THE MADONNA STORY THAT STARTED IT ALL

n the Spring of 1990, during a break from my exciting career as a cruise ship entertainer, it was announced that Madonna was going to be auditioning dancers for her upcoming Blond Ambition world tour.   Myself and my friend and roommate at the time Scott Williams, who was also a dancer, decided, 'What the hell, the worst that could happen is that we would be rejected.'

So we went.   We saw.   We conquered the combination and were sent on our way.   But not before dancing in front of the lady herself and having a few laughs at the absurdity of it all.   The whole experience was so rich and surreal that I decided to write about it.   Though I hadn't written much before--a few school papers and short stories--I knew I had a story to tell and I was going to tell it.

I sat down at my Mac-Plus with the dot-matrix printer and wrote about my experience as a would-be boy toy to the Material Girl.   I felt good about the resulting story and decided I would try to get it published.   I sent query letters to every publication I could think of and got some lovely rejection letters from such magazines as Spin, Spy, Entertainment Weekly, Premiere and LA Weekly.

During my second round of queries, I got a call from Edward Margulies, the editor of one of my favorite magazines Movieline , saying if my story was as funny as my query letter, we might be in business. He liked my story and wanted to publish in the magazine for $300.   I was over the moon about it.   It's interesting looking back because I was quite forthright when it came to the editing.   He did a pass and sent it back to me and I remember going point by point over what I thought should be changed.   I was respectful about it, naturally, but still it seems a little brazen looking back.   I should have cashed the check and letting him do what they wanted, but Ed agreed with many of my suggestions.

The story came out in the Summer of 1990, while I was working on a ship in Europe.   When I returned home for my next two-month break, Ed gave me my first official magazine assignment.   I was going to be interviewing Mrs. Brady herself, Florence Henderson, about her slutty new role in the film Shakes the Clown .   Florence was a delight--very bawdy and irreverent what with the fart jokes and all--and Ed was pleased with my story.   More interviews followed and when I had a handful of stories under my belt, I sent my clips to other magazines.   Most took a pass but a couple, like British Premier --which is where my Screening Party series of articles began--took a chance on me.

The picture that ran with the article. (R) The cover of the issue that my first piece ran in, with my future governor.

The picture that ran with the article. (R) The cover of the issue that my first piece ran in, with my future governor.

Detour also responded and offered me the chance to pen some big, splashy celebrity profiles.   The catch was they didn't pay anything, not one dime, though they threw amazing parties.   I wrote for them for free for three years.   When they finally started paying their writers in 1995, I was able to convince them to give me my own fiction column.   So began my monthly column Misadventures in the (213) , which I turned into a book in 1998.

Edward Margulies of Movieline passed away in 2000.   I remember him telling me at one of the gossipy lunches we'd take together that giving me my start was something he was very proud of.   "I knew you were a writer before you did," he told me.   I'll always be grateful to him for responding to my unsolicited submission and proving that it's not always about who you know.   My 2002 book Screening Party is dedicated to him.

I had the opportunity to interview Madonna in 1995 for her Bedtime Stories album.   It was for a magazine called Singapore Cleo and I was part of a round table of maybe 15 journalists.   When my turn to talk, I told Madonna that I was a journalist because she rejected me as a dancer.   "Good for you," she said.   "You took a negative and turned it into a positive."

And then she flashed me her cooter.   Just kidding.

MadonnaCleo1.jpg
MadonnaCleo2.jpg

MADONNA'S BEDSIDE MANNER

By Dennis Hensley

The last time Madonna and I were in the same room together I was wearing tights and leg-warmers.   This is not a fact that I'm proud of although as an daydreaming L.A. dancer competing for a spot on her 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour, I was not the only Spandex-sporter on the scene.   There were plenty of others, including some of the dancers who ended up getting the job, gentlemen we got to know all too well in Madonna's 1991 documentary Truth or Dare.    Though Madonna passed on me, the article I wrote about the experience, on how it feels to be immaterial to the Material Girl, was the first story I ever had published and a magazine writer was born.

Four years later, I'm meeting Madonna again in a roomful of my contemporaries and there's not a dance bag in sight.   Fifteen journalists from around the globe, have been invited to a West Hollywood hotel room to lob questions at the diva upon the release of her seventh studio album, Bedtime Stories.   A less dance-driven offering that 1992's Erotica, the new album serves up a kinder, gentler, less libidinous Madonna.   A Madonna in the mood for love.

