MADONNA: THE SAINT, THE SLUT, THE SENSATION


In her eight-year rise from disco-pop contender to international multimedia legend, Madonna has never failed to incite fascination and controversy with one hit record, one sensational video, one mediocre movie after another. One of the first pop stars made by and for MTV, she titillated viewers with her bare belly button and her boy-toy belt buckle. She also made the word "virgin" not only speakable but unavoidable in teen-girl parlance.

She challenged feminists by putting the choice back in pro-choice with her song about teenage motherhood, "Papa Don't Preach" -- and then in concert used the song to chide the Pope for opposing birth control. Her "Like a Prayer" video, in which she seduces a black saint and ends up with dripping stigmata, scared Pepsi into canceling the commercial it had paid her $5 million to do.

She endured a stormy, highly publicized marriage to and divorce from photophobic actor Sean Penn. Then her public escapades with comedian Sandra Bernhard courted rumors that the two were having a lesbian affair. During her Blond Ambition tour, she was threatened with arrest in Toronto for masturbating onstage. When MTV banned her "Justify My Love" video, depicting a pansexual orgy in a Paris hotel room, she went on ABC's Nightline to, well, justify her love of provocation.

You ain't seen nothin', though, until you've seen Truth or Dare, her documentary film. Salacious tidbits from the film, shot during the Blond Ambition tour, became conversation pieces weeks in advance of its opening: Here's Madonna reminiscing about the childhood girlfriend who finger-fucked her, there's Madonna bluntly asking one of her dancers if he's ever taken it up the ass and then watching open-mouthed while two others act our her dare to tongue-kiss each other.

Not the least of the film's groundbreaking aspects is its perspective on gay culture. It's hard to think of another film about a nongay subject in which the presence of gay people is not only normal and accepted but treasured. Of her seven dancers, all are ethnic minorities, and all but one are gay. Madonna clearly identifies with them, camping and partying and flirting with them freely. The film shows her lead dancers, Jose Guitierez and Luis Camacho, communing with Queer Nation at a gay pride march in New York; the film also records the tension that arises from the homophobia of straight dancer Oliver Crumes. But Madonna's attitude toward her supporting cast -- not to mention her then-lover Warren Beatty, manager Freddy DeMann, and her backstage crew -- is less than saintly. She manages to be generous and condescending, nurturing and narcissistic in the same breath.

Hollywood doesn't really get Madonna. She doesn't fit any past models of Hollywood stardom. She belongs to the first generation of video babies, the generation of what New Yorker writer George W. S. Trow calls "the cold child," formed by the false cheerfulness, the pseudo-intimacy, the corrupt smiles of television. The sensibility is scattershot and postliterate. It combines an infinitesimal attention span with an instantaneous absorption of visual information; a picture is worth a thousand books.

Madonna's attention span and her ability to withstand barrages of computer-age information make her uniquely unafraid of contradiction. In fact, in true postmodern fashion, she is drawn to complexity, contradiction, and ambiguity over harmony, clarity, and simplicity. And she embraces a fragmented wardrobe of personas (Bitch, Little Girl, Vulnerable Love-Seeker) rather than a false, integrated personality. Truth or Dare is the first movie to capture this quality of Madonna's, and until Hollywood understands it, her future in movies will probably remain uncertain.

The gay world, of course, gets Madonna in a big way. Among Madonnaholics, the intensity of engagement is sometimes breathtaking. Performance artist Karen Finley has even turned her name into an adjective. "All women," says Finley, "should be as Madonna as possible."

The love affair is mutual. "Effeminate men intrigue me more than anything in the world," she told Vanity Fair. "I see them as alter egos."

She has lost many gay friends to AIDS, including her first dance teacher Christopher Flynn, former roommate Martin Burgoyne, artist Keith Haring, and filmmaker Howard Brookner. She has done numerous AIDS fund-raisers (the Hollywood premier of Truth or Dare will benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles, and the New York premiere will benefit the American Foundation for AIDS Research).

She has long been gay-positive both privately (she helped bankroll the Los Angeles run of drag artist John Epperson's I Could Go on Lip-synching!) and publicly (she received one of this year's Media Awards April 21 from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). And she had no qualms about being interviewed for The Advocate.

The interview took place at her house in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles one afternoon in March between rehearsals for her appearance on the Academy Awards show. Madonna lives at the end of a twisty-turny road in the Hollywood Hills. It's not the baronial estate one might expect to house a woman who Forbes estimates has earned $125 million in the last five years. A friend accurately describes it as the L.A. equivalent of an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It has the provisional feel of many Hollywood stars' homes. Yes, there's the patio, the pool, the spectacular view. But the interior seems art-directed rather than designed for living. White orchids float in crystal bowls throughout the house. Massive square columns separate a hallway work space from the living room, whose heavy, brocade-covered furniture makes the room feel stiff and uncomfortable, a place for Sunday behavior.

No wonder everybody feels more relaxed hanging out in the kitchen, with its library-style magazine rack, dining table with banquette, and never-empty bowl of popcorn. Madonna's brother Anthony, a friendly guy with long hair and two pierced ears, is visiting for a couple of weeks from New York, where he works in film production. Her assistant Melissa Crow (also known as "Baby M") makes coffee and works the phones, while her publicist, Warner Bros. Records' Liz Beth Rosenberg (who's been called "the most quoted woman in America"), crochets and pores over the fruits of the latest photo session. With evident reluctance Madonna abandons this cozy nest for the formality of the living room and the interview.

