The queen of personal transformation opens up about her new life— which sounds tame but (the girl can't help it) still has the power to shock.
"Nothing in the material world will ever make us happy," says the singer whose eighties hit "Material Girl" glorified conspicuous consumption. The Madonna who sits with me in my Harpo office says she is a woman transformed. At 45 she exudes a softer vibration and seems more at home with herself than she did during our last interview, five years ago. She prefers to be hailed not as a pop icon but as a teacher—of spiritual principles she's learned from studying Kabbalah for almost eight years, since just before her first child, Lourdes, was born.
A visitor to the London home where she lives with her husband, director Guy Ritchie, their 3-year-old son, Rocco, and Lourdes would find one sound conspicuously absent: television. "We don't talk about fame, we don't have magazines in the house, and we don't watch TV," says Madonna, who launched a children's book series with The English Roses last fall.
Motherhood, marriage, music—all three have taken on a different shimmer for her. For the first time, she says, she's learning to love unconditionally, and, after a career defined by provoking controversy, she has taken up a different kind of quest.
Note: This interview appeared in the January 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: Can you believe the life you've created for yourself? I ask this as someone who, at moments, has to step back and look at where I've come from. Does that happen to you?
Madonna: It happens when other people remind me of it. If someone shows me a retrospective of all the videos I've done, I go, "Wow, that's me? I did that?"
Oprah: I remember once seeing myself on a magazine cover and thinking, "Gee, that's me." I knew everyone who looked at that cover would have their own idea of who they think I am. When you take away the Madonna packaging and marketing, who are you at your core?
Madonna: I'm just a scruffy, tough girl from Michigan who really loves learning and is curious about life—hair back in a ponytail.
Oprah: Is it true that when you moved to New York in 1977, you had just $35 on you?
Madonna: Yep—35 bucks.
Oprah: Back then, could you have imagined the life you have now?
Madonna: No way, Jose! I just wanted to be a professional dancer. I was going to be happy if I made it onto Broadway.
Oprah: Since those days, do any of the labels you've been given—diva, rebel, sexual revolutionary—reflect how you see yourself?
Madonna: I hope I've been given the label of teacher. That's how I see myself now. Inspiring people and sharing what I've learned—that's the most important thing. It's what I was put here to do. All my fame and fortune have led to this one understanding: That I'm here to help people.
Oprah: Have you always been a teacher?
Madonna: If I taught people earlier in my career, it was by default. I wasn't consciously thinking of sharing in any way. I was just showing off. If people got something out of that, so be it.
Oprah: What did it feel like to constantly show off?
Madonna: I felt full of myself. There were great moments sometimes, and there were moments when I felt really alone.
Oprah: What do you think Madonna the icon represents to the world?
Madonna: A lot of people say I'm fearless, I'm courageous, I take risks.
Oprah: Are you afraid of anything?
Madonna: Oh, sure, I've got lots of fears. My job is to conquer my fears. The irony of being a performer is that I have huge insecurities. People are shocked to hear that I think my legs are fat or I don't like the way I look. We all have insecurities. We'd be lying if we said we didn't.
Oprah: So what truly scares you?
Madonna: Ignorance. Losing loved ones. Running out of creative ideas.
Oprah: I've read that you no longer want people to dress like you.What do you mean by that?
Madonna: I mean just that. In the beginning of my career, I was consumed with fashion and the way I looked.
Oprah: Aren't you still?
Madonna: I think about clothes all the time—you see the boots and pants I'm wearing. But who cares? You know as well as I do that clothes don't make the woman.
Oprah: But they're fun.
Madonna: Sure. But I've had enough of people imitating me.
Oprah: Aren't you amused by it?
Madonna: For sure. I've seen some mighty fine drag queens. I'm impressed by the lengths people go to. But it doesn't mean anything. Real influence is changing people's consciousness, not the way they dress.
Oprah: The realization that there's something bigger—is that your newest transformation?
Madonna: Shoes won't make me happy. Well, they do make me happy, but not really happy. I'm not going to lie and say I don't care about the way I look or dress. I'm very jealous of your closet! But I know those things don't last, and I know what does. I hope I can impart that to people.
Oprah: But you are the Material Girl.
Madonna: That was meant to be ironic. I'm so not the Material Girl now. There were many years when I thought fame, fortune, and public approval would bring me happiness. But one day you wake up and realize they don't.
Oprah: When was that day?
