Madonna, Observer

The Observer, 1 July 2023

Her explicit lyrics and raunchy stage shows left little to the imagination and made her a global icon. For more than 15 years Madonna has dominated the music industry and earned a fortune of more than �160 million in the process.

Yet despite her insatiable appetite for fame, the 42-year-old American singer has always maintained rigid control over her image and personal life. When BBC executives suggested a documentary about her career - to be shown on Wednesday to mark the first of her six UK shows at Earl’s Court - the singer gave her blessing only after learning that the film would focus on interviews with carefully selected friends and colleagues. There’s Only One Madonna would be the perfect celebration of her career.

But her joy would be short-lived. Andrew Morton, the best-selling author who became a millionaire with his biography of Diana, Princess of Wales, is now putting the finishing touches to his biography of Madonna, and the former tabloid journalist will collect �500,000 from publisher Michael O'Mara for what he claims will be ‘controversial’ material ‘based on exclusive insider information’.

The singer is furious. Describing Morton as a ‘snivelling little worm’, Madonna has banned friends and relatives from speaking to him about her life and has threatened to blacklist those who do. But many have already spoken to Morton, who is confident he has an explosive bestseller on his hands. ‘It is true to say that I have spoken to all sorts of people and that some of those have never been interviewed before,’ he said yesterday.

Unlike the BBC film, most of the interviews conducted by Morton will be unattributed, allowing a more detailed and revealing portrait of the singer to emerge. Much of the book will focus on how Madonna harnessed ruthless ambition and a talent for self-publicity to become the biggest star in the world. Morton has also been given access to unseen footage of Madonna performing before she became famous.

The makers of There’s Only One Madonna insist the star did not ‘vet’ contributors but admitted that many were ‘afraid’ to speak. Jo Shinner, producer and director, said: ‘She has not seen a transcript and no permission was needed. But people are scared of Madonna and they often won’t speak unless they feel she has given her blessing.’

In the film, Seymour Stein, the man who signed Madonna to his Sire label, reveals that the then unknown singer ran up a huge limousine bill on the company account. ‘Over a two-month period I noticed the limousine bills had skyrocketed - $2,000 a month, and I didn’t know where they were coming from. I investigated it, and it was Madonna.’
Other contributors include fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, record producer and collaborator William Orbit and Kylie Minogue. Shinner said the film would demonstrate ‘the powerful impact Madonna has had on others’ in the public eye. She added: ‘The strength of Madonna’s personal influence is clear when you realise that no single picture from her wedding to Guy Ritchie at Skibo Castle in Scotland has come to light yet. She commands such respect.’

One rare hint of public criticism comes from Orbit, who worked with Madonna on the Ray of Light album. He admits there was tension in the studio. ‘It got a bit frosty because I thought that she thought I was an incredible space case! There’s always so many different Madonnas, so many different elements to her, that there’s never a dull moment.’

Barbara Charone, Madonna’s publicist, said the BBC film was approved because of the reputation of the individual programme-makers. ‘We passed it on to Madonna for that reason,’ she said. ‘Her relationship with England has changed. It was one of the first places she became really big in. She is one of the biggest stars in the whole world and people react to that. But it has been that way for a long time, and things are easier now. She understands England more, and when you know a country better, you understand its press.’

Charone said Madonna has no contact with Morton. ‘There is nothing to discuss,’ she said.

  • Andrew Morton