The Bare Facts: Madonna Exposes Her ‘Sex’ to America
Madonna struck a pose. The former staff photographer for Life and Esquire magazines didn’t really need to tell her how to move. The accomplished dancer contorted her naked and lean body gracefully, with a savvy knowledge of how her image would be captured. The camera clicked away, exposing multiple frames of her in improvised stances. Playful in one shot while cupping her bare bosom; somber and staring forlornly in profile in the next. The day’s session ended after a couple of hours. The photographer, Bill Stone, graciously thanked Madonna for her time and patience. And he paid her $25. It was December 1978. The Bay City, Michigan aspiring singer/dancer had recently arrived in New York. These revealing photos, along with others she would sit for during her early years of struggle in the Big Apple, would wind up, against her wishes, in the pages of Playboy and Penthouse seven years later in the summer of 1985. Madonna’s response to their publication was summed up in her official statement, “I’m not ashamed of anything.” As if to flaunt this notion of unabashedly exposing her sexuality to a nation, she soon embarked on a carefully-publicized, taboo-crushing campaign that would arguably fling open doors to the sexually-charged imagery in rock that we take for granted today.
Ambitious is a description that falls woefully short when summarizing Madonna’s decades-long desire to be in the spotlight. For much of the 1980s and early 1990s, she carnivorously tore into the national conscience, chomping up the airwaves and discarding the bones of pretenders to the throne. Having always claimed that the loss of her mother to breast cancer, when she was the tender age of six, left a void in her delicate upbringing, Madonna seemed to have set out to be the little girl who ran into the country’s living room after school, begging for attention. And like the pesky kid whose tantrums and stunts telegraph the message ‘You Will Notice Me,’ she was so consistently self-absorbed in her own promotion that it didn’t truly matter what opinion we had of her. Just so long as we had one.
Her chameleon ability to switch costume, change hairstyle, and adjust her levels of outspokenness was keyed in direct proportion to her overwhelming desire for adulation. There is nothing unusual in this psychological makeup that differentiates her from fellow superstars. What does make Madonna a standout amongst her peers is that she so consistently pushed our collective button. She genuinely seemed not to give a damn how we responded to her antics, but instead, expertly fashioned her outrageous behavior so masterfully that we were compelled not to ignore her. And as stuffy Americans living in one of the most stifling political climates in modern times under the Reagan era, we as a nation were completely open to relishing masterfully-crafted scandal and titillation. We encouraged Madonna to drag us out of the drudgery of our Mayberry existence.
Madonna launched her assault on our senses within the first year of her major record label debut. The tough-talking, assertive character she played in “Desperately Seeking Susan” signaled to the general public that here was a captivating female presence – with the smarts of Lauren Bacall and the sass of Mae West — who wasn’t going to put up with the Establishment. While many had struck down this same path before, Madonna blitzed across the screen with charm and sexuality oozing from her boy-toy, streaked-hair persona. Her follow-up blast of the “Like A Virgin” album and tour served to showcase her as a teasing carnal Betty Boop, rolling around onstage in wedding gowns, coyly keeping the boys at a distance. The music was infectious, and the hits poured out of the airwaves, scoring her numerous chart-topping positions around the world. She was still a creation, someone whom we just accepted as a manufactured product. But that would soon change.
When true-blue love finally opened her heart, Madonna’s personality seemed to arise from behind the bubblegum curtain. Tumultuous episodes with her new husband, Sean Penn, gave us stark paparazzo images of a pop singer wrestling with the idealism of marriage and normalcy. We caught glimpses of the celebrity unguarded, and the impression we took with us was of someone desperately trying to keep total control of an uncontrollable situation. As her heart became broken and the marriage unraveled, a switch in Madonna’s presentation slowly started to take shape. Instead of simply slapping a façade on her persona – boy-toy, Marilyn Monroe, virgin – she now was eager to show us the variations that lurked within. The prior sexual creations were aloof. Now she was compelled to literally bare all. If she couldn’t share her innermost sexual desires with her husband, she was darn well gonna share them with America.
Before “Will & Grace,” Ellen and Ann, and the countless gay-themed entertainment acceptable to heartland families everywhere today, the 1980s, in comparison, were not very open. In the world of music by the end of that decade, heavy metal ruled supreme. And while the boys wore Maybelline and used Streaks ‘n’ Tips, their stage presence only allowed for testosterone-fueled, hetero antics. Elton John and a questionable George Michael (at the time) seemed to be the only designated bi-sexuals roaming in the wings. So when comedienne Sandra Bernhard appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” in 1988, French-kissed the affable host, and called to her playmate Madonna to join her onstage, America bolted upright. So did Dave. Dressed alike in t-shirts and jean shorts, the twosome cuddled and hinted at their nighttime activities with an ogling Letterman. At no time before had a female celebrity along the caliber of Madonna so vibrantly and unabashedly projected to the viewing public a preference for both genders.
