Younger pop stars still use Madonna’s career as a template for their own. Constant reinvention, theatrical arena tours, titillating music videos, and a dash of provocation are all par for the course among today’s pop set. Yet, for all the homages (and rip-offs) of the queen of pop, none of her predecessors have ever dared to to engage in a project quite as bold as her 1992 hardcover coffee table book Sex. The images, shot by Steven Meisel, contain a shock factor, even three decades later. Adopting the alter ego “Mistress Dita,” Madonna posed in a series of images acting out sexual fantasies and exploring sexual subcultures. It reportedly sold 150,000 copies in its first day, but was also the subject of condemnation, including censure straight from the Vatican.
Released in the same era as her album Exotica, many cultural viewers noted Madonna would attempt to portray a somewhat more wholesome image afterward (there was the role in Evita, a collection of ballads, Kabbalah, and the birth of her first child, Lourdes), but Madonna has never apologized nor claimed to regret the book. In fact, she’s partnered with Yves Saint Laurent to celebrate its 30th anniversary this week, during Art Basel Miami Beach. A limited re-pressing of the book has been issued, and unpublished outtakes from the shoots are on display at a beachfront gallery.
Choosing Miami as the location for this reunion is no coincidence. Shortly before undertaking the project, Madonna had bought a waterfront mansion just south of the city’s downtown; Miami, as a result, played backdrop to many of the book’s photographs—including what is perhaps its most memorable: Madonna, stark naked, attempting to hitchhike in the middle of a palm tree-lined street.
If Madonna has a knack for reinvention, so does Miami. The city, despite bearing a history that’s only about 126 years long, has cycled through its own series of alter egos. In fact, the pronunciation of its name has changed over the years (locals used to refer to it as “My-ah-muh”). At various times, the city has been an all-American beach town, a run-down retirement mecca, and a notoriously crime-ridden underworld, as captured in Miami Vice and Scarface. It’s gone from a town that once actually felt like it was culturally part of the South to one that is now known as the USA’s gateway to Latin America. More recently (and to various levels of success) it’s also attempted to establish itself as a hub for both the art world and the burgeoning Crypto industry.
Madonna’s arrival in 1992, however, cemented the city’s truest golden era. While Miami Vice explored its underground in the ‘80s, the film also made Miami seem alluring and stylish to an audience of millions. Simultaneously, gay men had claimed South Beach as a warm-weather refuge during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. New York’s fashion industry followed. A short three-hour trip from the Big Apple, the expansive beaches and Art Deco architecture became frequent backdrops for fashion photography. While the town always had a taste for nightlife, the era also cemented it as an international clubbing mecca. Madonna quickly made herself at home amid the milieu. For a while, the Miami club promoter Ingrid Casares was constantly at her side. To this day, any veteran South Beach drag queen will claim to have performed in front of Madonna at one point or another.
While many of the images for Sex shot in New York City find the singer in elaborate fantasy-scapes and subversive scenes, the best images Meisel shot in Miami almost feel as if the mask of the “Mistress Dita” persona slipped and Madonna has revealed her true self. Miami has a reputation for being a place where people come to pursue their fantasies (even if only for a long weekend), but our deepest dreams always have a way of surfacing.
Thirty years on, both the pop icon and the city have reinvented themselves over and over again, and yet the images capture something that remains top of mind when you think about both: freedom, a reputation for a bit of vice, and, well, a whole lot of Sex.