Madonna sits down with NBC's Matt Lauer for a candid interview on music, marriage and being Madonna.
NBC News
updated 12/9/2003 4:01:03 PM ET 2003-12-09T21:01:03

Was it really two decades ago that we first met her? Part show girl part media mogul, Madonna never was anyone’s “boy toy.” She was then, and she is now, her own surprising self. Now in her mid-40’s, she’s still changing and still searching. But there is something different about her. Maybe it’s marriage, music, kids or faith. You decide. NBC’s Matt Lauer has the ultimate interview with the ultimate diva. She’s as fearless as ever, quick on the draw, and pretty funny, too. It’s a refreshing new look at Madonna.

Nervous, approachable, even demure. Who’s that girl? Okay, you’ve heard it before and if you’re cynical you’ll have your doubts, but this does seem to be a new Madonna.

Forget the days of raw blonde ambition. She’s now a brunette mother of two, who at age 44 is more reflective than reactive.

Madonna: “You know what? I didn’t really give a sh** what’s going on in the rest of the world. I just didn’t. I just wanted to focus on me, me, me, my career, my life, just me — blinders.”

Matt Lauer: “Here’s something you said: ‘I was a buffoon until the age of 40.’”

Madonna: “Yes, Yes. I was.”

Lauer: “That sounds like a lot of wasted time.”

Madonna: “No. Who said it was wasted? I just did a lot of —”

Lauer: “A buffoon? Who wants, who strives to be a buffoon?”

Madonna: “I don’t think anyone strives to be anything negative. I just think that it’s our nature to only focus on a few things in life and forget about a lot of other stuff.”

Yes, she’s had many incarnations before, changing her image like most people change their clothes. But this latest one is perhaps the closest we’ve gotten behind the curtain and into her state of mind. Madonna-at-mid-life is what she sings about in her new album, “American Life.” She’s co-written every song and they’re some of the most personal of her two-decade musical career. There are intimate lyrics about the love she says she’s found with husband Guy Ritchie, as well as the title song, in which she not only raps, but takes an honest and harsh look at her life in the material world — and the Madonna image-making machine.

Lauer: “Let me read you some lyrics from the song, ‘American Life.’”

Madonna: “Okay.”

Lauer: “‘I tried to be a boy. I tried to be a girl. I tried to be a mess. I tried to be the best. I guess I did it wrong. That’s why I wrote this song. This type of modern life, is it for me? This type of modern life, is it for free?’ What do you mean by that?”

Madonna: “That trying on different guises, different personalities, being a rebel, being androgynous, doing all these kind of things trying to be number one, on the top. But I guess I did it wrong, meaning I’m 100 percent sure that getting people’s approval is not a goal to have in life.”

So after 20 years of fame and the fortune that comes with being a superstar, can it be that Madonna’s had enough of being Madonna?

Madonna: “I have all these things. I’ve experienced all these experiences. And I can tell you from my vantage point, which is what most people perceive as the top, that none of these those things are really real.”

Lauer: “Well, let me play devil’s advocate for a second because it sounds a little bit like, Madonna, you’re someone who’s benefited from celebrity as much as anyone has and enjoyed it.”

Madonna: “Benefited and I’ve also seen the other side of it as well.”

Lauer: “Okay, but you enjoyed the ride. And now it seems at 40-something years old, you’re looking back and saying, ‘celebrity’s bull.’”

Madonna: “To a certain extent I am. Because I see how obsessed with celebrity everybody is. And I’m saying, you know, if you’re only halfway up to the top, you can hardly say, ‘I know it’s not going bring me happiness.’ I know it’s baloney.”

Talk about a 180. After all, this is the same woman whose love of fame left even the famous stunned.

Lauer: “Let me give you something else you’ve said. ‘It’s the allure of the beautiful life. Look like this and you’re going to be happy. Drive this car and you’re going to be popular. Wear these clothes and people are going to want to sleep with you,’ I’ll paraphrase. ‘It’s a very powerful illusion. And people are caught up in it, including myself. Or at least I was.’”