Madonna: After I made Evita [in 1996]. I'd won a Golden Globe, I was about to have a baby, and life was hunky-dory. But I still felt something was missing.
Oprah: And what was that?
Madonna: An understanding of my place in the world. Before then, I felt controlled by the ups and downs of my life. If things were going great, I was happy. If someone said something negative about me in the newspapers, I got depressed. If I had a relationship that was fun, then I was happy again. If that relationship fell apart, I was down. I didn't feel in control of my life.
Oprah: You were defined by external things.
Madonna: Exactly. The big turning point was when I was about to become a parent. I wanted to understand what I would teach my daughter, and I didn't really know where I stood on things. I wanted to know the meaning of true and lasting happiness and how I could go about finding it.
Oprah: What do you think when you look back on all the girls who were imitating you, walking around with their bras on the outside of their clothes? They wanted what they thought you had, whatever illusion you created.
Madonna: Right. When I look back, I think, "Wow, I had a huge desire to receive." I was ambitious, I was courageous, and I was provocative. But I didn't have the whole picture of life.
Oprah: So what is Kabbalah?
Madonna: It's a belief system that gives you tools to deal with life. Many of its principles resemble concepts in Christianity or in Buddhism.
Oprah: What is the fundamental principle?
Madonna: Each of us is responsible for everything that happens in our lives. When good things happen—we win an award, meet the love of our lives, or get a promotion—we take ownership of that. But when bad things happen—we get fired or we divorce—we often don't take responsibility. We call it something that just happened. I now understand that just as we can draw the positive, we can draw the negative.
Oprah: That's what I believe.
Madonna: You're a closet Kabbalist! Another principle is that there is an all- giving, all-loving force. You could call it God. Kabbalists call it the Light. But essentially, it is God. When we disconnect from this force, we have chaos. We invite pain and suffering into our lives.
Oprah: How has this spiritual change affected your creativity?
Madonna: I've never felt more creative. One thing I've learned is that I'm not the owner of my talent, I'm the manager of it. And if I learn how to manage my talent correctly—and if I accept that I'm just channeling things that come from God—the talent will keep flowing through me.
Oprah: Does the new Madonna still get a rise out of causing controversy?
Madonna: I used to thrive on that energy. Now it's just, "Oh, please."
Oprah: So was that kiss with Britney at the MTV Video Music Awards planned?
Madonna: In rehearsal, it was planned that I would kiss Britney and Christina. A short, simple kiss—the whole idea was that the groom kisses the brides. But it was only meant to be playful, not anything erotic.
Oprah: You honestly didn't think kissing another woman on national TV would stir up controversy?
Madonna: When Britney went to kiss me, she just went for it. I tried to go with it so it wouldn't be weird. I'm a showgirl. After 20 years in show business, I've learned to roll with the punches. Also, you remember when Michael Jackson kissed Lisa Marie Presley on the MTV awards? Our kiss was a play on that, too. We were playing with lots of postmodern iconography. Does that sound good?
Oprah: You're the queen of reinventing yourself. Have your transformations always been calculated?
Madonna: My physical transformations—like changing my hair—are usually a reflection of what's inspiring me at the moment. The change starts inward and moves outward. For instance, I went through a whole period when I was obsessed with geishas, because I'd read that amazing book Memoirs of a Geisha. I dyed my hair black and had a geisha outfit made for myself for a video.
Oprah: You see yourself as limitless and constantly in transformation.
Madonna: One of the things that helps me tell a story through music is to create a character. I have to have a muse, whether it's Frida Kahlo, Martha Graham, Marlene Dietrich, or Pippi Longstocking. My muse for my newest album [American Life] was Che Guevara. I never think, "Oh, I can't do that." I think of myself as a blank canvas, and I can paint anything on myself.
Oprah: What's your proudest moment away from the limelight?
Madonna: I can't think of just one, but it would involve learning and some kind of exchange with somebody I love. Like teaching my daughter how to read. Or being given a guitar by my husband three years ago and finally learning how to play.
Oprah: You've been with Guy for about five years, and a lot of people said it wouldn't last. What makes it work?
Madonna: We believe in the same things, and we're facing in the same direction. We believe the main point of our marriage is to bring light into the world together.
Oprah: Did you think your marriage would be as incredible as it is?
Madonna: I had a fairy-tale idea of marriage, and my marriage has turned out to be not that at all. It's turned out to be better. Harder and better.
