Chris Ciccone makes peace with Madonna, releases shoe line.
Meet Christopher Ciccone. He wants to redesign your world, one shoe collection at a time. But when he meets Nick Curtis, talk inevitably turns to his slightly famous sister: Madonna
It would not make me unhappy to read an article that said ‘Christopher Ciccone’ and then ‘Madonna’s brother’, rather than the other way round,” says Madonna’s brother, Christopher Ciccone. Sorry, cheap shot. But I imagine Ciccone, 51, is expecting it. For the best part of 30 years his life was inextricably interwoven with that of his superstar sister, as her backing dancer, choreographer, dresser, tour director, interior designer, walker, confidant and rant-recipient.
Then in 2008 he wrote a rather brilliantly bitchy tell-all bestseller revealing that she was bossy, sweaty, capricious and, above all, mean. It ended their already waning professional relationship but left him even more firmly shackled to the monster in the public’s imagination. Lots of his famous friends dropped him, which was unfortunate since his main source of income, interior design, depends on the rich. In a revolution, the aristocrats are the first up against the wall but in a recession, he says, “the designers are the first to go”. He’s been directing music videos for unknown acts and selling his paintings but no one has been queuing up to get him to mastermind a stadium tour on the level of Blonde Ambition or The Girlie Show. I sense he was in need of a revenue stream.
So we have met to discuss the Ciccone Collection, a range of predominantly rubber footwear that he is debuting at London Fashion Week today. He designed it at the behest of Igor Grosaft, head of the Bratislavan rubberwear and raingear manufacturers Novesta. I kind of wish they’d asked him to design an underwear line called Novesta, Nopantsa, but keep that to myself.
He and I know he was asked on board because he is Madonna’s brother, and that I am here because he is Madonna’s brother. This is awkward, not least because he is much cooler and more drily self-mocking than I expected, with a cigarette-ravaged voice like hot asphalt. Physically, he looks more like Tony Soprano’s brother than Madonna’s.
So we make a valiant stab at discussing the shoes. At their first meeting, Ciccone told Grosaft: “Interiors, art, photography, stage stuff, I got that down. But I am not a footwear designer. He said, ‘I don’t want a footwear designer, I want an artist’.” So Christopher looked at his own shoes (he only has five pairs, which for a gay designer in LA seems meagre), did a lot of online research and found a pair of Balmain boots that inspired him. “You can have more fun with women’s shoes,” he says. “Men are stuck with basic things. Unless you are a drag queen, of course. But I’m not designing in those sizes.”
The women’s shoes are named things such as Donatella and Mona, and indirectly inspired by “Georgia O’Keeffe, Mondrian and John Singer Sargent”. The rubber is layered , different colours revealed through cutouts. No one has ever done this before, apparently, perhaps for good reason. The men’s are mostly classic male-shoe shapes but in rubber. “They came out really cool,” says Ciccone, “and they are perfect for this city, or wherever God made weather. You don’t have to wear galoshes …” The kids’ shoes are “fun”. There are plans to turn the Ciccone Collection into a lifestyle brand, perhaps with some outerwear and homewares, “maybe even a high heel”. What, in rubber? “No, not in rubber, you couldn’t stand up in them.”
OK, deep breath. Does he really think the name Christopher Ciccone has enough cachet to carry a lifestyle brand? “I certainly hope it does,” he answers. “I do have some kind of a history. I have been working for the past 25 or 30 years, creatively.
“Obviously a huge portion of that was for Madonna, and that connection is always going to be there. But she doesn’t have complete ownership over the Ciccone name. And this is nothing to do with her.”
Their relationship is, he says “on a perfectly personable level right now. As far as I’m concerned, we’re good. We are in contact with each other, although I haven’t seen her for a long time. We’re back to being a brother and sister. I don’t work for her, and it’s better this way.” In the book, he expressed regret that he didn’t see more of Madonna’s children, Lourdes and Rocco (oh, and David Banda, about whose adoption he was magnificently scathing). “Frankly, nobody sees them. My parents barely see them. But I have lots of other nephews and nieces who I see all the time.”
Madonna and Christopher naturally gravitated together in a macho, Italian (but, he stresses, comfortably middle-class) clan that included four more siblings and two step-siblings. Both arty and into dance, both apparently deeply scarred by their mother’s death aged 30. The book is an excruciatingly precise vivisection of a dependent relationship. She brought him to New York and employed him but also demeaned and underpaid him, he claims. She mythologised their past, outed him as gay on television (their granny didn’t know), and used their mother’s grave as a film set. Later, she hectored him into taking kabbalah therapy to combat his cocaine use. Did the religion play a part in healing their rift? “Please, let’s not talk about kabbalah,” he says, eyes rolling. “I got some things out of kabbalah that were useful to me but like anything else in Los Angeles after a while it becomes a cult, and you get Britney Spears hanging around, and it’s kinda weird. So I got out.”
He was wrote savagely about Madonna’s sexual partners — Sean Penn was intense, Carlos Leon thick, Guy Ritchie a poseur — and about his own supposed chums. His “good friend” Donatella Versace didn’t take kindly to his depiction of them snorting coke with Courtney Love, though others like Kate Moss didn’t care about similar passages “because everyone pretty much knew about those guys”. He portrayed Demi Moore as a superstitious loon, and described Warren Beatty rifling through Madonna’s bins. “There was a Hollywood aspect to those friendships,” he says. “You’re friends until you aren’t. I saw a great deal of people in my life vanish. It’s shocking and difficult to find, wow, the room is that empty, f**k. After publication I had to recreate my world. There were maybe five people who still were in my life at that point, apart from family.
“It’s not easy at 51 to make friends, but I have managed it and it’s a good thing. I am happy where I’m at, and I haven’t been happy where I’m at for a long time.”
He has no regrets about the book. “It was absolutely essential for the sake of my sanity,” he says. And maybe for that of his family too. Some years back, their oldest brother Anthony was discovered living rough. Christopher is adamant that this is “his choice”, but admits that Anthony being Madonna’s brother puts a different spin on it. It’s hard to be related to someone as stratospherically famous as Madonna.
“Little things seep into your persona,” says Christopher, “whether it’s that you judge yourself against this massive thing, or the way other people look at you because of that massive thing — their expectations that you must be great, that you must be rich, that you must be famous, and why aren’t you?”What’s more, for years Madonna was in charge of the family narrative. The book told the other side of the story, and enabled Christopher to reconnect with them. He spends three weeks every July working at his father’s vineyard, where sundry other siblings also work full time.
So I don’t feel too sorry for him. He’s single but “open to persuasion”, and hasn’t done cocaine “for years”. He lives in LA but has “pretty much had enough of that town”, and is contemplating a move to the East Coast, Vienna (handy for Bratislava) or London, “where I’ve always felt people get me”. On this current visit, he’s seeing some of those old friends who stuck around: “Tamara Beckwith, some fashion people — but really, I try and steer clear of famous people these days.”
Is he proud of Madonna? “I couldn’t be more proud of her,” he answers immediately. “She is a force to be reckoned with. Does she have Barbra Streisand’s voice? No. Can she dance like Martha Graham? Probably not. But the combination of her abilities has made her great, and left a huge legacy for her, and through her, for me. So yeah, God bless her.”
He shakes my hand as I leave. “If you need to be bitchy, that’s okay,” he drawls. “I’m cool with that.”