Madonna: “Absolutely. Sure I mean, but you are, too. We all are. It’s our nature. And it’s okay. The thing is if nobody tells you that it’s an illusion or nobody brings your attention to it, then how are you going to know?”

But is this older, wiser Madonna just another way to get our attention? After all, she’s at a critical point in her career, coming off of declining record sales and a movie career on life-support.

She’s always been a master at is creating buzz. Everything she does becomes an event. A fashion photo spread for “W” magazine turns into an art exhibit. Try downloading her new CD off the Internet and you don’t get the song, but a classic Madonna moment.

Make no mistake, Madonna is always in control of the image she wants you to see.

Lauer: “I always had the impression that you were very happy with who you were at whatever given time I was talking to you.”

Madonna: “To a certain extent I was. But how do you know that there weren’t things going on in my personal life, in my relationships with my family. How do you know there wasn’t chaos going on somewhere in my life?”

MADONNA AND CONTROVERSY

Where there’s Madonna there’s controversy. And “American Life” has been no exception.

Yes she’s pushed buttons before, taking on the church and taking off her clothes. But this time, she’s done something really shocking — she’s gone out of her way not to offend people.

In an uncharacteristic move, Madonna pulled the anti-war video that was supposed to launch her new “American Life” album and edited a new sanitized version. The original showed her dressed in combat gear at a fashion show.

Madonna: “I filmed it in January. And by the time the video was finished, we were at war. And many of the things that I sort of was trying to depict or warn people of were already happening in the world. But with everything going on right now, the soldiers being killed and wounded and the destruction that’s talking place, I just don’t think it’s appropriate.”

Lauer: “Here’s where I have to stop you. If you wanted to make a pro-peace, anti-war video, what better time to show it and get people to look at it than a time of war?”

Madonna: “I agree with you in theory. But unfortunately, I feel like America’s in a really volatile place right now. And there’s a lot of really confused people. And I’m not interested in being a target for a lynch-mob mentality.”

Lauer: “So this is personal safety. This isn’t an unwillingness to push some buttons?”

Madonna: “No, it’s a combination. I’m very willing to push some buttons. I don’t have a problem with that. But I think that what people would misconstrue is that I was slagging off at President Bush. And I’m not. I think they would misconstrue that I was making light of what’s happening to the soldiers in Iraq, which I am not. I just don’t think that people right now — things are so serious. And people are so volatile that they’re not going to see irony.”

Lauer: “But you never worried about that before. This isn’t the first time that I’ve sat and talked to you.”

Madonna: “We haven’t, since you talked to me, have we, been in this serious of a situation?”

Lauer: “But you’ve taken on religion before. You’ve never worried about people misinterpreting your message, because it’s your message. And I’m curious why you’re worried about it now.”

Madonna: “Because ultimately, I don’t want to just be provocative for the sake of being provocative.”

But is this famously savvy marketer really thinking in a vacuum? She’s no doubt aware of what happened to the Dixie Chicks, who had to do major damage control after lead singer Natalie Maines said she was embarrassed to be from the same state as President Bush.

Lauer: “They made a statement about the President of the United States, leader of the free world, at about the same time your video was coming out.”

Madonna: “Right.”

Lauer: “A cynical person might say there’s got to be some money involved in this.”

Madonna: “Oh no. I lost a lot of money making that video.”

Lauer: “Okay, but wait. They took the Dixie Chicks’ CDs and they smashed them in the streets. And radio stations stopped playing them. You got a brand new important album coming out. What if people don’t buy it?”

Madonna: “That’s not the reason. I give you my honest to God promise that that is not the reason. Because I have bigger plans and I have more important things to do.”

ON TOP, BUT ALONE

Madonna: “I had done the movie Evita. I had my “Ray of Light” record coming out. And from an outward perspective, you know all, everything was beautiful. Just did a fantastic movie. Just did a fantastic record, had a beautiful, healthy girl. But I was alone. I was alone.”

That was six years ago, a painful time Madonna is now willing to talk about with surprising candor.

