wherever I want, whereas my husband doesn’t. I thought, somebody has to make a compromise. He was a filmmaker, working mostly in London. It just seemed like it was my move to make, which I did. Then I just fell in love with London, and Guy started taking me to the countryside and I started to actually feel comfortable here. When I’d be in America for a while, I’d start to really miss London, so now I prefer being here. Funny the way things turned out.

Interviewer: But don’t you sometimes miss the good old USA?

Madonna: I kind of like that I’m a Yank in England—I like being a fish out of water. They’re not really interested in spoiling you here if you’re a celebrity. I feel like I get left alone here. I ride my bike, I put my hat on, and I feel more free here. I go to Hyde Park, I ride to the recording studio, I ride to my friend’s house.

Interviewer: Do you remember first meeting Guy? What was your initial attraction to him?

Madonna: He has a great wit—that’s the first thing I noticed when I met him, his incredible sense of humor and his use of language—I found that very attractive. He made me laugh, but he was funny in a clever way, not in an obvious way. He made me think. He’s very well read, very curious, inquisitive.

Interviewer: You once said that marriage is both harder and better than you’d ever expected. What did you mean by that?

Madonna: Marriage is hard. No one can prepare you—maybe they can, but I didn’t grow up with a mother, you know, someone to give me her insight about what married life was going to be. When you’re married, you can’t run away. I mean, you can run way, but that’s not my style. I’m not a quitter. It’s taken me a long time to realize what the whole point of marriage is, and I don’t think it has anything to do with our romantic notions—like walks together, and sending flowers to one another, and bringing up children together. Those are all manifestations, but the whole point of marriage is for each and every one of us to learn how to get along with one person, and to learn to love that person unconditionally. And if you can do it with one person, then your whole attitude toward the world and humanity can change. It’s easier to have unconditional love for your children. They’re young and they’re cute, and they get away with it. Somehow, when a grown-up behaves badly or immaturely, you immediately find yourself making little lists—okay, I’m writing that down, I’m going to remember you did that. "The list where you irritated me is getting longer!” That’s what I do.

Interviewer: So you’re the type who will confront your husband when something is wrong?

Madonna: Yes. If I have a problem, I want to work it out, right now. My husband is like, "I don’t want to talk about it right now. I need to think about it. Let’s talk about it in two days.” Two days? No! I have to be right now! I have to prove that you’re wrong now! Sometimes I need to learn to bite my tongue. And that’s the whole give-and-take about marriage—you don’t always get your way. And let’s face it—until you get married, you get your way. Once you get married, you suddenly have to think of somebody else before you make decisions, before you speak. That’s about putting your ego in check, about growing up and about putting somebody else in front of you. Marriage is a tool for each and every one of us to ultimately make the world a better place. Because if you can get along with your husband or wife, and work toward loving them unconditionally, chances are you’re going to be a lot more compassionate and a lot less judgmental toward your fellow man.

Interviewer: Do you feel that this time you married for the right reason, whereas you didn’t with your first marriage, to Sean Penn?

Madonna: Oh, yeah. I wasn’t even thinking when I got married last time, I was just thinking, Oh, you’re so talented, you’re so cute! It was all excitement. I’d just become famous, the whole thing was crazy. He’s a brilliant man and all, but I wasn’t thinking past my nose. I was 26. We were both forces to be reckoned with. I wasn’t interested in making compromises—I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. And he wanted to do what he wanted to do. When I got married this time, I’d already had two children, and I was very clear what my priorities were. Making my marriage and my children and my spiritual life work are my priorities.

Interviewer: Can you talk about your early days of motherhood and how it changed you?

Madonna: Motherhood was the beginning of my own journey asking the question, Why am I here? I had to stop and think: What am I going to teach my daughter? What do I believe in? I don’t even know what I believe in, and if I don’t know, how am I going to teach my daughter anything? What have I been put on this earth for? What’s the whole point of life? What’s important, what isn’t important? Is there life beyond this physical world we live in? Everything. When I started asking, a teacher appeared, and my husband appeared. Everything kind of came at the same time, when I decided to pull my head out of my ass—forgive my vulgarity. But I decided to think beyond my career, beyond what I did for myself as an artist. I was into freedom of speech, freedom of expression, women’s rights, and that’s all great. But that’s one tiny little percentage of the world out there that needs to be explored, and I wasn’t really dealing with the big picture. Motherhood was my triggering point for trying to understand the meaning of life.