Madonna later commented ambiguously about her relationship with Sandra: “The fact is, she’s a great friend of mine. Whether I’m gay or not is irrelevant. Whether I slept with her or not is irrelevant. I’m perfectly willing to have people think that I did. You know, I do not want to protest too much. I don’t care. If it makes people feel better to think that I slept with her, then they can think it.”
Still married to Penn, Madonna assured her hot-headed hubby that she had only been joking around on the “Late Night” show. But the union was on its last legs. She spent Christmas Eve with Bernhard and before the turn of the New Year, Penn had allegedly bound and gagged his wife for several hours at their Malibu home. By January 1989, Madonna and Sean were divorced. The smoldering control Penn had exuded over her, combined with her all-consuming devotion to him over the past three years, seemed to ignite in Madonna an unchecked desire to provoke like she never had before. She had been slapped around and tied up because of her sexual antics and admissions to America, so now it was time for her to do some of the slapping.
Already on the fast track to star as Breathless Mahoney in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy,” the pop diva was readying her most mature album to date, “Like A Prayer.” With semi-autobiographical songs like “Oh Father” and “Till Death Do Us Part,” the latter a sordid account of a relationship in flames, the record topped the Billboard chart shortly after its release in March 1989. Pepsico announced from its headquarters in Somers, New York that Madonna had been signed for five million dollars to star in promotional spots for their soft drink, and the company would sponsor her upcoming Blonde Ambition tour. “The Pepsi spot is a great and different way to expose the record,” she told Rolling Stone magazine. Veteran commercial director Joe Pytka was hired to film Madonna sipping a Pepsi while watching some of her old birthday party home movies. The song “Like A Prayer” was inserted into the ad, and the Pepsi execs thought they had a warm, soothing spot showcasing their seemingly-tame celebrity huxter. They were completely unaware of another video version of the song.
Madonna had enlisted the help of director Mary Lambert, who had helmed many of the Material Girl’s earlier, groundbreaking videos, to concoct the music video for “Like A Prayer.” What the two came up with caused a conservative nation to harp incessantly about Madonna’s mixed messages. Highlighting the story of a black man falsely being accused of the rape of a white woman, the video showed Madonna kissing a black saint in church, her hands receiving bloody stigmata, and the provocative one singing in a negligee before burning crosses. When the tame Pepsi spot aired on March 2nd during “The Cosby Show” on NBC, millions tuned in to catch a glimpse of their favorite icon. The next day, MTV began airing the Lambert-directed “Like A Prayer” video.
The American Family Association, led by zealot Donald Wildmon, labeled the music video “blatantly offensive” and called for a nationwide boycott of Pepsi. A Roman Catholic organization protested the broadcast of the “Like A Prayer” video in Italy. Pepsi bowed under pressure and never aired their Madonna commercial in the U.S. again and pulled out of sponsorship for the singer. Madonna kept the $5 million along with the widespread publicity.
Some of that money might have gone into the making of her $1 million follow-up video for “Express Yourself,” directed by a young David Fincher, who went on to make the stylized film, “Seven.” Grabbing her crotch, slinking across a floor, chained to a bed and lapping milk from a saucer, Madonna exuded a more overt take on the kinky side of sex than she ever had to date. But this was just the beginning of a widespread ‘awakening’ campaign she would expose to the nation.
Diving into the filming of “Dick Tracy” and into the arms of Warren Beatty, Madonna still had time to show the world her ‘friendship’ with Sandra Bernhard had not diminished. The pair were seen singing “I Got You Babe,” while bumping and grinding, before an audience assembled for a rainforest benefit on June 11, 1989. Warren was tolerant of her burgeoning ‘lesbian’ reputation. As for the film, Madonna worked with composer Stephen Sondheim to create slinky 1930s lounge songs. The kink was still vibrant in her work as she trilled to “Hanky Panky,” a ditty about the pleasures of spanking.
By September 1989, she was gearing up for a massive tour in support of the “Like A Prayer” album. She auditioned male dancers in January 1990, in search of seven guys who wouldn’t be adverse to wearing conical breast brassieres. She revealed one of her own breasts for famed photographer Helmut Newton in a spread for Vanity Fair magazine. This was the first time she displayed her naked body to a photographer since her early nude work was published in Playboy and Penthouse in 1985. By the end of the next two years, both fans and detractors would have seen enough of Madonna’s body, thank you very much.
Dragging along a fledgling film director, former Harvard grad Alec Keshishian, Madonna kicked off her Blonde Ambition tour in Japan on April 13, 1990. Filled with phenomenal dance numbers and crisp production sound, the concert’s raciest moment concerned Madonna flagrantly simulating masturbation on a bed during a Middle-Eastern-tinged version of “Like A Virgin.” “I was exorcising myself of the guilt of the Catholic Church over sex and masturbation,” Madonna later explained. In an Esquire magazine piece from August 1994, she elaborated on her views of the sex quotient inherent in Catholicism to famed author Norman Mailer. “It’s very sensual, and it’s all about what you’re not supposed to do. Everything’s forbidden, and everything’s behind heavy stuff – the confessional, heavy green drapes, and stained-glass windows, the rituals, the kneeling – there’s something very erotic about that. After all, it’s very sado-masochistic, Catholicism.”
