In the world of Madonna, there are two kinds of people: super fanatics and Matthew Rettenmund. If there’s anything you don’t know about the Queen of Pop, just ask Matthew — he wrote the book on her. Literally. In 1995 he published Encyclopedia Madonnica, a comprehensive, compulsively-readable and extremely witty catalogue of everything a person could ever want to know about the superstar entertainer — and then some. Now 20 years later, Rettenmund has self-published a massive update now titled Encyclopedia Madonnica 20: Madonna from A to Z, which features new interviews with people who knew her and incredibly revealing one-word descriptions from folks like Liza Minnelli and Madonna’s former love Tony Ward.
Rettenmund, who runs the must-read blog BoyCulture, also just published his first memoir, rather appropriately titled Starf*cker. It details his adventures in the fascinating world of celebrity autograph shows and running the much lamented teen pinup magazine Popstar!
Rettenmund chatted with Queerty recently about the two books, his best and worst encounters with celebs and Madonna’s sometimes complicated relationship with gay fans.
Queerty: You’ve just self-published Encyclopedia Madonnica 20, an update of the essential book you wrote two decades ago. Besides the obvious reason that Madonna has continued to accomplish a lot in the past 20 years, why did you decide to update the book?
Matthew Rettenmund: I’ve had so many requests over the years, and was always annoyed that I couldn’t interest the original (or a legit, old-school) publisher to do an update. The first reason they gave was it was still selling, then it was that her fans were too mature for this format — they don’t know us very well, do they? — and finally that there wasn’t an audience anymore.
When self-publishing became less about vanity and more about commerce, I decided I’d use Kickstarter to test what the publishers had said, and was pleasantly surprised to blow past my required $22,500, attracting more than $30,000.
So it was partly my OCD desire to update a long-out-of-date project and partly a new challenge for me after working my whole life in publishing. I can’t wait to self-publish more.
No, I was a total whore when it came to information about Madonna. My whole approach to this was everything-and-the-kitchen sink. I really want it to be the definitive resource, the book of record on Madonna, but it is also a piece of pop art. As the latter, it had to be ridiculously over-the-top. Part of the pleasure of it is seeing this gigantic item sitting on your coffee table (and perhaps breaking it) as a statement of how much there is to know about Madonna, about our obsession with her and with fame.
I can guarantee that the book has something to surprise even the most diehard fans. I didn’t just do a Google search, I went back and pored over my archive on Madonna, making sure to correct popularly misquoted quotes and to document new old quotes and bits of trivia that haven’t made it onto the Internet.
She knew about the original edition, and even signed a copy to me — which was “M” for mind-blowing. The first book won me the affection of Madonna’s legendary publicist, Liz Rosenberg, which led to great access at events. This time, I’ve sent it to her team and while I have no official reaction from Madonna as yet, they’ve been sweet to me.
It’s hard to imagine Madonna as the kind of person who would hear of this book and clap her hands together, cooing, “Oh, goody, another book about me!” but I hope she would see the obvious affection, along with the fair-game criticism.
When did you first discover Madonna and what was your reaction to her then?
I was like 14 and heard “Holiday” on the radio on the way back from a Dungeons & Dragons session, so I was badly in need of some coolness in my life. I loved her music first, but quickly appreciated her as a fellow Michigander who escaped to NYC. I think like a lot of gay boys, I lived through her brazen sexuality since I felt unable to express mine. Most of all, I thought she was terrifyingly cool, so there was probably a bit of a dom/sub thing going on.
Your book has a huge entry on “gay” and Madonna sometimes criticized as not doing enough for gay causes. Why do you think she’s remained so polarizing?
It bothers me and makes me sad when young gay people sniff at Madonna as some kind of sexual-orientation opportunist. Partly it’s ignorance. Kids today have the Internet to quickly research the things that have come before, but don’t seem to take advantage of it. [There’s] an impression of Madonna as a rich “old” lady, anything but a true rebel.
But Madonna was down with gays — and willing to be perceived as queer — long before it was acceptable in the mainstream. She was a teen idol when she first hit, yet was unwilling to clean up her act for wider exposure. Her relationships with gay people are among the deepest she ever had, including her mentor Christopher Flynn, her onetime best friend Martin Burgoyne, Keith Haring (all of whom died of AIDS, a cause Madonna championed in the ’80s and ’90s especially) and her longtime female buddy Ingrid Casares.
I think to be loved and hated is important for staying in the center of the conversation and for moving people, and for Madonna it’s easy — she is not a “nice” girl. She is outspoken, she shrugs off or perverts the way women are supposed to behave, she can be pretentious in her outside interests and doesn’t really care if people take her intellect seriously, she’s political, she’s unapologetically sexual. There are many reasons why so many people love to hate her, but while gay men are not required to like Madonna, if they don’t at least respect her integrity when it comes to gay issues, they’re probably just being snobs or, worse, playing stan games because they like other divas better. Which is pretty silly.