The Madonna who greets us, however, seems more in the mood for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

"I am so hungry," she groans as she enters the room.   I shove my recorder closer as she takes her place in the semi-circle, hoping to capture on tape the ravenous growls of that oft-exposed tummy.    She is wearing a black skirt and jacket designed by Versace and Dolce & Gabbana respectively, and a white button-down shirt, that would be just like any white button-down shirt if it weren't for the 4" by 8" rectangle of fabric missing over the cleavage.   In this incarnation, Madonna looks both elegant and mischievous, as though she's not happy to simply host the party, she wants to crash it as well.   Her hair is blonde, save for the roots, and pulled back.   Her face is her trademark pale.   Her lips, red as a stop sign.     She would be striking even if she weren't the most famous woman in the world.

As she begins fielding questions, I get a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach, and realize that, even though it's been years since I made my bid to be one of her vogueing boy toys, I still want desperately for Madonna to like me.   This despite the fact that I've never been one to embrace her every output.   "This is like the high school yearbook of a nymphomaniac," I remember thinking about the Sex book.   Perhaps I'm looking for redemption for my dance shortcomings, though that seems doubtful.   A more likely theory is that I just want to make a positive connection with the force that's provided the pop culture backdrop and much of the soundtrack to the last twelve years of my life.   Like many of my peers, I can't remember where I was when I heard that President Reagan had been shot, but I can describe in vivid detail the first time I saw a Madonna video.   Tempe, Arizona.   1983.   Borderline.

"Most of the songs are of a romantic nature," Madonna replies when asked to describe the themes on Bedtime Stories.   "Songs about self-discovery, self-respect, learning how to love yourself, accepting your human frailties and your weaknesses and going on."

If ever there were a time when Madonna would have to admit to being human, now is it.   Her last album Erotica, performed below expectations, released as it was alongside her unintentionally hilarious film, Body of Evidence, and, of course, the Sex book.   The latter, her visual and literary exploration of eroticism, made publishing history upon it's release, but ultimately pushed the level of nookie-related Madonna product well into the "Enough Already with the Sex" category.   Many fans were ready to have the cigarette and go home.

"Is this new album an attempt to get away from the sex goddess image?" someone asks.   

"I am not in control of the image that other people project of me," she replies.   "There are a lot of songs on my Erotica album that have nothing to do with sex but people choose to think that it's only about sex.   I would say that I'm in a much more thoughtful mood on this album which is not to say that I am no longer interested in sex.   I describe the songs as lullabies to myself, in a way to heal myself."

If Madonna is in need of healing, it might partly be because of the recent media attacks she's endured, a backlash she feels was inevitable "simply because I've been around for as long as I have and continue to speak my mind."    Still, it must smart a bit to read articles about yourself titled "Madonna-A-Gonna" and "Like Aversion," two of the many that detailed her fall from grace.   It's a subject she broaches in the song, Human Nature, in which she flippantly coos, "Oops, I didn't know I couldn't talk about sex...what was I thinking?"

"Human Nature is my response to the media for taking me to task for dealing with a very taboo subject," she says firmly when asked about the song.   "It's basically saying "Get off my back.   It's not my responsibility.   I'm not going to apologize for what I did.   I'm not sorry.""

And what of the title?   Does she think it's in our natures to trash people who push too many buttons for too long?

"It's think it's human nature to try to destroy someone who's strong rather than be inspired by them.    I think people feel more comfortable knowing that someone else is failing because they haven't had the courage to take a chance in their lives and risk failure."

It's funny she should bring up fear of failure right as it's my turn to speak.  

"Good for you," she replies when I relate how I became a writer as a direct result of her rejection.   "You turned a negative into a positive."

"If you could be anonymous for one day," I ask happily, relieved that she didn't dismiss our history together, "where would you go and what would you do?"

"Where would I go?" she repeats to herself and then ponders silently for longer than she will for any other question.

"I'd go to a night club to go dancing,"   she says finally.  

"Have you been dancing lately?" I ask.

"No," she sighs wistfully.   "I try but as soon as I go out on the dance floor this little circle forms around me and becomes closer and tighter and then I have to leave."

Much to my delight, Madonna laughs when I compare her tight circle phenomenon to a "soul train with no escape" and then it's on the the next reporter, who is also representing Singapore.

The journalist mentions the American tourist who was caned for vandalism, then asks, "If you were in an environment as conservative as my country, do you think you could have been as creative as you are?"

"I would have left that environment, I'm sure," Madonna answers sharply then softens.   "Who's to say?   I think some of the greatest art has come out of incredible oppression.   If I was given no other choice but to live there, I would find a way to be creative."

"Do you think you've could have been this successful living Japan?" the reporter follows up.

"As a white person living in Japan, probably,"   Madonna says.    "As a Japanese, no.   Absolutely not."

