Madonna and me - an unrequited love affair! GRAHAM NORTON on the diva who didn't want to be his best friend (and the even crazier one who did)
In his unflinchingly honest and rather naughty new memoir, Britain’s cheekiest chat show host Graham Norton shines a light on his own private world. Yesterday he told of his doomed love life, and today he reveals how he’s dealt with the biggest divas in showbiz.
On a recent visit to New York, I was sitting in a bar (there’s a surprise) when two charming young men approached me (that was a surprise). When they asked for a photo with me, I got one of my friends to take it and they seemed pleased.
‘I’m so glad you were nice,’ one confided. ‘The last time we were in the city we were walking down Fifth Avenue and we saw Madonna.
‘We got all excited and started to tell her how much we love her. She never slowed down — just turned her head as she passed, flicked her hair, and said, “Hi and bye”.’
Were they really upset? Isn’t that how they wanted their goddess to behave? Surely we want our divas to act like . . . well, divas.
Nobody does that better than Madonna. She may not be God’’s gift to acting, but when it comes to being Madonna she can do it better than anyone else. She is so convinced she is special that we are all swept along by her tsunami of ambition and need.
When So Graham Norton started on Channel 4 in 1998 she was top of my wish-list of guests, but it would be 14 long years before she was finally ready to perch her perfectly toned buttocks on the edge of my red couch.
There were many conditions. It had to be a special. Yes. She wanted to tape it in the afternoon. Yes. She wanted approval over the music. Yes. I wonder how far we would have gone? What demand could have provoked a no? I couldn’t think of one.
A few weeks before the taping I was invited to meet her at a champagne reception at Claridge’s that would be followed by a screening of her directorial debut, W.E. I waited in an ornate room with a mixture of media people and celebrities. Finally the door opened. The eagle had landed. Trying not to stare, we all stared.
Madonna made her way into the room shaking hands and making brief small talk, like the Queen visiting a toothbrush factory in Sheffield.
A woman in a dark suit appeared at my shoulder. ‘Come with me.’ My mouth went dry and we moved through the sea of bodies till we reached the shining island at the centre of the throng. A pale hand was extended towards me.
‘Congratulations on the film,’ I said.
‘Oh, have you seen it already?’
‘No, I’m seeing it tonight.’
‘Well, save your congratulations till afterwards.’
Seconds in and it was all going wrong but somehow I managed to placate her before she moved on to the next loser.
Someone must have taken a photograph of us during our brief exchange because I have it framed in my house. We’re both grinning, but I’m the one holding a drink and looking about ten years older than her.
I walked back to my friends and the only word I could think of to describe how I felt was ‘high’. After a few moments, the euphoria started to pass and I longed to meet her again. If this is what happens to the people wearing dandruff-drenched anoraks waiting outside theatres and studios, no wonder they come back for more.
Finally, finally, the day of the recording arrived and I was saying out loud: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Madonna!’ and there she was. It was really happening.
The rest of the show is a blur. I remember being nervous and then relaxing. We got the measure of each other and afterwards, as I was busy debriefing with the production team, I got word that I was wanted upstairs. I ran and found Madonna and her ‘people’ making their way down a corridor.
‘Thank you so much!’ I gushed. I began trying to pay her more compliments but she interrupted.
‘I just wanted to say bye,’ she said, doing her very best impression of a regular person. But then, with no words being exchanged, someone came up behind her and slipped her into a fur coat, proving she was anything but.
No friendship developed afterwards. She remained the icy star, me the awestruck fan, our worlds never to collide. And there was certainly no hint of the kind of extraordinary invitation I received when Liza Minnelli appeared on my Channel Four show V Graham Norton back in 2002.
Booking a legend like Liza was a very big deal for us. Sadly, the price for securing the appearance of such an icon was that her husband-to-be David Gest would have to appear too.
To say Mr Gest is not televisually friendly would be an understatement. He looks like a toddler has been given free rein to draw a face on an egg with a black marker pen.
Clearly a surgeon has been involved but one suspects that there was a flashing red neon sign in the window saying: ‘Low Low Prices’. He is living proof of the old adage that there are two areas where you don’t look for a bargain: sushi and plastic surgery.
