Christopher Ciccone «Life with My Sister Madonna»
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Madonna - Celebration: The Video Collection (КУПИТЬ)
The Confessions Tour (КУПИТЬ)
Мадонна: Во имя игры (КУПИТЬ)
THREE. Curiouser and curiouser! Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland MADONNA IS LIVING in a fifth-floor walk-up on East Fourth Street between Avenues A and B. Two small rooms, no furniture except a big white futon and a perpetually hissing radiator. I’m hardly through the door when she plays me “Everybody.” It doesn’t really grab me, but I want to be kind to her. Besides, I’m her new backup dancer. “I like it,” I say. “So when do I start?” She rams a fistful of popcorn into her mouth. I wait while she chews it. She takes a sip of Evian. “Well, Chris, I don’t actually need you anymore.” My sister doesn’t need me anymore. I don’t know whether to jump out the window myself or push her out instead. “Are you fucking kidding me, Madonna?” “Just filled your spot this morning, but if he doesn’t work out…” I feel as if she’s kicked me in the stomach. This time, at least, instead of telling me I can’t stay, she says I can move in and live with her permanently. The first thing I do is paint the rusting bathtub white. For the next five days, the fumes practically asphyxiate us.
I spend my days auditioning for dance companies while Madonna races frantically all over town in pursuit of further fame and fortune. Her efforts pay off. As a result of her recording contract—$15,000 to cut two singles, first “Everybody” and now “Burning Up”—her career is on the upswing and she isn’t broke anymore. So after a few weeks, she moves to a loft on Broome Street, leaving me the East Fourth apartment to myself. We haven’t had time to hang out much together, but now I have to figure out how I am going to pay the rent on East Fourth all on my own, which I can’t afford. Luckily, Mark, an neighbor who lives downstairs and works in the shipping department at a company that manufactures greetings cards for the gay market—all featuring naked men—offers me a room in his apartment. He rents me a room not much bigger than a bathroom and gets me a job at the greeting card company. But the job isn’t in the least bit sexy or glamorous. All I do all day is count the cards: three, six, nine, twelve. Three, six, nine, twelve, and put them in boxes. By lunchtime, I’m dizzy with boredom. When I’m not working, I audition for dance companies but don’t seem to get anywhere because the competition for the few spots is ferocious.
Meanwhile, perhaps feeling guilty because she has yet again abandoned me, or perhaps because she is aware that I have always loved art, Madonna invites me to come with her to see Jean-Michel Basquiat. She tells me she’s hung out with him a couple of times, then throws me a triumphant look that insinuates she’s also slept with him. As she intended, I’m impressed. Basquiat is exactly a month older than me, and already a legend. He’s Haitian, with a blond Mohawk and eyes wild from shooting too much heroin. First a graffiti artist, he started out painting T-shirts and postcards and sold them around the Village. Soon he was drawing violent, cartoonish pictures on lumber and foam rubber and selling them by the dozen for thousands of dollars. These days, he is represented by Mary Boone and has just had a soldout show at the Fun Gallery that everyone in Manhattan can’t stop talking about.
I think to myself how clever of my sister to hook up with Basquiat. He is offthe- wall, but he is hip and hot, and for Madonna that’s all it takes. She is “in love” with the idea of this infamous artist. Moreover, he lives on the edge, which is honey to her. And above all, his artistic credibility lends her the street cred she craves. So we go up to his massive loft on the Lower East Side, with canvases everywhere, clothes all over a dark room. In the dim lighting I can make out a sink filled with dirty dishes. The place smells of part linseed and part paint cleaner. In a second room, with the door open a crack, I can see Basquiat’s shadow on the wall, painting. Madonna yells, “Hey, I’m here.” He kind of mumbles hello, without turning to look at us, and keeps right on painting.
Madonna introduces me to him, he says hello to both of us. He and Madonna don’t kiss or hug. He just goes on painting. Madonna and I sidle back into the dingy kitchen. I can’t help noticing a small heap of smack on the counter. I am about to say something, but she shakes her head. “I never talk when he’s working,” she says. That’s a first! I think to myself. After around half an hour of watching her watching Basquiat paint, I leave. Still, it’s a step up from counting cards.
From then on, Madonna and I start hanging out more. Unlike many of my friends, she never drinks late into the night. In fact, she doesn’t drink at all, except for the odd lemon drop—her favorite drink. And her relationship with Basquiat is short-lived because she loathes his drug habits and its attendant behaviors. Like me, Madonna abhors tardiness or unreliability. To this day, we are both punctual and endeavor always to keep our word. Her charms must have worked their magic on Basquiat, though, as after their breakup he gives her two paintings, one of which—a small one—she still keeps on a little marble ledge in the bathroom of her New York apartment. She is deep into the downtown scene, hustling “Everybody” all over town. “Everybody” was cowritten by Steve Bray, one of her boyfriends from Detroit. At Danceteria on Twenty-first Street, I meet Mark Kamins, the DJ who helped her land the record deal for “Everybody.” She just marched into the club and gave it to him. And, hey, presto, he played it! That easy? I’m not so sure.
According to current club gossip swirling around the eighties’ downtown club scene, the easiest way for an unknown female singer to get her record played is to have sex with the DJ. I have no reason to believe this is how Kamins operated, but I do know that Kamins not only plays Madonna’s record; he also introduces her to Michael Rosenblatt, the A and R man at Sire Records. Rosenblatt immediately gives her tape to Sire Records’ president, Seymour Stein, who likes it so much that he asks that Madonna be brought to see him at Lenox Hill Hospital, where he is being treated for a heart condition. When she arrives, he is in a hospital gown with a drip feed in his arm, but on the spot makes the decision to sign her. Madonna flirted with Mark and Michael—the two men who were so instrumental in launching her career—which certainly wouldn’t have hurt her prospects. In a similar way, she also flirted outrageously with self-avowed lesbian Camille Barbone, her first manager. I doubt that she and Camille had more than a business relationship, but true to Madonna’s pattern, I am certain that she dangled just the right amount of sexy bait necessary to hook Camille. As Madonna herself has once confessed, she is a born flirt and automatically turns her flirtatious charms on anyone who crosses her path, particularly if he or she can help her career—which, of course, anyone with whom she flirts naturally ends up doing.
When Madonna is done with Camille and with Mark—like William T. Sherman blazing through Georgia—she’s on to Jellybean Benitez, DJ at the Funhouse, one of Manhattan’s first Latin hip-hop clubs and the perfect market for her music. After she sweet-talks Jellybean into playing her record, they begin dating. When I meet him, my first thought is He’s a bit short for you. Again, not her type, but useful. Not for her mythology, like Basquiat— but because, like Mark, he plays her record regularly. My sister’s persistence pays off in spades. In November 1982 “Everybody” hits number one on the dance charts. I still think it’s a silly song, but I’m surprised and happy for her. That fall and into the spring of 1983, I see guys come and go, in and out of my sister’s life. None of them linger. She is calling the shots. She isn’t one for long, drawn-out hellos or good-byes. In that, I later learn, we differ. NOW VERY MUCH part of the downtown culture, Madonna inevitably becomes aware of Manhattan’s hip S&M scene, as well. Its heterosexual heartbeat is the Hellfire Club, and its gay heartbeat the Mineshaft, which was immortalized in Al Pacino’s movie Cruising.
One of her best buddies, Martin Burgoyne—a charismatic, tall, blond boy from Florida around my age who bartends at Lucky Strike, a small, dim bar on East Ninth Street—wears leather motorcycle boots, is pierced in a number of places, and displays a red handkerchief in his jeans pocket, indicating that he’s into S&M. He openly plays on the dark side and likes it. Not my thing at all.
Perhaps due to her friendship with Marty, S&M becomes one of the leitmotifs of Madonna’s career, but I don’t believe she is into it personally. Nor do I want to have those kinds of images of my sister in my head, unless she is enacting them for publicity purposes—which I believe she always is. However, away from any sexual connotations or role-playing, in the boardroom, in the movie studio, and in most of her intimate relationships, including with me—even though she is far shorter than most dominatrixes— she milks the image for all it’s worth. By assuming a Venus in Furs persona, composed of part Margaret Thatcher, part Amazonian warrior, part kitten with a whip, part Lola from The Blue Angel, she will in the future achieve her goal of coming out on top in all her business and personal dealings. Marty introduces Madonna to photographer Edo Berteglio and his girlfriend, French jewelry designer Maripol, who designed those seminal colored rubber bracelets that everyone else in the Village is now wearing as well. However mainstream and oftimitated her concepts would later become, Maripol’s influence on Madonna’s image can’t be understated, as she is responsible for creating her punk-plus-lace look. She also is indirectly responsible for introducing me to the man who will become the first love of my life. Maripol is art director at Fiorucci, the hip Italian sportswear retail store on East Fifty-ninth Street. In the early eighties, wearing Fiorucci jeans or Tshirts is the ultimate badge of supercool. The store has a café, a tattoo parlor, and quirky salespeople, such as performance artist Joey Arias, who channels Billie Holiday to perfection. Andy Warhol shops there; so do Basquiat and Keith Haring. Madonna and I and half of downtown Manhattan love hanging out at the Fiorucci cappuccino machine, star-spotting. I am there when Andy meets Madonna. He is the same with her as he is with anyone about to come under the spotlight. He has his picture taken with her, and that’s all.
Afterward, she says to me, “Andy’s cool, but he’s not much of a conversationalist, is he?” I nod silently in agreement. I’m in Manhattan for about two months when Maripol calls and tells me there is a vacancy at Fiorucci. One of the salesmen in corduroys, a guy I’ll call Danny (not his real name), is going on vacation, and would I fill in? Anything is better than counting greeting cards, so I’m off to work at Fiorucci.
The day I arrive, Danny is leaving on a monthlong vacation. Before he leaves, I catch a glimpse of him in the manager’s office. He’s handsome, lean, three years older than me and a classic New Yorker who grew up in Queens, but doesn’t drive and has never been out of the city. The moment Danny arrives back from his vacation, I begin pursuing him with a drive to rival Madonna’s in the days when she was determined to get her record played by Kamins and Benitez. After some mild stalking on my part, Danny capitulates and agrees to go on a date with me. We then begin a relationship. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Danny can’t take his hard liquor. He is a mean drunk, with violent tendencies. A snapshot from the start of our relationship: We go to a Halloween costume party, me as Julius Caesar and Danny as a slave boy. Dire miscasting, or maybe just a tribute to my Italian heritage. Whatever the case, we party at a friend’s loft. I start to feel sick. I tell Danny I’m leaving, go home alone, and pass out cold.
The next thing I know, there is an almighty crash and Danny hurtles right through our bedroom window, covered in blood, blind drunk, and yelling profanities. When he finally sobers up, he tells me he was downstairs, buzzing, but I hadn’t answered, so he’d climbed up the fire escape, then deliberately smashed through the window. Other times when he’s drunk, he takes a swing at me out of the blue. I put a stop to it all one morning when we are walking through Washington Square Park and, with no provocation, he lifts his umbrella and is about to hit me. In the nick of time, I sidestep. I wrest the umbrella from Danny, then pick him up and throw him over a park bench. I am bigger than him, and stronger, and I’ve proved it. I tell him that he’s attacked for the last time, and if he ever hits me again, I will hit him back.
He doesn’t. He gives up hard liquor, and our relationship improves dramatically. Two years after our first meeting, I move into his four-room railroad flat on Morton Street. There, we sleep in a single bed with three Siamese cats, Boy, Girl, and Anisette. Danny has painted all the floors and the walls white. An old oil painting of the Madonna and child hangs on one of them. There is no air-conditioning, and the bath is in the corridor. Some nights, I wake up and hear clattering in the kitchen and wonder why Danny is up so late doing the dishes. I go in to see how he’s doing and discover that massive water bugs are marching all over the dishes. But I don’t care. I’m happy with Danny and our existence of relative domestic bliss. And the cats quickly dispatch the water bugs.
Our lives fall into a pleasing routine of dinner parties, travel, and holidays with his family—as my family as yet knows nothing about him. I am now twenty-four years old, and for the first time in years I feel safe and secure. In some ways, Danny is my Christopher Flynn, my mentor as well as my lover. And for the next eight years, we will live together in happiness, harmony, and monogamy. When I first tell my sister about Danny, she isn’t the least bit curious. She doesn’t ask to meet him, nor does she want to know anything about him. My personal life is of little interest to her—that is, not unless it impacts her or can serve her career in some way, which, down the line, it will. Her career is heating up and the world now seems to be revolving around her 24-7. “Burning Up/Physical Attraction” hits number three on the U.S. Hot Dance Music/Club Play Chart, and she releases her debut album, Madonna. She is still living on Broome Street, and no matter how much money she may now be making, she never mentions it. All I know is that she is well on her way to the top.