Interviewer: As a child, were you introduced to any of these big-picture questions?

Madonna: I was raised in a very Catholic house. So religion was a big part of my life—going to school, reading the Bible, praying to Jesus, going to confession, thinking about good, bad, what’s a sin, what’s an original sin, what’s a venial sin, but that’s all morals and ethics. Morals and ethics change depending on what corner you’re standing one, and to me, don’t answer the bigger questions. Also, religion requires you to be a sheep, and to not dig deep. I never really got a lot of my questions answered, so consequently, I just sort of moved away from religion. My mother was a very religious person, and my father still is. He’s a very decent person, but I don’t think all religious people are decent. I think they hide behind the cloak of being religious—they don’t have compassion for their fellow men, they’re judgmental of people who are not their religion, and I don’t subscribe to any of that. I studied Hinduism, I was searching for all of these things right before I got pregnant. Then when I was pregnant, the desire to try to understand became even more apparent. And when I met my husband, he was searching, too, but he was searching from an intellectual point of view, he was reading theories of evolution, and the Big Bang, physics and science of how did the world really get created. He was approaching it from an intellectual point of view, and I was approaching it from an intuitive and emotional point of view, which is the essential difference between men and women anyway. We met each other at the perfect time—he grew up, like me, wanting to break all the rules. Why did we want to break all the rules? Because the rules didn’t make sense, that’s why. The rules didn’t give any answers, so I was being rebellious for no particular reason, and so was he, in his way. I don’t reject the idea that Jesus Christ walked on this earth, and He was a divine being, and He had a very important message to bring to the world, but I reject the religious behavior of any religious organization that does not encourage you to ask questions and do your own exploration. Nobody can make sense of the world we live in these days. You read about wars, you read about the senseless killings, and the famines, and the AIDS epidemics, and you think, where is this all going? What’s the point? Why did God create this world if we’re all selfish and are going to cause our own destruction and extinction? Why doesn’t anybody want to know that—that’s what amazes me. We live in a society that encourages people to just live, base all decisions on what we see—everything is about marketing, advertising. We are raised to believe the world begins and ends with our five senses. No one is encourage to have a spiritual life—if you want to have a spiritual life now, you’re considered a geek or a weirdo, or you’re a religious zealot or a nut. We live in a world that’s full of distractions and tinsel and things that are going to constantly distract us from looking inward. So you’re always at odds with yourself. I do care about the state of my soul. But there’s this great movie playing down the street … or There’s a football game I want to watch. And we are constantly bombarded with this seduction of the senses.

Interviewer: Of course you spent a lot of your career seducing our senses. You were part of the machinery—the engine—creating our pop culture. Do you now say, "I was a distraction”?

Madonna: Yeah, I know I was. Definitely. Listen, there were some times I really had an altruistic goal, I really did want to help people. And then other times, I just wanted to show off—let’s call a spade a spade. And I knew I could get away with it, and I knew I could get people to pay attention to me. Do I think I helped people? Yeah, I do. Do I think I hindered people? Yes I do. I wasn’t really clear on what I was doing yet, my point of view. I wasn’t thinking responsibility, I wasn’t thinking everything I say and do has an effect on the world around me. Sometimes now I sit back and say, What was I thinking before I was thinking, you know?

Interviewer: How did you help people and how did you hinder them?

Madonna: I helped people who got my message, 10 or 15 years ago, to believe in your dreams, and to not let anybody get in the way. If you’re really passionate about something, no matter where you are, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done or where you’ve come from, just go for it. I think that helped a lot of people. I hurt people by confusing them. Sometimes I was being overtly sexual for the sake of showing off, when I didn’t need to be. One minute I was saying believe in yourself, and the next I was saying just be sexually provocative for the sake of being sexually provocative. Now that’s confusing. Ultimately, none of us wants to be judged or approved of or loved because of the way we look or how sexy we are. We want people to appreciate us for who we are on the inside. So I didn’t exactly help people by being an exhibitionist. I think I hurt myself, too, because I ended up devaluing my original message, that anybody could do anything—it’s about what’s on the inside. Then I was glorifying the outside. I was just a person who was not thinking. I let myself be tricked. Yeah, be tricked—by the physical world, knowing I was getting attention, letting it pump up my ego. Aren’t I great, they’re writing about me, my picture’s on the cover of every magazine, I’m so fabulous. I wasn’t saying those things out loud, but deep down inside, they were there.