Madonna: “I was 38 when my daughter was born. I was, you know, looking for love in all the wrong places. Or maybe I didn’t even know what love was. And I want to be in a loving relationship. And so far, I’ve either destroyed the good ones or been a magnet for a-holes.”

She didn’t name names, but you try and figure it out. At that point, she had married and divorced Sean Penn, co-starred on screen and off with Warren Beatty, went one on one with Dennis Rodman, had a daughter and a breakup with Carlos Leon — and those are the men we know about.

Lauer: “You said you were looking for love in all the wrong places.”

Madonna: “Well, I wasn’t interested in what I could do for other people. I looked at people and said, what are they going to do for me? Will they look good standing next to me? Will they compliment me all the time? Will they give me what I want?”

Lauer: “You dated guys just to see if they’d look good standing next to you?”

Madonna: “Oh God. Maybe once or twice. I didn’t actually have that conversation. But how many times have you fallen for somebody just based on how they look? I mean we’ve all done it, you know. And then, two weeks out, they’re like ax murderers living in your house.”

But she wasn’t making those choices, good or bad, for just herself anymore.

Madonna: ‘I just suddenly thought, okay, I have a child that I’m going to bring up in the world. And what am I going to teach her? I just wanted answers to my questions, you know what I mean? Because I thought, okay all these great things have happened to me. But I’m still not happy.”

MADONNA IS ‘SWEPT AWAY’

But in 1998, she finally found the guy that would bring her happiness: Guy Ritchie, a British film director, 10 years her junior. They had a cross-Atlantic romance and married in December 2000, just a few months after the birth of their son, Rocco. The Ritchies, along with daughter Lourdes, shuttle between homes in London and Los Angeles. Madonna says she loves being a wife and mother, and although she admits marriage can be challenging, she says her relationship has never been better.

Lauer: “How’s married life?”

Madonna: “It’s good.”

Lauer: “Happily married, I mean... you can make that definitive statement, ‘I’m a happily married woman.’”

Madonna: “Yes, I am.”

Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie navigated some rough waters early on. Remember “Swept Away?” If you didn’t see it — and according to the box office, you weren’t alone — you certainly heard about it. The film was a joint production, she starred, he directed. It wasn’t just a flop, it was a disaster.

Lauer: “‘Swept Away’ was the last time we spoke. It was just about to come out and it got brutalized. When did you realize that this was going to go very far south?”

Madonna: “Well, not until it came out. Because up until it came out, I showed it to my friends. Everybody liked it, the studio liked it.”

Lauer: “You show a movie to your friend, are they going to be honest with you, even though a movie like that, that you and your husband invested so much time and energy in? Your have a friend who would say I hated it?”

Madonna: “They wouldn’t say I hated it. but they might say, you know, I’ve done things better. I mean people are honest with me definitely.”

The critics certainly didn’t mince words. One called it “a shipwreck lost at sea.” Another, “an island catastrophe,” and still another wrote, “to say that Madonna’s ‘Swept Away’ is not doing well is like saying that Enron’s Ken Lay had a bad fourth quarter. Never has the word stink appeared in so many typefaces across so many mediums.” Ouch.

Madonna: “I don’t want to hear it. Don’t tell me any negatives that people said.”

Lauer: “Have you read them?”

Madonna: “No, I’ve only heard that they’re really horrible.”

Lauer: “You have no interest in them?”

Madonna: “I have not read one review. And I don’t want to read them.”

Lauer: “Why would so many people have their knives out?”

Madonna: “I just don’t think people are comfortable with me doing well in other areas besides music. I think that there’s a lot of evil eye on my relationship with my husband. We’re in love, we have beautiful children together and now we’re making a movie together. I mean how dare we, in a way. But at the end of the day, it’s one thing to say you don’t like the movie. Okay fine, don’t like the movie. But they weren’t really criticizing the movie. It was like personal vendettas.”

Lauer: “Do you think you can act?”

Madonna: “Yeah, I do.”

Lauer: “You think you’re good at it?”

Madonna: “Yeah, I do.”

Lauer: “Are you getting offers?”

Madonna: Yeah, believe it or not, I am still getting offers.”

