“Mmm. Now. Yeah. Let me see if I remember ...
'My love is a glorious, something, of song
A fabulous... extemporanea.
And love is a thing that can never go wrong ...
And I am the Queen of Romania.'
"Ha! Ha! Oh I do love Dorothy Parker's poems. They're so bitter. And so true ... "
Her version of the words is not far wrong. [“Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song, A medley of extemporanea; And love is a thing that can never go wrong; And I am Marie of Roumania.”] But she is not the Queen of Romania. She is perhaps the world's most famous woman, and her name is spelt on a golden necklace that rests upon her chest. "Madonna" it announces, dangling over what the French would term her "décolletage", meaning that her outfit is very low-cut. And she flaunts a cleavage like the barmaids all had when beer was tuppence a pint.
Madonna looks both older and younger than she does in the photos and the videos: a little more lined and possibly tired, but also less mature and grand. Her manner is quite teenaged, not femme fatale. She seems up for mischief, and yet quite conscious of her power. At the same time, her very frankness is almost innocent. These combinations are odd, and they give her the air of a prematurely wise child. Her current style is 1930s Hollywood meets early 1970s flash: Jean Harlow and Angie Bowie. She is not bewitching, but is certainly beautiful. She wears the nose stud that so troubled Norman Mailer in a recent interview. If you saw her in the street, you'd think: she looks like a girl who looks a bit like Madonna.
She is receiving visitors in a suite at the Ritz Hotel, always favoured by Americans of means – and a place that Ernest Hemingway saw fit to get pissed in – here in the Place Vendôme, in Paris. A gaggle of fans is standing outside the revolving doors. The room is down a dark, narrow corridor. Halfway along there sits an athletic young black man: he tenses at your approach, relaxes when you're cleared. In the ante-room is a stack of PR photos in case you want one autographed, and copies of Madonna's US press biography. (It begins, "We have been here before – on the cusp of discovery, the crux of delight, the crucible where true artistry and mass appeal entwine." It ends, five pages later, with "We know her. We love her. And we will follow her anywhere." You're right. It's a load of bollocks.)
The common observation that writers make after meeting Madonna is that she is small. But actually, she isn't tiny. So why this sense of dislocation?
It's partly because she is not so steely and Amazonian as the pictures suggest – in fact, she seems rather delicate. But mostly it's her global fame and reputation. It's like the proverbial butterfly wing that displaces a little air in Peking, and triggers tidal waves the other side of the world. Madonna speaks and she causes explosions in outer space. All that, from this little person here?
And there is one more puzzle, which we will shortly investigate. Why is she wearing Betty Boo's clothes?
Just before the interview, Madonna puts something on the coffee table which she says will "inspire" her. It is a signed publicity photo of Tom Jones. So it happens that my opening moments of small-talk with Madonna are – at her instigation – on the subject of women removing their knickers.
Composure unravelling, just a touch, I remind her I've been asked to concentrate on her music.
"Oh, excellent," she beams; then sighs, mock tragically, "I so rarely talk about music."
Mostly, of course, your press concerns the way you're plotting the downfall of Western civilisation.
"Exactly," she nods, solemnly. "It's all my fault."
So then there's some polite chat about her new album Bedtime Stories, which is the reason for this interview. A track I like especially is a smokey soul ballad called Forbidden Love. She is interested to hear this, and asks if I noticed the line that she whispers in the backing track. Yes, I respond confidently. In fact I'd meant to ask her about it: "Protection is the greatest aphrodisiac.”
"No!" She seems hurt. "1 say rejection. Rejection is the greatest aphrodisiac ...”
I groan inwardly at the gaffe.
" ... which is not an original thought," she goes on, now leaning forward, confidingly. "I believe it's Proust. But it's so true, wouldn't you say?"
Do I think that rejection is the greatest aphrodisiac? I swiftly improvise some evasive, subject-changing answer.
"Well!" is all she'll say. "I don't know why you like the song, then!"