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Oct 30 2023
Understanding Is Love: An Interview With Mary Gabriel About Her Book MADONNA: A REBEL LIFE Comments (0)

Mary-gabriel-madonna-boycultureThe book's cover image is by Deborah Feingold, from the same session that graces the rare 1984 The Quiet Storm Thai magazine. (Image via Little, Brown)

Quiet Storm 84Reading is ... hard. It takes a lot for me, English degree be damned, to sit quietly and read a book. For years, having my constantly active and attention-craving dogs, and then dog, was enough to keep me judging books by their covers alone. Then, I became as addicted to inst-ernet gratification as a person a couple of generational alphabet letters down the line from me.

At some point, I joked that I don't read at all anymore, and I may have even said so to Mary Gabriel, the acclaimed writer who has set her sights on Madonna with her new biography Madonna: A Rebel Life (Little, Brown, October 2023), because she teased me when she sent me a signed copy of her work — “I know you don't read Madonna books. But read this one. You might learn something.”


I did and I did. The book is not filled with shockers for diehard fans/addicts, though I'm sure there are things you didn't know or forgot you know, but it is something that has been missing from the hundred or more Madonna books out there so far — a serious, sober, all-inclusive, biographical look at Madonna's life and career executed with scrupulous attention to contextualizing who she is and why that worked and works for us.

There have been a couple of interesting biographies, but I always felt they were lost in the long shadow of Christopher Andersen's dreadful best seller from 30 years ago. It was time for Madonna: A Rebel Life.

And it was time for me to quiz Ms. Gabriel about her gigantic endeavor ...

Boy Culture: How do you connect your Madonna book with your past work? Or do you feel it's important to have a through line as a writer?

Mary Gabriel: I think it’s natural that there’s a through line because while a writer might choose many different subjects, they’re drawn to them for the same reason, or at least I think so. What I have tried to do in all my books is to take an important person or a period of history, something we think we know everything about, and ask the question, “Do we?”

In the case of Love and Capital, the story of Karl and Jenny Marx, I tried to make Karl Marx human by telling the story of his family so readers could understand where his ideas came from and the circumstances under which his books were written. He changed the world, so I thought it behoved us to know who he was as a man. Remarkably, that approach had never been taken. In the case of the five painters of Ninth Street Women, I looked at the moment in history when the art world shifted from Europe to New York with the Abstract Expressionist movement. That story has been told to death as the tale of a few macho men. I discovered that women (and gay men) were very much a part of the most revolutionary moment in U.S. art history, and in fact some of them were at the forefront of that revolution. That reappraisal completely changes the way we look at that movement, and it gives women artists hope because they can see themselves in their brave foremothers.

My Madonna book is the offspring of both Karl Marx and those five painters. Like Marx, she is loved and loathed in equal measure, but how much do people really know about her? Has she, like Marx, become a mere headline that shouts “Outrage”? Like the women painters of the 1940s and 1950s, she is an inspiration as a woman and as an artist. In fact, that earlier book ended in 1959, the year after Madonna was born, so she is in every way the manifestation of the potential that earlier generation of artists unleashed. Her job was to push it past mere potential and take society to places it needed to go but didn’t want to.

So, the long answer to your question is yes, there is a definite connection between my earlier books and this one.

Did anyone discourage you from following Ninth Street Women (Little, Brown, 2018), which was critically acclaimed, with a mainstream biography of a pop icon?

Not at all. In fact, my agent Brettne Bloom agreed to this book faster than any of my others! And it’s not just because it was about Madonna. I wanted to treat Madonna with the same seriousness and respect that I did all my other subjects. I wasn’t writing about a pop icon; I was writing about an artist who changed culture globally. Her impact is undeniable. She is one of the most significant culture figures of modern times. That is the approach I took, so this is in no way a celebrity bio (my apologies to those who wanted that kind of read). I believe it fits easily alongside my other books. She is a historical figure and that is how I wrote it.

You have said you were not especially a fan of Madonna prior to writing this book — what prompted your interest in her?

After Ninth Street Women, I was looking for a subject. I wanted to continue writing about women artists because, frankly, it’s so much fun. If you write a biography, you basically live that person’s life for as many years as the project takes so if you don’t like what they do or who they are, your life will be hell. I wanted to stay in the land of women who experimented with art but I feared if I wrote about visual artists again, I would repeat myself. Then I heard Madonna’s 2016 Billboard speech and I was so moved. I realized I knew nothing about her. I was shocked by the raw emotion she displayed, the rawness of her pain. It was especially poignant coming when it did after the 2016 presidential elections and Hillary’s loss. I began to read what I could about Madonna, and the more I read the more intrigued I became. I also became convinced that she, like my earlier subjects, has been largely misrepresented in print. There are some good books, like Lucy O’Brien’s and Caroline Sullivan’s, who focus on Madonna’s work, but I didn’t think there was a book that told Madonna’s story as an artist in the context of her times. I also like to use a narrative nonfiction style, which I think draws readers into the story, and that definitely hadn’t been done. So, I decided on Madonna. It was in retrospect a crazy thing to do. It’s like going shopping and saying “I’ll buy that” — when “that” is the flashiest, most expensive item in the shop and you have only a bit of change in your pocket. I did it anyway because I knew it would be a great journey.