You conducted some new interviews for the book. Who had the most interesting stories?
Madonna’s first stylist, Maripol, knows so many personal things about Madonna from her early NYC days and her first burst of stardom, plus she’s so knowledgable about fashion. I was also thrilled to speak at length with Reid Rosefelt, the publicist on Desperately Seeking Susan, which is — in my opinion — one of the greatest things in which Madonna’s ever been involved. He had so many fascinating stories of witnessing Madonna’s Jekyll & Hyde aspect — she was 100 percent professional and motivated to the point of inspiring him, and could be quite friendly, but because he wasn’t considered cool, she could also turn on a dime and be aloof, treating him like the nerd in school. Colman deKay, who co-wrote her little-seen film Bloodhounds of Broadway had wonderful stories about Madonna beating back the paparazzi at the height of Madonna mania in the late ’80s, and also about her real connection with the film’s director, Howard Brookner, who died of AIDS. It was also really fun to talk to Sharon Maczko, who was one of Madonna’s pals in school — her essay is a rare example of someone who was once close to Madonna who doesn’t now want to pick Madonna apart for not taking her along for the ride.
You asked a number of people who know or knew her to offer “one-word Madonna descriptions.” Who most surprised you?
Well, I asked famous entertainers whose opinions I felt would be interesting, as well as Madonna intimated. The very first response I got was from Carol Burnett, who I approached due to both ladies’ appreciation for ’40s and ’50s movies. Burnett, a real legend, wrote, “Talented!” with an exclamation point. I found that really sweet. No backhanded compliments. Of course you have to love Michael Musto, who contributed to the book an admiring piece in which he talked about Madonna kicking him out of his own dressing room, and who came up with, “Ovaries.” I’m thinking that means female balls. Liza Minnelli calls Madonna “sensational,” and if Liza says you’re sensational, you are.
I got very into attending celebrity autograph shows, where you can find yourself handing a $20 bill to an Oscar winner for an autograph and expecting change. I just thought it was a fitting description of that process, and that process is a fitting metaphor for how crazy I always was for celebrities, from a very young age. I would write away for autographs, and as an adult went to book signings and other public appearances. I think everyone is in danger of being star-obsessed, but gay men seem to have the gene in disproportionate numbers.
I liked that “starfucker” was self-deprecating, though I have learned that the problem with being self-deprecating is that people might agree with you.
What are some of the challenges in being so forthcoming?
I have no idea how people write intimately about people they know and with whom they still wish to be close. I felt very hindered in accurately describing people and events for fear of offending. Except in the cases of those who I hoped to offend, because they deserve it. Maybe this is why Scotty Bowers didn’t publish his book until everyone in it was dead. The other challenge is there will be people you know who will bring up negative things you’ve confirmed in print, as if putting it in a book means it’s socially acceptable for them to do this. It’s not, guys!
What’s the connection between the memoir to your blog?
I launched BoyCulture.com 10 years ago this month, and at the time especially, it had many highly personal entries. That’s the kind of writing I prefer, but people have no attention spans for it online anymore, so I just naturally migrated it to the previous form with which I was familiar — books.
What is the special connection between gay men and stars?
I found out via my autograph-show attendance that many aging stars have their personal “gays” who handle their personal business, including sitting with them at these shows and counting the scrunched up tens and twenties they earn for photo ops. I find that bond fascinating. It’s very pure and transcends things like politics (many of the old-time stars are pretty homo-uncomfortable). I think we are so attracted to something about a particular star (or associate him or her with a particular period of our lives) that we overlook all flaws, and the stars love that—who wouldn’t want to go into their 70s and 80s with a bevy of uncritical fans checking on them, encouraging stories and asking for photos? I wish every old person had that luxury.
Tell me about some of your best and worst star encounters.
I edited a teen mag for 14 years, so I’d have to say Zac Efron (I knew him when he had the Madonna gap in his front teeth!) and the Jonas Brothers were among the sweetest stars ever. But that’s not fair, as they were not stars when I first met them. Non-professionally, I have to say Madonna was mega-charming (thank God I didn’t meet her at a stage door or standing outside her house), and I loved meeting Julianne Moore because I asked her about acting in Body of Evidence and she was so cool with my question and cringed and laughed, “I was terrible in that!”
Worst, well, I knew Lauren Bacall was not fan-friendly and fully expected her to turn me down for a photo after a play we both attended, so when she barked, “No!” at me, it wasn’t so much a bad experience as an experience. I had a Disney actor’s dad call me and tell me I was racist because I was favoring a white kid from the same show in my magazine. I kind of wanted to tell him it was more a looks-ist thing since teen magazines are about fantasy, but I had to bite my tongue. Demi Lovato was a major handful, though she would point out she had her demons then.
What would you say is the message you’re imparting with Starf*cker?
Star worship is a lot of fun, as long as you have perspective. And laugh at yourself because everyone else is, too.