NOT LONG AFTER I first meet Danny, Madonna calls and tells me that the backup dancer who beat me to the job hasn’t worked out and she wants me to start dancing with her after all. Without skipping a beat, I say I will. When Danny finds out, he says I am spineless for jumping at the chance to dance with her given our history. I don’t think I am. I know I am going on an adventure, and besides, at last I’m going to be dancing with my sister. Moreover, I owe her, because I love dancing, and if she hadn’t taken me with her to Christopher Flynn that night, I would never have become a dancer in the first place. Not only that, she introduced me to modern dance, and, at the Rubaiyat, to myself. SO ON MOST Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, we work together on track dates, each of which lasts just twenty-five minutes, and when our time is up, we leave the club as quickly as possible. Madonna earns around $1,000 a night, depending on the club. The other dancer, Erika Bell, and I each make $200 or so. Not bad. So we dance behind Madonna with a mix of jazz, modern, and pop dancing. Simple stuff. Martin Burgoyne is roped in as our road manager and promoter and travels to the shows with us. Every night is the same. An hour before the show—though to call it a show is a bit of an exaggeration—we arrive at the club and go to the always-shabby dressing room. Sometimes there is no dressing room at all, just the club manager’s office.
We wait around while Marty collects the cash. In the meantime, the three of us—Madonna, Erika, and I—go over the choreography of each song: “Holiday,” “Burning Up,” and “Physical Attraction.” During those discussions, Madonna listens to me, listens to Erika, and we all work out the exact details of how we are going to choreograph each song in each venue. Generally, we end up doing the same steps every night. During those discussions, we are all equal. Madonna isn’t bossy, though she obviously is the boss. I’ve long since accepted that she’s no longer Madonna the serious modern dancer. She is a pop star now and is well on her way to becoming rich and famous. I believe in her talent as a performance artist and wish she were still a modern dancer, but am forced to concede that, in contrast to being a dancer, being a pop singer is relatively effortless. After all, a modern dancer has to sweat and train and dance until she drops. Nowadays, on track dates all Madonna has to do is sing to the track and bounce around with Erika and me behind her. Not so much cost to her body or her soul, but the route to mass adoration. Her ambition is in high gear, and her life is clearly now about moving forward, about making another record, about becoming famous. I don’t look at her and think my sister is on the way to becoming a star. I am still a trifle disdainful of her switch from modern dance to pop, and it’s difficult to envision stardom when you’re all scrambling to change in a club manager’s grimy office somewhere in East Flatbush.
Erika and I dance behind Madonna at Studio 54, the Roxy, Area, the Pyramid, Paradise Garage, and Roseland. We go down to Fort Lauderdale and perform at the Copa, where I am a bit embarrassed for my sister because disco diva Sylvester is in the audience and Madonna isn’t very good that night. We play Uncle Sam’s on Long Island, where the crowd just stands still and stares at us. I find the whole experience extremely curious but it puts Madonna in a bad mood. When we drive back in the dark blue Lincoln Town Car Martin has rented for the night, she starts bitching that it cost too much and he shouldn’t waste money on expensive cars. But Martin holds his ground and counters that he would never have driven all that way in a minivan. She shuts up. I turn on the radio and we head back to Manhattan. Most nights, though, we have a good time. After the show we all usually hang out and dance together. There is only one bad moment, a night at Roseland when Martin offers me some coke. My first line, and I hate it. Afterward, dancing onstage, I feel like a crazy person. I can’t remember any of the steps, as I twirl around and around and feel awful for the next few hours. I realize I can’t do drugs and dance.
“Holiday” has hit number one on the U.S. Hot Dance Music/ Club Play Chart. By now Madonna, Erika, Martin, and I are the coolest kids on the block, or so it seems to me. We get into all the clubs for free and rarely have to pay for drinks. Sometimes, I have the illusion that the four of us are all equal, but I know that isn’t the truth. For as much as we may work out our moves together, the primary reason for our gigs is to propel Madonna’s career to the next stage. Our track dates aren’t about us all becoming famous together, or Madonna and me becoming closer as brother and sister, but about her and nothing else. It’s fun, though, notwithstanding. In May, when Madonna is performing “Holiday” at Studio 54, with Erika and me dancing behind her, she does finally meet Danny and is polite, but clearly indifferent to him. Through the years, she will treat him in much the same way as she always treats Joan—rarely mentioning his name, rarely addressing him directly, and rarely curious about our relationship. She acts as if he doesn’t exist and is merely a figment of my imagination, rather than my life partner.
In July 1983, Madonna meets Freddy DeMann, Michael Jackson’s manager, who, at the suggestion of Seymour Stein, the boss of Sire, her record label, signs her as his client. Erika, Marty, and I are on the way out, but we don’t yet know it. “Holiday” enters the Hot 100 U.S. singles chart, Madonna films a cameo appearance as a nightclub singer in the movie Vision Quest, and she’s even photographed by Francesco Scavullo, who dubs her Baby Dietrich. There is no question that Marty, Erika, and I have become obsolete. But before we are completely dismissed, the three of us are dazzled and surprised when Freddy books us on a European tour with Madonna. I promptly quit Fiorucci, and together, Erika, Marty, Madonna, and I fly to London. All of us, even Madonna, fly coach on Air India. We are in dance clothes— sweatpants, leg warmers, sweatshirts, and boots—and stretch in the aisles, like chorus-line gypsies.
We arrive at Heathrow Airport at eight in the morning. We didn’t sleep on the plane, so we all feel like shit. London is cold and wet and gloomy. We all check into an inexpensive little hotel in Earls Court, grab some sleep, and then a car picks us up and takes us to the BBC Studios in White City. The next day, January 26, 1984, we are playing Top of the Pops, England’s number one TV music show. Once in the dressing room, we are told to wait. The four of us sit there, incredibly nervous. We assume that we’ll be filmed in a club setting, but that turns out not to be true. We are led onto a soundstage, and the audience stands around, almost listless.
Madonna, made up with dark eye shadow, dark red lipstick, her hair frizzy, dressed in high-waisted black pants, leg warmers, and a multicolored shirt, her midriff bare, lip-synchs “Holiday” while Erika and I do our usual trackshow moves in the background. We feel weird performing in front of an audience who are so uncool that afterward they hardly applaud at all. We are relieved when the show is over. We go out for an Indian meal, the only edible food in London at the time, and talk about how bizarre the show was, how strange it is not performing live, not having a screaming audience cheering us on. The next morning, Marty, always the first to know what’s hot, drags us to Camden Market, a flea market in a seedy corner of London, with vendors selling everything from leather parkas to baby carriages. Very much London’s version of the East Village. Madonna and all of us buy jeans and shirts and hats. Madonna also buys a pair of plaid pants with little straps connecting the legs together—very punk. There was no question, in those days, of Madonna being recognized or mobbed in the streets of London—probably the last time in her life when she won’t be.
ON JANUARY 27, 1984, we travel up to Manchester by train and perform “Holiday” on The Tube, a TV show recorded at the Hacienda. Inside the club, light shows wobble and flicker on a screen. We know raves are sometimes held at the club and are surprised that the audience is so straight. They are all wearing regular clothes, khaki pants, very much like the Long Island crowd, and not hip at all. Usually during “Holiday,” the audience gets into the mood and starts dancing. But not this time. They just stand still and watch, faces impassive. Then, suddenly, they start booing and throwing things at us. I’m hit with a crumpled-up napkin, Madonna with a roll, Erika with something else. We’re stunned. It’s obvious that this isn’t about our music, it’s about us. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Madonna yells, and with cash in hand, we bolt. On the train back to London, we bitch about England and the English. If I had told Madonna then that twenty years later she’d be married to an Englishman, and giving a passable imitation of Lady Marchmain from Brideshead Revisited, she would never have believed me and would probably have pissed herself laughing. She hated England that much.
WE TRAVEL BACK to London, then in the morning take the boat train to Paris. Paris, though, isn’t much better for us than London. Madonna stays at the Meurice on the Rue de Rivoli. Marty, Erika, and I are stuck in some rundown hotel a few streets away until we complain to Madonna about our accommodations and she eventually relents, letting us stay at the Meurice after all. We all wander around the city with Marty. He wants to go to Paris’s red-light district, the Pigalle, and as always, we follow him there. In the evening, we record the show in some illegal club in an old gymnasium with an empty swimming pool in the middle of it. We are made to stand on the bottom of the pool and perform, with everyone else standing above us and watching. We are basically performing to a wall, and it’s ludicrous. In the midst of the second song, someone shoots tear gas into the room. We run to the nearest exit, tears streaming down our faces. It’s pandemonium, everyone running everywhere.
We spend the rest of the night trying to get the tear gas out of our eyes, complaining that we hate Paris as much as London. The trip gets even worse when we decide to go to Les Bains Douches, a club we’ve been told is hot, only to be stopped at the door and prevented from entering because the door people don’t like the way we look. The next morning, we fly back to America. I’m happy to be coming home, happy to be back at Morton Street, happy to be back with Danny. I’ve missed him. AT THE BEGINNING of February, Madonna asks us to dance in her “Lucky Star” video, to be shot in L.A., and Erika and I fly there together. This is my first trip out there since I was a teenager. I have never seen so many palm trees, so much sun, and so many tanned and perfectly stretched faces in my life.
We shoot the video at the old Charlie Chaplin studio, which is pretty much the same as when it was originally built in the thirties. I get paid just $200 for dancing in the “Lucky Star” video and don’t get any royalties either. However, at the time, I am happy just to be a part of it. The camaraderie between Madonna, Erika, Martin, and me is enough for me. After we shoot the video, we all go to Studio One, above Rose Tattoo, and dance the night away. But when we get back to New York, it’s obvious that things have changed. Madonna has become more businesslike, her new manager, Freddy DeMann is now one of the most important people in her life, and track dates are no longer on the schedule.
Her first album, Madonna, is certified gold, and she’s in the studio recording her second album, Like a Virgin. Soon after, she is signed to play the part of Susan in Susan Seidelman’s low budget, $5 million movie, Desperately Seeking Susan. The movie is conceived of as a hip screwball comedy centering around a suburban housewife who becomes fascinated by a series of newspaper advertisements “Desperately Seeking Susan.” Madonna will play the small supporting role of Susan, a role for which Melanie Griffith, Kelly McGillis, Ellen Barkin, and Jennifer Jason Leigh also test. Initially, the movie is projected to be a star vehicle for Rosanna Arquette, but, of course, Madonna will walk off with the entire movie—primarily because she is playing herself in every single frame and, as always, plays it to perfection.
Along the way, Erika, Marty, and I are informed by one of Freddy’s assistants that Madonna is dispensing with our services. Madonna, of course, assiduously avoids giving us the news herself. I feel a little betrayed. By now, I have cottoned on at last that if I want to continue working with my sister— and I do—I must be prepared for a modicum of betrayal on her part to be woven into the highly colored fabric of both our filial and professional relationships. For now, though, I reason that working with her has been like working on a movie. It feels as if you were a little family, but then filming ends, and the family splits up. I still feel slightly abandoned, another emotion I am starting to associate with my sister, but it isn’t a big thing. Besides, I am a little relieved. The act was getting boring—doing the same steps over and over—and the songs repetitious. I go back to work at Fiorucci. I work in jeans, and Danny in corduroys. I tell him I’m not dancing anymore and won’t be away from him night after night. He is clearly delighted. Looking back, I see that warning bells should have rung regarding his possessiveness, but they didn’t. Our relationship seems so perfect. I am too happy with him, and happy in particular that he’s gone out and surprised me by buying me some paints.
I haven’t painted since high school, but thanks to Danny, I start again and rediscover my love of painting. During this period in the West Village, the prewar tenement buildings are being remodeled—the wood-frame windows replaced with new aluminum ones. Piles of old windows are always on the street corners. Danny has collected some of them, and with his approval I use them as canvases. At this stage, following in my sister’s footsteps, although not deliberately, I, too, go through a religious phase. I paint religious scenes on the windows. I have no idea whether I am a good painter, just that I am passionate about painting, about being creative.
Meanwhile, Madonna the album has sold 1 million copies and is certified platinum, and she follows up with Like a Virgin. Madonna has now far transcended the Manhattan downtown scene, and the entire country is starting to sit up and take notice of her. Half the world does, in fact, except, perhaps, me. Danny and I are building our life together, I am immersed in my painting, and I pay little attention to the public adulation Madonna is now receiving and its possible effect on my life. That changes one morning when I drop into my local Korean vegetable store, run into a friend of mine, tell him I’m back working at Fiorucci, and there is a stunned silence. “Why the hell are you working when your sister is so rich?” he asks. I tell him that I am not sure what he means. He explains that she has a record deal and must be making mountains of cash. I tell him, “Just because I’m her brother doesn’t mean I get a monthly allowance. I have to work just like everyone else!”