Which associates, past and present, of Madonna's did you REALLY want to speak with, but could not?

I wanted to talk with EVERYONE, but that wasn’t possible for a number of reasons. Some of the most important people were dead –—Christopher Flynn, Martin Burgoyne, Herb Ritts, to name just a few. I, of course, wanted to talk to Madonna but I didn’t realize that that would be impossible. I came to this story wearing my journalist hat and thought I could schedule an interview. I then learned that one doesn’t “schedule an interview” with Madonna. After trying for five years, in fact each time she hired a new publicist, I realized it wasn’t going to happen. I also discovered that if Madonna wasn’t cooperating, her inner circle wouldn’t cooperate either. Luckily, I had long before decided to write this book the way I had my others, using mountains of archival material, which made it more historical than journalistic. And in the end, not to rationalize my inability to interview people myself, but I don’t think it’s invaluable to hear what people say in 1983, 1989, 1994, 2000, 2005, rather than what they remember about those periods today. Voices change, memories fade. I tried as much as possible to use quotes that were contemporaneous to the events. I think that makes the story more immediate and, in a way, more real. How Madonna sounds in 1984 is quite different from how she would sound in 2020 remembering that period.

Who, in Madonna's orbit, were the most helpful?

No one in Madonna’s immediate orbit helped, but outside of that sphere there were some incredibly generous people who helped me understand her. Her University of Michigan friends, Whitley Setrakian Hill and Linda Alaniz, were so forthcoming and great. From her early New York days, the late Marcus Leatherdale and photographer Catherine Underhill helped me understand the club scene and Madonna’s place in it. Actor Lawrence Monoson told me the story of his love affair with Martin in the months before Martin’s death. It’s a heartbreaking story of a young man torn between his dying boyfriend and the necessity of protecting his career in homophobic Hollywood. Kevin Stea and Carlton Wilborn were great in describing the Blond Ambition period, and in Carlton’s case The Girlie Show. Donna De Lory and Niki Haris were also brilliant storytellers. Brian Antoni and Tom Austin gave me wonderful insight into the heady Miami Beach days when Madonna was queen and Versace was king of the beach. Christopher Ciccone talked me through Madonna’s life up to about 2008 during multiple interviews. His is an often-neglected voice in her story, and yet he was at her side for two decades of her professional life. Really, the list is long and my gratitude to all the people who spoke with me is deep.

It's interesting that Madonna has consistently gone back to Martin Burgoyne, a close friend for a few years early in her life, but one who died over 35 years ago. What do you think bonded them so much that she never forgot him?

Their friendship began when Madonna was on the verge — but just at the verge — of her recording career. Martin was already part of the club scene; in fact, he was a beloved member of the club scene. She had been there, but Martin was like a USDA stamp of approval to all the sceptics who wondered about this ambitious Midwestern chick. The fact that she was with Martin meant that she was OK.

Another aspect of Martin’s role in Madonna’s life was protector. As a young performer without any power behind her to speak of (Warner still didn’t know what to make of her or do with her), she was in a very vulnerable spot. Martin stood by her, and more importantly believed in her. She tried out her routines on him, he advised her on her look, he went with her to all her performances and even to record company negotiations. He was her sounding board and, in a way, her guardian angel. And he did it with joy. Without doubt there were many depressing moments for Madonna during those early days when the people who should have been able to help her career didn’t even understand her. Martin did, and he pulled her through those times.

But their bond was much deeper than just her career. Martin and Madonna were two sides of a coin. They were twins separated at birth. I get the impression that their spirits collided and didn’t separate until his death at the young age of 23. Her first heartache had been her mother’s death. Her second, I would argue, was Martin’s.

What did you learn from speaking with her brother Christopher, who has had a rocky relationship with his sister, marked by his bitter tell-all? Do you have the sense that all is forgiven? Is he well?

It’s funny, I don’t think of his book as “bitter.” I think it just sounds like Christopher. That Madonna reacted negatively to it, had a lot to do with her situation that year — 2008 — when she was in the midst of a divorce from Guy Ritchie and had just been through that truly ugly backlash over her adoption of David. She was pissed, hurt, and angry. Enter Christopher and his book, which pre-release material said would include “bombshells.” That was the last thing she needed.

