The MadonnaTribe team has had the chance to sit down for a chat
with multifaceted artist Carlton Wilborn.
Carlton, who worked with Madonna in many legendary
projects such as the Blond Ambition Tour, The Girlie
Show and the Vogue music video not only shares with
our readers an in depth look at the creation of those works but
also takes us into his private world and his fondest Madonna memories.
Hi Carlton welcome to Madonnatribe. You are a dancer, an actor and
a talk-show host. How and when did you start your multifaceted career?
I guess dancing was your first interest.
Carlton Wilborn: I'm originally from Chicago and
I went to a performing art school there. I collaborated with a dance
company I stayed with for a long time, the Hubbard Street Dance,
which is now a premier company in Chicago.
Then I moved here to L.A. and auditioned for a lot of music videos
and the biggest job I got after about five months here was doing
the American Music Awards with Paula Abdul who was choreographing
And right after that I auditioned for Whitney Houston's tour, this
was the beginning of 1990, January 1990.
I got accepted into that tour but Whitney was not quite sure when
she was going to start the tour, so everybody that got hired was
on hold for three weeks, she had to decide if she wanted to go to
Europe or doing only Japan or whatever.
In that interim of me waiting, the Madonna audition for the
Blond Ambition Tour came up.
I went there and I was accepted. The fact that I was accepted into
the Whitney tour made people see me as one of those dancers that
had already done a lot and were more experienced, while some of
the other guys were very young and it was the first big break for
them. And that's how it all started.
MT: Can you tell us a bit about the auditions for
the Blond Ambition Tour?
What do you remember of those days?
CW: I remember everybody wanted to be there. It
was all over the news and more that 400 men showed up. It was a
men only call. They were from different cities and different countries.
I think we had three or four combinations to learn, all in that
one audition time.
We learned a couple of combinations. She did the cut. We learned
the other combinations and she did another cut.
That sort of things. And that was it.
got the people she was sort of interested in and that she wanted
to call back. I went home and about three hours later, the lady
friend I was living with came to me saying there was a message for
me on my voicemail and she had sort of curious and excited tone.
But she didn't tell me what it was all about.
So I checked my messages and it was Madonna calling: "Hi Carlton
it's Madonna, we are going out to a club tonight and I would like
you to be there".
And I was like "Oh my God that was Madonna on the phone".
So of course I called back and I said yes and I had to meet her
at a club called Club Louie.
We got there and it was like a bar, a small dance club, kind of
dark and underground.
I remember a couple of the other dancers were there and we litterally
partied together and danced the whole night. At the end of that
night she told us she was taking a hip-hop class the following morning
and she said she wanted us to meet her at the class. We said ok.
club night was Friday and then on Saturday we got up and we all
went to the class. We showed up at 10 o'clock and she was taking
this class like everybody else. And it was taught by Oscar who ended
up doing the Blond Ambition Tour. He got blond hair. At
the time I had some really wild and long dreadlocks, so after the
class she came to me and told me in this typical sharp tone way:
"So do you want to go on the road with me? Then you have to
cut your hair!"
She then said: "I really want you to come" and then I
cut my hair, it's only hair after all. And that it all happened.
MT: Were you already a fan of sort before working with
CW: I was never a big Madonna fan. I wasn't really
into the music she was doing.
The thing for me was, when I was in Chicago before going to L.A.,
I remember a newspaper article about her Who's That Girl Tour
in Chicago and it made me think about a dancer and choreographer
named Lavelle, who was also from Chicago and that at the time was
on tour with Michael Jackson.
Lavelle at the time was "the guy from Chicago who made it big",
dancing with Michael etc.
Looking at that Madonna article I was thinking "God, I would
love to be able to have that kind of work scenario with somebody
like this", looking at the article about her. So that's really
where it all came from.
when I heard Madonna was having auditions in L.A. for a tour I just
remembered looking at that article and thinking again about Lavelle
and Michael so I said maybe I can go and build that kind of scenario
And that's the reason I ended up going to the audition.
It really wasn't about being a fan. I wasn't following her that
much. All I knew was she was a megastar like Jackson and I wanted
to be what Lavelle was.
MT: And I guessed
Yes it worked (laughs). I remember when I showed up at the
audition Niki was there with her, Niki always stood on the auditions.
I wasn't really that intimidated. I had already worked on big things
and I had the "Whitney thing", so for me it was absolutely
great to meet her but I wasn't like "Oh my God that's Madonna!"