Until then, I haven’t given Madonna’s financial status any thought. To me, she isn’t a big star, just my sister, and just a few months before I was doing track dates with her. I walk back to my little apartment (I haven’t yet moved in with Danny) past drug dealers on one side of the street, and flaming garbage cans on the other, and don’t give Madonna another thought. FOUR MONTHS AFTER we get back from L.A., just when I am settling back into life at Fiorucci, she calls again and asks me to join her and Erika and Marty on another European trip, set up by Freddy. But this time, we are also going to Morocco. Of course, Danny doesn’t want me to go, but I have an adventurous spirit and am loathe to contain it just to make my boyfriend happy, so in June 1984 I fly to France. First we perform at a party in Paris for Fiorucci’s founder. Then we fly to Munich and do a show there. Afterward, we go to the Hofbräu House and are amazed at how much food—meat and radishes and sauerkraut—is on offer. Then we take the overnight train to Bremen. We’ve never before been on a train like this—beautiful, with dark wood panels and comfortable beds with cool, starched yellow cotton sheets.
We all love the sheets so much that we pull them off the beds and wrap them round us as if they are togas or royal robes of some sort. “Traveling on this train is like being in an old Marlene movie or in The Lady Vanishes,” Madonna says. “Hopefully you won’t disappear tonight,” I say, harking back to the plot of Hitchcock’s movie. “Well, if I do, I’m sure you’ll come and find me.” “Damn right,” I say. As the train takes us through Germany, we all become giddy with a sense of adventure, the rush of our new experiences, and can’t sleep. So we take the divider down between Madonna’s compartment and Erika’s and sit up all night long, talking. Erika and I understand that our euphoria is temporary, because although Madonna’s career is escalating, ours with her is practically over. But for that night, at least, the three of us are caught up in the excitement swirling around her and the romance of roaring across Germany in this elegant train.
From Bremen, we fly back to Paris, and from there, to Marrakech, to make a video for a French TV show. The moment we land there, I feel as if we are on another planet. Being in Marrakech feels like taking a step back into the fifteenth century. Turbaned men ride camels through the city square where snake charmers charm, dervishes whirl, and not a woman is in sight. Once out of the confines of the Club Med, where we are staying, I am immediately surrounded by young boys offering their services as guides through the souk (market)—a maze of tiny, winding alleys in which it is easy to lose your way. I hire one of the guides, tip him, and he not only leads me safely through the streets, but also keeps the other guides from bothering me. An efficient system.
Marty stays at the market on his own. A couple of hours later, he turns up at our hotel wearing just his boxers and brandishing a set of false teeth. “Really cool,” he says. “Traded them for my jeans.” In the morning, we pile into a bus for the four-hour drive to Ouarzazate in south-central Morocco, in the Saharan desert, where we’ll be shooting the video. Lawrence of Arabia and, later, Gladiator were shot in Ouarzazate, but it seems to me a long way to go just to make a short video. Freddy, who has gone ahead by plane, is meeting us there. By now, Madonna has acquired another traveling companion, a personal trainer. She is American, with short, curly hair and far too much energy, and she irritates all of us.
Once we leave Marrakech and drive toward the Atlas Mountains, the landscape changes dramatically. No trees, just bare mountains with tiny specks of sheep climbing around. After two hours, we realize we are hungry and ask the driver where we can stop and eat. The answer is nowhere. It’s Ramadan and Muslims aren’t permitted to eat or drink until sundown. We are about to protest when there is an almighty bang. The bus has broken down. We are on a deserted mountain road. There are no cell phones, no restrooms. Our driver can’t start the bus. He tries radioing for help, but discovers that we are out of range. So he gets out and starts messing with the engine. By now, it’s one in the afternoon. We are all hot and sweaty, and it looks as if we’re going to be stuck here for hours. Madonna has a major meltdown. “We’re in the middle of the fucking desert. Where the fuck is Freddy? What the fuck are we doing here? I can’t believe he did this to me. I’m going to kill him. Christopher, do something!” I ignore her because I know that if I don’t, she’ll start yelling at me as well. And if she does, I know it will be impossible for me to stop myself from cracking, “Wonder if Freddy ever sent Michael Jackson through the desert in a bus?” More bitching and screaming. Her trainer, a touchy-feely girl, strokes her arm. “Stay cool, Madonna. Everything is going to be fine. Let’s meditate,” she croons.
Madonna slams her hand away. “Get the fuck away from me, it’s too hot!” Madonna may be big in the States and in Europe, but here in Africa she is a complete unknown. So to any outsiders, we are just a bedraggled little group of stranded American tourists, dumb enough to take a bus across the desert. Finally a tiny, putt-putt three-wheel truck appears. We flag it down. Our driver talks to the truck driver and his friend, and although they speak little English, in a stroke of luck they are driving in the right direction. Money changes hands, and we all get into the truck and discover that it doesn’t have any seats. Undeterred, we pile the luggage into the back, along with Marty, Erika, and the trainer. Madonna and I squeeze between the two men in front and sit on the floor with the hot, rusty, and dirty stick shift digging into us. It’s now extremely hot and our drivers smell. We drive for thirty minutes, and as the sun sets, we arrive at a little town just perched at the end of a hill. The town consists only of a café, a gas station, and two small houses. The truck grinds to a halt. “What the fuck are you doing?” Madonna screeches. The drivers ignore her. They just get out of the truck and go into the café. As an afterthought, they tell us, “At sunset, we eat.”
We end up joining them in the café and have some soup, no doubt made out of one of the goats’ heads hanging nearby. Madonna is so hungry that she jettisons her vegetarian principles and eats some goat soup as well. The drivers also just keep on eating. When they’ve finished, we all pile into the truck again and drive on. It’s nighttime and cold now. One of the drivers turns on the radio, and a pop song blares through the speakers. He smiles at Madonna and says, “You heard of Michael Jackson?” “Just shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up,” she shrieks. I put my hand over her mouth. “Madonna, just be quiet. We need them to drive us to our destination.”
For once, she listens to me and shuts up. We are out of the mountains now and in the heart of the desert. The sky is pitch-black and a multitude of stars twinkle brightly above us. Just as I begin to enjoy the journey, the truck stops dead. Somehow, our drivers make us understand that they can’t drive any farther, as their license doesn’t allow them to drive into the next province. Luckily, a second truck pulls up, and the driver agrees to take us to Ouarzazate. An hour later, we arrive at Club Med. Freddy is standing outside waiting for us. Madonna flips out completely. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, Freddy? How can you do this to me? I’m not performing for any fucking French television, fuck this shit. I want to be on a plane right now. I want to go back to New York.”
Freddy remains calm. “You’re here now; just do the TV thing tomorrow. In any case, there aren’t any planes flying out of here tonight.” Madonna stamps her feet. “I’m not doing it, I’m not doing it, and that’s fucking that.” She goes on for a good three hours, while Freddy all but turns cartwheels trying to persuade her to give in and do the show anyway. During Madonna’s tantrum, Erika, Marty, the trainer, and I just sit in the lobby, drinking bottled water. Erika, Marty, and the trainer all marvel at Madonna’s high-decibel diva performance. I don’t. I grew up with her. Finally, Freddy calms her down, and we all go to bed. The French TV company is expecting us to film in the desert, but Madonna flatly refuses. Instead, she insists that we shoot here on the pool deck at Club Med. We could be absolutely anywhere on the entire planet.
Madonna declares, “I’m not talking to you, Freddy. I don’t want to talk to you for the next five days,” but we make the video anyway. The following day, we get driven back to Marrakech in a broken-down station wagon, with no delays or mishaps. At the Club Med there, we each check into rooms that are sort of tucked in underneath one another. So even though you are in your own room, you are still sleeping above somebody in the room below you, and you can hear everything. Later that night, everyone but Madonna and me is suffering aftereffects from the goat soup, and all we can hear is people moaning and then throwing up. By the next morning, the charm of Morocco has worn off.
We fly back to Paris. As soon as we arrive back at the Meurice, Madonna and I get really sick. We drag ourselves to the airport, anxious to get home to America and recover there from our bizarre African adventure. BACK IN THE USA, Simon Fields, who produced the “Lucky Star” video, offers me a job as a production assistant in his company. I fly out to L.A., stay with Danny’s brother, and work for Simon fifteen hours a day, leaving me little time for partying or for hanging out with my sister, whose career is going great guns.
I get my first taste of music videos from the production side. It is by far the worst job I have ever had. Up at dawn, in bed after midnight. Days filled with running errands, delivering props, cleaning up after people, and generally being everyone’s gofer. I can’t wait for the job to end. While I grow to like the medium, I vow that from now on I will either direct a video or have nothing else to do with it. In September, I go back to Manhattan and—because I am still painting and interested in art—get a receptionist job at the Diane Brown Gallery in SoHo. Madonna invites me to see her perform at the first annual MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City on September 14, 1984. She has been nominated for Best New Artist Video for “Border-line” and is also performing at the show. I meet her at Maripol’s loft. Maripol is styling and dressing her up as a kind of punk bride. When I arrive, she is fastening rubber bracelets to Madonna’s wrists, helping her into white tights, a tight white bustier and skirt, and clasping her BOY TOY belt round her waist. I take one look at the result and—though I don’t voice the sentiment—think she looks ridiculous but I know her fans will love the look.
Way in one corner of the loft, a woman with black hair and a leather cap covering her face is sitting on the floor, watching intently as my sister is getting dressed. The woman doesn’t say a word, but just gazes at Madonna, transfixed. Finally, after Madonna’s outfit is accessorized with a crucifix and a white tulle veil, the woman takes her eyes off Madonna and glances in my direction. “Cher, meet my brother Christopher,” Madonna says. I smile and, for the first time, take a good look at the woman. It really is Cher. She seems lonely, and I think it strange that she is just sitting there staring at Madonna while she is getting dressed. I haven’t got a clue why she’s in the room, or how she and Madonna met, and whether or not they are friends, but Madonna is far too busy preparing for her upcoming performance for me to ask.
However, this moment marks the second of the intriguing encounters I have with celebrities I meet through my sister, or simply because I’m Madonna’s brother. Basquiat is the first. Cher, the second. The rest, in no particular order, will include Demi Moore, Courtney Love, Lisa Marie Presley, Bruce Willis, Donatella Versace, Kate Moss, Dolly Parton, Johnny Depp, Liza Minnelli, the Spice Girls, Farrah Fawcett, Naomi Campbell, Jack Nicholson, Luciano Pavarotti, Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Warren Beatty, Sean Penn, Sting, Trudie Styler, Gwyneth Paltrow, and more. Through all my encounters with celebrities I feel privileged to have access to so many people whom I admire. Often, I meet stars because I am Madonna’s date at an event, but she rarely gives any of them more than a cursory glance. Most of the time, she is really bored and wants to leave as quickly as possible. And she is hardly ever impressed by meeting other famous people, so when we do, I make a point of keeping in contact with them on her behalf and because I want to.
That night at the MTV awards, my sister is the star, and after Bette Midler cattily introduces her as “the woman who pulled herself up by her bra straps,” Madonna upstages Bette resoundingly. The audience may be enthralled by Madonna, but I watch the greenroom TV, see her pop out of a wedding cake, and squirm. As she rolls around the stage, the thought flashes across my mind as to what our father and Grandma Elsie must both be thinking as they see her act on TV. I wonder if my sister is at all troubled at the possibility of shocking or hurting them, but remembering her teen talent show, I doubt it. Nor will I ask her. Since the “Lucky Star” video, we have had little contact, and this evening is not exactly the right moment in which to start. Apart from working ceaselessly to become an even bigger star, she is about to fall in love deeply and, some say, for always. On the L.A. set of the “Material Girl” video, as Madonna is sashaying down a staircase, decked out in a fuchsia satin replica of the Travilla gown Marilyn wore in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she comes face-to-face with hot actor Sean Penn.
He is twenty-four, she is twenty-six, their birthdays are just one day apart, and—for both of them—it is love at first sight. Afterward, she will claim that Sean reminds her of pictures she’s seen of our father when he was young. After the video shoot, Sean goes to a friend’s house. The friend is reading from a book of quotations, turns to a page, and reads out the following random quote: “She had the innocence of a child and the wit of a man.” As Sean later remembered it, “I looked at my friend and he just said, ‘Go get her.’ So I did.” On February 13, 1985, she and Sean go on their first date together. After that, for both of them, there is no question that they want to be together, for now and always.
THE Like a Virgin album sells 3.5 million copies in just twelve weeks, is the first solo album by a female artist ever to be certified for sales of 5 million copies, and knocks Bruce Springsteen off the top of the charts and stays there. And not long after, “Crazy for You” will become America’s number one single, as well. My sister is now a pop phenomenon. I think back to our games of Monopoly and conclude that she could now probably afford to buy Park Place for real. Meanwhile, I am enjoying my job at the art gallery and am happy with my life in Manhattan with Danny.
