MIAMI — These have not been an easy two years for Madonna. Since the release of "Truth or Dare," it seems she can do little right. Proud of the film documenting her "Blonde Ambition" tour, she had granted more interviews than ever before, and familiarity bred contempt.
Even more hype surrounded the release of her "Sex" book, followed by the disappointing "Erotica" album and the critically panned 1993 film "Body of Evidence," all of which were seen as signs of her decline.
The box-office success of Penny Marshall's feel-good female baseball film "A League of Their Own," the hit singles "This Used to Be My Playground" and "I'll Remember" (which is one of her best-selling singles ever, spending 24 weeks on the Billboard charts), and the sell-out Girlie Show tour have conveniently been forgotten.
"Madonna a-gonna!" screamed the headlines when the Girlie Show tour went to Britain, and tabloid stories this year have often portrayed her as a sad, sagging figure. In the United States, a perhaps ill-judged appearance on David Letterman's late-night talk show in which the F-word was uttered more than once led to another thrashing.
The usual rescue remedy for American celebrities is the confessional: some expression of regret, followed by the public airing of a hitherto private problem, be it addiction to drink or drugs or childhood abuse. But Madonna, 36, is not up for such staged soul-searching. She isn't after the sympathy vote. Instead, she has a theory, a theory she returns to again and again as we talk.
"I'm being punished," she says in an interview in her Miami house, one of her three homes. "I'm being punished for being a single female, for having power and being rich and saying the things I say, being a sexual creature--actually, not being any different from anyone else, but just talking about it. If I were a man, I wouldn't have had any of these problems. Nobody talks about Prince's sex life, and all the women he's slept with. You have to be intelligent about that and say, 'OK, what's being said here?' I'm being punished for having a sex life. For enjoying it and for saying that I enjoy it. I really think it's that simple."
The Madonna I meet is nothing like the Madonna in her photographs: She looks younger, smaller, less imposing. Nor is she the pale, spotty, plain woman interviewers claim to have been greeted by. This Madonna has short, yellow blond hair slicked back from a very pretty face with minimal makeup: black mascara, red lipstick.
There are a couple of very fine lines on her forehead, but nothing more--probably rather less--than most people in their 30s. She is wearing a long black dress, black bra peeping fashionably out between the narrow straps, high-heeled mules, a pale blue ribbon tied 'round one ankle. She is relaxed, friendly and has a loud, open laugh.
Her house, decorated by Madonna's younger brother Christopher, is beautiful in a simple, expensive yet unostentatious way. The arched doorways are picked out in fossilized local coral, the main ceiling is paneled wood. The furniture is tasteful, minimal and comfortable: big cream sofas sprinkled with fat cushions, church candles everywhere, dark wood in the 12-seater dining room. The art on the walls is mainly 19th Century and by Charles Victoire Moench, Bouguereau and School of Tiepolo.
"I feel I've been misunderstood. I tried to make a statement about feeling good about yourself and exploring your sexuality, but people took it to mean that everyone should go out and have sex with everyone, and that I was going to be the leader of that. So I decided to leave it alone because that's what everyone ended up concentrating on. Sex is such a taboo subject and it's such a distraction that I'd rather not even offer it up."
She agrees that there is a defensiveness in some of the lyrics on her new album, "Bedtime Stories" (see review, Page 77) , particularly "Human Nature": "It's my definitive statement in regards to the incredible pay-back I've received for having the nerve to talk about the things that I did in the past few years with my 'Sex' book and my record. It's getting it off my chest. It is defensive, absolutely. But it's also sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek. And I'm not sorry. I do not apologize for any of it."
Control is the key to Madonna's appeal, and the reason why girls especially love her. At a time when feminism seemed to be asking women to choose between pleasure or progress, Madonna came along and said you could have it all: power, sex, glamour, money. Guilt was not necessary. Still, she says, women have also been her most vocal critics.