After her tour swung through North America (almost being shut down in Toronto), the Catholic Church was waiting for Madonna in Italy. They condemned her show as being blasphemous and demanded that her appearances in Turin and Rome be canceled. Upon arrival on Italian soil, she issued a statement, “If you are sure I am a sinner, let whoever is without sin cast the first stone. I ask you, fair-minded men and women of the Catholic Church – come and see my show and judge it for yourselves. My show is not a conventional rock concert but a theatrical presentation of my music, and like the theater, it poses questions, provokes thought, and takes you on an emotional journey.” In the face of controversy, the Queen of Rock always found a way to turn it into self-promotion.
After her world tour finished, Madonna dropped Warren Beatty and hooked up with a male model named Tony Ward. Enamored with the world of crossdressing and S&M, Ward soon became Madonna’s little puppet boyfriend. She would dress him up as her ‘girlfriend,’ and the two would hit the town. Meanwhile, her penchant for hyping her sexual shock tactics manifested itself once again in a public service announcement she taped for MTV urging young people to vote. Wrapped in an American flag, wearing flimsy lingerie, she told voters to do their rightful duty or else risk a spanking. In September 1990, her appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards cast her as a powder-coifed French courtesan who, in the course of singing her hit song “Vogue, allowed a male dancer to route around underneath her hoop dress onstage.
Record producer Shep Pettibone had assembled a greatest hits package for Madonna, which she promptly named “The Immaculate Collection” and dedicated to the Pope. She recorded a breathy, sensual ditty, co-written with rocker Lenny Kravitz (and later contested, credits-wise, by singer Ingrid Chavez) called “Justify My Love.” Madonna’s ambition to display her desires, her fetishes, and all manner of kink finally came to full blossom when she set about to film the video for this song.
While Madonna was trolling the fashion shows in Paris during the autumn of 1990, she tapped director Jean-Baptiste Mondino to assist in helping her execute her vision in the video. Renting out an entire floor of the exclusive Royal Monceau hotel, Madonna and Mondino, along with thirty other friends, laid down a five-minute black-and-white vision of the swinging life over the course of a week. As the video begins with the Blonde One lugging her suitcase down the hotel’s corridor, she stumbles upon a series of fantasy scenarios that included voyeurism, S&M, bisexuality, transvestism, group sex, hints of oral sex and lesbianism. Madonna’s hunk-of-the-moment, Tony Ward, nuzzled and kissed his icon squeeze along with European model Amanda Cazalet. Exposed flesh and crotch fumbling were discernable throughout as the mostly androgynous players lolled about in that detached, vapid look of the fashion world. It was one grand sex party. Robert Farrel, who was the agency rep that booked Cazalet for the job later said, “Everyone knew that once Madonna met Amanda, it was going to be her. They got along very well.”
MTV, her greatest champion over the years, planned a “Madonnathon” for the weekend of December 1, 1990. They had the “Justify My Love” video slated to kick off the festivities. But once they received a copy of the promiscuous vignette on November 26th, executives were flustered. They promptly issued a statement: “We respect her work as an artist, and we think she makes great videos. This one is not for us.” Madonna responded in the press by saying, “Why is it that people are willing to go to a movie and watch someone get blown to bits for no reason, and nobody wants to see two girls kissing or two men snuggling? I think the video is romantic and loving and has humor in it.” The Madonna camp, along with her record label, Warner Bros., swung into high gear and soon released the very first “single” video version of a song. “Justify My Love” was priced at $9.98 and quickly sold 250,000 copies.
A curt and controlled Madonna appeared on ABC’s “Nightline” program the night of December 3rd. The network aired the entire titillating video and then substitute-host Forrest Sawyer tried to make sense of it all. “I guess half of me thought that I was going to get away with it,” Madonna offered, “and the other half thought, ‘Well, with…the conservatism that is sort of sweeping over the nation…there was going to be a problem.” Asked by a concerned Sawyer what she thought would be the result if a ten-year old were to watch the video and become confused, Madonna snappily responded, “Good. Then let them get confused and let them go ask their parents about it.” The program turned out to be “Nightline’s” second-highest rated episode in the history of the show.
1991 swept in heightened Madonna awareness, as her likeness was plastered across many magazine covers citing her controversial tactics. Learning that Tony Ward was a married man and had been keeping his matrimonial secret from her for all of their months together, Madonna summarily dismissed the male model from her presence and went to work in a bit part for Woody Allen’s film “Shadows and Fog.” She attended the Academy Awards in March with date Michael Jackson and sang “Sooner or Later.” Her documentary film of the Blonde Ambition tour called “Truth or Dare” opened nationwide. Featuring Madonna and her immature dancers, the movie followed their sexcapades across the globe and captured the bickering, the jealousies, and the laughs shared while on the road. Of course, there were provocative moments. Madonna was seen ordering a dancer to expose his winkie, she played around with her naked dancers in bed, two men gave each other some serious French kissing, and, oh yes, Madonna demonstrated her oral sex techniques on a soda bottle. The last act rang somewhat false since she confessed to Carrie Fisher in Rolling Stone magazine in 1991 that her lovers “don’t tell me I give good h***, believe me, because I don’t give it.”