That is, until my sister comes calling again. “Come out to L.A., Chris. Come work, be my assistant. It’ll be so cool. I’m going out on tour soon, and you can be my dresser.” Her dresser? “Why not dancer, Madonna?” I say, somewhat flummoxed. “I can get a thousand dancers, but only one brother to dress me.” Well, I may be gay, but taking on the role of dresser seems a step too far, and I tell her so. “But, Chris, I don’t want any fucking stranger seeing me naked. You’re my brother. You’re the only person I trust. I need you.” My big sister needs me. The next morning, much to my boyfriend’s dismay, I fly to L.A. FOUR For there is no friend like a sister in calm or stormy weather.
Christina Rossetti TWO MONTHS BEFORE the Like a Virgin tour begins, I move out to Los Angeles and stay with Madonna and Sean at his home on Carbon Mesa Road, Malibu—a single-level, white stucco Spanish hacienda with a tile roof, built in a dry, arid canyon. The first thing I notice is that the entire property, small as it is, is fenced in by a big wall topped by metal spikes. As I approach the house via a center courtyard with a disused fountain in the middle. I see that the front door is open and walk in. The living room is furnished with clunky, hand-painted and hand-carved Mexican furniture. Nothing fancy, no particular style at all. Typical of the owner of the house, Sean Penn, my future brother-in-law, who is not into home interiors and wants you to know it. Madonna is at a meeting in Burbank, but Sean sets about making me feel comfortable.
First, a firm handshake. Definite, manly. Different from that of Madonna’s second husband, Guy Ritchie, whose handshake is a trifle unsure. Apart from that, husband number one and husband number two have one marked similarity—Guy and Sean are both middle-class boys from comfortable homes and yet are prone to present themselves as tough street kids. My sister, I believe, has always played the identical game. After all, she is a middleclass girl who propagates the myth that she landed in Times Square with just a pair of ballet shoes and $35. Perhaps this partially explains Madonna’s attraction to both Sean and Guy. That and a mutual love of guns. But unlike Guy in the future, Sean does his best to make me feel comfortable, to be brotherly. A beer? A pizza? A shot of tequila? I opt for the tequila, wanting then, and always, to be more one of the guys than I am. Not that Sean is homophobic. Or if he is, as an accomplished actor he disguises it masterfully.
HE SPENDS A great deal of time away from the house, and so does Madonna, so I am often left to my own resources. I’m not particularly comfortable at the house, where my room is Spartan in the extreme, with just a bed, a table lamp, no artwork, no drapes. Madonna doesn’t seem particularly at home in the house either. She tells me that she feels isolated, and I don’t blame her. She’s a city girl, and being stuck out in Malibu— however beautiful the place may be—feels strange to her. Sometimes we watch movies together, but rarely with Sean, who is usually off somewhere filming. If he is home, he and Madonna never have guests over to the house. From the first, I get the distinct impression that Sean is reclusive and feels happiest hiding out at home with Madonna alone. I stay out of their way as much as I can, except that now and again I cook dinner for her and Sean.
One night, soon after I arrive at the house, I roast a couple of chickens for us all. Halfway through the meal, Sean leans over to Madonna and takes a piece of chicken from her plate. “Just stop that, Sean,” she says, and slaps his hand. Sean grins at her and takes another piece. I am starting to deconstruct my sister’s attraction to Sean. He is a dead ringer for our father as a young man, is middle-class like Madonna but with a streetkid persona, and presents himself as a bad boy and is a rebel—just like our brothers. Patently a recipe for disaster. MY JOB AS Madonna’s assistant is varied and far more interesting than working at Fiorucci. I return calls for her, keep her diary, make her appointments—some of which are with mogul David Geffen, who continually proposes that my sister marry him, whereupon she always refuses. One of my regular tasks is feeding Hank. Half-Akita, half-wolf, Hank is a gift to Sean from Madonna. When I first arrive at the house, I am confident that feeding him will be easy. I’ve only heard his bark and haven’t yet seen him. But I’m curious why he is always outside the house, in a fenced-off area behind a gate.
Sean quickly enlightens me. He hands me a heavy black leather suit, a big coat and big gloves, along with a warning: unless I run to the gate and quickly slip Hank’s bowl of raw meat through a crack, he’ll probably bite me. Bite me? I take one look at Hank, hurtling toward me like the hound of the Baskervilles on speed, and know that he’ll definitely kill me. Easily, and with one chomp. He is massive. Fearsome. A wild animal, not remotely domesticated. But Sean adores him. And he makes no secret of just loving it that Hank scares the shit out of everyone who comes within a mile of him. If he didn’t, Hank would long since have been put down.
Sean also loves his friend the writer Charles Bukowski, who lumbers into the house, day or night, blind drunk and puking. The moment he arrives, my sister escapes into the bedroom, disgusted. Strangely enough, Madonna and Bukowski are born on the same date—different years—and she usually admires good writers, but she loathes few things more than an undisciplined drunk. Or a gun collector. Perhaps she, too, has never forgotten Marty and Anthony menacing us with BB guns when we were kids. As the son of director Leo Penn and his wife, actress Eileen Ryan, Sean is minor Hollywood royalty. Years later, he will reveal that both his parents drank heavily once the children were in bed at night, but never showed any evidence of drunkenness in the morning. In retrospect, I conclude that perhaps with Bukowski, who was almost forty years his senior, Sean was reliving some of the dynamics of his relationship with his father.
UNFORTUNATELY FOR SEAN, he is about to be confronted with a new and unfamiliar fact of life; since meeting Madonna just a few months before, her career has already made a quantum leap and her fame has increased by almost epic proportions. Madonna has been profiled in Newsweek, the single “Material Girl” has hit the U.S. charts at number two, and after Desperately Seeking Susan is released on March 29 and Madonna receives great acclaim for her performance—which I still can’t help thinking is Madonna just being herself—her star is even further in the ascendant.
MY JOB AS dresser for The Virgin Tour begins. We rehearse for three weeks in L.A., and I get basic on-the-job training on how to be Madonna’s dresser. On the road, when we stay at hotels, my day begins when, first thing in the morning, I go to my sister’s room, check her messages, order sourdough toast and coffee for her, and return her calls. Then I and the rest of the team— including her dancers and the band—go to either the current venue or the next. Madonna always travels first class. She is careful not to show favoritism toward me because I’m her brother. An irony, really, considering that she grew up our father’s favorite and didn’t protest, but perhaps she now believes that what was glorious for the goose is no longer fitting for the gander. So I fly coach with everyone else.
I arrive at the venue an hour before the show starts. In the dressing room, which on this tour is always in a small tent behind the stage, I inspect all the costumes and make sure that they are all on hand and in perfect condition. If an article of clothing has a hole in it or a hook missing, I quickly sew it up. As Madonna is extremely active onstage and always perspires a great deal, we tour with three versions of every outfit she wears onstage. Hence we have fifteen pairs of fishnets, ten pairs of gloves, three painted jackets, and three versions of all the other costumes in the show. I make sure that her first outfit is laid out and waiting for her. Blue lace bra, jean jacket, blue lace top, lace gloves, blue socks, leggings, blue jean skirt. Blue rag in her hair. Silver cross earring for her right ear, silver hearts earrings for her left, chain belt round her midriff. Two crosses around her neck, plus a gilt chain. Blue ankle boots. I dress her before the show. When she is ready, she has her makeup done, and finally her hair. She will open the show with three songs. She sings the first two, “Dress You Up” and “Holiday,” wearing the jean jacket. Then she’ll peel it off to do the last one, “Everybody,” in the lace top underneath. The rest of the outfit stays the same.
She will have a change of costume every two or three songs, and that change has to be completed in a minute and a half or less. To ensure that the changes happen like clockwork, I hang all the rest of her outfits on the clothes rack in the order she will wear them. I lay her shoes out on the floor and unroll the gloves she’ll be wearing in the first change with the fingers folded back and turned inside out so she can just stick her hand through them quickly. On April 10, 1985, opening night of The Virgin Tour with the first of three sold-out concerts at the Paramount Theater, Seattle, Washington, I’m probably even more nervous than my sister. We’ve rehearsed the timing of the changes over and over, but nothing can compare with the real thing— knowing that Madonna is about to come offstage and that I have to change her entire outfit in seconds.
After “Everybody,” she hurtles backstage. She is wet with sweat and is breathing heavily. I wipe her down. She stands still while I remove all her jewelry, then her top, her skirt, the rag out of her hair. She pauses to take a swig of Evian, and because every second counts, I use the time to check that all the fringes in her next outfit are unknotted. Then I help her into it: the black bra top, black fringed waistcoat and skirt, and finally the long black gloves. “What the fuck, Christopher, you haven’t pushed out the little finger! Fuck you, you piece of shit,” she storms. I stop dead, horrified. “Hurry the fuck up, or I’ll fucking fire you right now,” she screams. I open my mouth, then close it. She’s due back onstage again in fifty seconds. I straighten the fringe of her skirt again. She stamps her foot, wriggles, and one of the hooks holding her bra snaps off.
Rather than take the time to sew up her bra with a needle and thread, I grab a safety pin and pin her bra together—careful not to let her know I’m using one. “Fuck you, Christopher, I can’t fucking believe how slow you are,” she screams. Then she’s back onstage, singing and dancing like there’s no tomorrow. While I am left in the tent, close to tears, thinking, I can’t do this job. I’m doing my best but all I get is screaming. I can’t do this. I hear the applause of the crowd, the cheering, and know that she’ll soon be backstage again, screaming and shouting at me. I feel like walking out of the theater and never coming back. Then I switch from dresser mode to brother mode and realize I can’t abandon my sister. I think of the crowds, the fame, and the pressure on Madonna. Thousands of people are out there watching her, the adrenaline is pumping, she’s thinking of a hundred different things. Fifteen songs, fifteen dance routines, lyrics, steps, voice, movement, hair, makeup. And how everything—plus the ticket sales, the crew’s salary, the audience getting their money’s worth—depends on her.
And at that moment, I realize that Madonna really wasn’t lying when she said she needed me, because she genuinely does. I am the one person she can rely on, the one person at whom—when the pressure becomes unbearable–she can vent, and the one person who will take it, because I’m her brother, and I feel for her. I make up my mind there and then that I’ll endure the abuse, endure the pressure, and that I won’t walk out, because ultimately, in the midst of the show, in the heat of the moment, my sister is at her most vulnerable and I want to be there for her because I empathize. Besides, she’s including me in her crazy, fabulous world, and I am relishing every moment. Some of those positive emotions evaporate when Madonna storms offstage, screaming at me again because her bra’s come undone. She rips it off, sees the safety pin, and goes ballistic. I listen to the torrent of swearwords and, instead of shrinking, flash back to our father scrubbing our tongues with soap because we’d said one solitary Fword. Nowadays, he’d need a whole crateful of soap to scrub Madonna’s tongue.
I laugh silently to myself and carry on dressing her. After that, during each show, I block out all the obscenities, all the ranting, and concentrate instead on the change, focus on the job at hand, and ignore whatever she is yelling, unless it has to do with the costumes. Other than that, I learn to make myself scarce and not to react, no matter what. In a way, this tour is a learning experience for both of us. She has never been on tour before, and I have never been a dresser. That she asked me, who has no experience, to dress her on her first tour is a testament to the trust she now has in me. I believe that even a dresser with experience would still have found dressing Madonna difficult on The Virgin Tour. Other dressers had worked with stars before, but at this point few stars had toured with shows having so many costume changes. And I doubt that the majority sweat so much. Wiping sweat off Madonna’s body—even, at times, off her breasts—makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Nonetheless, during each and every change, I do just that because she needs me, and because that’s part of my job. After I wipe her body, then dress her, I make sure her hair is in position and her makeup in place, then I push her onstage. And when she comes offstage—in particular after the first set—I always tell her how terrific she was, how wonderful she looks, how much the audience loves her. And she goes back onstage again happy.
The moment the show is over, I bundle her in a towel and then into her car, and the car whisks her back to the hotel. I follow in the tour bus, along with the rest of the cast, who are all still dressed in their costumes. Once we arrive at the hotel, I go from room to room and, in one of my least favorite parts of my dresser job, pick up all the costumes and take them to the dry cleaner’s so they’ll be ready for the next performance. Then I go to my sister’s room and we talk about the show and how it went. She tells me what she thinks went wrong, what she thinks went right, gives me notes for the dancers and singers—who screwed up, who didn’t. If the show went well, she feels great. I reinforce that feeling. “Really great show, really great crowd, they were so happy to see you,” I say, and she is elated. Along the way, I am getting to know my sister and to love her. I feel protective of her because of the insanity of the world swirling around her, and I want to spare her some of it, if I can. Witnessing the crowds, the people, the fame, I realize how crucial I now am to Madonna’s sense of security, of safety. She is going places, and she needs someone to depend on. Right now, that person is me, and I’m happy to be there for her.