In person Madonna exudes less glamour than one might expect of someone so careful about her image. Today her hair is in disarray -- an inch and a half of dark roots showing underneath a blond dye job turning sickly yellow -- though her makeup is perfect. She's wearing a black lace bodysuit with something else black pulled over it and lots of jewelry.

Later in the day, at a screening of Truth or Dare attended by "the suits" (agents, studio heads, record company executives, and a few celebs and colleagues), Madonna shows up in a hideous calf-length black smock dress and black boots that make her look like a little girl playing dress-up. It maybe that she's indulging in the latest fashion trend, the one Allure magazine calls "Deliberately Dowdy." Or perhaps she's simply pregnant with her next look. In any case, her appearance reflects the restlessness and surprising fragility that runs through the interview.

She seats herself in front of the plate-glass window on the oddest piece of furniture in the room, a bench with no back. It's designed so that anyone on the sofa can see the patio, the pool, and the spectacular view. But it also allows her to lie down and gaze at the best thing in the room, a lush Langlois panting of Diana, Cupid, and Endymion (all nude) that's mounted on the ceiling.

Although she made no effort to hide her lack of enthusiasm to talk to the press, she was a dream to interview. She never declared anything "off-the-record" (although she did call the next morning requesting that The Advocate not print the astonishing title of the song she's supposed to be writing with Michael Jackson). [Note: It was "In the Closet."] She answered every question without hesitation. And in true Madonna fashion, what she said was often...well, see for yourself.

What do you see when you look at the movie Truth or Dare? Describe that woman.

I see a huge paradox in me -- the intense need to be loved and the search for approval juxtaposed with the need to nurture other people, to be the mother I never had. I didn't realize how matriarchal I am, how maternal I am, until I watched this movie.

Did you have other documentary films in mind as models?

No. Originally we were going to do a concert film, because I was really proud of what I'd done on the stage, and I thought, I wish I could capture this on film. But as I started working with the people, what really interested me were the relationships that were developing between me and the dancers and everybody around. We watched the footage of all the backstage stuff in Japan when I started the tour, and I said, "I couldn't give a shit about the live show. This is life! This is what I want to document."

Who had bigger balls in making this movie, you or Alek Keshishian [director of Truth or Dare]?

He certainly had the balls to stand up to me, which is fairly difficult. I said, "You have to know that I'm going to want to throw you out of the room. You have to be willing to say no." And he did. That requires fairly large balls. But in the end he can hide behind the camera. I can't My life is splayed out for the world to see. I have to take credit for having the larger balls in this situation.

Weren't some things staged or hyped-up for the movie?

Yes, they were. For instance, we did say, "OK, Pedro Almodovar is going to throw this party for me. We're going to mike the tables and film all this." I can't exactly say "staged," because I contend that I would have done the same thing whether the camera was there or not.

Is there anything you cut at the last minute that you felt was just too strong?

There's a lot of stuff with Warren that I cut out -- there were phone conversations I thought were really moving and touching and revealing, but Warren didn't know we were recording. It wasn't fair, plus it's a federal offense. He, more than anybody, was reluctant to be filmed. Ultimately I don't think he respected what I was doing or took it seriously. He just thought I was fucking around, making a home movie.

Of the stuff that's in the movie, was there any pressure from anywhere to cut certain scenes?

Everything. Listen, almost anything that you squirmed in your seat about was something that people wanted to cut -- from the confrontation with my girlfriend who finger-fucked me to my talking about my brother's alcoholism to the truth-or-dare game where the two guys are kissing. My agency is freaking out because I do that [sticking her finger in her mouth as if to vomit] after Kevin Costner leaves the dressing room, 'cause Kevin Costner is like this big hero and everything. But, I mean, come on: people rip me to shreds every chance they get, and I can take it, so he should be able to take it.

You're still pushing the envelope with this movie.

It's the next step after "Justify My Love." What am I supposed to do now? I know that I'm a political person. It excites me to be a political person. I'm incensed by the prejudices in the world, and if I can do something with my celebrity to make people see things that ordinarily they may not pay attention to, then I feel responsible to do it. But I want to have fun while I'm doing it.

Is it true your manager was nervous about the movie because the dancers are gay?

That's what they said in Vanity Fair. My manager was nervous about everything. It shows me being bitchy to people and cold. But I set out to make a movie about myself, so I wasn't going to cut out parts of myself. I said, "Freddy, they already think I'm a cunt bitch, they already think I'm Attila the Hun. They already compare me to Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein."

Were you appalled at any especially unattractive behavior you saw?

No, I was never appalled by myself. I felt a little bit uneasy about certain things. But honestly -- and I know this sounds really corny -- I've learned to love myself more through this movie and to see that in the midst of all my ambition and desire to succeed and my search for approval, I do give things to people. I bring some sort of happiness to their lives. So I'm not so hard on myself anymore.

Speaking of balls, in the movie you're very emasculating to a lot of the men -- your manager, your boyfriend, all the dancers, poor Kevin Costner.

Emasculating? Now look, you only take balls away from people when they give them to you.

You call Warren "pussy man," you call your dancers "queens on the rag."

They are! They are! Warren is a pussy, and they are queens on the rag sometimes! Those guys were the biggest bitches I ever met! They were impossible. They are what they are. When I say "pussy" you know what I mean. He's a wimp.