When she attended the film’s screening at the 44th Cannes International Film Festival in France, she made sure to pose for the assembled paparazzi as she emerged from her limo. Parting a red satin cape draped around her body, Madonna giggled and flaunted the white bra and see-through girdle that she wore underneath. Hundreds of drooling European slags clicked away on their Nikons. Later, at a small dinner party, fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier took the film’s theme to heart and dared Madonna to french kiss “La Femme Nikita” actress Anne Parillaud. Needless to say, both women accepted the challenge, and the two became tongue-tied before the approving diners.
She exposed her sexual exhibitionism further in the gay magazine The Advocate shortly after the release of the documentary. When asked about the size of Warren Beatty’s most fabled appendage, she coyly replied, “I haven’t measured it but it’s a perfectly wonderful size.” She offered that her first experiences in the realm of sex had been with girls and hinted that she felt Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene “probably got it on.” Observing that heterosexual men were rather uptight in their proclivities, she counseled that “every straight guy should have a man’s tongue in his mouth at least once.” “I am aroused by two men kissing,” Madonna elaborated. “Is that kinky? I am aroused by the idea of a woman making love to me while either a man or another woman watches. Is that kinky?” When all else fails, store-bought accoutrements are not acceptable in the Madonna bedroom. “I like the human body. I like flesh. I like things that are living and breathing. And a finger will do just fine. I’ve never owned a vibrator.”
Cardinal O’Connor of New York turned the shade of his red robe. During the month of May, he called upon the Pope to excommunicate Madonna for her abuse of Catholic/Christian imagery and the blasphemy she perpetuated in her performances.
On July 8, 1991, producer Shep Pettibone flew to Chicago where Madonna was getting ready to film the baseball movie “A League of Their Own.” He handed her a cassette containing three songs that he felt would be perfect for her vocal talents. It triggered her to think about a follow-up album to “Like A Prayer.” Even though the film she currently worked on, with Geena Davis and Tom Hanks, was mild, PG-oriented fare, Madonna seemed to still be hankering for a way to truly express herself. The double-whammy delivery of the upcoming “Erotica” album and an oversized book called “Sex” would be the pinnacle of her campaign of sensual shock. She agreed to work with Pettibone once the film wrapped.
Judith Regan, vice president and senior editor at the time for Simon & Shuster books, claimed to Entertainment Weekly magazine that she was the one who planted the seed for the “Sex” book in Madonna’s head. According to Regan, she flew to meet the rock queen as early as March 1991, mapping out a proposal for photo-erotic pictures in a collector’s book. Madonna supposedly shook hands on the deal, but the two never got back in touch with each other on the idea. Regan referred to Madonna as “sleazy and stupid. I wouldn’t have minded if she sent me a note, but she showed no graciousness, no manners.”
By the time “A League Of Their Own” finished filming in the autumn, Madonna had already tapped New York photographer Steven Meisel to click shots for a tome she was now going to publish through Warner Books. The concept of the book had already been honed by editor Glenn O’Brian, a former editor of Interview and Spin magazines, and its approach was set as a no-holds-barred examination of sex. The team began holding casting calls for New York’s most adventuresome and kinky nightclub denizens to join their ranks. Nicholas Callaway of Callaway Editions Inc., the publishing house that ultimately produced the book, told Vanity Fair magazine, “Sometimes she brought people in, and within minutes of first meeting her they found themselves without their clothes on, French-kissing Madonna.”
In October, Madonna split her time, working on songs with Pettibone at his New York apartment and then going off for two weeks at a stretch with photographer Meisel to shape the book. By December screen tests were conducted, a process that saw many male models lining up to show their physiques to the Madam of Music. Meanwhile, Madonna hated the first batch of songs she and Pettibone had concocted for her album. Pettibone told Icon Fanzine that some of the songs had a New York house sound and many had a Los Angeles polished production sound. “If I wanted the album to sound like that, I’d have worked with (producer and friend) Patrick Leonard in L.A.,” she told Pettibone. “I got the point pretty fast. Madonna wanted ‘Erotica’ to have a raw edge to it, as if it were recorded in an alley at 123rd street in Harlem.”
