So, is this a book, or what? Well, yes and no. Madonna's Sex her raunchy, trashy, cheesy, phenomenally successful 128-page collection of shock-by-the-numbers erotic fantasy certainly lives up to Warner Books' advance billing as the ''publishing event of the year.'' There are the sheer numbers: 500,000 U.S. copies reportedly sold in a week, and the same number of international copies are going just as fast (Warner says that despite the demand, the million-copy initial shipment is Sex's only printing; the books are individually numbered and designed to be collector's items). There are the much-discussed paraphernalia the whips, the chains, the knife, the leashes, the gags, the prophylactic-like Mylar wrapping, the metal covers, the self-destructive binding. And there are the cries of outrage and amusement: the denunciations by critics and conservatives, the chorus of more confused comments. More than a half-million copies in a week? This isn't the publishing event of the year, it's the publishing event of the century.
But the key word here is event: Sex is less a book than a slickly contrived, shrewdly marketed happening. People aren't buying it for the aesthetics of its photos and text, which rarely rise above the level of Penthouse. They're buying it because of who is in the photos and who wrote the text. Sex is hype.
The charge is hardly new to Madonna. Every product of her decade-old career has contained a dollop of serious intent fused with a heaping measure of shock and image massage. But nothing the 34-year-old dollarwise diva has done matches the pose and tease of this book. Sex is her masterpiece of media manipulation, and here blow by blow, kink by kink is how she pulled it off.
In the beginning was the idea, but whose was it? Madonna has said she got the notion for Sex in the summer of 1991, between takes on the Indiana set of A League of Their Own. Judith Regan, a vice president and senior editor at Simon & Schuster, begs to differ. She claims she flew out to L.A. for a meeting with Madonna and Freddy DeMann, her business manager, in March 1991, armed with a proposal for a similar collection of photo-erotica. Regan says Madonna ''loved'' the idea and shook hands on a deal but never got back in touch.
''Sleazy and stupid,'' is how she describes Madonna's behavior. ''I wouldn't have minded if she sent me a note,'' says Regan, ''but she showed no graciousness, no manners.''
Madonna's publicist, Liz Rosenberg, refuses to confirm or deny the story, but this much is certain: Before League wrapped last fall, Madonna had made Sex her next project. The first person she approached was New York photographer and her longtime collaborator Steven Meisel. The book would be titled X (she changed it after Spike Lee claimed the letter for his film Malcolm X), and Meisel, a soul mate since he shot 1984's Like a Virgin album cover, would shoot it.
''Madonna and I can keep up with each other,'' says Meisel, 34. ''I'm doing things to make people think too. It's not really to antagonize or to push people's buttons. It's really to present another way of seeing things. We also have our sense of humor in common, so a lot of the work we do together is tongue in cheek.''
Meisel immediately began assembling the Sex team. It included art director Fabien Baron, 33, who has revamped such high-end magazines as Italian Vogue, Interview, and Harper's Bazaar; fashion stylist Paul Cavaco, 40, a former partner in the powerful fashion public relations house Keeble Cavaco & Duka; hairstylist Garren, 39, who has coiffed the likes of Farrah Fawcett and Audrey Hepburn; and French makeup artist Francois Nars, who made over Isabella Rossellini, Jessica Lange, and Lauren Hutton. Their one common denominator: ''All of them have done provocative work in their own right,'' Meisel says.