Oprah: How so?
Madonna: For the first time, I'm learning to love someone unconditionally. That's a hard thing to do, but the best.
Oprah: My friend Gary Zukav says that spiritual partnership is a union between equals for the purpose of spiritual growth. If you know that, you understand that everything that comes up in the relationship is all about growing both of you to the next place.
Madonna: We're like conditioned machines with our children and our mates. We get into relationships and think, "Oh, I really love this person." But we always expect something in return. And if he or she doesn't live up to our expectations, we're like, "That's it, I'm checking you off the list." Everything is conditional. I'll give you this if you give me that.
Oprah: Has that been true in your marriage?
Madonna: In the beginning it was conditional, and there were problems. I expected my husband to fit into a mold and to do certain things. When he didn't do those things, I got disappointed. Then I realized that he is who he is. I had to learn to love him for who he is, and vice versa. To be brave is to love someone unconditionally, without expecting anything in return. To just give. That takes courage, because we don't want to fall on our faces or leave ourselves open to hurt.
Oprah: Did you have any hang-ups about marrying a man who's ten years younger?
Madonna: I worry about that now sometimes. It's an incentive to stay in shape and look as good as I can, I have to say.
Oprah: Do you worry about aging in general?
Madonna: Of course I do.
Oprah: Is yoga what's kept you ageless?
Madonna: That's part of it. The other part is my attitude.
Oprah: A lot of people have a great attitude—but they're still aging.
Madonna: Well, they don't have a great enough attitude. It's part lifestyle, and it's part blessing from God.
Oprah: Aren't you macrobiotic?
Madonna: I was a strict macrobiotic for a couple of years. But I just had to have a lamb chop. I fell off the macro wagon, but I'm about to get back on.
Oprah: What's most important to you now?
Madonna: My family. Loving my husband unconditionally. Raising children who feel as responsible for helping their fellow man as I do.
Oprah: What you're teaching your children is so important. I think the most powerful gift you can give a child is a strong spiritual foundation. I won't be around years from now...
Madonna: Don't say that. That's thinking in a limited way.
Oprah: Okay. It would be fascinating to see what happens to a child who is raised on the principles of Kabbalah.
Madonna: I can tell you what happens, because I've seen teenagers who've been in this Spirituality for Kids program. At 16 they're amazing human beings. They don't think it's cool to be rebellious and hate their parents. They think it's cool to be in the service of others. God willing, my children will grow up with the same principles and ideas.
Oprah: It's been said that children are a message you send into the world. What's the message you hope your kids will embody?
Madonna: That there's no such thing as fragmentation—we're all connected and responsible for one another. Also, you can want all the things in the world, go for it, ask for everything in life, but it should be for the sake of sharing.
Oprah: Do your children teach you a lot?
Madonna: Absolutely. My daughter is a daily reminder of the issues I have to work on—being too consumed with the way I look and what people think of me, feeling insecure, all that stuff.
Oprah: You've said your daughter is going through a thing with her hair.
Madonna: She's a bit more obsessed with her hair than I'd like her to be. I don't know where that comes from. [Laughing.] Whenever I catch myself feeling intolerant toward my daughter, I realize she's just showing me who I am.
Oprah: A few months back, Anne Lamott wrote a piece for my magazine about being 49. I'll read part of it: "I have survived so much loss, as all of us have by our 40s—my parents, dear friends, my pets.... If you haven't already, you will lose someone you can't live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of a beloved person. But this is also the good news. They live forever, in your broken heart that doesn't seal back up. And you come through. It's like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather is cold—but you learn to dance with the limp." Have you perfected the limp from losing your mother when you were young?
Madonna: I've learned to make it work for me. I've taken that longing, that searching, that yearning for answers, and I've turned it out to the world. That's one reason I'm as insatiable for knowledge as I am. I'm looking to fill myself up.
Oprah: You seem so different from when I interviewed you five years ago. Really.
Madonna: Well, good. I was a whole different person back then.
Oprah: What's one thing that people misunderstand about you, Madonna?
Madonna: Some believe I don't care what others think. I'm not as hard as everyone thinks I am.
Oprah: What do you know for sure?
Madonna: That my husband is my soul mate. That I'm going to meet my mother again someday. That there are no mistakes or accidents. That consciousness is everything and that all things begin with a thought. That we are responsible for our own fate, we reap what we sow, we get what we give, we pull in what we put out. I know these things for sure.