On New Years Eve 1991, Madonna threw an all-girl topless party for her friends. Her gal pal Sandra Bernhard showed up with her girlfriend Ingrid Casares. Casares, a Cuban-American socialite, was the owner of two Miami hotspots. Shortly thereafter in the early months of 1992, Madonna was spotted around town snuggling and kissing Casares. Bernhard fumed and dropped Madonna’s friendship like a hot coal. The ill-will still exists for Bernhard today. When the “Erotica” album debuted, Sandra made a point to parody the song in her comedy act, entitling it “Neurotic.” She was quoted as saying, “I look at my friendship with (Madonna) as like having a gall stone. You deal with it, there is pain, and then you pass it. That’s all I have to say about ‘Schmadonna.” When she recently showed up at the 2000 CFDA Fashion Awards as a presenter, Bernhard needled her old chum’s tendency these days to affect a British dialect. “Am I speaking in a funny accent?,” she queried the audience. “Well don’t you know? I’m a different person now.”
Madonna addressed the longstanding issue with The Face magazine in 1994. “When I met her (Casares), she was Sandra’s girlfriend and I thought she was the sweetest girl. Sandra was on the verge of breaking up with her, and I felt sorry for Ingrid. She likes to work out the way I do, so I started to ring her up and we’d go for a run or whatever. But Sandra assumed that I was trying to – whether she thought it was true or not, the way it came out in the press made it sound like I was trying to steal her girlfriend. I’ve never had a sexual relationship with Ingrid, that’s the irony. But she is a very good friend, and I’ve grown to love her. So it’s a tragedy what happened with me and Sandra, but I got a good friend out of it. You win some, you lose some.” Truthful or not, Ingrid became a prime character in Madonna’s sex book, and the friendship with Bernhard that had smoldered on the Letterman show in 1988 was no more.
Photography commenced for the book in January 1992. The majority of the shots took place in and around New York City. Locations like The Vault, a downtown sex club, and The Gaiety, a male burlesque theater, were set upon by Meisel’s crew and assorted kinkmeisters. The entourage moved to Miami for four days to snap photos of Madonna at a mansion (an abode she later bought for $4.9 million) and en flagrante around the city. A veil of secrecy was clamped on the process throughout. Roughly 20 people involved in the project were the only ones to have access to the “Sex” materials. Meanwhile, by March 1992, Madonna and Pettibone had firmed up 15 songs in demo format that they felt would be good material for the new album. After fine-tuning their ballad “Rain,” a call came from director Penny Marshall. She asked Madonna if there was a song she could loan to the soundtrack of “A League Of Their Own.” In a matter of a day or two, they churned out “This Used To Be My Playground,” which eventually went on to be a number one single in August. The next day, Madonna flew to Oregon to begin filming “Body of Evidence.”
For this new celluloid treat, Madonna played a woman who may or may not have planned pre-meditated murder on her rich, aging lover through the use of rough, S&M sex. Actor Willem Dafoe portrayed an attorney who takes her case and inadvertently gets roped, so to speak, into her little kink games. The movie was essentially a carry-over of all the sexually liberating ideas Madonna had been espousing, neatly wrapped up in a sub-par murder mystery. The film was ultimately received with general distaste and brutalized by critical opinion. “Erotic” scenes with Madonna and Dafoe dripping hot candle wax on each other and engaging in rough sex were merely laughable. The original ending was supposed to show Madonna’s character being acquitted of the crime, despite hints of her guilt. The director instead allowed Madonna to get shot. “I fought it every step of the way,” she told The Face magazine. “But I had no control. Women who have sex must die; that is the theme of that movie, but it wasn’t that way to begin with.”
Despite all of the controversy Madonna was kicking up, Warner Bros. and their parent company, Time Warner Inc. knew a great commodity when they smelled one. On April 20, 1992, the company announced a seven year multi-media contract with the Debauched Diva, allowing her to set up a group of divisions under the name Maverick. Recording, publishing, television, merchandising, and motion picture endeavors concerning Madonna and her whims all would now be managed under the Maverick umbrella. The deal, conservatively, was estimated to be in the neighborhood of $60 million.
Meanwhile, the making of the “Sex” book forged ahead. It was alleged in May 1992 that an ex-employee of the photo lab that processed the film had absconded with 44 pictures of a naked Madonna and was trying to sell the sexy shots to a London tabloid. Madonna’s public relations conveyed that the U.S. Attorney’s office got involved, a sting operation was put in motion, and the culprit was subsequently captured. Suspiciously, no one was charged in the incident. The photo lab’s co-owner later told Entertainment Weekly, “We think the incident was hyped for publicity’s sake.”
Madonna went into the studio on June 8th to begin recording her “Erotica” album. Many of the tracks reflected a sense of bitterness, along with dissolving partnerships with loved ones. “Bye Bye Baby” had her cooing “What excites you?/What turns you on?/What makes you feel good?/Does it make you feel good to see me cry?/I think it does/That’s why it’s time to say bye, bye.” “Waiting” also spoke to love gone astray: “Well, I know from experience/That if you have to ask for something/More than once or twice/It wasn’t yours in the first place.” The two steamiest cuts were “Where Life Begins” and “Erotica.” The former commandingly highlighted her taste for receiving certain oral delights. “Now what could be better than a home-cooked meal/How you want to eat it/Depends on how you feel/You can eat all you want/And you don’t get fat/Now where else can you go for a meal like that/It’s not fair to be selfish or stingy/Every girl should experience eating out.” As for the song “Erotica,” Madonna drew inspiration from the book she was shaping.
