We sat at LAX, waiting for our flight. She picked through a cosmetics bag filled with candy that she always carried, while I read "The Persian Boy" by Mary Renault. “You’re smart,” she said in the blunt way she said everything.
The plane was a twin-engine, which put me into a panic, but Madonna had nerves of steel and laughed with her wide, pretty, gap-toothed smile when I dug my nails into her forearm.
In San Diego, we boarded the bus from Rancho La Puerta, a swanky spa in Tecate, Mexico, and made our way through the rough terrain of the Baja California interior. She mimicked, to perfection, a couple of haughty women and we laughed loudly the way young people do when they’re self-consciously out of place.
When Madonna asked me to go to the spa I said it was too expensive. I made a good salary at Island Records, where I did promotion, A&R, and a little bit of everything — but still. Neither she nor I had ever been to a spa.
“I’m using the advance. I’m taking you!” she yelled into the phone like she had just won a lottery rather than being paid for sheer talent. “You’re my exercise teacher.”
This was 1983, still the beginning of MTV, and they were notoriously biased against overweight recording artists. Madonna wanted to get rid of what I heard described as her “cute pudginess” — fast.
I was really a perfect friend to bring along. I was a bodybuilder (women’s bodybuilding was still new) and a dedicated gym rat. “I want to be skinny with little tits like you,” she said. I, of course, wished I were curvaceous with big tits like her.
We stayed at the spa for two weeks. Every day, she woke like an alarm clock at exactly 5 a.m. calling out “Roobbbiieee.” We pulled on our Reebok Freestyles and followed the exercise plan I created and she enforced: Hiking up the big mountain, swimming laps, working out in the gym, jogging around the track … she stuck to it the whole time. Her discipline was fierce.
We also stole a box of honey packets and ate them on the bed while playing cards; broke into the sauna at 5 a.m.; blasted a cassette deck in the workout room and danced with Paul Jabara — a disco and Broadway star who happened to be at the spa; swam naked when the whole spa was eating the too-healthy, too-skimpy dinner.
One night, we even escaped. Madonna coerced a Mexican waiter who she had a thing for to risk his job and take us into the town of Tecate. We went to a packed steamy restaurant where we drank beers and ate local food with the hubris of iron-stomached youth. Then she got up with the band and sang "La Bamba" and knew most of the words.
Because there was no mail and no phone at the spa, the first hint that her single “Holiday” hit the charts was when a woman in her forties who just arrived from New Jersey swam over to us and asked, “Are you Madonna?” Madonna looked puzzled. “I heard your record,” the woman said. Madonna asked her name, gave her a beaming smile and the eyes that flirted and seduced the world, and swam off. She could be charmingly audacious. For the next week, she’d greet the woman across the gym or dining room with a loud, “Hi Sandy!,” which pleased and embarrassed the woman.
Then a Mexican entertainment lawyer and a Los Angeles manager showed up at the spa (not on the same day). They wore tennis whites as if they happened to be there. They ate dinner with us, they cajoled her, they wooed her; I listened and watched. She showed a good-natured independence and inability to be manipulated. When they were gone, she clung to me like a lifeboat from a receding shore. She must have known this was it — there was no autonomy, no turning back.
We left at the end of the week. Our friend, Stevo, from her label, Sire Records, picked us up in San Diego. Just a couple weeks ago, on the 30th anniversary of Madonna’s first album release, Stevo asked if I remembered when, on the way back to Los Angeles, “Holiday” came on the radio and he turned it off because he was embarrassed. Madonna laughed and I made him turn it back on. We were all so young and our friend was suddenly so famous.
The record company put her up at the Beverly Hills Hotel and made a reservation for us at Spago, a still fairly new restaurant on the Sunset Strip. Two weeks before, we sat alone at LAX, a couple of women in their twenties off on an adventure, now we got out of a limo and Madonna was surrounded by paparazzi. She smiled and waved as if she’d been doing it for decades. Then she grabbed me by the hand and pulled me into the restaurant.