Christopher Ciccone

Interview by
Gert Jonkers
Photography by
Naomi Fisher


Christopher Ciccone is Madonna’s brother and apparently her closest relative. In the past, some people joked that if Madonna is Mother Mary, then Christopher must be the Pope. In my memory he’s the hottest and most enigmatic character in 1991’s rockumentary In Bed with Madonna, where he was art directing her show. Christopher is a director, interior and furniture designer, writer, painter and photographer. He lives in L.A. but is now in Miami and he has an amazingly charming low voice that resonates through the floor.

Gert: If there’s life after death, would you prefer to live on as a man or a woman?
Christopher: Is that your first question? Oh my god. I guess I’d like to come back as a man.
Because it’s much easier to be a guy than a girl. I have four sisters so I think I know. I don’t think girls have as much fun as boys do. At least it’s much more difficult for a girl to have a good time in so many ways.
Ok, that’s clear. Is it true that you designed Bill Clinton’s office in Harlem?
I did the furniture for it. Actually, he went to the showroom of this company Bernhardt, for which I designed furniture, and that’s where he picked it out.
So you didn’t really work with Bill.
No, I haven’t even met him. I can imagine what he’s been doing on my sofa, though, but what the hell! (laughs)
Is it a good sofa to have fun on?
It’s a pretty modern-looking sofa and it’s good for almost anything, so, yeah… I wouldn’t take it into the water with me, but other than that it’s pretty good for just about anything.
Did you study design?
No, I haven’t been to school for anything that I do. I went to school for anthropology and fencing.
What’s fencing?
Fencing? You don’t know what fencing is? Sword fighting. It’s an Olympic sport. I was actually pretty good at that. I tend to be incredibly romantic at heart, and I thought fencing was a very romantic thing to learn.
So do you still get into a nice fencing match every now and then?
No. I run and I play tennis and I ride bicycles. I did a couple of AIDS Rides; that’s what they do here in the US, you know. I did the one in California. You do it to raise money. You get sponsors and you do 100 miles per day for seven days. It’s incredibly difficult and you certainly find out what you’re made of.
Do you consider yourself an inhabitant of Los Angeles?
Well, I still consider myself a New Yorker even though I’ve been living in L.A. for about ten years now. But at the moment I’m
working on a big job here in Miami so I’ll be down here for a year or so. I’m designing a condominium development on the beach.
Will you get one of the condos for yourself when you’re done?
Probably, yes. There’s lots of buildings being built here right now, the beach is getting very crowded with buildings, most of them incredibly ugly. I was offered design jobs on a few others, but I didn’t like any of them. This one I like. It’s an old building from 1941 and it’s got a nice mid-century modern look to it. We’re restoring the one building and then building a tower next to it. I’ll be proud to have my name attached to it.
Does this mean that you’ve put all your other jobs aside for the moment?
No, I’ve just finished an interview with Olivia Newton-John, and I still write for magazines like Interview and Instinct. I didn’t bring my paint down here to Miami but I’ve been drawing here, and I still do everything else. There’s a young boy down here who I met seven years ago, his name is Esteban Cortezar.
The fashion designer.
Exactly. I met him when he was fourteen and I’ve been documenting his life ever since then. We’ve been doing this ongoing documentary for the last seven years and we’ll keep going for another ten years, and then cut it together into a movie. It’s a long term project. I met Esteban when he was in high school, and I knew immediately that he was special. Within an hour after meeting him I got his phone number and called him up to ask him if he would let me document his life for the next twenty years.
Wow. What did he do to make such an impression?
I don’t know. His passion, his openness, something really cool.
Did he unfold his plans for you, like, “I’m gonna be in American Vogue before I’m eighteen,” and “I’ll be dressing the stars be-fore I’m twenty?”
Pretty much, but I’ve heard other people say that and it didn’t mean anything. With him it seemed real and I wanted to see him grow up.
Have you taken pictures of his ass?
No. Why are you asking?
Well, that’s another project of yours, right? You photograph your friends’ asses.
That was a body of work I showed in San Francisco last year, yes. That’s just a fun thing that began one night in my apartment with some friends of mine. Somebody dropped his pants and it evolved from one Polaroid into a collection of hundreds of asses, all either people I’d just met or was hanging out with, and who were not afraid to drop their pants. You don’t see their faces so it’s quite anonymous.
Do you easily drop your pants in public?
Well, three of the photographs in that show in San Francisco are of my ass, so…
In general I find it odd how so many people are prudish and wouldn’t even change into a new pair of pants when there are others around. I guess I just don’t understand
prudishness, and I find it boring.