The premise behind the book revolved around a woman named Dita inviting the reader into her fantasy world of photos, letters, musings, and diary entries. After the book’s opening statement, Madonna’s character is introduced. “My name is Dita. I’ll be your mistress tonight. I’ll be your loved one, darling. Turn out the light. I’ll be your sorceress, your heart’s magician. I’m not a witch. I’m a love technician. I’ll be your guiding light in your darkest hour. I’m gonna change your life. I’m like a poison flower. Give it up. Do as I say. Give it up and let me have my way. I’ll give you love. I’ll hit you like a truck. I’ll give you love…I’ll teach you how to f***.”
The song “Erotica,” which was slated to kick off the album, introduced Dita as well. “Erotica, Romance/My name is Dita/I’ll be your mistress tonight/I’d like to put you in a trance,” Madonna croons. Producer Pettibone told Icon Fanzine that Madonna was more relaxed with the sexual content of her song when she relied on the subversive character she had created. “It seemed as if Dita brought out the best in her, actually serving as a vehicle for the dangerous territory she was traveling. Actually, it was the same name Madonna used when she’d stay in hotels around the world. Not anymore.” (Madonna named herself Dita after the silent movie actress Dita Parlo.)
On September 12, 1992, Pettibone had finished with the mastering of the album. Madonna, meanwhile, took time out to stroll the catwalk for a fashion benefit for AIDS, hosted by Jean-Paul Gaultier at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Having been out of the public spotlight for a few months, she once again felt the need to give her breasts a breath of fresh air and exposed them to the assembled indifferent. Finally, on October 15th, Madonna was ready to offer up her “Sex.” A lavish party was held at Manhattan’s Industria Superstudio for 800 invited guests from the media and entertainment world. Madonna trotted in, dressed in blonde curls and a Swiss-miss skirt, as a Little Bo Peep with a toy lamb. Around her, loyal followers engaged in a smattering of tattooing, simulated sex, S&M, and dancing amongst outsized dildos.
A few days later, “Sex” hit the bookstands. Retail price was $50. Each volume was individually numbered and designed to be collector’s items. It was printed on Mohawk Superfine, an expensive uncoated paper. The cover of the book was made out of metal. A spiral binding held the hefty covers in place, sort of. (Madonna originally wanted the book to be completely encased in metal with a lock, but the manufacturing cost of such a design proved too foolhardy). The entire package was sealed inside a Mylar wrapper. Inside, “Sex” contained 128 pages of Madonna’s fantasies. At no time in the annals of celebrity lore has an entertainer with the popularity, fame, and fortune possessed by Madonna ever laid bare such a daring, calculated presentation of their id to their adoring fans. The book is truly a landmark in publishing history, however misguided it appeared to be, because no one before or since has had quite the brass cajones Ms. Ciccone mustered in unashamedly exposing herself on all levels of sexual expression.
And expose herself she did. Modeled after a 1933 photo book by Brassai, which captured seedy images of Parisian brothels and lesbian nightlife, “Sex” began with the following opening statement: “This book is about sex. Sex is not love. Love is not sex. But the best of both worlds is created when they come together. You can love God, you can love the planet, you can love the human race and you can love all things, but the best way for human beings to show love is to love one another. It’s the way we spread love through the universe. One to one. Love is something we make. Pass it on.”
With that ‘feel-good,’ ‘we are the world’ intro, the reader was then submerged into the world of Madonna’s alter ego, Dita. Which meant mostly bondage at first. Pictures at the start of the book featured Madonna and others in chains, dog collars, ropes, and tight leather. Two butch females yank hair, one holds a knife inside Madonna’s open legs. An S&M dungeon comes into view next, with whippings, bikers, lesbians and oral sex simulation. Dita offers an observation: “There is something comforting about being tied up. Like when you were a baby and your mother strapped you in the car seat. She wanted you to be Safe. It was an act of Love.” Madonna’s warped sense of irony is as prickly as an icepick. Dita surmises, “I think for the most part if women are in an abusive relationship and they know it and they stay in it, they must be digging it…The difference between abuse and S&M is the issue of responsibility.” Madonna’s humor definitely was not for all tastes.
Onto a hotel room and Madonna sits admiring a naked guy standing over her. The next shot has her visage perched right in his posterior. To showcase the lengths of inanity associated with interpreting “art” such as this, the following excerpt from Madonna’s chat with esteemed author Norman Mailer in Esquire magazine is perhaps the penultimate in pretentious, absurd analysis.
Mailer: Either you are kissing him in the crack of his a** or you are biting him there. It’s hard to tell. There’s also a crucifix in the background. On his arm.