Do you enjoy playing that role of castrating bitch?

[Pausing] I enjoy expressing myself, and if I think someone's being a pussy, I say it.

Was there anything that was absolutely sacred that could not be filmed?

I had a really nice reunion with my grandmother. She was so old and so sick. I thought she would be frightened to death if we turned the cameras on. That was the only time I said, "You just can't."

Have you always had a prayer circle with the musicians before going on?

Absolutely. Always.

I noticed that you're the only one who gets to talk in the prayer circle.

I'm the boss.

And I understand that in their contract, the dancers had to agree that they could not talk to the press without permission.

Don't lump that together with the prayer. Everyone that is employed by me signs a privacy contract, from my maid to a backup singer. It's a way of protecting myself before I get to know people and know that I can trust them.

So you get to "express yourself," but they don't?

No, they get to express themselves. They're all dancers and singers and whatever. They are all free to go out in the world and have their own careers and express themselves. But I wouldn't want them to exploit me. As far as the prayer goes, let's face it, we had a certain amount of time before we went onstage, and, honestly, I will take credit for being the most eloquent person in the group. If I let all of them have a chance to say a prayer, we would have been there for four fours.

In the movie, the one straight dancer, Oliver, is used on the one hand as an emblem of homophobia, in his reaction to the gay dancers, and on the other hands he has a certain amount of authority because he speaks in the movie and the others don't. Why was that?

There was a lot of tension not only because he was homophobic but also because the other dancers were jealous. They thought that he was like a mama's boy, that I spent too much time with him. The fact is, I spent too much time with all of them. I totally spoiled Jose and Luis in unbelievable ways. It's disgusting when I think about it. They could have come in and asked me for anything, and I would have given it to them. It went back and forth. When I was with Oliver, Jose and Luis and all of them would say all these nasty things: "There goes mama's boy." Then Oliver would say, "Did you take the girls shopping? Did you buy them their purses?" That kind of thing. All this jealousy. They all wanted the same thing: my attention.

The other thing is Luis and Jose and Slam [Sallim "Slam" Gauwloos] and Carlton [Wilborn] have built-in antennas to nightclubs. As soon as we got into a town, they knew where the clubs were, and they were out all night. We would schedule interviews, and Luis and Jose were constantly fucking us over and not showing up or oversleeping because they were always partying. Oliver was always where we could find him. That's why we got so much footage of him.

Like a good little mama's boy.

Exactly. But Oliver came from a completely different world. He came from the world of Compton, Bell Biv Devoe, all those boys that hang out together and wish they were M.C. Hammer. Everybody else had a certain camaraderie with each other and related to each other, I'm sure because they were gay. I think Oliver almost felt persecuted because he was straight. You know?

Do you think there was poetic justice in that?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely! I know he learned something from it, even though his homophobic behavior is probably gonna piss a lot of people off. Like anybody who is homophobic, it's fear of the unknown. He didn't have any choice but to allow himself to look at it. I keep telling Michael Jackson, "I'd love to turn Jose and Luis on you for a week." They pull you out of the shoe box you're in. Anybody who's in a shoe box in the closet cannot be in one after hanging around with Luis and Jose. Or me, for that matter.

I have this whole vision about Michael. We're considering working on a song together. I would like to completely redo his whole image, give him a Caesar -- you know, that really short haircut -- and I want to get him out of those buckly boots and all that stuff. What I want him to do is go to New York and hang out for a week with the House of Extravaganza [a group of voguers]. They could give him a new style. I've already asked Jose and Luis if they would do it. They're thrilled and ready. I said, "Could you give this guy a make-over for me?" because I think that's really what he needs.

Is he up for it?

I don't know. He's up for a couple of things that surprise me. We're writing a song together. The thing is, I'm not going to get together and do some stupid ballad or love duet -- no one's going to buy it, first of all. I said, "Look, Michael, if you want to do something with me, you have to be willing to go all the way or I'm not going to do it." He keeps saying yes.

Let's go back to balls. Who turned you on to vogueing in the first place?

I went to the Sound Factory with my girlfriend Debi M. because I wanted to go dancing. At the time I was trying to visualize things for my show, and I was hanging around a lot of clubs -- watching different styles, looking for dancers. I don't like the people who go to class all the time; they're really boring dancers. I was just looking for some street dancers, you know, and when I saw Jose and Luis dancing, I was completely blown away by them. I was afraid to approach them.

Debi told me there was this guy named Luis Ninja who's a spokesperson for the House of Extravaganza. I asked to meet him, and it was hysterical. This guy shows up at my hotel room in New York with a suit on and a briefcase. he got this deejay friend to open another club in the afternoon, brought the whole House of Extravaganza, and they performed for me. They had the lights going, this music pumping. It was just the best dancers you've ever seen, and they were all freestyling. I didn't know where to look. I was blown away.

I chose Jose and Luis because I thought they were the strongest performers. I invited them to come to the auditions, because I wanted to see them dance in other styles. Luis came, and Luis will try anything. He was not so great at everything, but he was willing to try it, and I loved him for that. Jose wouldn't do a goddamned thing. Jose sat in the back with his hands on his hips. That's what I mean about a queen on the rag. He was just, like, "The fuck I will." So of course I loved him for that. I thought, Now this guy has balls.

