When people got really affronted at her behavior, as when she published the controversial Sex book, she always had an explanation. She claimed she was being criticized because she was a woman, or that what she had done was meant to be ironic, or that no one quite got it. If one of the escapades she was involved in went wrong — one of her films failing, for example — she always blamed someone else, usually the director. For two decades she's been causing mischief and mayhem and getting away with it. Equally, she has not done badly out of her years of cultural agitation. The girl who once sprayed graffiti on the walls of the Establishment now owns one of the biggest houses in the neighborhood. Yet, even though she seems to have undergone a metamorphosis from iconoclast to institution, Madonna likes to think she is still a rebel at heart. And maybe she still is.
A glance around her New York apartment yields a few signposts in the quest to pinpoint her personality. As she sits curled up on her elegant sofa, Madonna cuts an unlikely figure as the individual at the center of the longest cultural manhunt in history. At 5 foot 4 1/2 inches tall — the half-inch is important to her — she is of average height, with striking, indeed mesmerizing hazel eyes, an insolent set to her mouth, a slight gap between her two front teeth and fine alabaster skin. Her much photographed face ranges in expression from sexy to intelligent, bored to amused and every permutation in between — in a moment. Even though she may be casually dressed in $20 sweatpants from the discount chain Kmart, and a pair of cheap flipflops, she holds herself in a way that suggests command and control, that she is a woman used to being in charge of herself and others.
A conversation merely reinforces that feeling. Madonna goes straight to the point, discarding the irrelevant and unfocused. "OK, Bert, what have you got? Are we doing good?" she used to say to her former business manager Bert Padell, mocking his Brooklyn inflections. With no time for, nor interest in, small talk, she would get directly down to business, nibbling on a ricecake as she fired a thousand questions at him. It is much the same in other encounters — pleasant, matter-of-fact, to the point. "There's an intensity about her," recalls former lover Dan Gilroy, the man who first introduced her to music. "She asks a question to get a reaction, not just for a chat."
Questions, questions, questions; Madonna, ever the creative detective, searching for clues to the new and the ground-breaking. Even when she is quietly listening to music — the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Eastern music and electronic sampling all waft round her home — she is never simply relaxing, but analyzing the sound and the lyrics for a fragment of an original idea, jotting down her thoughts in a notebook bound in marbled paper. Creatively, she is never off duty, pillaging her daily life for ideas and raiding the minds of others for inspiration.