FROM THE MOMENT we arrive in Portland, Oregon, on April 15, it feels like one of the strangest cities I’ve ever visited. Outside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, religious fanatics are picketing the show, milling around with placards proclaiming that Madonna is Satan’s spawn, and that she is going to hell. My desire to protect my sister is intensified when, after we play Portland, Freddy, who doesn’t say a word to Madonna about it, tells me that death threats have been directed at her. I freak out. From that moment on, I become hyperaware of what is going on around her, extremely protective, even paranoid. Those emotions will never leave me, and even today, when I see clips of Madonna surrounded by crowds of people, or playing in a massive stadium, I am afraid for her.
After the menacing insanity of Portland, I can hardly believe that we are only at the start of the tour. Madonna performs in San Diego, in Costa Mesa, and in San Francisco, then triumphs in three sold-out concerts at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles, where we learn that Like a Virgin has been certified four times platinum. Then we move on to Tempe, Dallas, Houston, Austin, New Orleans, Tampa, and Orlando, and on May 11—the same day that “Crazy for You” hits number one in the charts—we play Miami. Then we move on to Atlanta, Cleveland, Cincinnati, two sold-out concerts in Chicago, St. Paul– Minneapolis, Toronto, and finally—we end up in Detroit. By then, in my mind the cities have all merged into one and are interchangeable. But the indisputable highlight of the entire Virgin Tour is playing Detroit. When the lights go up, Madonna yells, “There’s no place like home.” It’s a great line, sentimental, humble, and it appeals to her number one fans.
The entire stadium bursts into cheers. For a moment, she seems deeply moved. “I never was elected homecoming queen. But I sure feel like one now,” she says. Then she bows her head, as if she really is overcome by tears. Maybe she is, maybe she isn’t. Whatever the truth, this is obviously a moment of unrivaled triumph for her. Grandma Elsie is in the audience, and so are Christopher Flynn, Joan, my father, and all our brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Watching them from backstage, I can see that they are all stunned, proud, and not a little bemused by what has become of the little girl they all thought they knew so well. Madonna now has living proof that all her dreams have come true. She has made it, she is now a big star, and her life will never again be the same. Yet amid all the triumph and the applause, the massive career leap she has made during The Virgin Tour, some self-doubts still surface. After the show, in her room late at night, we are watching Mildred Pierce together. Suddenly, Madonna switches the TV off. “Christopher, if Mom were alive, what do you think she would say about me, about the show?” I hesitate for a second, then, because I won’t involve my mother, even the memory of her, in any falsehoods, I tell the truth. “I don’t think she’d like you bouncing around the stage, the crosses, and the overt sexuality.” Madonna looks stricken. “But I think she’d be very proud of you, anyway,” I quickly add.
TWO DAYS LATER, on May 27, Madonna is on the cover of Time. “Madonna: Why She’s Hot” analyzes her global appeal. The article also includes a long interview in which she rewrites her history and that of our family and sets it in stone. These are some of her mythmaking phrases: “I was the oldest girl so I had a lot of adult responsibilities. I feel like all my adolescence was spent taking care of babies and changing diapers and babysitting. I have to say I resented it, because when all my friends were out playing, I felt like I had all these adult responsibilities…. I really saw myself as the quintessential Cinderella. You know, I have this stepmother and I have all this work to do and it’s awful and I never go out and I don’t have pretty dresses.”
I know it makes a good story, and I applaud her imagination. Of Marty and Anthony she claimed, “They would hang me on the clothesline by my underpants. I was little, and they put me up there with clothespins.” A seeming impossibility, yet a story often repeated by the tabloids, and a testament to my sister’s talent for evoking potent visual imagery. Then there is the oft-repeated tale of her first visit to New York: “I got into a taxi and told the driver to take me to the middle of everything. That turned out to be Times Square. I think the driver was saying, like, ‘Okay, I’ll show her something.’ I think he got a chuckle out of that.” Then: “I got a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey School.” Her mythmaking isn’t outrageous, just interesting. And it would continue right through her career. Throughout all that time, our family listens to her reinventing history, but doesn’t call her on it. Most of us are far too dazzled by her fame and all the attention it brings us and quite simply don’t want to rock the boat.
AFTER THE EUPHORIA of Detroit, we play Pittsburgh, then Philadelphia, Hampton, Virginia, then Columbia, Maryland, followed by Worcester and New Haven, and finally end up where we both started on track dates together, New York. On June 6, 7, and 8, Madonna plays three sold-out concerts at Radio City, followed on June 10 and 11 by two final sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden. Among the celebrities at the show are Don Johnson, John F. Kennedy Jr.— then about to start his law studies—and graffiti artist Futura 2000. After the show, all three of them pay court to Madonna in her dressing room. Don Johnson moons around like a lovesick puppy, clutching a large bunch of long-stemmed roses, which seem to be wilting by the minute. John, more handsome than even in his pictures, hovers shyly by the dressing room door. Madonna doesn’t even throw him or Don a glance and, instead, focuses on Futura and fondles his hand while they exchange whispers. I get the picture at once; my Machiavellian sister isn’t interested in Don, but is set on arousing John’s jealousy. Her tactics appear to succeed, as down the line she will have her way with him.
After the last Madison Square Garden concert, a homecoming party is held for Madonna at the Palladium, where she is mobbed. We spend most of the evening behind the velvet rope in the Mike Todd VIP room, reminiscing about the tour and laughing and dancing. I remember feeling a rush of power by association. I am Madonna’s brother. The brother of a superstar. I am so caught up in the magic of my brave new Madonna world that I don’t care that I am losing myself, and that working with my sister is now my entire life. None of my friends or family know that I am Madonna’s dresser. Most of them assume that I’m just her companion. I never tell them that I actually spend much of my time picking up her sweaty underwear. It’s my job, but I continue to be embarrassed by it and would be humiliated if anyone in my life knew.
I’VE LEARNED A great deal about Madonna and about myself during the tour, and she’s made a crucial discovery about herself: by the third song of the show, she is usually already out of breath and exhausted. Consequently, she decides to train for five months before each subsequent tour. I am convinced that she will tour again as soon as possible. I can tell that onstage is where she is happiest and most secure. A few years later, Warren Beatty will claim that Madonna “doesn’t want to live off-camera.” But for once, he is wrong. For as early on as The Virgin Tour, I know that my sister really only wants to live—and only lives—when she is onstage. After the euphoria of the tour, I go home to Morton Street and land in reality with a thud. I find adapting to everyday life extremely difficult. And it will become more and more difficult after every tour. I still have to grapple with Danny’s jealousy of Madonna, and that he thinks my job as dresser is demeaning. But I don’t care. Although on June 24, Madonna and Sean announce their engagement, she and I are getting closer and closer. Moreover, as a result of my work on the tour, she is starting to let me into her life to a much greater extent, and to trust my creative input. Many years later, she will pay me a backhanded compliment during an interview published in the pages of Elle Decor: “It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Christopher is good at so many endeavors. Everyone in our family was creative in some way—we all could either dance or paint or play a musical instrument. Christopher, for some reason, could do all three.” SECURE IN MY role as my sister’s renaissance man—a jack-of-all-artistictrades— one morning, soon after the end of the tour, I glance at Madonna in her miniskirt and rubber bracelets and start thinking like her dresser again. But I talk to her like a brother, without fear of being fired. “Your legs look like fat sausages in that skirt,” I tell her. “You’re grown-up now; you need a cooler image, more classic, more Katharine Hepburn than Boy Toy.”
For a second, I think she is going to slug me. She thinks about it, then smiles ruefully. “I guess you’re right, Christopher. So let’s go shop.” I take her to my favorite store, Matsuda, on Madison Avenue near Seventysecond Street. I pick out a cream silk, man-tailored shirt, grayish brown summer-weight trousers, and brown wing-tip-style shoes. Madonna Part Five is born: a grown-up, elegant woman with style. Unfortunately for Madonna, her new sophisticated image is destined to be seriously undermined when, in July 1985, nude pictures of her are published in Playboy.
At 6 a.m. on July 10, 5 million copies of Playboy—containing fourteen pages of black-and-white nude pictures of Madonna—hit the newsstands. The pictures were shot in 1979 and 1980 by two New York photographers, Lee Friedlander and Martin Schreiber, apparently when Madonna posed for photographs in the “Nude” course at the New School. A few days later, not to be outdone, Penthouse also hits the stands with a seventeen-page color and black-and-white spread of pictures taken by another photographer, Bill Stone. The camera has always been Madonna’s major ally, and one of her greatest passions. She loves the camera unreservedly, and the camera loves her back. After all, the camera is responsible for capturing and disseminating the multitude of visual images that contribute to her megawatt allure. Until now—apart from paparazzi shots—she has always exercised a ruthless control over the majority of images taken of her. Now, for the first time in her career, she has lost grip, and the media is now flooded with pictures whose rights she doesn’t control, and from which she will not profit. I first hear about the photographs while I am working for Madonna’s publicist, Liz Rosenberg, a voluptuous, blue-eyed blonde who is still employed by Madonna today—the only employee in her life, apart from Donna De Lory, who can boast such longevity. After The Virgin Tour—perhaps as a result of my insider status and the trust she now has in me—Madonna has found me a job with Liz, at Warner Records, in Rockefeller Center.
On this morning, I come into work bright and early to find Liz sitting at her desk, feet encased in pink rabbit slippers, just about to pick up her phone, which is in the shape of a large pair of red lips. Liz has a thing for lips. Even her sofa is in the shape of lips—Mae West’s by Dalí. Liz’s own lips are plump and luscious. She wears red lipstick and generally leaves a perfect bow-shaped stain on the marijuana cigarette she’s been known to smoke at four in the afternoon—a brief respite before she resumes work unimpaired. I’m amazed by her ability to do this. This morning, though, Liz is far from laid-back. In her birdlike voice, she breaks the news to me: “Some magazines have come out with nude pictures of your sister. Don’t go and buy them, because we don’t want the photographers or the magazines to make any money from us.” “Does my father know?” I ask. “I haven’t told him yet.” I note the use of the word I.
Madonna hasn’t warned me about the pictures. Clearly she doesn’t intend to tell our father herself either, preferring that Liz do the dirty work for her. I blanch at the thought of our straitlaced father arriving at work aware that all his coworkers have probably seen his daughter naked. As for my grandmother, I can’t bear to contemplate her reaction. Later, I will find out that when she learned the news, she started crying. I can’t fault Madonna for having posed for the photographs, though. After all, many dancers sit for art classes. For a time, I even considered it myself. After all, if you are a starving dancer, making $10 an hour for taking off your clothes seems like a miracle. There was nothing sleazy about the circumstances under which Madonna posed for the nude photographs, but I am still troubled that she didn’t call any of her family, didn’t feel the need to warn me or express concern about how our father or our grandmother would feel when they found out. I begin to realize that my sister doesn’t seem to care how her behavior or career impacts her family. Liz’s phone never stops ringing, and she fields the calls with the combination of elegance and intelligence that is her hallmark. As for me, I call Danny, and we decide that we ought to take a look at the pictures. After all, the entire country is now obsessed by them.
So on the way home from work, I stop off at the little cigar store on the corner of Christopher Street and Sheridan Square. When I see the Playboy masthead, for a second I flip back to my childhood, the tree house, and all my friends gawking over the center spread, which my sister now occupies for other snot-nosed teenagers to pore over her naked body. I don’t open the magazines until I get home, and then Danny and I look through them. The image of my sister, the serious dancer newly arrived in Manhattan, leaps from the page, not the pop star. For a moment, I am transported back into the past. My first thought is that the pictures are lackluster and utterly devoid of any artistic merit.
My second thought is that this is the first time I have seen my sister completely naked. In the dressing room, she always kept her thong on. When we were growing up together, or living together as adults, she never walked around stark naked in front of me, nor did she ever sunbathe topless in front of me. In fact, in close quarters, she has always been relatively modest. Aside from her embarrassment at being naked in the dressing room in front of a stranger, at this stage in her career, she hasn’t exposed much skin onstage either. My third thought is that she used to be extremely skinny. My fourth is that she had a great deal of body hair. I say as much to Madonna when we finally talk about the pictures. “Well, I wasn’t shaving at that time,” she says, laughing. I laugh, too.