Tell me your whole history of working with gay people.

I'd say that after my father, the most powerful, important relationship of my life was with Christopher Flynn, who was my ballet teacher, who was gay. I didn't understand the concept of gay at that time. I was probably 12 or 13 years old. All I knew was that my ballet teacher was different from everybody else. He was so alive. He had a certain theatricality about him. He made you proud of yourself, just the way he came up to me and put my face in his hand and said, "You are beautiful." No one had woken up that part of me yet. I was too busy being repressed by my Catholic father.

By the time I was 15 or 16, he took me to my first gay club to go dancing. I'd never been to a club. I'd only been to high school dances, and no guys would ever ask me to dance, because they thought I was insane, so I'd just go out and dance by myself.

They thought you were insane?

Yes. In school and in my neighborhood and everything, I felt like such an outsider, a misfit, a weirdo. And suddenly when I went to the gay club, I didn't feel that way anymore. I just felt at home. I had a whole new sense of myself.

Until that point I kept seeing myself through macho heterosexual eyes. Because I was a really aggressive woman, guys thought of me as a really strange girl. I know I frightened them. I didn't add up for them. They didn't want to ask me out. I felt inadequate around them, and I felt not beautiful, and I felt like I could never fit in with the prom queens and the cheerleaders and the perfect girls that all went out with the football players. You know what I mean? I was really down on myself. When Christopher introduced me to this life, I suddenly thought, That's not the only way that I have to be. I felt that my behavior was accepted around him.

How did your father feel about your going to gay clubs?

My father didn't know. At the time he would have freaked out.

How did your Catholic background prepare you for meeting gay people and hanging out with gay people?

Well, people didn't talk about gay life in the Catholic Church. They barely talked about sex. So I didn't see it as something I was supposed to be wary of or afraid of. All I knew was I was attracted to Christopher and his life-style. I fell in love with him and the way he treated me. I started spending a lot of time with dancers, and almost every male dancer that I knew was gay. Then I went through another kind of feeling inadequate because I was constantly falling in love with gay men. of course, I was so miserable that I wasn't a man.

Do you feel you consciously incorporated elements of gay culture in your work?

It's not conscious, it just happened. My brother Christopher's gay, and he and I have always been the closest members of my family.

Did you always know he was gay?

It's funny. When he was really young, he was so beautiful and had girls all over him, more than any of my other brothers. I knew something was different, but it was not clear to me. I just thought, I know there are a lot of girls around, but I don't get that he has a girlfriend. He was like a girl-magnet. They all seemed incredibly fond of him and close to him in a way I hadn't seen men with women.

I'll tell you when I knew. After I met Christopher, I brought my brother to my ballet class because he wanted to start studying dance. I just saw something between them. I can't even tell you exactly what. But then I thought, Oh, I get it. Oh, OK. He likes men too. It was this incredible revelation, but I didn't say anything to my brother yet. I'm not even sure he knew. He's two years younger than me. He was still a baby. I could just feel something.

Something tribal?

Yeah, exactly.

How did your family feel about your brother being gay?

My father's very old-fashioned, traditional, grew up in that macho Italian world. I know he's probably not really comfortable with it. He doesn't treat my brother any differently than all of us, but I know that there's an unspoken thing where Christopher doesn't feel like he's accepted by my father. All of my other brothers and sisters certainly accept it. God knows what my father accepts in my life, you know what I mean? My father is a very silent man. He keeps a lot inside.

I feel like I'm always working with gay men. For some reason that's who I have the most camaraderie with. I don't really know why. I think, on the one hand, I feel their persecution. They are looked at as outsiders, so I relate to that. On the other hand, I feel that most gay men are so much more in touch with a certain kind of sensitivity that heterosexual men aren't allowed to be in touch with, their feminine side. To me they're whole human beings, more so than most of the straight men that I know.

You have a huge gay following, as I'm sure you know. What do you think you say to gay people? What message do they get?

I am a high-visibility person, and I know that they know that I'm completely compassionate about their choice in life, their life-style, and I support it. To have a person like me saying that is helpful to them. They appreciate that. But maybe there are other things. You say "tribal" -- maybe I want to say "primal." I don't really know. A lot of the issues I deal with are sexual, and I'm constantly trying to challenge the accepted ways of behaving sexually. Maybe they appreciate that.

What do teenage kids from Middle America think when they see men dancing together or wearing bullet bras? Are they digesting these sophisticated images?

They digest it on a lot of different levels. Some people will see it and be disgusted by it, but maybe they'll be unconsciously aroused by it, maybe they'll be unconsciously challenged by the idea of men in women's lingerie. Then there are people who see it and are amused by it, see the irony of it, see things that maybe frightened them before and know that it's not something to be so frightened of. If people keep seeing it and seeing it and seeing it, eventually it's not going to be such a strange thing.

There's a long tradition of singer-goddesses with gay followings: Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross. You're now part of that. What do you think makes that type of woman attractive to gay men?

A lot of people saw Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland as persecuted and tragic and vulnerable, and I think a lot of gay men feel that way because of their particular predicament in society and not being accepted completely.

You keep coming back to this Marilyn imagery, and it's hard to tell whether it's a mask of vulnerability you put over your steel-plated heart or whether you think of her as a role model for yourself.

It's not that I think of her as a role model, but she was made into something not human in a way, and I can relate to that. Her sexuality was something everyone was obsessed with, and that I can relate to. And there were certain things about her vulnerability that I'm curious about and attracted to.

