It was the summer of 1994 and I was in the office of Liz Rosenberg at Warner Music in Manhattan.
“Do you want this calendar?” she asked me.
“I’ve already got it, but thank you!” I replied.
“What about this poster? Or this issue of Billboard magazine? She hasn’t hit #1, but you can have it.”
“I”ve already got it, but really, thank you.”
“Do you want me to get her on the phone?”
My heart stopped.
“No, please. I’d sound like an idiot and I don’t want to sound like some gushing fool.” I replied, my mouth dry and my heart racing from the point where it had stopped.
Liz was Madonna’s publicist and press agent for over 25 years, and I was already dumbstruck to find myself face to face with her in her office (thanks to my cousin Carmela who worked with Liz at Warner Bros), so you can understand why I declined the phone call. I wouldn’t have been able to find the words that I am now able to convey to express what Madonna has meant to me since 1984, and why I am writing this piece now.
Madonna represents the freaks, the geeks, the outsiders, the artists, the ignored, the streetsmart, the rebels, the ambitious and the courageous. Anyone who has ever felt on the fringe of what was considered normal can identify with Madonna, and can also thank her for expanding our understanding and acceptance of what is now considered normal. Through her example, she has taught us all, and trust me when I say that I have been watching, listening to and being inspired by her since the very beginning.
Raised in a family with strong women, Madonna made sense to me. She was in charge, even in an industry and time when record companies controlled it all and when women’s rights had a long way to go (they still do, and she is more vocal than ever about what needs to change). It was a given that she was calling the shots because it was her name, voice and image being released into the zeitgeist, and she was going to have the final say. I took notes.
Within a year of becoming known, Madonna was branching out into other avenues of artistry. Films, tours, plays, books… Actress, author, director, producer, singer, mother, wife, dancer, record company executive, activist, beauty line creator… She showed me what it looked to diversify, to do all things, and to do them even if you might not get accolades for them. She taught me to try. I took notes.
The Madonna we have seen in interviews, on stages, in the pages of glossy fashion, music and current events magazines has been reinvented so many times it boggles the mind. I remember my grandmother coming into my room when I was 19 and my walls were plastered with posters, postcards, magazine covers and newspaper cutouts of Madonna.
“Who are all these women?” she asked.
“They’re all Madonna.” I replied with a massive smile.
Madonna taught me that you could reinvent and reinvent and consciously change, all the while keeping your private self private. Yes, we have seen details of her private life splashed on tabloid shows and magazines for 35 years, but I know that none of us really know the woman who, like the Wizard of Oz, has been the architect of it all. I am still taking notes.
Madonna fought tirelessly to educate us about the facts that we were not getting through mainstream media in the very early days of HIV/AIDS as she was losing her best friends to the disease. This mattered to me as a young boy who believed that if you were gay, you developed the disease. She brought the LGBTQ community to our collective doorstep in 1991’s tour documentary Truth or Dare (titled In Bed With Madonna in Europe and Asia) and helped elevate the community to the mainstream. She continues to tackle our taboos, gender stereotypes, sex and what is deemed acceptable, even after thirty-five years. And because of that, she has survived in the spotlight, in her own words, “in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse.”
Madonna has always been the example, even when the superficial, judgemental, gossipy public has been too triggered by the appearance of what she was doing to understand. If the content has rubbed people the wrong way, their error was in dismissing her instead of looking past the content to the process, because the process is brilliance itself. She has kept herself in Olympian shape ever since the mid-80’s, and, coincidentally or not, is the last of the 80’s icons to survive this long, thriving the whole way. Her songs have always uplifted, dragging us out of the mire and drudgery into positivity with pro-social and pro-love messages. Her tours, of which I have seen every one except for the Virgin Tour in 1985 that did not make its way to Montreal, are more theatre than rock show. She has been using her fame responsibly to speak for those whose voices are not being heard, and she has put her money where her mouth is, donating and raising tens of millions of dollars throughout the years to various organizations, as well as starting her own, Raising Malawi, which cares for children orphaned in Malawi. Her everything has captured our attention since 1983. She has that ‘it’ factor.
Do I regret declining the offer to speak to Madonna on the phone all those years ago? Nope. They say that you should never meet your idols. I disagree. I will meet her, even if I die trying. But that wasn’t the right time. I needed more time to find the words to express why I wanted to meet her. 24 years later, here they are.
Thank you, Madonna. Happy 60th Birthday! You have changed my life for the better, you have changed our world for the better, and you’re still going. And for that, I am grateful.