Gay Times September 08 - Issue 360
Christopher Ciccone - The Only Gay Interview
The phrase that kept coming in to my mind after I read Christopher Ciccone's book Life With My Sister Madonna was: Never leave a man with nothing left to lose. That's what Madonna did. She took quite a lot from her brother Christopher. As Rupert Everett said, he was her dark side, and she was his.
It seems that nobody can get too close to Madonna. Of the six siblings, Christopher and Madonna were nearest in age and character. They were the artists. She encouraged Christopher to come to New York to take dancing classes , and she was also curious about Christopher and his sexuality. She watched with intrigue as he became more confident and discovered who he was.
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She always knew he was gay, even though growing up Christopher himself was unsure of exactly who he was, a middle child in a big family often lacks attention. The book is a fascinating revelation of how sister and brother will be forever entwined and how they used each other, although Christopher seemed to never get what he wanted.
The pattern was set from an early age. Madonna was the charismatic one, the one who could flirt and cajole. She was the one who got people to do things for her. Christopher was the one who found that he did her bidding. He was a servant brother. Jokingly he used to sign off emails, "Your humble servant, Christopher." But as Freud would say, there's no such thing as a joke.
She let him choreographer her videos and her tour, but made him be her dresser as well because she couldn't bear anyone to see her naked except her brother, which is bizarre in itself. She can strike a pose for sexuality, but she's afraid to be vulnerable. As he pointed out, she likes to wear fishnets at all times, even under jeans. She works
out so hard because maybe she doesn't actually like her body.
By the time Christopher was artistic director of the whole tour he still wasn't allowed a hotel suite, only a single room. Later on, after he had established himself as an interior designer, she had him decorate her homes, but he was never given a contract and he was often paid with certain conditions, eg that he attend kabbalah lessons, that he attend the wedding of Madonna and Guy Ritchie with whom he had already clashed. Guy Ritchie is macho in a public school
way. The wedding was a humiliating experience where he felt that Ritchie was anti-gay. The book must have been a catharsis.
When I met Christopher for brunch in the Meat Packing district of Manhattan he seemed gentle and sad. He straight away admired my perfume and noted it's heady gardenia, one of Madonna's favourite flowers. The eyes are dark and deep. They look like Madonna's eyes. As he said in the book, he was born his mother's son and he will die his sister's brother.
The book is about disentangling himself from her. "Revisiting these places has been really painful for me. She opened a lot of creative doors for me and she can be incredibly generous, but..." He pauses, it's his sister, he wants to be kind, but the truth is she wasn't very generous to Christopher.
"Our lives can never fully be unwound, but now I can walk past a store and hear her song playing and I don't get a knot in my stomach. Somebody can talk about her at a table and the hair at the back of my head doesn't go up. My defences don't automatically rise when her name is mentioned."
The things that can never really be unwound is the hurt she has caused him by making him feel insecure by never paying him on time for his work, and once when he was decorating one of her houses, she requested that he bought landscape paintings. He spent $65,000 at Sotheby's to find that she didn't like them and she wasn't going to pay for them. $65,000 was just about all he had in the world and during the months it took him to sell them his life was on hold.
Maybe she didn't think that $65,000 was a lot of money. He lived constantly in the contrast between his life and hers.
Never brought into focus more sharply, "than when I bought the $5 million Picasso and went home to my five storey walk-up with the bathroom in the corridor." Still, despite all of this, and her accusations that he was a drug addict and needed to go into rehab, he knew "the only drug was her. And I was addicted to her life; private jets, sell-out stadiums, any celebrity you wanted to meet."
This meant that time and time again when she hurt him he put up with it. Like a gambler hoping for a win he kept going. It's as if everything she did he couldn't react to at the time. "Last time I saw Madonna I was in Miami for her last tour. We were cordial." It was at this time that he realised for the first time none of the dancers in her show were gay. He felt that the mainstream influence was Guy Ritchie's and that he'd finally lost her.