What I learned from him was his story, and the family’s story, and not just information about Madonna. He is a great interview, because his memory is so sharp. He basically took me through a decade-by-decade history of his life up to 2008. It was interesting because his perspective is more critical than a non-family member would be. To others she’s Madonna, to him, she is his sister. But it was also full of love and admiration. He is as astounded by what she’s accomplished as we are.

As far as their relationship, he says they’re talking again but I didn’t press him on whether that means all is forgiven.

Madonna is often criticized for stealing in her rise to pop glory, yet it seems like she has taken inspiration from many sources and usually is very happy to talk about the origins of her work. Why do you think she is singled out as a pop cultural thief?

I find the entire cultural thief complaint bogus. First of all, all artists appropriate. That is how they grow. That is how they learn. Secondly, she always gives credit to the sources of her material (aside from a few songs when she may not have known that her collaborators were relying on material created by someone else). If she presents a “discovery” to the world, like voguing, she shouts from the rooftops where she saw it, who was doing it, and she introduces artists from that scene to the world. Far from stealing, she celebrates the art of others and makes sure they get the recognition they deserve. She makes them part of her records, her videos, her tours. The theft accusations make me crazy. They’re made by people who don’t know anything about her career or don’t understand how art is made.

Do you have the impression that Madonna cares about criticism?

I’m sure she does, but she’s somehow trained herself to ignore it. I suppose after 40 years it would become so repetitive that it would be easier to ignore. Anyway, I hope so for her sake.

Madonna at 60 nyt boyculture gayHow do you feel about Madonna's reaction to ageism? I've always found it strange that she is so reactive to anything to due with age — for example, the laudatory NYT piece on her 60th set her off because it referenced turning 60. She seemed to see that as a dig as opposed to as a relatable milestone.

I think there were other issues with that piece that irritated her aside from just the age references.

Her reaction to ageism in general, though, is the same as her reaction to the other “isms” she has challenged throughout her career: sexism, racism, well, homophobia isn’t an ism but you get what I mean. You asked earlier if criticism irritates Madonna. When it’s directed at her personally, I think it doesn’t, but when it is the product of one of the isms, I think it annoys her quite a bit because, like any prejudice, it is so ignorant, and that drives her mad.

Like her earlier battles, her fight against ageism is designed to educate people to the fact that older women, who are traditionally awarded crone status when they pass menopause, are vibrant, powerful, brilliant, and beautiful. Western cultures are terrified of the power of older women, who no longer “need” men to procreate and who are no longer inconvenienced by their monthly bodily functions. She is free, as free as a man, and for that reason societies have tried to put her in a box labelled “useless” and hide her away. Not for the first time, Madonna has said crush the box. She is living proof of what an “older” woman can be, and that power for her critics is terrifying.

If her anger is sharper than usual, maybe it’s because this particular prejudice is so entrenched and insidious. Or, maybe she’s just tired of taking shit at every stage of her life for 40 years.

Why do you think Elton John has such a hate/hate relationship with Madonna?

I think that’s over, isn’t it? Judging from the headlines he seems to be applauding Madonna at long last for her work on behalf of people with HIV-AIDS. For the moment, that seems to be the story.

Were you surprised that Madonna's new tour embraces all of her past incarnations and career eras? She has resolutely said she dislikes looking back.

It is a bit surprising, especially after the highly avant-garde Madame X Tour. But then again, she’s been working on her biopic and no doubt that forced her to listen to her old material and reexamine her life. She must have found joy there because she decided that she needed to share that experience with her fans. Also, I think the way she is looking back makes it less a trip down memory lane than something really new and innovative. The show’s visuals are fantastically original. The songs are reworked and performed in a way that gives them new life. So yes, Madonna’s story is the basis of the tour but the way she presents it makes it entirely new and therefore exciting for her.

What do you think of the show? I have to believe you have watched it online!

I have been watching it and hope to see it at some point, probably early next year. I think it’s incredible. For all the reasons I stated above, but also because it is so radical. After Beyoncé and Ms Swift, this is the year of women in the arena. Madonna has once again shown that she is not a woman singer, she’s not even a performer, she is an artist making important political, social, and creative statements. The people she has on stage with her, the stories she is telling, are — for mainstream America — still as shocking as Blond Ambition was in 1990. I think it is thrilling. Madonna has made a corporation like Live Nation a delivery device for yet another radical artistic statement.

Why does Madonna's appearance matter to us so much? Haters (like 50 Cent, who just compared her to an ant) and fans alike (“She looks GREAT!”) seem to have a lot invested in Madonna's looks, and many casual observers are quick to criticize her for her anti-aging procedures, or for their effectiveness, while accepting many other public figures who seem obviously to have had a lot of work done, too.