I see what you mean. Except in this country it totally went the other way. Because of all this reality television, people suddenly have no shame whatsoever, in my opinion. In fact they need to get some shame back, because people do things that I just don’t want to see. People are so easily willing to allow you into the most private moments of their lives, and people who watch that think that there’s no such thing as privacy anymore, and it’s not a good thing. It’s gotten way out of control.
It’s funny that you say that, because I know of your existence because of your sister’s film, In Bed with Madonna, which was one of the first shameless displays of all the backstage and private stuff that one wasn’t supposed to see before.
Why do you think that in that movie I was trying to hide from the camera all the time?
Were you? And I was trying to look past Madonna all the time to see her brother behind her.
Well, I really didn’t want to be on film. There were times, like the visit to my mother’s grave, which drove me crazy. They filmed Madonna lying on our mother’s grave and then they were like, “OK, Chris, now it’s your turn at the grave,” and I’m like, “Fuck you, it’s not for you.” That’s why you don’t see very much of me in that movie. I prefer the privacy that I have. It keeps you sane, I guess. Well, it may depend on what you want from this world.
Yes, well, if you want to become super super famous, you may have to expose yourself like that.
I wonder. I think you can be famous without having someone take a picture of you sitting on your mother’s grave. I think you can become famous without that.
What apart from asses do you photograph?
I photograph naked people in all sorts of situations. You must understand that I photograph with a sense of humor, there’s nothing really pornographic about my pic-tures. They’re often meant to be, if you’ll excuse the expression, tongue in cheek. Some of the pictures are very close-up body shots and others are just people in odd situations, like a friend of mine came over and took off his clothes and I photographed him in the trunk of my car, wearing only my tennis shoes. It’s really an incredible photograph, and not even creepy. Well, you have to see the pictures… Only I never make people sign releases, so I can’t really show them in the first place. Some are a little bit more explicit, with hard-ons and all that.
I saw your paintings described somewhere as religious-y art.
Oh my God, that was 20 years ago!
Eh, okay. I was wondering if this had anything to do with trying to get rid of your Catholic upbringing or something.
That totally sounds like a Madonna line
you’re repeating to me. I’ve never tried to get rid of my Catholic upbringing; I embraced it and made it whatever it needed to be. I even practice it in my own way, just like I practice Kaballah. I still consider myself a Catholic boy. I have no problem with it.
But did it show in your early work?
Well, yeah, the first art I was ever exposed to was in church, so that’s what it came from. And maybe there are elements of it still in my work; it comes and goes. You kind of have to see it. What I always do is photograph or paint the human body, in one form or another. I don’t do abstract work.
You’re obviously interested in people, since you also interview people for magazines.
People fascinate me, whether they’re fucked up, naked, clothed…I’m curious. I’ve probably met more people than a regular person in their lifetime, you know, and when you meet so many, you not only come across people who are quite great, but also who are quite horrifying.
What do you do if you’re interviewing somebody who turns out to be horrifying?
I only interview people that I already know a little bit.
But are you familiar with that feeling that you idolize somebody and you interview them and they turn out to be horrible?
No, because I don’t idolize people. Well, maybe I idolize Bette Davis, but I never got the chance to interview her, so…
And then you’re a film director too, right?
Yes. I’m working with two producers in Los Angeles, and there are a couple of projects that have come and gone as they usually do in Hollywood. One almost happened. I wrote the script but didn’t own the whole property, and the other person turned out to be a freak. There was nothing I could do about it. Right now I’m working on one in particular which I really don’t want to talk about because it might jinx it. But it’s a good story, a very dark sort of love story. It has a very Greek tragedy taint to it.
Is that the story of your life?
No. Although there might be aspects of my life in it. (laughs)
Isn’t that one supposed to be called Nothing North?
Nothing North, that’s the one I’m talking about! I’m rewriting it again.
That would completely freak me out with film: to sit down for the sixteenth time to rewrite the goddamn story.
Well, here’s the thing with me, I do a bunch of other things, I don’t just sit around all day to write a script. So I’ll spend a year working on this building and I’ll go back to the script. It’s a long project. Also, I really don’t like writing scripts, it’s one of my least favorite things to do. I write a lot of poetry, but to sit down and work on a script… I’m easily distracted. Writing is really tedious and I hate doing it. If I could just stand and talk and have somebody else type… That’s probably the only way this is ever going to get finished.
Well, that’s what they call a “secretary”.
I know. But you know that’s not how it works with writing. I may need a couple of hours to think about it, and then take some time to get into it, and then I can do it. It’s the same with painting — you need time.
Do you need a good bottle of wine before you can write?
Sometimes that helps.
Are you a drinker?
Sure. I don’t drink when I get out of bed in the morning, but yes, I do drink. I can enjoy a cocktail, sure.
Since you’re a director among all other things, have you been good at directing your own life?