Does he really think Guy Ritchie is homophobic? "I think he has an incredible urge to over compensate for things that may or may not have happened to him when he went to public school." What do you mean, his gay experiences? Do you think he's really gay? He laughs, a full proper laugh. "I hope not." And then he stares into the ice in his ginger ale. "I think there is a combination of things with me that he didn't like. I was gay, number one. And he didn't like my closeness to Madonna and the influence I had over her. Now there are no gay people in her world, and that was a shock to me when I went to the show in Miami. Afterwards all the dancers would be at the party having a good old time, but they were just sitting looking at each other. I said to her, 'your dancers are all straight'. And she said, 'Yes, isn't that weird'. It was weird, that's what made the shows great, an eclectic mix of people."
Back in the day Madonna loved nothing more than to party with drag queens. He talks in the book of one such party where at the end of the night the swimming pool was filled with the remnants of a good times - lots of giant false eyelashes and wigs.
"I don't know how much Guy influences that but I think he probably has a lot to do with it." Does he not know he's married to a gay icon? "Well, in the world that they have created, she isn't now." We think about this. What makes a gay icon? Vulnerability, shame, shoes, a tragic past over which triumph threatens never to happen, overt or mutable sexuality. We are really not sure that Madonna is a candidate any more. She certainly doesn't dress like a gay icon these days. It's all frumpy little outfits or a cartoon of sexuality.
"I don't think he wanted my influence. I don't think he wanted me around the kids, especially Rocco. I could feel it. I've got a really thick skin, but I could smell what he thought of me a mile away. I don't mind being called a fag, but at the wedding his buddies kept making stupid gay jokes, jokes that weren't funny. The best man did a slide show where there was a picture of Guy as a little boy with a dog and his hand was near the dog's penis and he was making unfunny comments about that. The whole thing was really difficult."
Madonna hadn't paid him for a job that he'd done and said that she would only pay him if he went to the wedding. She bought a business class British Airways ticket from Los Angeles to Scotland without even asking him how he wanted to travel. There were only a few hundred dollars left of the balance, everything went on the ticket.
He speaks very matter of fact as if he has digested all the anger and hurt, but you wonder why it took him so long to stand up to her. Why he swallowed his anger and let it twist inside himself for so long. He says quietly, "I felt I had no choice." No choice because it was his sister. No choice because she knew that he was often broke so she could get him to do things.
It's hard to say where the first really deep wound was struck. Possibly when she decided to out her brother in an article. It was useful for her. At the time she felt she was getting a little mainstream. It was just after In Bed With Madonna was released. She'd explored S&M. She'd demonstrated an oral sex technique on camera. What could be a more interesting marketing ploy than a gay brother. "Obviously my friends in New York and my immediate family knew I was gay, but no one outside the family. My grandmother didn't know I was gay and it was not her place to announce it to the world, and what she couldn't understand was why I was anger. I couldn't get her to grasp that. But I forgave her although I didn't forget and it really makes me sound like a masochist and on some level I think there was
an aspect of that." He looks sadly into the middle distance as if he's remembering that time.
All of the Ciccone family are not good at expressing their emotions. He describes his father as stoic. They all dealt with the loss of their mother differently. He describes his emotional being as being "more mid-western than Italian." He was always a little dislocated from his emotions and perhaps felt he didn't have a right to be angry and it's taken him all this time to express it.
His two older brothers Anthony and Marty are macho guys. They used to torment their younger siblings and chase them with BB guns. Christopher describes them now as great guys, very regular. They were the kind of macho men that Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie aspired to be. Much has been made of Madonna's cinderella childhood. She used to say that her brothers used to hang her on the washing line, although Christopher doesn't remember them being quite that bad.
Their father and stepmother seemed hard but fair. Christopher loves them both. He has very few memories of his mother who died when he was only three. He remembers that his stepmother Joan wouldn't let the children have the good cookies or the angel food cake. In the book he recalls an incident where the angel food cake was eaten and
they were all going to be punished unless one of them confessed. Christopher was innocent. Years later he learnt that it was his younger sister Paula. But when a neighbour said she saw him do it, he didn't protest.
It seems the angel food cake has became a metaphor in his life, for confessing to things he didn't do, apologising when he didn't mean it. In the crumbs of the stolen cake we see how he forgave Madonna for her mistreatment of him, making out it was his fault that he wasn't good enough. "I never felt myself at home when I was a child. I never quite knew what I was supposed to be. When there's six of you you do get mixed into the pot, and although there are similarities there are some very big differences." Yet within that it was always he and Madonna who were also the most similar.