But, although we quickly change the subject, I can sense that she has been deeply embarrassed by the pictures, but is taking great pains to mask her feelings from me. Nor will she ever utter the thought that I know must be plaguing her: how would our religious mother feel if she could see the pictures? And although I don’t voice the sentiment to her, I am acutely aware that—in the eyes of the world—my sister will now no longer have any mystery about her. And any innocence she may once have had is now gone. She has nothing to lose anymore, nothing more to hide. After all, her privacy has unalterably been invaded. From now on, she will forever invade it herself. From now on, she is free to be as outrageous as she wants. And she will be. As always, Liz helps Madonna weather the PR storm engulfing her, and when it has subsided, Madonna emerges a bigger star than ever. So-called Madonna experts often claim that my sister is obsessed by Marilyn Monroe and that she modeled herself and her career on Monroe’s. They are wrong. Although the release of Madonna’s nude pictures may have had the same effect on her career that the publication of Marilyn’s nude calendar did on hers, apart from in “The Material Girl” video, Madonna has never identified with Marilyn or modeled herself or her career on Marilyn’s. And she has never been remotely self-destructive, which is probably why Madonna has been a star for a quarter of a century and—unlike Elvis and other superstars—didn’t die young either.
Part of the reason for Madonna’s enduring success, I believe, is Liz Rosenberg. In many ways, Liz, who is ten years older than Madonna, has always been somewhat of a mother figure to her. Liz has sometimes been mistaken for Madonna’s mother, and Madonna has once or twice even called her “Mom.” From the start, Liz knows exactly how to treat Madonna: exactly as you’d treat a big baby, saying yes to every little whim, yes to everything, yet at the same time gently guiding her in the proper direction. In some ways, she has always treated Madonna as her daughter and considered her to be part of her family. And she has been incredibly stoic in the face of Madonna’s sometimes unkind treatment of her—sometimes ignoring Liz, other times acting as if Liz hasn’t played a part in her success. After witnessing Madonna doing the same thing over the years to countless other people, me included, I’ve realized that she doesn’t do so out of malice but because, over the years, surrounded by sycophants who always agree with her, she does truly believe she’s entirely her own creation, and that, in the manner of King Louis XIV, who pronounced “L’état c’est moi,” she has become a superstar all on her own. Whether Madonna is prepared to admit it or not, one of the other people most responsible for her success—apart from Liz and Freddy—is Sire Records supremo Seymour Stein.
In fact, while I am working for Liz, a job as his personal assistant comes up, and I interview with him. But just before the interview in his office is scheduled to take place, Seymour switches it to his home. And while I love his apartment on Central Park West, his collection of jukeboxes, and his American art deco furniture, when he opens the door to his apartment dressed in only a bathrobe, I am utterly unnerved. He was once married to Linda Stein—the celebrated realtor who was tragically murdered in late 2007. That day in 1985, his first words to me are “Come on, let’s talk in my bedroom.” This makes me uncomfortable, so I make my apologies and leave. Although I don’t get the job, I retain my professional respect for Seymour, as, after all, he had the vision to sign Madonna to a record contract in the first place.
ON JULY 13, 1985, Madonna and I drive to Philadelphia together, and I watch her perform in front of a live audience of ninety thousand, and a global television audience of millions more, at Live Aid. She believes in the cause so much, and I know she desperately wants to take part today. As a nod to the nude-picture controversy, she performs wearing a brocade overcoat. As she struts her stuff, it occurs to me that my sister is now more famous than practically any of the other performers at Live Aid. But although I hate even admitting it to myself, while no other star is now so world famous, her performance is outshone by the performances of many of the huge stars there. After the show, we drive straight back to Manhattan because she doesn’t want to hang out with any of the other stars. During the journey home, we discuss them. I, of course, tell her she was the best, and she probably believes me.
As her publicity machine grinds on, her phenomenal success continues to escalate. Like a Virgin is certified for sales of 5 million copies, the first album by a female artist to be so, “Angel/Into the Groove” goes gold, and I fly back to L.A. to stay with Madonna and Sean at their home on Carbon Mesa. With his wedding to my sister on the horizon, Sean decides that now is the perfect time for us to undergo some hard-core manly bonding. We are alone in his Mexican-tiled kitchen. He’s wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt. I’m in a black T-shirt and jeans. He pulls out a jackknife. “Christopher, let’s be blood brothers.” I’m shocked, but fight not to show it. “Be what?” I ask as nonchalantly as possible. “Blood brothers.” “Oh, sure.” He and the jackknife are now menacingly close to me. “Show me your thumb,” he says, his tough-guy growl even more exaggerated than usual.
I’m left-handed so I hold out my right thumb. Well, I suppose I don’t really need it that much…. Sean grabs my wrist with one hand and slices the middle of my thumb with the other. Blood drips out. I wince, but not much because I don’t want Sean to think I’m a pussy. Then he slices his own thumb. He presses his thumb against mine and—for a couple of seconds—I return the pressure. “Now we are blood brothers,” he says, and slaps me on the back. Then he goes off to find Charles Bukowski, who has just finished throwing up in the bathroom.
AFTERWARD, I FEEL good about myself. I’ve passed my initiation test. I didn’t chicken out. I’m one of the guys at last. And Sean and I are now well and truly brothers. I never tell my sister what we did, though, and I’m guessing that Sean doesn’t either. We both know that if we did, she’d laugh like crazy. She just wouldn’t understand. After all, this is man stuff. Six years later and I’m at a party at the old Argyle Hotel on Sunset. Sean and Madonna are now divorced. He’s with Robin Wright now, and after his courageous public admission that he was blind drunk through most of the making of Shanghai Surprise, I’ve almost forgiven him for the way he treated my sister. I’ve also grown to admire his acting immensely. This is the first time I’ve seen him since the divorce, and I’m glad to see him. So when he walks over to me, we start chatting. “How’s Madonna?” he asks.
For a second, I consider telling him that she’s still in love with him, which I think she is. But I don’t and instead say that she’s fine. “Tell her I said hello.” There is an awkward silence while Sean shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “Christopher, do you remember that night when we became blood brothers?” “Sure. How could I ever forget?” Sean takes a deep breath. “You don’t have AIDS, do you?” I give him an unprintable answer, then walk away.
ON AUGUST 16, 1985, in an open-air ceremony on Wildlife Road, just up the Pacific Coast Highway at the $6.5 million home of developer Kurt Unger, Madonna marries Sean. The invitation reads, “The need for privacy and a desire to keep you hanging, prevents the Los Angeles location from being announced until one day prior.” I am living back in New York with Danny again, but fly out to L.A. and meet my grandmother and family at the Shangri-La, the thirties art deco hotel in Santa Monica where they are all staying.
As a wedding present, I give Sean and Madonna a glass window on which I’ve painted two vines growing together. They both say they like it, but end up not displaying it in their home. Later that year, I will retrieve it from its dark closet and take it back to my apartment. The following day, Grandma Elsie and my sisters and I all ride in a car to Malibu. Beforehand, we are told that picture taking is banned. Given the ban on photography, I am surprised that the wedding that has launched every paparazzo in the universe on a do-or-die quest to snatch a picture of it isn’t taking place indoors. Consequently, to me at least, what happens next is highly predictable.
Helicopters carrying journalists and photographers from tabloids with unlimited budgets hover above the house, taking pictures. Sean growls at the sky above, turns to the guests, and snarls, “Welcome to the remaking of Apocalypse Now!” As Madonna later puts it, “I didn’t think I was going to be married with thirteen helicopters flying over my head. It turned into a circus. At first I was outraged and then I was laughing. You couldn’t have written it in a movie. No one would have believed it. It was like a Busby Berkeley musical. Or something that someone would stage to generate a lot of publicity.” For once, that somebody was not my sister. The wedding venue was Sean’s decision and his alone.
I know that at this stage in her career, Madonna would never have selected such a remote location for her wedding where photographers could only snatch aerial views of her looking so beautiful on her wedding day. She would have preferred to pose for them. Stunning in a $10,000 strapless gown, with a ten-foot train, and a silver sash with a pinkish tone, embroidered with jewels, designed by Marlene Stewart, The Virgin Tour designer, Madonna has, of course, opted to wear white. Lest she be lambasted for being conventional, under her wedding veil she wears a black bowler hat. Sean wears a double-breasted, $695 Versace suit, and, as a nod to nonconformity, leaves the knot of his tie loose. The ceremony is conducted by Malibu judge John Merrick and takes five minutes. I am sure the words are moving, but we can’t hear a single word of the vows because we are deafened by the racket of the helicopters above us. Madonna and Sean exchange gold rings. Then, to the tune of the rousing theme to Chariots of Fire, which I can just about hear above the din, Sean kisses her and we all applaud.
Sean makes a toast to Madonna, but we can’t hear it. Then he ducks under her skirt and removes her garter. At one point Madonna looks up at the helicopters and flips them the bird, but I know she doesn’t really give a fuck. Fed up, Sean charges straight into the house and gets a .45. Madonna shouts after him, “What’s the big deal, Sean! Leave it be! Otherwise, they’ll just get pictures of you with a gun. And they aren’t going to go away.”
She’s having a good time. But Sean, still in character, remains in a rage and starts firing shots in the air, while Andy Warhol, Steve Rubell, Cher (in a purple spiked wig), the rest of my family, and I watch, kind of amazed. Fortunately, Sean is distracted by the announcement that dinner is served, and we all file into an open-air tent on the front lawn. Once inside, we are still deafened by the noise of the circling helicopters, but manage to enjoy Wolfgang Puck’s menu of caviar, curried oysters, lobster ravioli, broiled swordfish, and rack of lamb, followed by a five-tier hazelnut wedding cake. However, my abiding memory of the dinner will always be the image of the helicopters circling above us like ravenous vultures. I know that Madonna ultimately got a kick out of the entire media invasion of her wedding. As always, Madonna more than welcomed any media attention whatsoever. After all, media attention is her middle name. And part of the reason she’s a star and has stayed a star is because she’s always known how to work the media. Sean, of course, doesn’t. In fact, the wedding day sets the tone for the entire marriage: Sean running around with a gun, and Madonna smiling radiantly at the cameras.
FIVE Brothers and sisters are closer than hands and feet. Vietnamese proverb IN THE FIVE months since Sean and Madonna first met, her career has rocketed from triumph to triumph, scandal to scandal, and I sometimes feel sorry for Sean, who, despite his professed horror for the media, still wants to be a star in his own right. Yet the Madonna juggernaut hurtles on, sometimes with him, sometimes without. As soon as he has weathered the nudephotographs scandal, less than three weeks later Madonna loses a court battle to suppress the release of A Certain Sacrifice, a low-budget, one-hour softcore porn movie made by Stephen Lewicki, which she made in 1979 during her early years in Manhattan. I am about to call her and sympathize, but then I take another look at the gigantic headline on the front page of the New York Post, “Madonna Seeks Nude Movie Ban,” and decide that she is probably pleased at all the publicity her suit against Lewicki will engender, and that she may well be suing him just because—with her sixth sense for what the press loves—she knew it would do just that.
In the movie, Madonna is clothed except in one scene, in which she appears topless. But the content is racy. Madonna plays the part of Bruna, a downtown dominatrix who has a stable of sex slaves, and the film also features a rape scene. I’m not in the least bit shocked that Madonna took the part because I understand that she was young then, experimenting with life and doing her utmost to survive in the city. But I know that Grandma Elsie and my father will be horrified by Madonna making such a trashy movie and will wish it had never been publicized. I also feel for Sean. However, none of us ever discuss the movie, which is released later in the year, nor do I ever want to see it.
The fiasco of the wedding behind us, as well as my blood-brother initiation, I decide I really like Sean Penn, my new brother-in-law. On November 9, 1985, Madonna hosts the season premiere of Saturday Night Live and—by parodying Britain’s Princess Diana—yet again garners a great deal of press coverage. In Britain, in particular—where, with the release of “Dress You Up” she is about to become the only female artist in thirty years to have three singles in the charts at once—images of Madonna as Princess Diana appear in all the papers. The gods of publicity are clearly smiling on Madonna big-time. On my next birthday, November 22, 1985, Danny takes me to this French restaurant we always go to on Hudson in the West Village. When we come home to Morton Street and open the door, there are Sean and Madonna and six other people. My first ever surprise party, and Sean, Madonna, and Danny are giving it for me.
Sean and Madonna study my paintings—the religious ones, not the glass ones like their wedding present. Madonna says, “I like them, you should keep on painting,” and her encouragement means a lot to me. We drink champagne, play Ella Fitzgerald, and have a great time. No one else in our family has ever met Danny, and none of them even know he exists. Consequently, I am estranged from all my relatives except for Madonna, and—until tonight—feel cut adrift from my family. But thanks to Madonna and Sean’s throwing me this surprise party, I feel as if they have adopted me as a member of their small family, and for the first time since my mother died I am starting to feel safe and secure.
I also can’t deny that I am now not only relishing that I am part of Sean and Madonna’s family, but that my sister is fast becoming one of America’s most famous women. All the star power surrounding Madonna is addictive. I get into restaurants and bars and clubs just by mentioning her name, and when I do, I am treated as a member of royalty. So far, at least, for me there is no downside to Madonna’s fame. Nobody bothers me excessively. Photographers call out my name; Madonna’s fans all yell, “Christopher, Christopher.” My only problem related to my sister’s fame is that Danny still isn’t won over by her and is continually alienated by all the hysteria and attention that accompany her every move or utterance.
