The University of Chicago Magazine June 1995
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Blonde Faith


Like Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone herself, the encyclopedia serves up all sorts of tasty Twinkies for the mind: empty calories but oh-so-strangely satisfying. While the delivery may seem effortless, the book actually represents 12 years of deliberate collection and research by Rettenmund, who fell in love with his fellow Michigander after first hearing the heady beat of "Holiday" pulsing from a car radio in his early teens.

Just for something to do, he began squirreling away all things Madonna -- "every stray newspaper story, magazine cover, poster, promotional display, or trashy carny booby prize." By the time he had graduated from Chicago, he saw gold in the 800 magazines, 6-foot stack of clips, and 40 books he had accumulated. From this stack, he pieced together a mountain of tidbits, supplemented with interviews, to get a complete picture ("some would say too complete," he admits) of the entertainer.

The book proposal was sold last December to St. Martin's Press by Jane Jordan Browne, a Chicago-based literary agent who knew Rettenmund from his college days, when he worked part time in her office. Peddling the proposal wasn't easy. According to Browne, negative reaction to Madonna's aptly-titled book, Sex, and to her work in the box-office Hindenburg, Body of Evidence, had placed the pop star "at the nadir of her career" around the time Rettenmund's labor of love was making its rounds. Yet even at her "nadir," Madonna could enrage and fascinate millions, and Rettenmund's promise to deliver a manuscript with "Everything you ever wanted to ask about Madonna but were afraid to know!" had undeniable appeal.

More than anything, Rettenmund says, he "wanted to write something that would make a splash," and reflect those qualities he most admires in Madonna herself: the fearless sexuality, shameless silliness, and unbridled glamour he finds sorely lacking in most of the world, especially in the white-bread corner of the Midwest where he grew up, always feeling a little out of step.

For me, a lot of my interest in pop culture had to do with being gay," he says. "At a very young age, I was highly aware of everything around me, and of what people are saying and what they're really saying underneath it.

"In that way, something popular takes on a whole new meaning because I can flesh out the levels of what's going on and how people are perceiving things," explains Rettenmund, whose boyish looks and deliberate pauses for effect remind you of Mike Myers doing a less-metal-more-art take on Wayne Campbell. Liking Madonna, he insists, "is more than just people saying `I love this actress' or `I love this singer.' They're saying, `I love this person despite the fact that we all know a lot of people don't.'"

Rettenmund met plenty in the "don't" category in the late '80s at the U of C, where cool had some specific definitions. Flicks at the Fine Arts Theatres, yes. Who's That Girl?, no. Abbey Road, yes. True Blue, definitely no.

Rettenmund may remember Madonna as his "cross to bear" while in Hyde Park, but if he suffered, says his former Shoreland roomie Zafar Mawani, AB'92, he did so in silence, and was known more for his wicked flashes of humor than his Madonna fetish. "He provided the comic relief," says Mawani, now a management consultant in Washington D.C. "He has a knack for immediately seeing the humor in various serious things." It wasn't until you walked into his room -- transformed into a never-never land of pop culture's peroxide poster children: Madonna, Marilyn, Blondie -- that you sensed a flamboyant edginess bubbling beneath Rettenmund's even-natured exterior.

"I liked getting A's and B's and liking someone who a lot of people thought was unintelligent," Rettenmund says. "I liked the rebellious aspect of that. I liked being able to choose what I was interested in. And I loved having arguments about it."

Likewise, in his book, he refuses to downplay or make excuses for Madonna's often embarrassing excesses. Instead, he celebrates all the ridiculous bits of Madonna trivia lapped up by an omnivorous media between tirades on her superficiality and "bad taste": Madonna takes three Advil before she gets her legs waxed. Madonna believes in reincarnation and admits she could come back as a lizard. Madonna's favorite toy is her answering machine.

The attention to these details apparently has served Encyclopedia Madonnica well. MTV and Advocate magazine have dished it up. The Village Voice's Michael Musto describes it as "the ultimate reference book for those who are not ashamed!" Even Icon ("The Official Madonna Fan Club") likes it -- no small thing considering that the Hollywood-based group takes its Madonnaholism very seriously. And, perhaps the ultimate pop-culture endorsement, Hard Copy came calling for a post-release interview -- but, Rettenmund says mournfully, "I'm afraid it wasn't hard enough for them. They really wanted dirt."

Hard Copy may come calling again when St. Martin's Press publishes Rettenmund's next book, Boy Culture, this fall. The author describes it as the funny, bittersweet tale of a "post-modern cowboy" who works his way through the U of C by turning tricks. Although he says the novel is very obviously fiction ("I'm sure no one ever hustled his way through the U of C"), it does draw much detail and color from places and people Rettenmund encountered while in Chicago. The story actually began as a tryout to get into a fiction-writing workshop taught by U of C professor Richard Stern. It worked, and he picked it up again years later, after putting the Madonna book to rest.

"I said to myself, `Hey, this is kind of good,' and dressed it up -- so to speak," Rettenmund says. Also slated for publication is "I'm in Love with Prince Andrew" ("I'm not," he offers before he's asked), which is to be included next year in Mondo Royals, a short-story collection about Britain's royal family.

While Rettenmund's muse -- a life-sized cardboard cutout of Madonna hovers near his computer -- is climbing the charts with her new album, Bedtime Stories, the writer is through with his subject for now. He's considered applying the encyclopedia format to other pop icons, but can't find anyone who thrills him the same way. Michael Jackson? "I don't like him. It wouldn't feel right." Janet Jackson? "Boring. What, two pages maybe?"

Such meows are classic Encyclopedia Madonnica, which doesn't shrink from taking a few shots at Ms. Ciccone. Not every entry is flattering because "I don't think that Madonna's every move is above criticism," Rettenmund dared to tell fans in a 'zine article for Icon. But he does think "she's a brilliant entertainer, underrated singer and songwriter, important social figure, and a hell of a lot of fun."

He must have struck some agreeable mix of kiss-and-tell: He was recently contacted by Madonna's publicist, who suggested that Rettenmund and Madonna swap inscribed copies of the book. Rettenmund chose to make his salutation short and sweet, wishing her success and happiness "from one Michigan girl to another." Although he's never met her, Rettenmund keeps hoping. And what would he say to her?

"What do you say to someone you've completely psychoanalyzed and reported on in print?" he muses. "I'd have to think of something diffusing, right off the bat. Maybe `Obviously, I'm a great fan....' and brush it off with that. I'd probably take her lead."

Jaclyn H. Park, former associate editor of the Magazine, is a freelance writer in the New York City area.

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