In fact just last week, she made her episodic television debut on the NBC sitcom, “Will and Grace.”

Lauer: “You’ve told me for as long as I’ve known you, you don’t watch TV.”

Madonna: “I don’t, yeah.”

Lauer: “So why would someone who doesn’t watch TV do a TV show?”

Madonna: “Why do it? Because, honestly, my manager talked me into it. She just kept saying, oh, it’s so funny, you have to do it. So she sent over a couple of tapes of other people being on it, and I saw them and I thought they were hysterical.”

Lauer: “So tell me about the experience. What’s it like to be on a sitcom set?”

Madonna: “It’s great, it’s like theatre, because you have a live audience and you only have a week to prepare and every day they change everything.”

Lauer: “It’s a bit more spontaneous than making a movie.”

Madonna: “It is. I prefer it.”

Lauer: “So it sounds like you would be open to doing it again?”

Madonna: “I said yeah, if it can help other people.”

Lauer: “Well sitcoms aren’t normally known for helping other people.”

Madonna: “You never know. Never say never.”

LIFE AS AN ICON

From movies to marriage, Madonna’s every move still makes headlines. And she often wants it that way. But as clever as she is at getting our attention, she’s even more adept at shielding her privacy. Few people really know her. So we wanted to know, what exactly is Madonna’s American life?

Madonna: “I am the epitome of the American dream. I came from nothing. You know I did something incredible with my life. And I realized a lot of dreams.”

She certainly has. ‘American Life’ is her sixteenth album. She’s had 12 number one hits and is worth a reported $300 million. She has success and all the spoils that go with it, something she pokes fun at in the song “American Life.”

She may not be your average mom, but Madonna says she tries to live as normal a life as one of the world’s most famous women can.

Madonna: “I’ve always considered myself to be fairly down-to-earth and not taking the whole, you know, fame thing too seriously. You can find me washing my own dishes in my sweatpants in my house, you know what I mean?”

Lauer: “Do you have a normal day? If you and I wanted to go for Starbucks right now —”

Madonna: “Can we go to the Coffee Bean instead, because, I mean, I’m drinking tea now, not coffee.”

Lauer: “Could we get in a car in Los Angeles?”

Madonna: “We could even walk. From my house we could ride a bike, because I live right nearby.”

Lauer: “So you don’t get hounded?”

Madonna: “Yeah, I do. There would be probably at least 10 SUVs full of paparazzi following you, but we just pretend they’re not there.”

Lauer: “How long would it take? How long on the street until you attract a crowd of paparazzi?”

Madonna: “Oh, they’re usually waiting at the end of the block.”

Lauer: “How does that strike you at 44 years old?”

Madonna: “It’s pretty irritating. But you know, what are you going to do? I complain about it, still nothing changes. I try to wear the same outfit all the time to really lie.”

Lauer: “So they can’t sell them.”

Madonna: “Yeah. I try to be really boring and have a really bland expression on my face, but it doesn’t seem... I think they’re waiting for me to fall off my bike or something.”

Lauer: “Do you feel a bit of a prisoner to the fame you’ve achieved?”

Madonna: “I don’t feel like a prisoner. But do I get annoyed that I can’t go for a bike ride or a walk without people following me? Yeah, I do.”

Lauer: “How do you feel about your children being photographed?”

Madonna: “I really don’t like that. That’s one thing that gets my goat.”

But she hasn’t taken extreme steps to hide her kids, unlike that other pop icon, Michael Jackson. Who can forget that bizarre scene of Jackson covering his children’s faces with masks in the now infamous Martin Bashir documentary? Madonna and Jackson are what you’d call show biz pals, sharing an only-in-Hollywood-date to the Academy Awards back in 1991.

Lauer: “Still friends?”

Madonna: “Oh, I haven’t talked to him in ages.”

Lauer: “Did you see the documentary?”

Madonna: “I didn’t. I heard about it. Everybody was talking about it at one point and describing scenes to me. It just sounds horrifying. I wouldn’t want to watch it.”

Lauer: “Horrifying in what way?”