Aside from resenting the ripple effect caused by Madonna’s stardom, Danny also loathes sharing me with her. Then, and throughout our relationship, he demands 100 percent of my attention and resents anyone else receiving even a modicum of it. In an uncanny way, Danny resembles Sean. Like Sean, Danny hates throwing dinner parties, hates going to clubs, and prefers to hide away with me alone at our home. And perhaps it isn’t surprising that Madonna and I—being brother and sister, being so close—have chosen to share our lives with such similar men. But while Madonna’s relationship with Sean is destined to founder and die, mine with Danny will endure for over a decade, primarily because he will always play Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle. When we meet, I am a twentythree- year-old hick from Michigan who is utterly at sea amid the sophistication of Manhattan. Danny, in contrast, is the quintessential New Yorker—urbane, cultured, streetwise. During our years together, he teaches me about good living, Pratesi sheets, Christofle silver, beluga caviar, and Cristal Champagne.
And despite his distaste for Madonna, his resentment of the sway she holds over me, once he gives up his Fiorucci job, he becomes my right hand and takes care of everything at home, so I can concentrate on my job. Moreover, he makes me feel safe, protected—and then there is the high-voltage sexual chemistry that consistently sizzles between us.
ON JANUARY 8, 1986, Sean, Madonna, and I fly from L.A. to Hong Kong to start preparation for the filming of Shanghai Surprise, for which, reports claim, they are each being paid $1 million. We check into a hotel on the Kowloon side of the bay. I immediately go out onto the balcony and admire the flickering lights of Kowloon harbor. I photograph the scene and send the picture to my father, telling him it reminds me of the Asian scene that used to hang in the Formal Dining Room of our home in Michigan. Another way, I suppose, of telling him how far we’ve come, my sister and I.
However, in broad daylight, the scene is not so enchanting. The bay is filthy, and a young woman bathes her baby in it as a dead rat floats by. I take a walk around the city, which seems dominated by fluorescent signs, lighting and advertisements, and evokes one big, brassy red-light district for me. The entire city has the air of a massive shopping mall, only it’s far dirtier than the average shopping mall. In fact, Hong Kong is the dirtiest city I’ve ever known, with big rats skulking all over the place. In retrospect, perhaps I should have realized that those rats were probably an omen. When I read the script, I understand why Madonna has taken the part of missionary Gloria Tatlock; Shanghai Surprise is modeled on the screwball comedies of the thirties—the kind of movie Jean Arthur, Jean Harlow, or Judy Holliday might have made. Where exactly Sean fits in is a bit of a puzzle for me. The part of con artist Glendon Wasey is just not a Sean Penn part, but is flimsy and not in the least bit challenging. I conclude that he has only taken it because Madonna wants him to be in the movie with her and needs him by her side when she makes her debut starring in a big commercial movie. He has agreed to appear in the movie as a gift for her, and I am touched. I’m also hugely impressed when I discover that he’s mastered Mandarin—just to prepare himself for his role. Then I realize that his erudition has been slightly misplaced, really, because his character is an American.
Madonna is excited to be visiting another continent—and one so far away from America and Europe. Above all, she is thrilled to be making her first major motion picture. Watching her hang on Sean’s every word as he analyzes the character of Gloria Tatlock, I suddenly grasp another reason my sister fell for him: having a Method actor on her team ready and willing to give her acting coaching is clearly yet another good career move for her. I sometimes wonder why my sister doesn’t take up chess, because I know she’d become a master. It’s clear to me that she is now driven to prove herself as an actress, to be taken seriously. She has conquered the music business. So her sights are now set on conquering movies. She desperately wants Shanghai Surprise to be a colossal success—but not enough to drop her glamorous image and dye her hair brown, wear thick pebble glasses, and go without makeup in all the scenes—which would have been far more in character for her part as a missionary. Instead, she makes certain she looks flawlessly beautiful in every single shot.
The weather is cold, wet, and windy—a drawback because the movie takes place in summer. As a result, Madonna will spend most of the shoot shivering in thin summer dresses. And in the final cut—because the movie was shot in cloudy weather, but the location was lit for summer—Hong Kong and all the other locations look decidedly fake. In the end, we might just as well have shot the entire movie on a Hollywood soundstage, but then I would have missed the amazing experience of being on location in Hong Kong with Madonna and Sean. My job turns out to be part assistant, part traveling companion, setting up meetings and shopping for whatever Madonna needs—usually American potato chips, which she craves but can’t find in Hong Kong. I end up with little to do but to sit in the location limo and make satellite phone calls to Danny back in Manhattan.
Madonna, Sean, and I are invited to a couple of Hong Kong restaurants, but the Chinese food is far removed from any we’ve had in Manhattan, smells and tastes different, and we don’t go back. Instead, most nights we eat at an English-owned Italian restaurant. Madonna and Sean, along with former Beatle George Harrison, are executive producers of the movie. That Madonna and Sean have chosen to work with a British production company, Hand-made Films, and with George Harrison, is a testament to the professional respect they both have for George and for British movies in general. Madonna is also fully aware that—apart from the negative reception she and Erika and I all had in London and Manchester only a few short years before—Britain is one of her major markets, and her popularity there is at the first of a series of peaks. In approaching Shanghai Surprise, from the first Sean’s Method training comes into play. So although Hong Kong is doubling for thirties Shanghai, as we are unable to shoot there, Sean decrees that we go to Shanghai anyway, before shooting starts, to get a feel for what it must have been like there during the thirties.
Madonna, Sean, and I fly to Shanghai together, accompanied by three Chinese government escorts, who monitor our every move. There, we stay at the Metropole, a thirties art deco hotel where the silk drapes are so old that when we pull them, they literally fall apart in our hands. Madonna and I start each day with a jog, which is unpleasant because the temperature is seven below zero. We are the only people around who are jogging. It is so cold that most of the newly washed clothing people have hung out on sticks in the street to dry is frozen in midair. Everyone else around is bundled up and on bicycles.
After breakfast, we walk all over the city, exploring. Although Madonna isn’t known yet in China, passersby still stare at her, simply because she is blond. We look around us and realize that everyone on the street is wearing a green, calf-length, quilted coat with a fake-fur collar, while Madonna and Sean and I are wearing blue ones that have been allocated to us by the government. What with our wearing different-colored clothes, us all having Caucasian features, and Madonna being blond, we must look like freaks to the Chinese. We wander into a park where some old people are doing tai chi. One of them comes up to us and says, “New York, New York,” over and over. We smile; he’s the first person in the park to speak English to us.
In the evening, we all go to the Bund, an art deco riverfront area. There, in a sixth-floor restaurant, we discover that the place is divided into a Chinese bar and an American bar. We peep into the Chinese bar and see that everyone there is drinking orange juice. So we go into the American bar, which is out of bounds for the Chinese. The whole room is dark. We pour ourselves some drinks, then finally find the light switch. The entire bar is covered in dust. Late-seventies disco music is playing. We ignore the dust and quirky American decor and dance. I feel as if I’ve walked straight into a scene from Empire of the Sun.
After a few days in Shanghai, we return to Hong Kong, where Liz Rosenberg joins us. She and Madonna and I take a day trip to Macao, traveling there on a motorized junk. The trip takes around four hours. On the way back, Madonna and Liz spend most of the time throwing up in the bathroom. A couple of days later, all three of us get throat infections. We aren’t surprised, though, as there were open sewers in Macao. Down the line, filming will move there, but fortunately I am not required to come along.
BEFORE FILMING STARTS, Madonna is still hanging on Sean’s every word of advice concerning her acting. But as soon it begins, she stops playing a scene from Educating Rita and decides she is Meryl Streep instead. Meanwhile, it is starting to dawn on Sean that he has been cast as Norman Maine, the hapless washed-up star of A Star Is Born, destined to be forever upstaged by his wife. It comes as no surprise to me when Madonna and Sean butt heads. Sean is an experienced actor and proud of it, but Madonna is fast becoming a global phenomenon, a brand. Madonna believes she is a talented actress; Sean views her as merely a singer. Conflict continually erupts on the set as to how she should play her part, how he is playing his, her character, his character, this scene, that. Madonna and Sean are about the same height, and when they stand, eye to eye, face-to-face, each trying to win every argument, each trying to get the better of the other, the tension is palpable. Meanwhile, Jim Goddard, the director, is forced to grapple with the reality that he is not directing the movie by himself; Madonna and Sean are also directing it.
From the first day of shooting, the all-British crew takes an instant dislike to Madonna and Sean. They regard Sean as an arrogant Yank and Madonna as a jumped-up disco dolly. As far as they are concerned, the “Poison Penns”— their sobriquet—are two troublesome brats who are insisting on star treatment without meriting it. On the second day of filming, publicist Chris Nixon is fired for not having succeeded in preventing the press from taking photographs. Afterward, he says openly, “Penn is an arrogant little creep and his wife goes along with him.”
Down the line, during one of the biggest scenes in the movie, in which a bomb explodes and Madonna is supposed to jump into the river, she pointblank refuses to take the plunge. The water is pitch-black with dirt, so I don’t blame her in the least. But after the crew is forced to wait while crates of Evian are brought to the set and Madonna, in a navy pencil skirt and pinstriped blouse, is doused in bottled water, they become irate. Instead of attempting to win over the crew, and taking a backseat to the director creatively, Sean and Madonna are always on the edge of an argument. Worse still, instead of focusing on the movie full-time, Sean is far more concerned with the swarm of world press who have flocked to Hong Kong to cover the movie and whose telephoto lenses are trained on him and Madonna 24-7; he is obsessed with keeping them off the set. When a photographer does manage to infiltrate, Sean smashes his camera. Sean and I never discuss his hatred for the press covering the movie, but if we had, I would have asked him why—if he didn’t want himself and Madonna to be subjected to such heavy media coverage—they decided to make this movie together in the first place. Surely he must have been aware that by opting to make Shanghai Surprise with Madonna, battalions of press would continually be snapping at their heels, eager to report every single second. A conundrum, if ever there was one.
When Madonna and Sean do venture out together, the press besiege them, and Sean goes ballistic. To please him, Madonna follows his example and pulls a jacket over her head to prevent any photographers from getting a picture of her. In reality, she doesn’t care at all and would welcome the exposure. Each time Madonna and Sean leave the hotel, there is practically a riot. To Sean, any photographer who snatches a shot of Madonna is, in effect, not just taking her soul, but taking her away from him as well, and Sean feels exploited. Exasperated, Madonna tells him, just as she did during the media mayhem at their wedding, “Sean, don’t yell at them. Let’s just get in the car and go. They’ll get their shot anyway.”
But Sean rarely listens and a brawl invariably breaks out. Meanwhile, the press is on hand, recording his every move, every tantrum, every fight, Madonna is damned by association, and the legend of the Poison Penns grows by the minute. Back in London, coexecutive producer George Harrison learns of all the Penn-induced drama swirling around the Shanghai Surprise set. He takes the next plane to Hong Kong, hoping against hope that he can defuse the situation and coerce Madonna and Sean into changing their ways regarding the press and the crew. When George Harrison flies in from London, Madonna introduces me to him, and I am surprised that he seems much older than I expected, and taller, too. Madonna described George as “a sweet, hapless kind of character without a mean bone in his body.”
She may well have been underestimating the canny Harrison, who isn’t so hapless that he is afraid to read his willful stars the riot act, nor is he sweet enough to sugarcoat his message. The experience of being lectured by a Beatle, I learn afterward, is sobering for both Madonna and Sean, and I am sure that George has not only stressed budget constraints but has also appealed to Sean’s professionalism and pleaded with him to tone down his paranoia. Although I think that George probably handled Madonna with kid gloves— partly because he knows that she, not Sean, is the big box office draw and also because he is aware that all the problems are down to him and not her— later that evening, back at the hotel I can sense that she is feeling uncomfortable, delicate, and slightly insecure about her acting, about how to keep up with Sean, how to stop fighting with him about the press. She goes to bed early, and so do I.
At around three in the morning, I wake up to the sound of furniture being thrown around in Madonna and Sean’s suite next door. He’s screaming at her with all his might. Although I am half-asleep, I can make out some of the words. “I’m the actor, you’re not. You should forget about acting. Stick to singing instead, that’s what you’re good at,” Sean screams at her. “And you don’t know a fucking thing about handling the media, you paranoid control freak,” Madonna counters. “Well, at least I’m an actor,” Sean growls.
He’s really hitting below the belt now. I can’t make out all the words, but I hear him smash his fist against a wall. Then the sound of a table sent flying. I am about to break down the connecting door between our suites when, all of a sudden, it flies open. Madonna—in the black satin pajamas with white satin piping from Harrods that I gave her for her last birthday—runs into my suite. Sean is in hot pursuit, snarling with rage. For a second, I am reminded of Hank, his guard dog. Just in time, I slam the door right in Sean’s face—and lock it. Madonna falls into my arms. Her face devoid of makeup, usually so pale, is flushed and she’s crying.