Interviewer: You’ve been very open about how drawn you’ve become to the study of Kabbalah, an ancient spiritual quest that teaches principles of personal responsibility, and keeping the ego in check, and giving—all of which are principles shared by many of the world’s religions. So, why Kabbalah?

Madonna: It is not a religion—it’s a belief system. You can come from any religious background to study Kabbalah, but it’s too weird for people, too foreign. They can’t get their heads around it, so they have to devalue it by saying it’s a trend or a cult. All this nonsense about how only celebrities are into it just makes me laugh, because to say you’re a Kabbalist, there’s nothing easy about it. It’s not enough just to read a book. You have to change, and the only way you can change your nature is to constantly, constantly study.
Interviewer: It’s a belief system that’s been around for thousands and thousands of years, so how could anyone access this wisdom by approaching it as fashionable?

Madonna: It isn’t until you’ve been studying for several years before you can let it inform your life. That’s why I started writing children’s books. I can assure you, five years ago—and I’ve been studying for nine years—there’s no way I would’ve said, I’m going to write kids’ books and give all the money away to charity. That’s not anything that was ever in my agenda. It took me a long time before I could go from the girl sitting in the back of the class [at the Kabbalah Centre], wowed by all the information, keeping notes to thinking, there is a point to this life, now I know why there’s chaos and suffering and pain in the world, and I actually can do something about it, and the world doesn’t revolve around me. It takes a lot of time, and you need to be with somebody who’s also interested in it, because you can’t be in a relationship where you are going down that road on your own. It felt really good to publish a book and to know it got into the hands of lots of kids, and to start reading letters from children who read The English Roses and said, "You know, when I read your book it made me think of how horrible me and my girlfriends were to this girl in school.” I thought, it’s so cool I’m helping kids, and I never thought I’d be doing that. I like the idea that people can change, and that everybody has to go through a painful process before they can realize that they’re idiots. I’ve written a sequel to The English Roses, and that’s going to be my thing, I’m going to keep writing sequels and start an English Roses thing—my ultimate goal is to have a TV series, in episodes, each one having to do with girls finding themselves in challenging situations.

Interviewer: That’s interesting, especially since I’ve read that you don’t let your own kids watch TV. Is that true?

Madonna: True. My kids don’t watch TV—we have TV’s, but they’re not hooked up to anything but movies.

Interviewer: Your kids don’t say, "Oh please, Mom?”

Madonna: No.

Interviewer: They’ve never had TV?

Madonna: No. TV is trash. I was raised without it. I didn’t miss anything. TV is poison. No one even talks about it around here. It’s like a moot point. We don’t have magazines or newspapers in the house, either.

Interviewer: Do you feel you have to censor some of the racier entertainment you’ve been famous for from your daughter?

Madonna: She doesn’t come to me and ask me much. She knows I’m a singer. She’s seen me on stage performing. She knows I made videos for MTV, but she doesn’t watch it, so she doesn’t ask any questions. My kids have my records and play them once in a while, but they’re sick of my music. They come see my shows all the time, but who wants to hear my music in this house? I don’t want to hear it. They both like listening to music. They play disco tag every night and they dance while they’re playing tag. My son is quite an imaginative dancer. It’s a fun game. There’s a whole performance involved, and you dance, and you’re supposed to fake the other person out that you’re not interested in tagging them by dancing. We all play—I play, my husband, the nanny. It’s fun. Every night before bed. My so uses all his adrenaline and then passes out—that’s a good night.

Interviewer: What kind of mom would you say you are?

Madonna: I’m the disciplinarian. Guy’s the spoiler. When Daddy gets home, they’re going to get chocolate. I’m a more practical person—I worry about their teeth, and make sure they’re taking care of themselves, and my daughter’s hygiene is good, what they wear, making sure they’re getting schoolwork done. That is not my husband’s area of expertise. He’s the fun guy. He takes them out once a week to this kids’ restaurant, and they go into the kitchen and make pizzas and draw on the tablecloths, and they have disco balls and really loud music, and that was his idea—I never would’ve thought of it. I’m doctor’s appointments, lessons, homework. I’m the boring one—I do all the necessary stuff, and he does all the fun stuff.