But I don't see myself as Marilyn Monroe. I'm almost playing with her image and turning it around. It's the idea of using imagery people understand but having a different message. What I'm saying is not what she was saying.

What is the difference?

We have different lives. I don't claim to know her, and I can barely believe most of what's been written about her. I know how untruthfully people write about you and how it ends up being about one thing and not a million things, which is what a person's made up of. But the impression that I get is, she didn't know her own strength and didn't know how to nurture it and wasn't surrounded by nurturing people. I don't have an addictive personality. I don't drink a lot and take pills a lot and try to make myself forget my life, because I love my life. So there's that.

So you're seeing the vulnerability and erotic sadness she projects as a good thing, a female strength and not a weakness?

Absolutely.

You're playing with it as a role, as a mask, as if to say "There's power in this."

Yes, there is power. I take it one step further and say, "Now what if it was done this way? And then what if I put the mask down?"

I heard this story that when you and Sean Penn were engaged, you were on the phone one day with David Geffen, and he said, "Madonna, I was going to go straight for you," and Sean said, "David, I was going to go gay for you."

I can imagine it. David's always saying things like that to me.

What do you think about outing?

I understand what they're doing. I understand why they're doing it. I'm not exactly sure if it's the most productive way to do it. It would be so helpful for the straight community to see men in powerful positions coming out and saying "I'm gay" so they don't have these preconceived notions that all gay men are smarmy idiots living on the street or whatever it is people think of gay men. I think it would be really helpful and productive. I'm not sure everybody else coming out and going "He's gay, he's gay, and he's gay" is going to do it.

What do famous people really have to lose by being known as gay?

I'm not really sure. Maybe they think, if they're the head of a big corporation or the head of a studio or the head of a record label, that people will boycott them or try to get them fired from their positions. I'm not sure. Maybe all these queens who are running this town should come right out, and maybe they'd all see that it wasn't such a horrible thing. Certainly everybody in the Hollywood community knows who the gay people are and who aren't. I think the gay community has come a long way, but AIDS has set everybody back, in a way. It gave everyone a reason to point their finger at the gay community and say "See, you are horrible, dirty things." Maybe it pushed everybody back in their closet. I don't know.

Why is the music industry so homophobic?

They're not going to be when I get finished with them.

Do you think Geffen's coming out will make a difference?

I think it'll help. Maybe when people realize that he's not going to be assassinated in the town square, other people will do the same. What I really wish would happen from Truth or Dare is that movies would be made about gay life-styles that wouldn't be these art-house movies like Longtime Companion that nobody saw. Which leads me to this book that I want to make into a movie. Have you see this? [Holding up a copy of Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin.] It's incredible. What I hope is -- maybe I'm being too idealistic -- that my movie changes things in Hollywood in that direction.

But like anything, it's slow progress, two steps forward, one step back. Even though I dealt with some other-than-heterosexual themes in "Justify My Love," unfortunately some people just saw it in a superficial way and didn't really want to deal with it.

Deal with what?

The sexual themes in it. It wasn't just about me. It's about life, about human nature. I think everybody has a bisexual nature. That's my theory. I could be wrong.

Are you as kinky personally as your image makes you seem?

Well, what do you mean by kinky? I mean, I am aroused by two men kissing. Is that kinky? I am aroused by the idea of a woman making love to me while either a man or another woman watches. Is that kinky? Also, just because I'm presented life in a certain way doesn't mean I do all these things. It's just something I choose to express.

How do you feel about dildos?

I'm not really interested in dildos.

How about sex toys of any kind?

No. I like the human body. I like flesh. I like things that are living and breathing. And a finger will do just fine. I've never owned a vibrator, if that's what you want to know.

Tell me about your boyfriend Tony Ward. Is it true he has an ass you can serve drinks off of?

Well, I've never been served a drink off his ass. But he does have a great ass.

How big is his dick?

I don't know. I haven't measured it, but it's big enough for me.

Does size matter to you?

No.

Do you used a strap-on with Tony?

No. I don't know where that story came from.

How did you feel about his having posed nude for gay magazines?

Well, I sort of felt camaraderie. He had these pictures done when he was really young and needed money. The same thing happened to me. I finally felt like, "God, somebody can understand how I felt." It didn't bother me.

Tell me about Warren Beatty. How big is his dick?

Once again, I haven't measured it, but it's a perfectly wonderful size.

Does he have a gay bone in his body?

I would think so. Yeah. God only knows how many times Tennessee Williams tried to pick him up. He was a great beauty, and he still is a very handsome man, but I mean just drop-dead gorgeous. I don't know that he's ever slept with a man. He's certainly not homophobic. I asked him once, "Would you ever sleep with a man?" and he said he was sorry that he hadn't but that now because of AIDS he felt it was an unsafe thing to start experimenting with.

Did you give him a little safe-sex lesson when he said that?

No, I didn't. Because, you know, if I have to give Warren Beatty safe-sex lessons, then what is this world coming to?

Tell me about Sandra Bernhard.

What do you want to know?

How big is her dick?

Huge. It's the biggest dick I've ever seen. Sandy's a great gal. Sandy's one of my only girlfriends, really. She's one of the only girls that can take me. She's a really ballsy girl. Most girls just hide under the couch. We frighten everyone out of the room.