Madonna: “Oh, just having so exploited, I don’t know. I don’t like it. I don’t like people humiliating other people like that. Doesn’t seem right and fair.”

Lauer: “You said this, ‘publicly humiliating someone for your own gain,’ which is I think what you feel Martin Bashir may have done, ‘will only come back to haunt you. I can assure all of these people will be sorry when God’s going to have his revenge.’ Do you think God is vengeful?”

Madonna: “First of all I think that all of us have God in us and that we have God-like qualities. The ability to be like God. I don’t think ultimately God punishes. I think we bring about our own destruction or our own creation.”

Lauer: “So when God is going to have his revenge?”

Madonna: “Then what I’m saying is ultimately the person who was negative will bring negativity back towards himself.”

Lauer: “What I would call karma... whatever comes around.”

Madonna: “You got it. Yeah.”

MADONNA’S SPIRITUAL SIDE

Like everything she does, Madonna is relentless about maintaining her own good karma. She practices yoga, keeps a macrobiotic diet, and is a devoted student of Kabbalah, a mystical form of Judaism, which predates organized religion. Madonna says it has turned her life around.

Lauer: “You called it very punk rock.”

Madonna: “Yeah.”

Matt: “I don’t know what you mean by that. Why is that?”

Madonna: “Because to me punk rock is thinking outside of the box, outside of the program, outside the establishment. And that’s what it is.”

Lauer: “You said one time it’s like getting the codes to the universe.”

Madonna: “It is the code to the universe. Isn’t it amazing that there are laws of the universe that you can actually find out about, live your life according to and change the world for the better? Isn’t that amazing?”

Lauer: “So if I said to you what is your religion...?”

Madonna: “I don’t have a religion because I don’t like that word religion.”

Lauer: “You used to have a religion.”

Madonna: “What was it, I was raised a Catholic. But that was something that was imposed on me by my family.”

Lauer: “So if someone asked you, you would say I have no religion, I’m spiritual.”

Madonna: “I’m a Kabbalah.”

Madonna regularly attends classes at the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles, as do husband Guy Ritchie and six-year-old daughter Lourdes.

Madonna: “My daughter goes to a spirituality class every Sunday where she learns about sharing and giving and the power of her words. And it’s changed her immensely. And my husband is very interested in it because he’s always been a very scientific person and was a total Darwinist when I met him. Wasn’t interested in God, the Bible, or any of those things, but because it’s so rooted in science, it’s something that he’s been able to take on board.”

Madonna has been studying Kabbalah for seven years and it is so important to her, that it is her teacher Rabbi Eitan Yardeni and not Mr. Ritchie whom she wanted us to interview.

Lauer: “So, you understand that you occupy a very important place in her life.”

Rabbi Yardeni: “Absolutely, me and my teachings, absolutely.”

So what was it like when the rabbi met the Material Girl?

Lauer: “In walks Madonna.”

Madonna: “I was pregnant at the time, too. I was six months pregnant.”

Lauer: “Okay, so in walks a pregnant Madonna. So what was your image of Madonna before you actually sat down and met her?”

Yardeni: “Honestly, I didn’t know much about her.”

Lauer: “You knew who she was?”

Yardeni: “Of course I knew who she was. But I didn’t know much about her. I knew she was a rebel and that’s the reason I knew Kabbalah can be very powerful for her.”

Lauer: “I think it’s very obvious to see a change in her, certainly it’s easy to hear a change in her. What changes have you seen in Madonna?”

Yardeni: “Less judgmental, more tolerant, less ego, more humility, more compassion, less reactive, being able to see the bigger picture versus just reacting to pain and difficulty on a regular basis.”

Lauer: “We’ve all been to school. We know that some people are better students than others at any subject. So what percentage of people get this?”

Yardeni: “There’s some people who get just one percent of Kabbalah which improves their life one percent. And it’s all about how much effort you put into it. And not many people get it. Kabbalah is to everybody according to their level and their capacity.”

Lauer: “Where does Madonna fall in there?”

Madonna: “I so knew you were going to ask that question.”