Interviewer: Is this how you imagined parenting to be?

Madonna: Yeah, because I’m a very disciplined person. I’m very scheduled, I make lists, I stick to the plan. We’re totally opposite. Guy is Mr. Spontaneous. My husband does all sorts of things—he’s teaching Rocco how to play chess right now—he’s a chess junkie, my husband. And he plays soccer with them—we have a house in the countryside, and we have horses and chickens—he’s just more into doing wild stuff, outside, taking them out on bikes. He’s good cop, I’m bad cop.

Interviewer: So, as the disciplinarian, do you have any good tricks?

Madonna: I just take things away. I take privileges away. They get to watch movies every Sunday, so if they’re naughty, they get their movie taken away. They have to be particularly naughty for that one—if they’re just a little naughty, then no stories before bed. My daughter has a problem picking up in her room, so if you leave your clothes on the floor, they’re going to be gone when you come home. So we’ve gone through periods of almost emptying her room—we take all of her clothes and put them in a trash bag, and they get stuck somewhere, and she has to earn all of her clothes back, by being tidy, picking up her room, making her bed in the morning, hanging up her clothes, stuff like that. We also have a little bit of a homework issue with her—she goes in an out of doing it—after about 20 minutes, she’s had enough and she’s not doing it anymore. We try to give incentives. If she gets her homework done, then she gets to play a computer game, which she loves.

Interviewer: Do you find that raising a boy is different from raising a girl?

Madonna: Yeah, way different. Girls care a lot more about the way they look than boys do. That’s problematic—we have at least three tantrums a week. Lola’s been like that since she was 4. Very into clothes and the way she looks—it gets worse as they get older. But we have a motto: Clothes are not worth crying about. So if you’re going to throw a tantrum about your clothes, they’re going to get taken away. So we have gotten down to one outfit; she wears the same outfit every day to school until she learns her lesson, and then she calms down, and can go back to being normal in the morning when we get ready for school. I hope my son doesn’t turn out like that—it doesn’t seem like it. He likes to play soccer, chess, play Uno, all card games, board games. Card games like Yu-Gi-Oh! They usually involve superheroes or some kind of violence.

Interviewer: Do you have an ideal of what kind of man he’ll grow into?

Madonna: I just want him to be … curious and inquisitive. I never want him to take no for an answer. I don’t want him to settle for mediocrity. I want him to ask questions and never stop until he gets the answers. I want him to be compassionate toward other human beings. For my daughter, it’s exactly the same.

Interviewer: Does Lola remind you of yourself as a little girl?

Madonna: I was way more scared of my father as an authority figure, and way more respectful—I would never talk back to my parents, ever. My daughter is not that way at all. Certain aspects of her are like me—she’s a show girl. She loves to dance, to perform, she’s not shy at all. She walks into a room, she’ll talk to anybody, she’s very gregarious.

Interviewer: Do you think of yourself as being the same type of mom as your own mother was?

Madonna: No. My mother died when I was 6, so there’s not a lot I remember. But I know she was very affectionate, nai"ve. She was very young and religious, and she didn’t have any expectations of herself other than to be a good mother, and a good wife. That’s very different with me.

Interviewer: Do you feel any sort of spiritual connection with her now?

Madonna: [She falls silent for a while, looking down, balancing her chin on her bent knee.] I don’t know. My mother was a religious zealot, a Catholic—there were always nuns and priests in my house growing up. I don’t know how curious my mother was, how much she pushed to know what was going on behind the curtain, and that’s my personality—I want to know what’s going on behind what I can see. I’ve read some letters she’d written. My mother was certain she was doing the right thing, so maybe we have that in common. I think about her, but she’s an ideal—she’s not really a reality. She’s an energy—I feel she’s there, somewhere, but it’s kind of intangible. Now that I’m a mother, I know more what it was like to be her. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like for her to be dying and have six children. I can’t imagine that feeling of leaving your children and not knowing what’s going to happen to them. I feel her pain now. I understand who my mother was by being a mother. I guess I’m really only getting to know my mother now.

