Editor’s Letter: ‘Men, Madonna and me’

In last week’s editor’s letter I mentioned Madonna. And now, thanks to Katherine Ryan’s incredibly honest interview in today’s issue, I’m thinking of her again. Stick with me, there is a connection.

It was decades ago, 1996 to be exact, when the pop sensation had just become a mother for the first time, to daughter Lourdes. Oprah Winfrey – who’s apparently been getting all the big exclusives for ever! – secured the first interview with Madonna about this new life stage. Of course, at the time, Madonna was probably the most famous woman in the world, and this was thanks to her raunchy, provocative chart-topping music, but also for being unapologetically sexy on stage (the conical bras, the sex simulations) and off (the passionate relationships with famous men like Sean Penn and Warren Beatty). So the world wanted to know if motherhood would change this persona. Oprah cheekily asked her, ‘What will you teach your daughter about men?’ which made everyone laugh. But once Madonna composed herself, she said: ‘I think, if you learn self-respect, you don’t need to be taught about men.’

I have to tell you, hearing this, from a woman I idolised, changed me. Suddenly I was mentally racing through a back catalogue of truly disastrous experiences with men: flakes, users, controllers, just generally bad eggs. I had been enduring it all because I didn’t like myself enough to believe I deserved better. I’d been operating with such low self-esteem that I put up with rubbish. I’d spent my teens and early 20s not really valuing myself, and – embarrassing but true – I think I was just grateful when these guys glanced in my direction.

I shudder about those years now. I also shudder to think that, when my now husband walked into my life, I was suspicious precisely because he did show me respect. It felt so foreign that he, for instance, would call when he’d promised he would. I had to give myself Madonna’s pep talk. I had to decide what it was I deserved in order to receive it.

So there’s a lot that spoke to me in Katherine’s chat with Julia Llewellyn Smith. Katherine talks about the shame and lack of confidence that had her convinced the toxic boyfriends she endured were her only option.

When strong, brilliant, smart women are willing to share their vulnerabilities, their mistakes, it helps us all to have important conversations; ones that hopefully help our daughters realise they don’t need to suffer the ‘wrong uns’ that we put up with. Katherine’s new book talks about her struggle to find her confidence and the fact that women are often made to feel ashamed for trying. But I really believe that for so many women, self-esteem – self-respect – can be the difference between happiness and misery, or sometimes even life and death.

Editor’s Picks:

A few things I’m coveting this week

A brilliant colour that will complete any outfit. Coat, £225, Cos

A smart and cool office choice. Shoes, £110, Jigsaw

A gorgeous date-night option. Top, £239, Hofmann Copenhagen, Feather and Stitch