For all that, he must have had something about him. Liza had only recently recovered from a brain infection so severe that she was told she wouldn’t walk again but he had somehow convinced her that she should return to the concert stage for the first time in many years. Like Jesus with a sequin-covered Lazarus, he brought her back from the dead.
Up to that point in the story, everyone just thought that he was a talented and persuasive producer, but then David announced that he and Liza were engaged. The world scratched its head.
Having never seen Liza in the flesh I wasn’t sure what to expect, but she looked great and seemed in full possession of her anecdotes. One was a cute story about when Judy Garland had called to invite her to her last wedding.
Due to some work commitments Liza couldn’t go and, without thinking, blurted down the phone: ‘I’m so sorry, Mama, but I promise I’ll come to the next one!’
Towards the end of the interview Liza announced she had a surprise for me and handed over an envelope. I ripped it open and found an invitation to her own forthcoming nuptials.
Now framed in my kitchen, it has lasted a lot longer than the marriage, but back in 2002, who could have guessed things wouldn’t work out? In case you’re wondering, the answer to that question is: ‘Everyone. Everyone guessed.’
Shortly after the shiny new couple had been on the show, I was asked to introduce Liza’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall. It was an enormous privilege and after the show, during which I joined the audience in roaring a pure outpouring of love for the woman we’d thought we would never see again, I waited for a while before heading back to her dressing room.
I imagined it would be thronged with David and an adoring entourage. I stood in front of her door. Silence. Nobody waiting and, by the sounds of it, nobody inside either.
It transpired David was keeping everyone in some sort of holding area so that Ms Minnelli would make an appearance later. I knocked.
Inside she was sitting all alone at her dressing table, her face glistening and fresh with a combination of make-up remover and sweat. She looked up at me with eyes the size of paddling pools. I rushed forward to tell her how brilliant she had been. Superlatives poured out of my mouth like a treacle waterfall. She grabbed my hand and pleaded, ‘Did I do OK?’
I realised then that she wasn’t fishing for more compliments — it was just that even the approval of 5,000 people had not been enough. A friend of mine had once described Liza as a ‘vortex of need’ and, in that moment, I realised that David Gest was taking on an impossible task.
When it came to their wedding in New York, I couldn’t think who to bring as my plus one. It would certainly be a bit of an extreme first date.
In the end, I asked my good friend Carrie Fisher. This event would be the stuff of showbiz legend and it seemed only right that the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and an icon in her own right, thanks to Star Wars, should be there.
The guest list could best be described as eclectic. The headline acts were Elizabeth Taylor as matron of honour and Michael Jackson as best man but other invitees included Spice Girl Mel C — there because she had once let Liza have her table in the VIP section of a nightclub — and Martine McCutcheon, who had met the happy couple only twice but was a bridesmaid.
When the minister declared they were man and wife, David lunged at Liza and proceeded to kiss her like a man who had decided to eat a whole trout headfirst. It was an image that, once seen, was never forgotten. They produced such staggering amounts of saliva I’m surprised the front few weren’t handed those plastic ponchos you get on a log-flume ride.
Over a thousand people had been invited to the reception, which was held near Wall Street. Our table consisted of all the British guests and, perhaps because so many of the Hollywood celebrities there had been in rehab, I feel our little table got more than its fair share of drinks.
I’m guessing I must have been quite drunk in order to think it was a good idea to apologise to Mel C for all the lesbian jokes I had made about her. Apparently there is never a good time for that.
Meanwhile, the best man, Michael Jackson, ate his meal alone, his table surrounded by a ring of security men. Being the king of pop did not look like a great deal of fun.
In the papers the next day, Mickey Rooney declared it to have been the best wedding he had ever attended. Given that he had been to at least nine where he had been the groom, I think we can trust his opinion.
When the news of the split came 14 months later, nobody was particularly shocked, but I still remember that on that spring day in 2002 Liza looked truly blissfully happy.
A couple of years ago she was performing a version of the song I Must Have That Man on my chat show. As we watched the rehearsal on the monitor, it wasn’t the most beautiful thing to hear, and some of the team began to groan. I stopped them.
‘No matter what, that woman performing on our show tonight is Liza Minnelli and that means something.’
It has been an extreme privilege for me to spend time with her and in some small ways to actually work with her. I can’t claim to call her an old chum but her life has been the biggest, most brilliant cabaret of all. She may well be the last of her kind and we must treasure her. (DailyMail)
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