With the next journalist, the talk turns to the subject of Madonna's collaborators on Bedtime Stories, many of whom were working with her for the first time.   Of course, working with new people means taking a break from her long-time collaborators like Patrick Leonard and Shep Pettibone.  

"I started writing this album with Shep," she explains, "but I felt like I was writing the same kind of music over and over again.   I was more interested in going back to the music that I originally started with which is R & B."

To that end Madonna brought in a crack team of today's hottest R & B producers.   Dave Hall, who's turned out hits for Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige, was brought in for several tracks, as was Nellee Hooper, who's along with co-writer Bjork contributes the collection's most radical departure in Bedtime Story.   Madonna calls Babyface, whom she worked with on Forbidden Love and the exquisite Take a Bow, an "amazing songwriter and a poet" and says that writing with him is like "playing a great game of tennis with another great tennis player."   She then goes on to boast that the two wrote both songs in one afternoon, roughly the time it takes me to do my laundry.

A fourth collaborator, Dallas Austin, who's best know for his work with TLC and Boys II Men, was chosen for his "great minimalist approach and youthfulness,"   two qualities that come through on the album's first single, Secret.   

"The song is about hope and discovering the secret," Madonna says then explains why she chose 1960's Harlem as the milieu for the song's video.   "Most people have a preconceived notion that there's only despair and sadness there, but there's a lot of beauty. When I lived in Harlem I saw so many incredible things and the song is about a secret, something so simple, something that's right in front of you, that you don't even appreciate or recognize it."

At this point, a reporter who has more nerve than I, points out that most people consider Madonna's videos (see Vogue, Express Yourself, Rain) to be infinitely superior to her films (see Shanghai Surprise, Who's That Girl, Body of Evidence, or better yet, don't.)   What's Madonna's take on the comparison?

"I think they're right," she remarks coolly, "because I'm in charge of them.   They're my visions. They're my dreams.   All of the movies I've done have been someone else's.   I love making videos and I think that I do them well, but to me they're too limiting.   I prefer to make movies."

Ironically, two of the most acclaimed movies of our time, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction both feature Madonna references, though she's not in them.

"I'm glad to know that Quentin Tarantino's obsessed with me," Madonna answers when asked about the films.   "I love his movies.    The movie I just did (Four Rooms in which she plays a witch) is a Quentin Tarantino production.   Hopefully I'll be able to work with him directly next."

Coming into the homestretch, the questions and answers flow rapidly.   Where does Madonna see herself in the year 2000?   "I don't.   I live in the present."    Is anything out of Madonna's reach?   "Not if I really want it."    How's Pepito, Madonna's new pit-bull terrier puppy?   "He needs obedience training.   He thinks he's a human being."    What does Madonna think of the recent unauthorized TV movieabout her? "Ludicrous and a waste of time."   The question Madonna never wants to be asked again?   "Do I think I've exposed too much about myself."    What Madonna thinks of the title, 'The Most Famous Woman In the World?'   "Yuck.   Give it to someone else."   What's Madonna's message? "Be true to yourself"   Why Madonna got into crotch-grabbing?   "Because men do it all the time and I wanted to know what it felt like."   What kind of film roles Madonna's looking for?   "Funny."   Madonna's secret for survival?   "Self respect and a sense of humor."    And then it's my turn again.

Knowing this is my final chance to make an impression, I pick the most provocative question on my list and hope that she wasn't kidding about that sense of humor business.

"Have you ever had sex to your own music?" I blurt.

"No," she shrieks in mock disgust.   "It would be too distracting.   I'd start picking it apart, "Oh, I know I should have changed that." "

"What if you had to?" I implore.

"If I had to have sex to one of my songs," she reiterates as though the very idea of it is enough to make her consider celibacy, "Justify My Love."

Caught up in the moment, I decide to go for broke.   "Who would you like to see perform "Justify My Love" in a karaoke bar?"

"Bill Clinton," she says instantly.

"That's funny you would say President Clinton," I say, reveling in the tangent we've just gone off on, "because I would choose Vice-President Gore.   Maybe they can do a duet."

"Cool idea," Madonna agrees, "with feather boas around their necks."

The room settles.    Madonna stops laughing, looks back to me and points.

"I knew you were going to ask the sex question," she says.

In the wake of those words, the nervousness in my stomach dissolves into pure perverse pride.   I've just been singled out as the gutter-mind of the room by a woman who once walked into a Miami pizza parlor wearing nothing but a smile, by a woman who talked about the medicinal value of relieving oneself in the shower on national television, by a woman who dripped candle wax on Willem Dafoe's bathing suit area and lived to tell.    I've just been singled out as the pervert of the room by Madonna.   

It's like being knighted.