MT: Once all the dancer for the tour were chosen,
they were then introduced to the public with the Vogue
video directed by David Fincher. What do you remember about that
shooting? It wasn't your first time on a film set.
CW: No it wasn't my first time on a film
set, but it was the first time on a video I knew it was going to
be that big. We knew David Fincher was at the time a really big
music video director, so that was a big deal and it was a video
for Madonna so it was going to be everywhere.
We knew from the way it was designed that we were going to be featured
in the video and not being just as extras. It was amazing.
Oh and by the way that same day we also shot, as the cast of Blond
Ambition, a Nike commercial that Madonna was going
to do and that never aired.
It all happened during the first weeks of tour rehearsals.
MT: Can you tell us a bit
more about this Nike commercial? There have been reports
and rumours about it for a long time...
CW: Well we shot it and I remember we were all
dressed in different Nike clothes and Madonna decided who
was going to wear what, and which dancers were going to be used
for separate shots and I remember the moment when they wanted me
to finish a workout of dance and then I had to flop down a sofa.
I don't remember exactly why it never aired.
MT: How long did you rehearse before the tour?
CW: Both of the Madonna tours I did had like a
nine week rehearsal process. We did six weeks in a regular dance
studio and the last three weeks on a movie sound stage where the
actual stage was constructed.
It was a really gruelling process, especially by the time we got
to the stage.
They were incredibly long days. We would start reheharsal in the
studio, going over numbers from ten o'clock in the morning to three
pm. At three pm we would do a run through of the show 'til five
pm, with full make-up and full costumes because Madonna was testing
make-up for lighting and all those kind of things.
And for me that was the very first time.
I never had done a technical rehearsal with make-up, where they
test your position with the light. So that to me was like "wow
she is really taking her job seriously". It was really, really
We would then finish that run through at five o'clock, taking a
dinner break 'til seven pm and then we would come back at seven,
and do another full dress and make-up run through of the show from
eight pm till ten pm.
It was really like being in a boot camp training where your body
is really in shape and amazing. The amount of stamina, the amount
of energy and strenght that you had to have to do two full run through
show was equivalent to the energy that it took to do one stadium
show in front of eighty thousand people. That much energy.
It was amazing.
And by the time we actually got on the road, that was like a piece
MT: And then the tour started in Japan.
Was that the first time you travelled around the world like that?
CW: No, because of the dancing company I had been with,
I had travelled to Europe, France. But it was the first time I travelled
with a private jet (laughs).
MT: The Blond Ambition
was captured on laser disc twice. In Yokohama at the beginning of
the tour and in Nice, France, at the end of the tour. By watching
those two performace you really get an idea of how the show had
evolved over the months. Madonna herself looks less daring in the
CW: Well, it's like any other show that you do.
When you do something that has that sort of repetitiveness to it
you definitely grow into it. It allows you to be more fearless.
You know that you can take certain risks in certain moments once
you establish where your comfortable spots are.
You know where your heavy breathing spots are.
You get to know the spots where you can say: "this is very
light I can really play here".
It gives you that kind of liberty. Where in the beginning of the
show you just really monitor every little section accurately. It
just sort of builds you into more freedom.
MT: In Blond Ambition you had
a solo with Madonna during Oh Father, in one of the most
controversial moments of the show, which was described by Madonna
herself as a theatrical presentation of her music.
What do you remember of putting that particular routine together
and what did the character of the priest actually represent in that
CW: I remember that Vince Paterson designed that
number. I think what Madonna was trying to say with that number
is that a priest, ideally, is a person with whom you end up having
an intimate relation. You go and share your feelings and in-depth
information with him during confession Although there is this wall
between you, they are experiencing you on a really intimate soul
level and I think this was sort of breaking the wall of confession
and allowing her to speak directly to the priest about her relationship
with her father.
So even if it seemed the priest was phisically involved with her,
there was nothing sexual to it. It was designed so that the priest
was sort of giving strenght to her which is why there's a moment
in which I'm folding her up and turning her around but at the same
time she was someone resistent to what the priest was offering her
because of this sort of dogma that ruins the relationship, which
is why at the very end of the number she walks away from me looking
So it also represents a competition of wills.
While speaking of Blond Ambition, do you have a favourite
number in the show?
CW: I think that the Vogue number in the
Blond Ambition Tour was pretty cool and... Express
Yourself. It's either Express Yourself or Vogue.
Either one of those.
Express Yourself was just incredible because it was the
number that opened the show.
guys where all on stage. The music starts, you sort of hear the
wheels turning. Madonna coming on stage for the first time and people
screaming and you could not hear the music over them screaming.