I really don’t understand it. I for one don’t care what she does to herself. It’s her face, her body. I suppose she has made her “look” so much a part of her “art” that it’s seen as fair game. Because each artistic project included a complete makeover of Madonna, maybe people feel that her cosmetic procedures are part of that and can be remarked on. I’m sure for the haters it has nothing to do with art, and I’m sure for those who love Madonna’s every permutation it likewise isn’t about her creative statements. I suppose it’s not even about Madonna. Women in entertainment are meat, all that matters is the surface.

Do you think Madonna's near-death experience — it now seems clear she really did almost die, considering she is speaking about it emotionally in concert — seems to have led to a “reset”?

I only know what I’ve read but I can’t imagine, knowing what I know of her past traumas, that it wouldn’t have had a profound effect on her. There is no way she didn’t reevaluate her life and her work after such a close call. I don’t think this concert tour is the reaction to that scare. I think we’ll need to see what happens next, whether it be another album, her film, or her autobiography?

Who do you see as Madonna's clearest influences, directly and indirectly?

Musically, I think it’s the Detroit Motown, soul, R&B of her youth; in her presentation I would say David Bowie because he helped her see that evolution (or reinvention) is actually a good thing. But I think the impact of the clubs in New York in the early ‘80s is too often overlooked. Madonna the artist came alive during one of the most experimental, sexually and racially diverse, wild, loving club scenes in U.S. history. It was about the music and how it made you move, but it was also about the tribe, belonging to a group of outcasts who were protected from a hostile world because they had each other. I think that experience in those clubs created the Madonna we know and continues to inform her work. I think that experience differentiated her from artists before and after.

Why do you think Madonna's always been so protective of Britney Spears?

I’m glad you asked that because I think the notion that Madonna competes with younger artists — or any woman at all — is entirely media-generated. It’s as if there isn’t enough bandwidth in the entertainment world for more than one woman artist and so whenever another appears on the scene, the press interprets that as a threat to all the others, Madonna in particular. But the world is a big place. Audiences’ appetites are huge. And, mercifully, the fans who love to hear women artists perform don’t want to see and hear fewer, they want more of them.

Now to Britney Spears. Madonna has always tried to protect younger artists (which is what makes the competition myth so hurtful). Her own experiences have taught her so much, and she is inclined to share what she’s learned to help others. She often said she wanted to be a teacher – and to the younger generation of artists she is. She teaches them lessons in survival. She is also first and foremost a big-sister, maternal figure and that comes across in her dealings with artists she thinks could use a boost during a difficult period. Britney Spears isn’t the only one by any means, but she has had more than her fair share of ups and downs.

What is something surprising about Madonna in your book that you discovered?

You must remember that I came to this project knowing next to nothing about Madonna, so everything was surprising to me. But if I had to narrow it down, I would say I was surprised by her talent across various genres, from music, to video, to film, to fashion. I was surprised by the extent of her philanthropy. I was surprised by the 40 years of abuse she has taken from the press and the public and how the depth of her fan loyalty helped her ignore those very loud critical voices. I was surprised by her courage, her power, and yet her vulnerability. Mostly, I guess, I was surprised by how normal she is despite being “Madonna.” She is an icon of course, but she has also remained a person and that is a difficult feat indeed.

Do you think her biopic will ever happen? Do you hope it will?

I think it will happen because it’s a natural for Madonna, but I don’t think it will be a traditional film. How could it be? No Madonna production of any kind has been traditional. I see the Celebration Tour as a step toward making that film. I have no inside knowledge, but I can imagine that the first stab at it was a rather conventional project and that that didn’t feel right to Madonna. The tour will have brought her closer to her story, and probably produced more than a few moments of inspiration. I look forward to seeing her blow wide open the now-predictable biopic format. Maybe it will be a mix of narrative film and documentary, maybe it will be a Baz Luhrmann-like musical. Maybe it will be an extended version of her tour. Whatever it is, it will have to be completely new or Madonna won’t want to do it. 

What would an encounter between Madonna and Mary Gabriel look and sound like? What do you expect you would say?

Oh, dear. You know, when I contemplated this project, I thought of those two names on a book jacket and imagined that it would have to be the light blue of the Virgin Mary. It would reek sanctity. But of course, that’s not what happened and that’s not the story. I can’t imagine what our encounter would entail. I would probably do a lot of grinning and hopefully she wouldn’t say I had gotten her life completely wrong. That’s about as much as my imagination will allow.

But I know one thing I would say to her, and that’s thank you. She is an historical figure who has spent decades on the frontline of a fight on behalf of people who are traditionally voiceless and ignored. She gave those people — and I’m thinking here of women and the LGBTQ community — courage, support, but most importantly, love. It was a lonely battle for about the first 15 years, and it could get lonely once again as the world shifts toward intolerance. I would thank her for her past work on our behalf, and thank her in advance for what she is sure to do — express herself.