I put my arm around her and lead her over to the sofa. I hold her while she sobs. Meanwhile, Sean is banging on the door, yelling her name. He keeps on thumping at the door for a full five minutes, yelling, “Open the fucking door, Madonna, open the fucking door.” My first instinct is to open it and beat the shit out of him. But I know that will only escalate the situation. So instead, I hug Madonna. We listen in silence as Sean yells and bangs. Finally, Madonna falls asleep in my arms. Soon after, I fall asleep as well. In the morning, she’s gone. When I see Madonna again on the set later that day, her makeup is immaculate, her hair perfect, and she is smiling her bright, confident smile. Sean comes over to me, but I ignore him completely. Until last night, I was his biggest defender. No matter how weird I thought our blood-brother ceremony was, I felt that it meant something, that we had really and truly become blood brothers. From then on, I always defended him no matter what everyone said about his tantrums and press paranoia. Not just because I felt honorbound, but because I did really feel that we were brothers beneath the skin.
Here in Hong Kong, I was Sean’s only defender amid a cast and crew who generally despise him. But that no longer holds true. Now I am neither Sean’s defender nor his friend. Although I don’t say this to Madonna, I wish that I weren’t his brother-in-law. Remembering Sean’s admission that he was drunk during Shanghai Surprise, it becomes eminently clear to me that once again my sister and I have made similar choices: we have both fallen in love with men who have, at one time in their lives, become violent from the effects of too much alcohol. Filming in Hong Kong ends. Sean and Madonna fly to Berlin, where his movie At Close Range is being premiered. He stays there for a few days while Madonna flies ahead to London. I fly in from Hong Kong in time to meet her.
At Heathrow, I am escorted to the tarmac. Madonna, in a black scarf and dark sunglasses, along with a bodyguard and her trainer, disembarks. A police escort is at the end of the Jetway and walks with us to customs. After the officers have finished with everyone’s bags, the police throw open the door between the customs hall and arrivals. A posse of photographers lie in wait for us. All hell breaks loose. The hall is ablaze with exploding flashbulbs and the glare of TV cameras. Fans scream and photographers yell, “Over here, Madonna, over here.” As we walk past the barrier, fans and photographers jump over and surround us. With the bodyguard and the trainer, I form a protective circle around Madonna. We try to edge our way to the curb and our waiting limo. The police are being less than helpful, and although they make a halfhearted attempt to clear the way for us, it takes us a full fifteen minutes to make it to the exit.
I push cameras out of Madonna’s face. What seems like three hundred photographers keep right on snapping. I can see Madonna’s about to crack. I hold her more tightly. “Stay close, Madonna, I’ll get you out of here,” I say. Finally, we get to the car, a black Mercedes. The door is already open. Madonna and I jump into the back. Cameras are shoved against the car windows. A massive thump, and the car shakes. A photographer has jumped on the roof. Another on the hood. Five or six are banging on the windows. “Madonna, Madonna, talk to us.” She slides down in her seat. I hold her close. We are both near hysteria. Another loud thump and a photographer lands on the back of the car. “Get me out of here, get me out of here!” Madonna screams. But the driver can’t move because we are surrounded. “Just drive,” Madonna yells. We inch forward, and I feel a little bump. A photographer has slid off the roof and onto the road. We pull away. I look back. He is on the ground. All the other photographers start to snap his picture. He tries to get up. “Lie back down again,” the other photographers yell. He does, and they take his picture.
As the car pulls out of the airport, we look out of the back window at the crowd of screaming photographers behind us, and the thought flashes through my mind that we are a long way from flying Air India, economy class, eating curry in Soho, and buying jeans in Camden Market. “Great,” says Madonna. “A whole month in London, and that’s what we’ve got to look forward to!” When we finally get to read a British newspaper, we discover the reason for the airport riot. While we were in Hong Kong, leaks from the set were pouring into the British tabloids. Now Madonna and Sean are big news. In Britain, the Poison Penns are now the target of every single paparazzo in the country. Moreover, we now understand exactly why George arranged for Sean to fly ahead separately. “If he’d have been at Heathrow today, he’d have slugged them all,” Madonna says. And she’s right. But no matter how much I now despise Sean, after that terrifying airport experience I feel a flash of empathy for him. After all, I only had to endure the full force of the paparazzi for a few hours, but Sean is condemned to endure it for as long as he and Madonna are married.
MADONNA AND I arrive in Holland Park, where George has rented Madonna and Sean a house, and me an apartment, and just as we stop, a group of cars skid around the corner in a screech of burning rubber. The ever-resourceful paparazzi have caught up with us. The exterior of the house is rather like an Elizabethan chalet. We duck inside before the media grab a shot of us. The inside is furnished seventies style, with shag carpeting and a sunken living room overlooked by a big glass window stained with an illustration of a rainbow. I am relieved that Sean isn’t here. Madonna and I spend the evening together. We chat about how difficult the movie has been for her, but neither of us broaches the subject of her abortive relationship with Sean, or that upsetting night in Hong Kong.
Outside, it is cold and wet. I go home to my rented apartment to bed and leave Madonna, protected by her bodyguard, waiting for Sean. THE NEXT MORNING, followed by a bunch of paparazzi that have slept outside the house in their cars all night, we drive to Shepperton Studios, where we are due to start filming the movie’s interiors. For the next months, the routine is the same: Every morning the media lie in wait for us outside our house. Each night after shooting, they follow us home again. They spend the night in their cars outside and follow us to the studio again the next morning. And so it goes for most of our London stay. Finally Madonna explodes: “I’ve had enough of being a fucking prisoner.” So we book a table at one of London’s foremost restaurants, Le Caprice. Then we hatch a plot. Madonna enlists a male and female extra, and the following evening they cover their faces and dash out of the house and into a waiting Daimler.
The Daimler roars away, with the paparazzi in hot pursuit. “It worked! It worked!” Madonna exults. Then the three of us duck into the black Mercedes parked outside and are promptly driven to Le Caprice, where we spend a relatively peaceful evening without the paparazzi recording our every moment. However, when we leave the restaurant, we are besieged by the waiting paparazzi and realize that someone must have tipped them off. But at least we’ve had a few untroubled hours in a paparazzi-free zone. EACH DAY, THE British press attack Madonna and Sean in viler terms. So far, the Daily Mail has lambasted her as “the Queen of Slut Rock playing at Garbo, but playing it oh so badly.” The Daily Express has posed the rhetorical question “Will Madonna and her man ever clean up their act?” Countless other scathing articles have appeared in the British press, and Madonna is hurt and bemused. “Christopher, I don’t understand why people are writing this kind of shit about me,” she says.
I can’t blame her for being puzzled. After all, until now the British press have been among her strongest allies and have always been kind to her. But, thanks to Sean, who isn’t half as much a star as Madonna now is, they have all turned against her. Finally, George Harrison calls a press conference to defend his stars. On the afternoon of March 6, 1986, at the Roof Gardens—a stylish sixth-floor restaurant above Kensington High Street, London, where pink flamingos stalk around ornate formal gardens—seventy-five members of the British press gather to meet Madonna. Sean was originally scheduled to take part in the press conference as well, but at the last minute, it was decided that it was far more politic for him not to attend.
Madonna and George sit side by side at a small table. Four bodyguards hover nearby. George is in a blue-and-white shirt and a blue suit and chews gum. Madonna is in a black dress with white cuffs, her hair is down, and her lipstick is bright red. She looks exceptionally beautiful. George starts the conference by welcoming the assembled members of the British press, then asks for order. I stand on the side and watch as Madonna fields the first question: “What kind of a boss is George Harrison and were you a Beatlemaniac?” The question is benign, and so is Madonna’s answer: “I wasn’t a Beatlemaniac. I don’t think I really appreciated their songs until I was much older. I was too young to really get caught up in the craze. But he’s a great boss, very understanding and sympathetic.”
So far, so good. Madonna and I have been lulled into a false sense of security, unaware of the fearlessness of the British press when faced with a global superstar, and of their capacity for asking direct if impertinent questions. George clearly is, hence his decision not to subject the hotheaded Sean to their interrogation. By the third question, “Is it fun working with your husband, Sean Penn?” the writing is on the wall. Initially, Madonna deftly sidesteps any problems by giving a bland answer: “Of course it is. He’s a pro. He’s worked on several films and his experience has helped me.” The next question is more of a zinger: “Has it caused any personal problems off set? Do you row at all?”
George jumps in before Madonna can answer. “Do you row with your wife?” The journalist is temporarily silenced. The questions become more general, but only for a few moments, then they are again aimed at eliciting comments from George or Madonna on Sean’s tantrums. Did they expect the kind of coverage they received? Would George work with Sean again? “Sure, I happen to like Sean very much,” George counters. Madonna stays silent until a journalist asks why Sean isn’t at the press conference. I give a silent answer: If Sean were here, most of the journalists in this room would have been toast by now. George says, “Because he’s busy working.” Madonna backs him up with “He’s in more scenes than I am,” which is true. Then the press go directly on the offensive. A journalist asks, “Madonna, I wonder if either you or your husband would like to apologize for incidents which have involved bad behavior on your behalf.” Madonna draws herself up to her full height. “I have nothing to apologize for.”
George laces into the press. When a journalist challenges him with “We have loads of film stars over here, but never have had these sorts of fights,” Madonna comes to her own defense and I’m proud of her. “When Robert De Niro comes to the airport, are there twenty photographers that sit on his limousine and don’t allow him to leave the airport?” she asks. Things become increasingly ugly when George says, “We expected nonanimals,” and a journalist leaps up and yells, “Talking of animals, is it true Sean Penn has been on the set giving orders?” George counterattacks. Then the journalists bring up the incident at the airport and say, “It wasn’t the press that was at fault.” Madonna looks genuinely upset. I want to sock the journalist. I stand up and say, “I was in the car. He got up and then lay down again for the photographers.” Madonna mouths me a silent Thank you.
In the face of the unrelenting British media onslaught, she is calm and polite, and the tide of public opinion begins to turn in her favor. But when Shanghai Surprise, which ends up costing an estimated $17 million to make, premieres in August, then goes into release at four hundred U.S. theaters, the reviews are abysmal, with Time’s critic declaring, “Madonna seems straightjacketed by her role and Penn, for once, looked bored,” and Pauline Kael in The New Yorker dubbing the movie a “listless bore of a film.” But instead of becoming downhearted or depressed by the reviews, Madonna refocuses her attention on her music career, which just zooms from strength to strength. “Live to Tell,” the theme to Sean’s At Close Range, is released and hits number one in the United States. Madonna is featured on the cover of Rolling Stone. “Papa Don’t Preach” (the lyrics of which, despite speculation to the contrary, are not rooted in anything to do with our father) is released and hits number one on the U.S. charts for two weeks, while “True Blue” stays there for five.
I eventually see Shanghai Surprise and am embarrassed at how bad it is. Madonna and Sean have zero on-screen chemistry. Not that I am surprised, because offscreen there is little tenderness between them either. Clearly, neither of them ever examined their own performances. Overall, the movie is a victim of the creative control Sean and Madonna exerted over it. However, Madonna flatly refuses to take any responsibility for the movie’s failure. “It’s all Sean’s fault,” she tells me, in a voice that brooks no contradiction. AFTER THE FIASCO of Shanghai Surprise, Sean and Madonna start living separate lives. With at least fifteen paparazzi routinely hanging out in front of the New York apartment on Central Park West that they have recently purchased, Sean spends as much time as possible in L.A. Madonna flies out to L.A. intermittently to be with him, but they end up fighting all the time primarily because Bukowski is always around the house, still drunk as a skunk. Madonna wants him out of the house, and Sean doesn’t.
Anytime Sean does come to town, the three of us hang out at the Pyramid, a dark, dingy little bar on Avenue A between Ninth and Tenth, where Madonna, Erika, and I once did a track date. But before we can reminisce and marvel at how far we’ve come, the moment we get inside the door, Sean has to fight for Madonna’s attention—just as Danny often has to fight for mine. Madonna and I have both fallen for possessive, jealous men, and we pay the price. Whether or not Sean likes it, he’s compelled to face that we are on her territory now, and everyone wants a piece of her, and he’s not the main event. And when he and Madonna leave the bar, photographers are waiting outside, ready to grab a shot of her. Everything surrounding Madonna is frantic. The press is pulling them apart. Moreover, she is now far more famous than he is. She overshadows him completely, which must feel emasculating. I can’t help being aware of the irony that the man who has always aspired to be the James Dean of his generation has now been relegated to the role of a surly underling trailing around in his wife’s starry wake.