Our Exclusive Madonna Interview
BY Ari Karpel
February 02 2012 5:59 AM ET
Meeting Madonna in person can be a little jarring. For someone so larger-than-life, she's surprisingly petite. Sitting down and launching into conversation, she is disarmingly engaged, and she slouches a bit, like any mere mortal. But she's not, of course. A burly man is guarding the door of the suite at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where she has settled in for the afternoon. And she's dressed eccentrically — black leather fingerless Chanel gloves cover her hands, silver bracelets of varying shapes run up both forearms (and, predictably, a red kabbalah string), and a royal blue asymmetrical shift hugs her taut figure.
Her experience of feeling burned by the press has made her particularly deft at dodging questions, discussing what she wants to discuss. But after a few tangential monologues about duchesses and dowagers, the most famous woman in the world offers a bit of insight into the connection she feels to Wallis Simpson. "It's intriguing because we are raised to believe in the fairy-tale kind of love, that we are going to be swept off our feet by ... you know, in both of our cases, Mr. Right, and our knight in shining armor is going to come along and save us, pick us up, and put us on the back of his beautiful steed, and we're going to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after." She pauses. "God knows, that doesn't happen."
Now she's on a roll. "There are so many things about her. The fact that she said he left his prison" — Madonna's talking about King Edward feeling imprisoned by the monarchy — "only to incarcerate me in a prison of my own." And with that, Madonna answers the question. And doesn't. "In spite of it all, I think she lived her life in a very dignified manner. And she wasn't a victim."
When Madonna first became famous, almost 30 years ago, she was defined by that very quality: She was no victim.
For the gay men who were there in the beginning, when she was shaking it on the dance floors of New York City, the men who reveled in her early hits, Madonna was the ultimate expression of in-your-face sexuality. She was self-possessed and uninhibited. She dressed up for the party, and she took it all off for the after-party.
Her impact wasn't limited to gay men. Madonna boldly toyed with transgender imagery on a grand stage: She co-opted the Harlem drag balls for the "Vogue" video, she featured trans people and cross-dressers of all stripes in her banned "Justify My Love" video, and her coffee-table tome, Sex, posited couples in all sorts of configurations. Her high profile are-they-or-aren't-they friendships with such queer women as Sandra Bernhard, Rosie O'Donnell, and Ingrid Casares as well as her promotion of bisexual artists like Meshell Ndegeocello helped to take queer sensibility into the mainstream.
In the midst of the AIDS crisis, when fear was rampant and gay men were dying at a horrifying rate, Madonna was among the first to take a stand, to say, as she did in the tour documentary Truth or Dare, that it's OK to be a gay man who is openly sexual.
"That it's OK to be gay, period," Madonna says emphatically before launching into an impassioned recounting of her experience of the AIDS onslaught. "I was extremely affected by it. I remember lying on a bed with a friend of mine who was a musician, and he had been diagnosed with this kind of cancer, but nobody knew what it was. He was this beautiful man, and I watched him kind of waste away, and then another gay friend, and then another gay friend, and then another gay friend. They were all artists and all truly special and dear to me."
In retrospect, Madonna sees that as the moment when her sense of self became entangled with that of gay men. "I saw how people treated them differently," she says. "I saw the prejudices, and I think probably I got that confused with, intertwined with, you know, maybe things that...ways that people treated me differently."