Interviewer: Do you talk to your children about the grandmother they never got to meet?

Madonna: Not with my son so much, he’s too young. But my daughter always says, "Mom, what was it like? Why did she die? Did you miss her? Where did she go?”

Interviewer: On a much lighter note, a lot of people want to know how you stay in such wonderful shape. What do you eat, how do you work out?

Madonna: I eat healthy food—not a vegetarian diet, but I mostly eat fish. I have a cook who came originally to be a macrobiotic chef here in our house, but then we didn’t want to eat strictly macrobiotic anymore. But it’s very similar—whole grains, eating things by season, staying away from food that’s been bioengineered in any way, things that are about to be extinct. She prepares food like really good sushi, great cod or salmon. And vegetables. It doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? It’s got a Japanese flair to it, which is quite nice. We don’t eat any dairy here, we’re a TV- and dairy-free house. I do yoga four days a week, and Pilates two days a week, sometimes three. In the morning, around 11. I have a routine. I get up at 7:30 when the kids get up. They leave at 8:15. My son’s in preschool—they’re both at the same school, she’s in third grade. They get dressed, eat breakfast and go off to school. There are no school buses here so a driver takes them to school. Sometimes my husband takes them to school. I come into my office. I talk to my staff, we talk about what we’re going to do that day—I have several business entities and projects going on. Then I exercise, and after that I go to do the project—my record, my film, my this, my that. No matter what, I always come home to put my kids to bed. Unless there’s a situation, I’m out of town or I can’t come home, my husband does it. We always make sure one of us is here. Then we eat dinner at 9 or 9:30. My husband does jujitsu and doesn’t get done until then, which is irritating. We eat dinner late, we go to bed late, I get up early—not a lot of sleep goes on here. I don’t see a lot of my girlfriends. If anything falls by the wayside, it’s my friends. I stay in contact with them by phone or e-mail, but I don’t have a lot of time. I wish I did, but I don’t. Now my girlfriends are all married and have kids, and they have the same problem, too. They understand. If they don’t have kids, they don’t understand exactly, but that’s their problem. When they do, they will.

Interviewer: Your good friends are Gwyneth Paltrow and Stella McCartney?

Madonna: Gwyneth and Stella are my closest friends here in England. But I have a few others—my sister is a good friend of mine, she lives in Los Angeles. Rosie O’Donnell is a good friend of mine, she lives in New York. I have another really good friend named Monica, she lives in Los Angeles. They’re sprinkled everywhere. Those people I stay in touch with, and sometimes they have to come and kidnap me and force me to go out and have fun, have a drink, chit-chat, stop working. If I have a night off and my husband’s gone somewhere, I just stay home and work. It’s hard for me to stop working, because I have a lot of stuff to do. If I want to make records, and write children’s books, and make films, then I’ve got to work a lot. I hardly ever go out, to parties, even to restaurants. When you have a husband, two kids, and a lot of jobs, you just don’t go out that much. I don’t think I’m missing anything. It’s nice to spend time with friends and catch up, but I’m happy with my choices.

Interviewer: You seem calm, happy.

Madonna: Settled, yeah. I’m more settled than I’ve ever been. I’m more sure about what I’m doing. I feel happy about the things I’ve accomplished. I’m less worried and anxiety-ridden than I used to be. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my moments. Of worry, doubt, pulling my hair out. About career, anything. Am I doing the right thing? Should I be doing this? Is that right? Is it good enough? Will people understand this? Should I take this job, or that job? What am I doing? Sure. But less and less.

Interviewer: Do you ever think about how you want to be remembered?

Madonna: I’m a person who’s searching. I don’t see myself as a holier-than-thou, righteous soul, but I’m a person who’s been through a lot. I’ve lived the highest highs, and the lowest lows. I’ve attained all those things everyone wants to attain, and I’m here to say, it doesn’t mean s---. If you don’t have the other things in your life, than all the money in the world, and all the beautiful children in the world, and all the talented husbands in the world are not going to make you happy. I’m coming from a point of view now, from experience, that I can help people, share what I know. I think about everything I do, how is this going to affect people? What will they get out of this? Am I adding to the chaos of the world—am I part of the problem, or the solution?

 


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