You were very coy about whether you were sleeping together. What was that about?

Sandy and I have always been great friends. I think in the very beginning there was a flirtation, but I realized I could have a really good friend in Sandra, and I wanted to maintain the friendship.

When I went on the David Letterman show, it wasn't exactly clear how things were going to go. But Sandy started playing up that we were girlfriends, and I thought, Great, OK, let me go for it. Because, you know, I love to fuck with people. Just as people have preconceived notions about gay men, they certainly do about gay women. So if I could be some sort of a detonator to that bomb, then I was willing to do that. It was really fun.

Then, of course, it went highly out of control. Everybody picked up on it, and the question was, Are we sleeping together? It's not really important.

It's a little surprising that Sandra backed away from it the way that she did. She was more scared by that than you were.

The fact is that Sandra sleeps with men too, and I think maybe she's trying to find happiness in her life. Maybe she was just thinking, Can everybody just shut up so I can find somebody to have a decent relationship with?

Sandra's one of the most open people I know. You should see her in public. She's not trying to hide anything. I think it's ludicrous that people are accusing her of being in the closet or ashamed of being gay.

The fact is, she's a great friend of mine. Whether I'm gay or not is irrelevant. Whether I slept with her or not is irrelevant. I'm perfectly willing to have people think that I did. You know, I do not want to protest too much. I don't care. If it makes people feel better to think that I slept with her, then they can think it. And if it makes them feel safer to think that I didn't, then that's fine too.

You know, I'd almost rather they thought that I did. Just so they could know that here was this girl that everyone was buying records of, and she was eating someone's pussy. So there.

So when did you have your first sexual experience with a woman?

Probably when I was about 7 or 8. All of my sexual experiences when I was young were with girls. I mean, we didn't have those sleep-over parties for nothing. I think that's really normal: same-sex experimentation. You get really curious, and there's your girlfriend, and she's spending the night with you, and it happens.

Were you ever in love with a woman?

I've had lots of crushes. I think I've only been in love with men, because ultimately the approval I seek is my father's.

Why do lesbians adore you?

I don't know. Why don't you go and ask them?

How do you feel about them?

Them? Them?

It's interesting that there are all these stars gay men adore but for the most part gay women don't.

What about Laura Nyro? There's k.d. lang, who's gorgeous, by the way. She looks like Sean [Penn]. I met her, and I thought, Oh my God, she's the female version of Sean. I could fall in love with her.

It's very rare for there to be a star like you who equally turns on gay men and gay women.

Well, I'm an attractive girl.

Is there a difference between the people who want to brand powerful women as lesbians to discredit them and the ones who want to claim them for their own to validate themselves?

So you're talking about what straight men do versus what gay women do? I know why straight men say of powerful women, "Oh, she's a dyke." It makes them feel safe to say, "They can't be women who like to fuck men, because I'm intimidated by them." I think gay women would want to claim me as their own because I am a really strong woman. I am assertive in a way that a lot of gay women are, and I could be a really good mascot for them or spokesperson or something.

You're sexually assertive the way gay men are.

I am. Rupert Everett said, "The way you are with men is just like a queen."

What childhood experiences did you have that influenced your sexuality, that made you accept it and be aggressive about it?

I think not having a really strong mother figure when I was very young. My father and my older brothers influenced me a great deal. I did what they did. I said what I wanted. I burped when I had to burp. When I liked a boy on the playground, I chased him. There was no one over me saying "Now, girls don't do that."

Did you have any specific childhood fantasies?

You mean sexual fantasies? I feel that my whole life is influenced by men, not women. When my mother died, there was a period when I thought I was the wife and mother. I'd taken over that part. I think I had sexual fantasies about every older man who was related to me. I didn't really discover masturbation till I was 17, 18 years old. I'd had intercourse before I understood that.

But I remember when I was a really little girl, my favorite thing to do -- I suppose because I was sexually aroused -- was to sit on the toilet backward. I would just sit there, and somehow it would relieve me. Really weird. I also liked the idea of standing above the toilet and peeing, so what I would do is lift the toilet seat up and straddle it and just try to aim my pee into the toilet.

Do you ever feel self-conscious when you're with a lover about living up to your sex-goddess image?

Not at all.

How do you feel about pornography?

I'm not even sure I know what pornography is -- Playboy magazine? I look at Playboy magazine sometimes 'cause there are some really beautiful girls from the neck down. For some reason they're awful-looking in the face. I don't know why that is. To me, those traditional things that are supposed to turn people on -- porno movies and porno magazines -- are not half as exciting as other things.

Do you have any feelings about feminists who are opposed to pornography?

No. I have no feelings about them.

You said you draw the line in terms of obscenity on TV at violence and degradation of women.

Not just of women, of anybody. To me, the vibe that I get from a lot of those videos is that men are being really cruel to women. It's an image that I've grown up with that I think is unfair. I don't think I'm being unfair to anybody. Tony [Ward] knew what was happening to him in the "Justify My Love" video, fully understood it, and was into it. I'm not sure that these girls with tit jobs do. The sexuality in my videos is all consented to. No one's taking advantage of each other.

Maybe what I'm saying is hypocritical. I suppose people would say, "You emasculate men in what you do." Well, straight men need to be emasculated. I'm sorry. They all need to be slapped around. Women have been kept down for too long. Every straight guy should have a man's tongue in his mouth at least once.

Where do you buy your lingerie?