He is very concerned about how her fame has affected his family. He doesn't believe anyone has really thrived from it. "Madonna refuses to recognise her fame is a burden on our family, not a gift." He particularly worries about the wicked stepmother stories that are part of the Madonna myth. Joan married a man with six children. He feels she was like a dark version of Maria Von Trapp. He never stops saying what a brave thing that was to do. He's very close to his father now and thinks that one day he'd like to work with him in his vineyard in Michigan.
For the past few years Christopher has been with a therapist. He hasn't felt ready for a new partner. He was together with his boyfriend Danny for ten years. For their tenth anniversary he designed matching platinum bands, one set with square cut rubies, the other with square cut emeralds. He had them made at Harry Winston and
engraved with the words, 'I am yours, you are mine'.
In the beginning Danny had an alcohol problem which they worked on and got through but he was not good at xoping with Christopher's long absences on tours and working away on Madonna's various houses including Miami and Los Angeles. Danny would say to him she was sucking the life out of him. And he would counter, "You are wrong.
She is giving me life." Danny resented Madonna for taking Christopher away from him. In the end he was away so much the gulf between his life with Danny and his life with Madonna grew wider and wider until his relationship with Danny fell through it.
There's a scene in the book where he and his father burned several boxes of papers from his past, including Danny's love letters and postcards to Danny, his father standing by silent but loving in support. "It was a great moment. I felt more connected to him than I ever have in my entire life."
The father son relationship wasn't always easy going. When he was in his early twenties his father suspected that as he hadn't brought a girl home he might be gay. They were working on a car together when father asked son point blank. Christopher admits yes he's gay and they both just carry on working on the car. Christopher was surprised it was that easy but feels relieved and thinks it's all over with until a couple of months later his father suggests he sees a doctor to sort out his condition. When Christopher is offended and refuses his father cuts him off. They don't speak for a year. Maybe this chasm of silence is the Ciccone way. But in the case of father and son, they made up in a heartfelt way. In the case of brother and sister, it is possible that they will never speak again.
"When she found out about this book we already hadn't spoken for a year. I got a curt command by email, 'Call me.' Since I don't respond to commands any more I didn't call her. And after that she left a message. I didn't respond to that either. I knew what it was about. I knew to give her any measure of control over this book would have destroyed it. Madonna's thing is control. But there are three things in her world right now that she can't control. She's turning 50. Her husband. And this book. And it's driving her crazy."
He says it as an observation, not as a vengeful comment. His face betrays very little emotion. He hints at a smile rather than smiles. The eyes though, they are still not able to hide a sadness and a darkness. As we talk longer I tell him we have two things in common. Being a dresser. I was a dresser for the male chorus at the English National Opera and they were furious they didn't get a gay boy, they got a girl. So I too was uncomfortable at being a dresser. And know that it's hard and anxious work which gets very little praise, but if the costume isn't on the show's not on either.
We also have a friend in common; Kamil Salah. I cried aloud when I read the paragraph in the book about his death. After Danny, Christopher dated Kamil for two years on and off. He says that Kamil set no boundaries and that he needed a man who was not overly compliant and that they stopped seeing each other but remained friends.
Kamil used to work for Helmut Lang and I would see him every awards season when he was in LA and when he invited me to the sale of the Sex In The City costumes in New York. He had a lovely dog, Molly, a dachshund, that would travel with him and he was a wonderful dog photographer. He used to take portraits of celebrity dogs and was compiling them for a book. I helped him get some celebrities together for it, during which time he told me that he had a boyfriend who he just couldn't stand up to. It wasn't in his nature to be demanding. He told me he knew he should play the game better but somehow he couldn't bring himself to. I tell Christopher this. An intense moment. He bows his head with shock.
Kamil died of colon cancer. Very much in the way he lived he didn't complain or make a fuss. Christopher wishes he had because if he had he might have lived. Christopher went to his funeral, a moslem one. "In a Christian funeral you throw some dirt on the casket, but here we had to bury him, everyone with shovels, and then a bulldozer came.
