When Madonna was confirmed to open the GRAMMY Awards with the Gorillaz, media outlets scrambled to get access to her. Ellen Degeneres, who was taping her TV show backstage at the GRAMMYs, wanted Madonna for her very first appearance. MTV decided to bestow the first ever Artist of the Century Award on the Queen of Pop. And, once that disco ball got rolling, every honor and excuse anyone could think of was shamelessly presented. Eventually, there were about 5 hours-worth of activities that Madonna’s publicist and manager agreed to and it was all taking place backstage on GRAMMY night.
“Ron, need you to take care of Madonna for a few hours after she performs. Meet her backstage after ‘Hung Up.’” And then Beautiful Stranger Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s long-time publicist, well, hung up.
I know, it didn’t really seem like a request to me, either. But I did have to think about the professional implications of being gone 5 hours since I was, you know, VICE PRESIDENT OF COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA RELATIONS FOR THE GRAMMY AWARDS!
Oh, Father, I also had to think about the personal implications: Spend 5 hours with Madonna? The woman to whom I had always felt some sort of familial connection, as did other boys who loved to sing her songs and wear a bangle bracelet or two? My Lucky Star. My Ray of Light. The biggest celebrity in the entire material world who I had never met but who somehow knew me so well? Just thinking about it made me feel like I simply could just Die another Day!
But wait, Keep it Together! What if she really lives up to all the horrible things she’s been called and of which she has been accused? Will she be Causin’ a Commotion, bringing nothing but dark clouds and Rain or worst yet, will I even Live to Tell about it?
I mean, I agreed to do it, I’m not stupid…
Leading up to M-Day, I kept asking the universe, God, can you send me a sign or Like a Prayer or something, so I know how to handle whichever version of Madonna was the real one: the Angel or Frozen Queen? Regardless, I decided I was just going to do a great job and treat her with kindness, like a real human being.
The night of the show, Madonna was killing it on stage with the Gorillaz and everyone in the arena was going gorillash*t for Madonna. It suddenly was about 4 Minutes until her Madgesty would be coming off stage and I would either fall Deeper and Deeper or become Borderline cray cray.
After the arena erupted, I saw the toe of her first boot come very close to touching the top stair and then I watched, in slow motion, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone float down the stairs and grab my outstretched hand.
“We have a busy night…”
As Madonna and I walked, I started briefing her on the schedule of events and asked if there was anything she needed. “If you get me to where I need to be and tell me what I’m there to do before they get ahold of me, then we’re good.”
We finished our discussion in Madonna’s dressing room (which was very cool btw) while her entourage, which was only her manager, publicist, makeup person, stylist, personal assistant, and one or two other people who kept trying to appear very busy, were standing in the hallway. I smiled nervously at the security guard who was holding Madonna’s door open and out of the corner of my eye I spotted HIM. HE was walking toward us. Surely I couldn’t ask. It’s too soon. We just met. Liz would have me for lunch. But Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, he’s gonna pass us by!! You have one shot! Express Yourself.
“Madonna, is it ok if our photographer snaps a pic of us real quick?”
“He’s your guy?”
As the flash bulbs were popping around us like glitter from a machine gun, I started hearing: “Greta Garbo and Monroe. Dietrich and DiMaggio..Roecker, Ron Madonna too…OMG she just took it witchu!”
I walked out into the hallway Like a Virgin who no longer was. “Rick, thank you for the picture I will Cherish it forever. Please don’t tell Liz and it’s our little Secret! OMG, please tell me my eyes were open…”
Madonna took no time at all to change and we were off again. (No complaining, no pouting, no tantrum). She looked amazing and I felt like I was taking the most popular gal to Prom.
Things got really surreal really quick as I started noticing that everyone we walked by stopped whatever they were doing to see if what they thought they were seeing was real. It didn’t matter if they were a stagehand, the hot dog vendor or Beyonce, everyone stopped, got really nervous and then just stood there chatting like little girls: “Who’s that Girl?” Wait, what? Is that Madonna?” “That’s MADONNA!” Artists who were the flavor of that year, who were throwing out demands like feed to pigs, became wide-eyed and smitten.
I watched how the crowds parted, how security guards straightened up when they realized they were so close to greatness. I am certain if there were Pixar horses and bunnies and cute little drunken weasels lining the sides of our path they would all bow to their Queen who floated by with adoration.
Madonna saw my face as I was trying to take it all in and figure it out. “You get used to it. It’s when they yell bad things or talk sh*t about my family. That’s the hard part.” (She has feelings?!)
Among other surprises, I couldn’t believe how tiny Madonna was – petite but strong. Her features were much softer in person and her eyes were mesmorizing. Big, blue and beautiful. She was stunning. Not a classic beauty. Stunning.