Well, eh, it comes and goes. I’m pretty proud of the stuff that I’ve managed to create, and I haven’t had a nine-to-five job since I was 23. The life I live tends toward extremes; I either work a lot or not at all. And the not-at-all part is the most difficult to get through. Very difficult.
Thinking that nothing will ever happen again, that you’ll never create anything again…
Exactly. That happens all the time. But in a way it’s not something I mind happening, because those can be very creative times.
Were you scared nothing would ever happen again after you art-directed your sister’s world tours?
Well, yes, the problem with that is that one might think that it looks good on a resumé, but it doesn’t. Nobody wants to hire you after you’ve done Madonna’s tour, because, number one, they think you already spent it all, and, number two, how can you translate that experience into something current? And then they just think I got the job be-cause I’m her brother. It’s a difficult shadow to crawl out from under. But whatever. The fact remains that she’s my sister and that’s never gonna change.
Isn’t Kaballah all about change? Can’t you even change something like that?
You can change whatever you want with Kaballah but the rest of the world will still see me as her brother. So why would I try?
Exactly. Do you have a boyfriend or husband or man?
“No” to all those things. I was with somebody for ten years, about ten years ago. Also, being her brother makes it difficult for me to find a boyfriend.
Oh, people have incredible expectations. They’ve either heard a lot about you or they expect you to be a certain way, or… And most of it is bullshit. But it’s creepy. What really bothers me is when somebody
approaches me, somebody I’ve never seen before in my life, and asks me a very personal family question. And then they get upset when I don’t want to answer that. That bugs me. Other than that, I’m pretty easy going.
What kind of man are you looking for?
If I could make my ideal man? Let me think… That’s a hard one…
Maybe somebody who’s a bit like you?
That’s the last thing I want! That would drive me up the fucking wall. I’m telling you, honestly, I do not want someone who’s like me! Number one, I want someone who’s not afraid of me, or afraid of what they think I am or the world that I live in. That’s the thing — he cannot be a coward. People who are full of shit and people who lie and try to crawl up your ass and are disrespectful and don’t have a sense of honor, they drive me crazy. I’m too old for those. But other than that, I’m pretty easy and there’s nothing weird about me. I love going out, I love dancing, I love having a good time.
What kind of music do you like?
To dance I tend towards the black side of things — hiphop, R&B. For listening I love country, old jazz, female singers from the 40s, and I listen to current alternative stuff. Just about anything. If it’s lyrical and it has words and it’s cool, I’m totally there.
Are you a musical person yourself?
No, I’m not a singer. I played the violin when I was young and I was in an orchestra for a while. It’s too limiting for me to be in a group. I was a dancer in a dance company in Canada for years, but that also was too limiting. I need to be able to reach as many people as possible with what I’m doing, and I can’t do that with modern dance — as much as I enjoyed it.
Could you pick a project that you worked on that was the most exciting thing you did? I don’t know…directing Dolly Parton’s video?
The coolest thing that I ever did, in my opinion, was designing and directing Madonna’s Girlie Show. I think that was a high point in both our careers. Both of us at our peak, creatively and vocally and performance-wise, it all came together perfectly in my opinion. Far more than any other tour she’s ever done.
You both should have stopped after that.
We did. It was the last thing we did together.
But you didn’t stop working for good.
Well, she could have easily stopped after that but I need to make money. I have a living to make.
With your voice, I can imagine you wouldn’t be a bad singer.
Well, I might do an album of country classics, but under a different name and per-sonality. There’s no way to use my own name; that would be crazy.
What would it be? Patsy Cline? Willie Nelson?
Patsy maybe. No Willie Nelson. Maybe Clint Black or even a Dolly Parton song. I love early Shania Twain.
You’ll be doing that in a year’s time?
No, in a year hopefully we’ll be finishing this goddamn script and then make this damn movie. That would be the ideal thing, to go back to L.A. and make the movie.
Why do I think .Nothing North is a bit of a lesbian love story? I must have read about it somewhere.
It’s not a lesbian movie in the least. Not even remotely.
OK, so that must be my cliché idea of a story about a female bull fighter.
I guess. The leading character’s problems are a bit more with her family and with her brother… You know what I’m saying?
Well, well, well, where would that theme come from?
Can’t imagine! (laughs)
Can we maybe round up this conversation with one of your poems?
Okay, I’ll do one for you, but it may be handy to know who the people are that are in it. There’s David Geffen from DreamWorks. Sandy Gallen used to manage Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton. Barry Diller married Diane von Furstenberg. Tom Ford you know, I suppose? And Bryan Lourd is the one who runs CAA, the talent agency in LA. Are you ready?
I am.
Oh to be a Diller leaf
upon a Geffen bud.
And to Sandy Gallen
all the boys with dirty love.
I used to Howard Rosenman,
now I Bryan Lourd.
And when I get through puberty,
I will Thomas Ford.

And this is a chair from Christopher’s furniture line called Prague that he did for that company Bernhardt about three years ago. Apparently Bill Clinton has the whole set in his Harlem office.

Originally published in BUTT 14