Everywhere. [Laughing] Where do I buy my lingerie? Frederick's of Hollywood, Neiman-Marcus, anywhere.

What do you do with your old lingerie?

I throw it away.

What do you think of the way George Bush is handling the AIDS epidemic?

I don't really think he's handling it. It's not front-page news anymore, so a lot of people think it's not something important to be dealt with anymore.

How would you go about getting Bush's attention to end the epidemic?

Well, I don't think Bush can end the AIDS epidemic. I think it's all the things that I'm trying to do -- to educate people and make them realize that AIDS is not just a gay disease. Education is the most important thing.

Benefits are a fantastic way to raise money for care and education and so on. But they don't have the political effect of making the White House say, "We're going to make this our top priority, to put someone in place to mastermind how we're going to end this epidemic." How do you think you can use your power to do that?

I guess I could run for the Senate.

Do you think people in Hollywood can have any effect politically on the White House?

Yeah, because they are obsessed with people in Hollywood. The thing is to get people the straight community looks up to, to get them to take a stand on things -- Tom Cruise or somebody.

Why don't these entertainers take a stand?

For the same reason people are afraid to come out and say they're gay, I guess, because they think it's some kind of plague. Unfortunately, people don't think AIDS is a really big deal until someone close to them gets it.

I wish Kevin Costner would be as interested in the AIDS community as he is in Indians. It would really be helpful.

But look, everybody chooses the things that are important to them. Unfortunately, because being gay is considered such a freak thing in America and people are so homophobic and AIDS is related to being gay, people are afraid to say, "I wish President Bush would spend less money on arms and more money on funding research to find a cure for AIDS." There just aren't enough people doing that.

What do you think of ACT UP [the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a direct-action group]?

What do you mean, what do I think of it?

Are you fer 'em or agin 'em?

I'm for 'em!

What did you think of the St. Patrick's Cathedral demonstration in New York City, where members of ACT UP disrupted a service that Cardinal John OíConnor was giving and somebody crumpled a communion wafer?

Sometimes you just have to go in and make a mess of things to get people to pay attention. I think they did the right thing. Iíll probably get persecuted for saying that.

Do you have a spiritual practice?

I suppose praying is a spiritual practice.

Do you pray daily?

I donít count the times I pray, but Iím aware that I do.

Would you say that you are a practicing Catholic?

No. Catholicism is a really mean religion, and itís incredibly hypocritical. How could I be supportive of it as an organized religion? But it plays a role in my life Ďcause you canít really get a lot of things out of your head, such as what Jesus Christ looks like and that divorce is a horrible thing.

Have you ever had sex in a church?

No, but when I was a little girl, I was at church by myself on a Saturday afternoon going to confession because my father insisted. I donít know why now. No one was there, and instead of going out the main entrance, I went through this vestibule off to the side with a swinging door. I opened the door a little bit, and there was this couple standing up fucking in the church. I thought, Oh my God! I shut the door really fast.

Thatís the only sex Iíve seen in a church. Seems like a neat thing to do, though.

Itís funny how Christianity often puts spirituality and sexuality in conflict with each other -- if youíre sexual, you canít be spiritual and vice versa.

Thatís what I mean about Catholicism. Your sexual life is supposed to be dead if youíre a good Catholic. Thatís wrong. Itís human nature to be sexual, so why would God want you to deny your human nature?

Do you relate to any particular saints or mythological deities?

[Lolling on her back and pointing to the painting on the ceiling] Well, here we have Diana. Would you like to hear the myth of this painting?

Sure.

This is painted by Langlois, the French painter. Here we have Diana. I donít know if itís Roman or Greek, but in one mythology sheís goddess of the moon, in the other sheís goddess of the hunt. She has not only the crescent moon above her head but also the thing that holds the arrows on her back.

Quiver.

Yes. And this is Hermes [meaning Endymion]. He was a very vain man. He thought he was very beautiful, and as you can see, he is. He said to Zeus, ďI wish I could stay beautiful forever. I donít want to grow old. So could you give me eternal life, keep me young forever?Ē

Zeus played a trick on him and said, ďSure, Iíll do that for you,Ē but he put him to sleep -- so now heís going to be beautiful forever but asleep. And while heís lying there looking beautiful, everyone could take advantage of him, and he wasnít even awake to enjoy it. Thatís Cupid in the middle between him and Diana.

So sheís about to hop on him?

Sheís about to go for it. And Cupid is basically saying, ďHere, take a peek.Ē I love the idea of being goddess of the hunt. But I donít really identify with her.

In terms of saints, when I was confirmed I took the name Veronica as my confirmation name because she wiped the face of Jesus. You know, you werenít supposed to help Christ while he was on his way to the Crucifixion; she was not afraid to step out and wipe the sweat off him and help him. So I liked her for doing that, and I took her name. Thereís Mary Magdalene -- she was considered a fallen woman because she slept with men, but Jesus said it was OK. I think they probably got it on, Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Those are my saint heroes.

Thereís a fascinating scene in Truth or Dare where you say, ďI donít want to be the worldís greatest singer or dancer; I want to push peopleís buttons, I want to be provocative, I want to be political.Ē The next p word should be powerful. How do you perceive your own power in the world?

I donít like to think about it. Iím probably more powerful than I think, in terms of how I can influence people.

Do you have an ultimate goal?

No.

