In 1989, Madonna ruled the world. Her rise to fame had been fairly rapid since her first single, Everybody, in 1982. By 1985, she had released True Blue, which went on to become one of the biggest selling albums by a female artist. But in March of 1989, she released the album Like A Prayer and it seemed as though Madonna-mania had gripped the planet. While that masterpiece – with its relentless stream of coming-of-age anthems and dramas – evokes many memories, it’s the smell of the packaging that, to paraphrase HRH, “takes me there”. Madonna’s 10 greatest music videos Doused in patchouli oil, it was intended to simulate church incense.
But in my mind, it’s forever associated with a card insert that came with every copy. It was called “The Facts About Aids”. Now, in those days – in fact, pretty much as in 2018 – sex education at school wasn’t that great for a baby gay like myself. But that was probably fine, because by this point I had been put off it for life after being terrified by government adverts with icebergs, and subsequently school contemporaries telling me I was going to die of Aids – and this was before I even knew I was gay, let alone having bleached my hair or had anything pierced. Madonna – who I had inexplicably been drawn to since offerings such as Gambler and Dress You Up, those contemporaries seeing the signs before I did – was now changing my life in a different way, by teaching me a lesson I would never forget.
The leaflet referred to Aids as “an equal opportunity disease”. It went on to explain: “People with Aids – regardless of their sexual orientation – deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry”. Three simple facts followed, explaining how you could get Aids, and then an equally simple message telling you to wear a condom. Never mind that at that age, and in that different time, sex with a condom was precisely that – sex with a condom. There wasn’t anyone else involved for years. But it always stuck with me. And it was just the beginning, as Madonna would ultimately teach me more about sex than I ever learned at school. “Aids is no party!” the leaflet signed off with, and Madonna was only too aware. She had already lost her good friend Martin Burgoyne – who also designed the sleeve to her Burning Up single – to the epidemic by this point. The Madison Square Garden show of her Who’s That Girl Tour in 1987 became an Aids benefit, with money raised going to the American Foundation for Aids Research (amfAR).
By 1989, her ballet teacher and mentor, Christopher Flynn, had been diagnosed and would die of Aids the following year. Speaking about Christopher with Interview magazine in 2010 she said: “Growing up in Michigan, I didn’t really know what a gay man was. He was the first man – the first human being – who made me feel good about myself and special. He was the first person who told me that I was beautiful or that I had something to offer the world, and he encouraged me to believe in my dreams, to go to New York. He was such an important person in my life. He died of Aids, but he went blind toward the end of his life.”