But what you couldn’t see, you could feel: Greatness. That’s the only way I can explain it. When she walked by, the backstage seemed to get and feel smaller. She was dripping in “that special something” that has been associated with Barbra, Michael, Elvis, Cher…call it charisma, call it presence but it certainly was palpable. As I stood next to her, I could sense the light that was streaming continuously through her. It was electric.
We got to Ellen’s taping a little early. “Vogue” started playing from the giant speakers and I said to Madonna, “Pretty catchy tune.” Without missing a beat, she replied, “One hit wonder at best.”
I was telling Madonna where she was supposed to sit, etc. when suddenly two long wooden Q-tips came soaring up from the ground and were shoved into Madonna’s nostrils. They spun around and quickly disappeared as if none of it had ever happened. In my head I was screaming WTF? WTF? But my cool facade was saying, “that happens all the time.” Madonna didn’t flinch. I thought, “Wow, I wonder how much that little M-DNA would go for on eBay…:
The makeup person was called over and told that two of the dozens of Swarovski crystals that lined Madonna’s upper eyelids had fallen off and needed to be replaced. I squinted at her eyelid and noticed how tiny the glued crystals were –maybe 2-3 times the size of a pin head? How could she tell that 2 (not 3 or 7) but 2 of 60 tiny little droplet crystals needed to be replaced?
“Looks like you have one missing from each lid,” Makeup Artist. “Yes, I know.” - Madonna
“No pictures, please, Madonna does not do any pictures, thank you,” I heard Liz yell as some enthusiastic fan came running toward us but was immediately turned back to her seat.
So, no missing bling (check). No boogers (check). No pictures (check). Madonna was aware and in control of absolutely everything. Surprisingly it never seemed she was doing it out of vanity but more out of responsibility. Maybe even duty. She had a role to play and an audience that paid so she was going to make sure they got their monies worth all the time.
But everything has a price and there were times that the gawking crowd would become more aggressive for whatever reason. I noticed it usually happened when we had to stop and wait for set pieces to be rolled by or security to unlock an elevator. Perhaps people somehow felt she should constantly be doing tricks for them. They’d lose their sense of humanity and forget she was human. Commenting on her music, her last album, her feathered hair. Her family, her love life. Good and bad. Asking about politics. Her age. Talking about her as brutally and as hurtful as insecure bullies screaming instructions and insults at a caged monkey.
Throughout the night. Madonna and I talked about how we both were from Michigan, whether we called a Coke a pop or a soda. We talked about her GRAMMY wins which she seemed so proud of because it meant she was finally respected as an artist.
By the time our journey was over, she had received 4-5 awards and had talked with hundreds of people. She had two costume changes and she would soon have a picture of the two of us.
I turned to Madonna who put out her hand, “Thanks for taking care of me. You’re really good at your job.”
It was the greatest thing she could have said. Before I knew it, I hugged her. She kissed me quickly on the cheek then pointed out the lipstick she had left on my face. For some reason I quickly scrubbed it off with my sleeve as if I had just been kissing someone right as the principle was walking by. Justify My Love.
All the way home, I tried to figure out why she was still so polarizing. She is one of the few long-term artists who has never gone to rehab, never been arrested, never been photographed sloppy drunk. But people will either fall on the sword for her or chase her out of town with it.
I thought about all the things she represented over the years, all her successes, all the barriers and taboos she destroyed and all the important discussions she made people have. She has been in control of her image, brand, career, missteps, opinions, beliefs, wins, losses. All of it. She supported the LGBT community when it wasn’t ok to do and human rights when others didn’t care. Women’s rights. Reproductive rights. And more. She is a business woman, writer, singer, songwriter, dancer, director, fashion designer, mother, mogul. She’s the top-selling female artist of all time. She has more Top 10 hits and more #1 Dance hits than any artist (male or female) in history. Madonna is the highest-grossing solo touring artist (of both male and female) of all time and the only female artist in the top six of all-time highest-grossing acts (RollingStones, U2, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Bon Jovi).
Then it hit me. Madonna is so polarizing because she has affected a lot of change and because she’s been incredibly successful. And she’s a woman. She’s a powerful, rich woman who has helped girls and women believe in their bodies and embrace their sexuality. She has made two men kissing not as shocking. She has taken on Russia, built hospitals in third world countries where there were none. She adopted four children as a single mother. Yes, people who hate change or fear differences or lack education or don’t understand the Constitution probably cry themselves to sleep every night because of Madonna: “This Used to be My Playground…” So, thank you, Madonna!
In Celebration of your 60th Birthday, I hope it’s an amazing Holiday. I am grateful for our picture and, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for not letting me down.
Crazy for You, Ron