Madonna: It’s his tattoo. That’s a coincidence.
Mailer: But the picture was chosen. You had several hundred pictures in the book, and I think I read in the advance publicity that there were twenty thousand contacts to choose from. So this photo was certainly…it was a dangerous area.
Madonna: Oh, yes, oh, yes.
Mailer: Still religion and excretion are not all that separate. You eat your food and whatever spirit was in the food is changed greatly. Then it’s excreted. It reaches the waters again – that’s like a passage into death. And organized religion is certainly concerned with preparedness for death. Did you choose that photograph because you felt a connection?
Madonna: Maybe unconsciously.
Mailer: It shocks the hell out of people, and at the same time you’re saying something. Isn’t that your idea of intellectual heaven?
Madonna: Yes, thank you for noticing.
Ugh! Please check your pseudo-incisive claptrap at the door. This was a voyeuristic sex book. Pure and simple. Madonna finished her thoughts about the image by finally telling Mailer the truth: “But also he happens to have a beautiful a**, and I was enjoying that.”
More carnal Kodak moments followed. Madonna examining her bosom in a mirror marks the first full-fledged color photograph in the book. A g-stringed Madonna perches on all fours over a dog on his back, his head buried somewhere close to her ‘lucky star.’ The statement, “My pussy has nine lives,” (she’s an animal lover, yes?) leads into the Miami portion of the tome. Here we find Madonna hanging out in a backyard with nothing but heels and an Azzedine Alaia purse. She has ‘fun’ with herself, with an old guy, and with B-list celebs like Isabella Rosselini, Vanilla Ice, and Naomi Campbell.
Throughout the book, Dita writes letters to her ‘boyfriend’ Johnny, describing the sexual gymnastics she’s performing with her pal Ingrid. (Ms. Casares presumably). She also confers with a psychiatrist, relating erotic dreams that convey all the romance of a Penthouse Forum letter. One tale she spins is about a fellow buying clothes in a retail store, and it climaxes, so to speak, with his receiving a humming lesson, if you will, from a Cuban salesgirl named Lourdes. Madonna apparently loved the name so much she bestowed the moniker on her first-born in October 1996.
The book wraps up with the bleached blonde beauty hitchhiking naked alongside a Miami highway, the result of a spontaneous challenge from her crew. She continues to expose herself at a gas station, outside a strip club, and while casually wolfing down a slice at a pizza joint. She tries to sum up the entire experience in pure Material Girl bravado: “A lot of people are afraid to say what they want – that’s why they don’t get what they want.”
500,000 copies reportedly sold in both the United States and internationally by the end of the first week of the “Sex” release. Eventually all copies were snatched up, and today, “Sex” routinely trades on E-bay for around $150. Meanwhile, “Erotica,” the single, rose to number 2 on the American charts. Like “Justify My Love” before it, the video for “Erotica” was filled with raunchy, seedy sex, mostly S&M-flavored, and MTV only aired it three times before withdrawing it from rotation. Subsequent singles saw “Deeper and Deeper” rise to number 6, “Rain” to number 14, and “Bad Girl” to number 36.
The backlash to Madonna’s book, video, and album was palpable. For many people, she had finally pushed our sensory buttons too far. Robert Knight, director of cultural studies for the Family Research Council weighed in with his viewpoint: “You know what adult bookstores do to neighborhoods? Madonna is the adult bookstore in our culture; she drags down the entire neighborhood.” Dr. Joyce Brothers chimed in with her stance: “When you are a true feminist, you want power not for power’s sake, but you want to accomplish something…Here, her power is used to exploit, and I think it’s kind of sad if young women use her as a role model – I mean, what are you emulating? You’re emulating a rich slut.” Madonna countered her detractors in Vanity Fair magazine. “I don’t think that sex is bad. I don’t think that nudity is bad. I don’t think that being in touch with your sexuality and being able to talk about it and being able to talk about this person and their sexuality (is bad). I think the problem is that everybody’s so uptight about it that they make it into something bad when it isn’t, and if people could talk freely, we would have people practicing more safe sex, we wouldn’t have people sexually abusing each other, because they wouldn’t be so uptight to say what they really want, what they really feel.”
By the turn of 1993, America was just plain sick to death of what Madonna thought about anything to do with sex. What had started out as a shocking game, calculated to increase our attention with every heightened revelation, had hit its plateau, and overall disgust, mixed with queasiness, filtered into our newfound intolerance for her stunts. After “Body of Evidence” was released in January to a disinterested public, Madonna followed it up with an even more dismal entry called “Dangerous Game.” This film made less than $60,000 at the box office. While her 1993 “Girlie Tour” was a smash sellout around the world, the general consensus was that nobody could stomach another glimpse of Madonna’s naked charms or hear about her latest kink fixation.
