Once upon a time there was a pop star . . .
The pop singer Madonna yesterday joined a literary tradition which includes Sophie Dahl, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of York as she launched her first children’s book at a select gathering of 150 adults and at least as many children.
The event was billed as an “English tea party” – but, this being Madonna, there was more on offer than Earl Grey and a plate of chocolate digestives. Kensington Roof Gardens, the venue, had been transformed into a fantasia of pinks, blues and yellows.
Balloons trailing strings of paper roses bobbed at the ceiling; gauzy fabric butterflies decorated the brick pillars in the garden; paper cut-outs of cartoon clouds and musical notes festooned the inside areas.
The choreographer of the film Billy Elliot organised the dancing; two female stilt-walkers dressed as swans tottered around the party to the apparent dismay of the resident flamingos; and the guests included Martin Amis, Nigella Lawson, Gary Rhodes, Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen and Stella McCartney.
Nevertheless, on one detail she followed convention: there were cucumber sandwiches, without the crusts.
The publication of The English Roses – with simultaneous release in 30 languages in 100 territories – boasts of being the most globally extensive book launch in history.
It is the first of five children’s fables she has written, intending not only to entertain but to illustrate some of the moral lessons she has learned from her immersion in the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah. She has promised to give profits to charity.
“For the first time,” she has said, “I was not motivated by profit or greed.”
It represents a substantial departure from her previous outing between hard covers – 1992’s explicit picture book Sex. It tells the story of four girls – known as the English Roses, and based on friends of Madonna’s daughter Lourdes – who learned to overcome the jealousy which causes them to ostracise a schoolmate.
Madonna arrived at the party – somewhat after her husband, Guy Ritchie, who brought their son Rocco to join in the children’s games – in an ivory dress with a pattern of blue flowers and matching shoes, her hair pulled back in a tidy ponytail.
As she toured the party, she was trailed by a conga-line of gawpers, all pretending to be passing that way. The main event came when she settled down, with no more airs and graces than a presenter of Jackanory, to read from her book. Putting on black-rimmed reading glasses, she settled on to a garlanded swing.
Her children Rocco, three, and Lourdes, six, sat on either side of her, both wearing around their left wrists the twists of red cotton which Madonna’s guru, Yehuda Berg, recommended to “seal in protective energy” and ward off negative influences.
“I like little kids better than big people,” she said. “They don’t have any bad habits yet.”
Her audience of children between five and 12 was already somewhat over excited, having spent the previous hour on arts and crafts activities.
She promised to read for as long as the children, cross-legged at her feet, were able to concentrate. “On the count of three, you have to be very quiet. On your marks, get set . . .” she said, before realising, with a laugh: “Oh, that’s not three. One, two, three – be quiet.” Almost miraculously, the children acquiesced.
Against the expectations of the cynical, Madonna read enchantingly – at least, she certainly held the attention of an audience more fickle than the fan-crowded stadiums she is used to. When she showed the children an illustration depicting the girls “green with envy“, a single child laughed too loud and too late, and Madonna said: “You like that, don’t you? Can you relate? I can.”
Her reading over, the music started, and she enjoined her young fans to make for the dance floor. And then, flanked by minders and PR gatekeepers, she trotted out. Her daughter looked for a moment intent on joining the others dancing. But a minder swept her up and they were gone. Madonna had left the building.