And then the imam started to speak in Arabic, and then he said, 'What was his name?'" I gasped like I was going to choke. Kamil too was dislocated from his family. "He was by far one of the sweetest people I've ever met."
It was because of his sweetness that he'd never say those challenging things to you. "It made it difficult to have a
relationship with someone like that. I was purposely mean to him just to get him to react." A thick sadness and regret envelops us. We have to change the subject.
So, I say, tell me why you like Warren Beatty so much? He smiles even with his eyes when he thinks about him. Sean Penn made him become blood brothers with him. He still has the scar on his thumb. But ultimately he took Madonna's side against his domineering volatile character. John Enos and Christopher went to get tattoos
together. He was such a good and regular guy. Christopher loved him, but Madonna lost interest in him. Warren Beatty was also cast aside.
"But we got along great. I always did my best to get along with her guys. But for some reason with Warren it was easy. She had every reason to be suspicious of him and he had every reason to be suspicious of her. They were both notorious. But he has this amazing quality, whether it was me or somebody who I brought to him that he'd never met before, he would engage them in conversation and make you feel that you were the only person in the world when he was talking to you, and that made him a really cool guy.
"One day he said to me, 'What is it like being gay?'" Do you think he really wanted to know? "I think that was Warren's natural seductive personality." Was it like I might want to try it? "A person gets that feeling, although my thought was I can't believe you haven't tried it already." We laugh and ponder is sexuality flexible. Is there a bit of gay in every heterosexual and vice versa? Demi Moore had a crush on him before she met Ashton Kutcher, and if he was going to try it with anybody I can't believe it wouldn't be her. He shrugs, "She was too keen. I did snog Courtney Love once. She said, 'Let's make out'. So we did." You chose Courtney over Demi? "Yeh, she was more interesting."
I ask him about Madonna's sexuality. She notoriously kissed Britney Spears. Kept everyone guessing with Sandra Bernhard for a while back in the early nineties. They were practically glued together. But both these moments seem to be about Madonna causing ripples, showing off. Bernhard was far too much her own woman to be kept in thrall to
Madonna. The model, Ingrid Casares, who looks like a boy version of Audrey Hepburn, was besotted with Madonna. She would sit at her feet with adoring eyes. She was asked to set next to her at parties usually to be told not tonight sweetie. She looked like a boy yet she could do girlie stuff with Madonna, and, they were both in love with Madonna. It seemed perfect. But Madonna's experimental and shock value phases have morphed into something else.
In the book he does say that one New Year's Eve party she kissed Gwyneth on the lips. But these days Madonna seems to have morphed into English lady. "I don't think they were real flirtations. I think it was publicity. I think she craves attention and it doesn't really matter where it comes from. Who doesn't like people being in love with you? Yes, she and Gwyneth kissed, but we had done a bit of ecstasy and I was too busy keeping my crotch out of her grasp. I
think with Madonna and Gwyneth there was mutual envy. For Gwyneth it was Madonna's singing and her body, and for Madonna it was Gwyneth's acting talent."
Madonna seems to have set herself different boundaries. She doesn't experiment with her sexuality any more, even to play at it. She was too busy playing at being Mrs Ritchie, even though Christopher says he thinks they are living "separate lives. I hope for both of their sakes they don't divorce though." While he is dismissive of the influence that Ritchie has had on her, he wouldn't wish her the emotional suffering that would come with divorce.
"I do wish she would experiment in her career at this point. She doesn't need the money. She doesn't need to repeat the things she did in the past. Yet she's going back and doing this sex thing. It doesn't work now, it's kind of creepy." Yes, but it worked once, and maybe Madonna, once the great chameleon, is afraid to change into something else. She doesn't know where to go. Maybe she's too insecure? "That may be, but it doesn't diminish the fact that when
she's on it and when she's connected to her audience she's brilliant. She has magic and insecurity."
What we've known about her in the past is that she is a meticulous control freak. What we learn about her in the book is she's driven by her insecurities. She is vulnerable. "I am welcoming her back to the human race." And we laugh, and this time there is a little bit of triumph.
Words: Chrissey Iley
Photo: Fergus Greer