By comparison with previous years, she maintained a low profile throughout much of 1993, licking the scars inflicted on her by the press and the disenchanted. By 1994, she was working, once again, on new material for an album. One of the songs she pulled together was in response to those who had chastised her. “Human Nature” spoke of her anger towards those who were once admirers. “You punished me for telling you my fantasies/I’m breakin’ all the rules I didn’t make/(Express yourself, don’t repress yourself)/You took my words and made a trap for silly fools/You held me down and tried to make me break.” Madonna affirmed the meaning behind the song to The Face magazine: “It’s my definitive statement in regards to the incredible payback I’ve received for having the nerve to talk about the things that I did in the past few years with my ‘Sex’ book and my record. It’s getting it off my chest. It is defensive, absolutely. But it’s also sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek.”
Madonna rose to the occasion, once again, seemingly for the last time, to try to jolt our established norms. She chose to appear with the one guy who first afforded her that significant rise to the next level of provocation previously in 1988. On March 31, 1994, Madonna sat down for a profane conversation with David Letterman. Gone was the baring of flesh. She now resorted to tongue-lashing. She uttered the f-word 13 times. Instead of being drawn to her defiant spirit, Letterman, this time, acted the Puritan.
While the program was certainly entertaining, Dave seemed to have lost all control of his cheerfully antagonistic guest.
Dave: You can’t – you can’t be coming on here – this is American television, you can’t talk like that.
Dave: Because people don’t want that in their own homes at 11:30 at night.
Madonna: Wait a minute, wait a minute – people don’t want to hear the word f***?
Dave: Oh, stop it! Will you stop? Ladies and gentlemen, turn down your volume! Turn it down immediately! She can’t be stopped! There’s something wrong with her.
Madonna: There’s definitely something wrong with me – I’m sitting here.
Dave: I think you’re a decent, nice person, and I’m happy you could come by tonight and gross us all out.
Madonna: Did you know it’s good if you pee in the shower?
Dave: (to audience) I’m sorry.
Madonna: Don’t f*** with me…peeing in the shower is really good; it fights athlete’s foot. I’m serious. Urine is like an antiseptic. It all has to do with the enzymes in your body.
Dave: Don’t you know a good pharmacist? Get yourself some Desenex!
For his part, Letterman seemed to know that Madonna was kidding, but he didn’t take to her humor. He told USA Today, “Madonna could have been a real boost, but I’m not pleased with the way it turned out. I’m not pleased with the way I handled it. I should have said, ‘You say that word one more time and you’re gone. That’s it. Adios.’ And I didn’t.” “She sent me a fax on my birthday,” he continued, “and it was more of the same. Happy f*****’ birthday. Have a nice f*****’ day.” Madonna explained to Esquire magazine, “I don’t think he knew what he was getting into. But once he realized how the show went, the next day, instead of just saying, ‘We had a good time; it was all good fun and completely consensual,’ maybe the networks freaked out and he didn’t want to fall from grace with them. So he went with the gestalt of the media and said, ‘Yeah, it was really disgusting, and yes, she really behaved badly,’ and turned it into something to save face.”
Madonna had essentially lost her right to shock. America had enough icons by the mid-90s to continue pushing the ‘taste’ envelope. But she had truly opened that passage, for better or worse, during those five years of promiscuous bombardment. Explicit language and sexual imagery litter the landscape of media these days. Madonna arguably introduced the fashionable acceptance of “lesbian chic.” She sanctioned the preponderance of top-flight celebrity men and women baring their flesh in ‘upscale’ magazines like Maxim and Vanity Fair. And her frank, sexual banter, at the very least, helped burst through the walls of female repression in the music industry, giving voice to artists like Fiona Apple and Lil’ Kim.
The Madonna-wannabes of the new millenium use their sexuality to advance their every career move. Madonna, herself, recently acknowledged these proteges when she wore a ripped Britney Spears T-shirt during a free concert in New York and a Kylie Minogue T-shirt during the MTV Europe Awards in England. When asked about her idol wearing her name for all to see, Minogue likened it to “being blessed by the Pope.”
Ah yes, the Church. The detractors. Those that would smite her ‘voice.’ One would think that Madonna would be humbled today. Content to reflect upon her noteworthy revolution. Two children have entered her life, and the breach of middle age existence seems to have mellowed her outspokenness. But one only needs to view her latest video for the song “Music” and watch the Ambitious One juking with her homegirls at strip clubs to be reminded that she’s not ready for the retirement condo just yet.
Like the defiant spirit she exhibited long ago regarding the nude photos in Playboy and Penthouse, Madonna still never apologizes. She never backs down. In 1999, she said to “60 Minutes,” “I am the result of the good choices I’ve made and the bad choices, you know. And if I say I regret something or that I made a mistake, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I don’t want to have any sense of shame about it. And I don’t want to have any sense of regret. Why should I?”
Her strong will and voracious self-promotion is as apparent today as it was back when she was belting out “Borderline.” It truly seems that in Madonna’s mind, it doesn’t matter what opinion we have of her. Just so long as we have one.
© 2000 Ned Truslow