Book Review: 'Not About Madonna'
In September 1977, Whitley Setrakian, a U-M dance major living in the University Towers Apartments, made a journal entry about her new roommate, calling her “beautiful in a way that terrifies me,” and concluding, “Get this: Her name is Madonna.”
Setrakian, who’s now known as Whit Hill, has written a memoir, Not About Madonna (Heliotrope Books, $17.95). The title is a tease, not unlike her globally famous former roommate. Despite her initial wariness (Hill also calls Madonna Ciccone “very crafty”), the two dance students bonded, sharing a room and good times for nine months. They remained friends for another three years, including a period when both lived — separately — in New York City, part of the hungry, young crowd trying to break into big-time show business. Hill, a native New Yorker who graduated from the former High School for the Performing Arts, soon tired of the fierce competition. Finding she missed the slower-paced life in Ann Arbor, she eventually returned to her college town. We all know what happened to the roomie who was born and bred in Michigan.
Readers of Hill’s book learn something about Madonna shortly before she became a one-name celebrity, included among Time magazine’s “25 most powerful women of the 20th century.” In Not About, we hear Madonna in a teasing whine call “Whitleeeee,” and read notes and letters the two exchanged. On the book’s back cover is a valentine Madonna gave to Hill, a card addressed to “My Little Bowl of Bear Mush.” The two roommates bicycle, scoop ice-cream cones at a campus parlor, hit dance bars, and skinny-dip in a rock quarry. Pot-smoking and bed-hopping activities are fleetingly mentioned. But Hill’s best “Material Girl” story occurs in New York, where the young women met up in a bar with Hill’s actor father and his longtime pal, Al Pacino. Madonna flirts with Pacino, blows a soap bubble on his head, and invites him to a party. Later, Ed Setrakian called his daughter to pass along what Pacino told him: “That friend of your daughter’s stuck her tongue in my ear!”
The friendship faded before Madonna shot to stardom with the 1984 release of “Like a Virgin.” When Setrakian first heard Madonna singing on her car radio, she pulled over, stunned. “Sweetie, are you OK out there?” she recalls wondering. “Do you want to be part of this world that you’re entering? Be careful!”
Back in Ann Arbor, Hill launched a modern-dance company. Married at 23 and divorced nine years later, she struggled as a single mother of two, doing freelance writing to supplement the precarious earnings of a Midwestern choreographer. As Madonna’s fame skyrocketed, reporters began badgering Hill. Exasperated at being defined as “Madonna’s former roommate,” she began charging several hundred dollars per interview. Twenty years ago, a friend suggested she write the story herself. That it took so long has a lot to do with Hill’s ambivalence about her brush with fame. Now married to musician Al Hill, she lives in Nashville, where she writes and performs country music.
Speaking recently in a telephone interview, she voices the doubts she’d had about the project. “I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I feel I’m feeding the beast, the media, about the person I was friends with a long time ago but am not friends with anymore,” she says. The complicated reason she went forward is that Hill, a gifted writer whose book moves as fast and gracefully as she dances, realized she had “a story everyone wants to hear.”
The question then was, “How can I … do it with integrity and beauty?” Her answer was to look past her famous former friend to trace the trajectory of her own life, exploring what she’s learned “about relationships and art and motherhood … about girls in college and friendship and loss.”
Hill has received positive feedback from readers. However, some have called the title exploitive. She says she made peace with the decision partly by asking herself: “What would Madonna do?”
That was easy, Hills says, “She would absolutely put her name in the title.”