Lauer: “Why not?”

Yardeni: “I can tell you that with no shame, Madonna is under the category of one percent of the people that get this.”

MADONNA, THE STUDENT

And Madonna is a devoted music student as well. She became passionate about the guitar after her husband gave her one as a gift when she was pregnant with son Rocco. She continues to take lessons from teacher Monte Pittman and shared what she’s learned with a real beginner.

Lauer: “If I can get three strums in this whole session that would be big for me.”

Madonna: “But listen, if we inspire you to learn how to play guitar from this, then hey... do you have a competitive nature?”

Lauer: “Yeah, very competitive nature.”

Madonna: “Well do you want me, a girl, to be better than you at guitar? OK, you are not that competitive.”

Lauer: “How do you rate yourself?”

Madonna: “C.”

Monte Pittman: “B.”

Madonna: “I’m not a B.”

ON CRITICS AND FAME

She’s beyond a superstar. She’s achieved icon status. But on this day, Madonna is as approachable as it gets, up close and personal, signing autographs for her fans. It’s a telling sign that these days even one of the top selling female artists of all time has to get out there and push the product.

“American Life” is just not any record. Those in the music industry say Madonna desperately needs to connect with the younger audience. A particularly stinging article in the New York Times headlined, “Madonna, institution and rebel, but not quite the diva of old,” pointed to her declining sales and practically played taps for her career.

Lauer: “How do you see your relevance now with the music-buying public?”

Madonna: “You obviously read the New York Times.”

Lauer: “I do read the New York Times. The New York times article basically was saying...”

Madonna: “I’m irrelevant.”

Lauer: “That you’re going to have a difficult time from now on connecting to the target audience that buys the CDs.

Madonna: “Well, so what.”

Lauer: “Do you agree with it?”

Madonna: “I don’t know. I don’t see the point of writing those kind of articles. At the end of the day, what is the relevance of Aretha Franklin? What was the relevance of Frank Sinatra? What is the relevance of all artists? Do we have to fit into an age group and appeal to a specific audience to have relevance? That’s absurd. It’s disrespectful and absurd.”

But does she worry about those pop princesses out there, taking away attention and sales?

Madonna: “I’m not claiming to appeal to the same people that Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears are going to appeal to. I’m not trying to. I’m doing what I want to do.”

Lauer: “Would you like to? Would you like those 17-year-olds to buy your records?”

Madonna: “I would.”

Lauer: “You’re the age of their parents, basically.”

Madonna: “Great. And you know, one day Britney Spears will be the age of her parents. So it’s an absurd thing to say. And there’s no point to it. Would I like people of all ages to be interested in my music, yes. For one reason, and one reason only. Well, for two reasons. One is I feel like I have a lot of pertinent and important messages that I would like to get across. And if young kids hear it, then that’s great. Two is the more records I sell, the more money I make. And the more money I make, the more I can help other people.”

Lauer: “People sometimes hear your name these days Madonna and they say... Why is she still famous?

Madonna: “As if that’s a question I’m going to answer.”

Lauer: “Well, why do you think you are still famous?”

Madonna: “Why are you asking the question?”

Lauer: “Why are you famous? Is it self-promotion?”

Madonna: “Why? Oh please, self-promotion. Once famous, always famous. I mean, look, Marilyn Monroe’s been dead for ages, and she’s still famous.

Lauer: “Alright, maybe fame is the wrong word. But there are a lot of people with as much talent as you or maybe just slightly less.

Madonna: “I doubt it.(laugh)”

Lauer: “You started in this business with people that we don’t talk about any more. Why are we still talking about you?”

Madonna: “I don’t know, go ask them. I’m not here to comment on other people. I mean, I still have things I want to do and things I want to say. And, you know, if people want to hear it, then that’s great.”

She’s still Madonna, still doing it her way. And to all those critics who question her style, her movies, her very relevance, think about this. It’s been 20 years since her debut album, and she is still a force to be reckoned with. “American Life” is now at the top of the charts. As one fan put it: “Madonna is over, when she says she’s over.”

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