Are there things youíd like to do with your power but canít?

No. I think ultimately Iím going to achieve the things I want to achieve. I have to believe that, you know what I mean? Iíd love for people not to have so many prejudices about sexual preference and things like that.

Are you addicted to fame and scandal? Do you constantly think, How can I top this?

No. Iím not addicted to scandal. I feel that Iím on a mission to educate people. When I say ďpushing peopleís buttons,Ē I mean really making them see things and making them feel things theyíre not necessarily comfortable with feeling. Itís not ďOh, I just want to be scandalous.Ē

Youíve sometimes given the impression in interviews that what youíd really like to do is be married and wash your husbandís socks.

No, but thereís something to be said for a domestic life and knowing somebodyís there for you. I just think itís hard to live the life I lead and then have this happily married life. I havenít been successful at it so far, but whoís to say I canít be?

Whatís stopping you?

I havenít met somebody who could take all of me, ultimately, who I think is my intellectual equal and truly understands me. Do you feel like youíre my shrink now?

Iíve been feeling that way since you decided to sprawl on your back.

I do this often in my living room as I look at this painting, so I feel very comfortable.

In retrospect, how did you feel about doing Speed-the-Plow on Broadway?

Oh, it was just a painful experience I learned from. I was depressed the whole time I was doing it because Ron [Silver] and Joe [Mantegna] had the good parts. They were victorious in the end, and I felt like a loser at the end of every night. I really felt my part, you know. I also knew the critics were hovering over me like vultures waiting to rip me to shreds. Itís horrible to go out and do it with that feeling.

When will you do your next Broadway play?

The next time a good part is offered to me in a good play.

Are you definitely doing the movie of Evita?

I think so. Every day is a different story. Itís been plagued from the beginning. As you know, I was going to do it, then I got fired [by director Oliver Stone, whoís no longer involved with the project].

Itís a real big production, and Hollywoodís really clamping down on budgets these days. Glenn Caron wrote a brilliant script for it, and you canít make Evita for the small amount of money Disney is saying they want to make it for. They want Jeremy Irons to play Juan. All the things they want that would make it incredible cost money. So where do you draw the line? I donít want it to be a mediocre rendition of Evita. It has to be grand. Itís an epic thing. If there is an Evita, I contend that I will be her.

What do you think it will take to make you as good an actor as you want to be?

Experience. Like anything, the more you do it, the better you get.

Hereís a multiple-choice question. If you could be another star for six months, would you be (a) Michelle Pfeiffer, (b) Jack Nicholson, or (c) Vaginal Creme Davis?

Whoís that?

An LA drag queen.

Oh. None of the above.

Whose approval matters to you?

Whomever Iíve in love with at the time. My best friendís, my fatherís, which Iíll never get.

Even now?

Yeah, even now.

Do you use fake names when you check into hotels?

Yes. When I was on tour, my name for that period of time was Kit Moresby.

You were just waiting to be kidnapped by Arabs?

Oh, God, that book [Paul Bowlesí The Sheltering Sky] was so sexy. It was all I could talk about. I wanted to go to Morocco and meet Paul Bowles. Then when the movie came out, I didnít want to be Kit Moresby anymore. Debra Winger was so wrong. Oh, it was so wrong, so wrong. It was so unsexy. It was horrible.

Do you like to read?

I l-o-o-ove to read.

What do you read?

Everything. Iím reading Naked by the Window, a true story set in the art world [about Ana Mendieta, who died in a mysterious fall from a window, and her husband Carl Andre, who was acquitted of murdering her]. I just finished Giovanniís Room.

I also brought this book of Anne Sextonís poems. I worship this woman. [Holding up the book] This is what my mother looked like. I swear! My sister and I used to read all of her poems when we were in high school because she looked like our mother. She talks about death a lot and breast cancer and mothers, all these death images that we were obsessed with. Do you read her stuff?

I love her stuff.

OK, Iím going to read you this poem, and thatís going to be the end of our interview. And the reason I want to read it to you is, it explains why I made my movie. Itís called ďFor John, Who Begs Me Not to Inquire FurtherĒ:

      Not that it was beautiful,
      but that, in the end, there was
      a certain sense of order there;
      something worth learning
      in that narrow diary of my mind,
      in the commonplaces of the asylum
      where the cracked mirror
      or my own selfish death
      outstared me.
      And if I tried
      to give you something else,
      something outside of myself,
      you would not know
      that the worst of anyone
      can be, finally,
      an accident of hope.
      I tapped my own head;
      it was glass, an inverted bowl.
      It is a small thing
      to rage in your own bowl.
      At first it was private.
      Then it was more than myself;
      it was you, or your house
      or your kitchen.
      And if you turn away
      because there is no lesson here
      I will hold my awkward bowl,
      with all its cracked stars shining
      like a complicated lie,
      and fasten a new skin around it
      as if I were dressing an orange
      or a strange sun.
      Not that it was beautiful,
      but that I found some order there.
      There ought to be something special
      for someone
      in this kind of hope.
      This is something I would never find
      in a lovelier place, my dear,
      although your fear is anyoneís fear,
      like an invisible veil between us all...
      And sometimes in private,
      my kitchen, your kitchen,
      my face, your face.

The Advocate, May 7 & 21, 1991

ďFor John, Who Begs Me Not to Inquire FurtherĒ is reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, from the book Selected Poems of Anne Sexton.

  
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