And again what was brilliant about what Madonna created then that
has not really shown up in a lot of other tours is that she spent
time really featuring the dancers.
The dancers were really technical and were put out there in front.
It was the first time the dancers were really used with that power.
And then came the Truth Or Dare documentary. How was it
like being on tour with a film crew filming everything all the time?
CW: You know... for me it was fun. I didn't have
any issues with them, I found it sort of interesting and challenging
of course. I was sure enough with myself at the time. All I knew
was "fine, cameras are going to be on so what are going to
do in front of the cameras?". That's where I was.
It was just cool to know that I was going to have something that
was going to be covering every moment of me and people were going
to get to see it. I wasn't at all intimidated about how it was going
to represent me because it can't represent me in any different way
than I choose to represent myself.
So fine, bring the cameras around as long as I behaved the right
way it was fine if the cameras were around.
Do you remember any funny or memorable episodes happened on the
road that were then cut from the final movie?
CW: There was a lot of interview footage. There
were individual interviews for each of us. It was something very
revealing that got cut down. The only surviving bit in the movie
is some footage of Oliver talking about his dad but they spent a
lot of time coming to my room, and we talked about very emotional
things that were never shown that I wish they had.
MT: And there is also you Mom in the movie...
CW: Yes, isn't that great?
MT: Is that your favourite scene
of the movie then?
CW: Yes that's a very special moment. I love my
Mom. She is no longer among us. She was a performer and she was
known around Chicago and she was sort of living vicariously through
She was having a lot of health issues at the time and it was great
to have her be in a film, which was the biggest element that I knew
she would have wanted her career to be about.
awesome, really great and she represented what my Mom was, you know
what I mean?
And it was cool for my Mom because when the movie came out she had
girlfriends back in Chicago that were treating her as a celebrity.
So it was great.
There is another touching moment at the end of the film when you
say to Madonna: "You're such a Lady." How did you feel
in that moment when everyone had to say good-bye because the tour
I definitely remember feeling emotional about it but I knew that
it was going to be a defining moment for the movie and I was watching
everybody saying good-bye to her. The guys were all very emotional
and I didn't want to do what the others did.
And you know it was kind of a strategic thing based on what I felt
You know Madonna was really a Lady to me. At least how she dealt
with me, I don't know how any of the other dancers felt about her.
Inside of her rigid perfectionist, artistic brain there was a real
elengance about her. The way that she lived her private life...
that's one of the things I was surprised by.
I would have thought that she would have had a much more avant guard
private life and she really didn't at all. She was very classy in
her private life.
And I wanted to make sure that I'd say something that was really
true about her I didn't just want to say "Oh I'm going to miss
I wanted to make sure that people got a sense of a richer part of
who she was.
MT: That is awesome Carlton.
In the history of Madonna live tours it is very rare that a dancer
is hired for more than a tour. You are one of the few exceptions.
After Blond Ambition you worked with Madonna again in The
Girlie Show. Can you tell us about how did that happen? Did
you have to audition again?
CW: Basically it sort of came backwards.
It's very interesting. I was here in L.A. and Niki Haris and I always
remained friends so I knew they were thinking about going back out
on tour. I knew because Niki told me she was already in talks with
Then I got a phone call from Madonna at home: "Hi what's going
on? I'm in New York, I'm getting ready to go back out and I'm holding
auditions in N.Y. and I'm not finding who I want".
This was litterally the beginning of the conversations (laughs)
and then she asked me if I knew some good dancers in L.A.
really honoured that she considered my ideas and I said "Yes
there are couple of people I know".
Then she said: "Listen, when I get out there would you mind
helping me run the audition?". I said: "Awesome, I'd love
to do that".
There were people that I knew that I really wanted to get in there
for her to see right away. So that was the first conversation on
She called back like a hour and a half later and she said: "Oh
my God I forgot to ask you, are you interested in going back out
on tour with me?"
And I said: "Yeah of course I love working with you and we
always had a good relationship" so I said "I'd love to".
So we ran the audition and at the end of it my position was given.
So at the end of the second call back she told me to come back so
she could compare people next to me.
MT: From a professional point of view which are
the main differences between Blond Ambition and The
CW: Well definitely for me the
Girlie Show was the best one. I like that show a lot more.
It was a much more mature show. A lot more sophisticated.
I wasn't really that into the campiness that was going on in the
Blond Ambition, guys as mermaids and all that kind of stuff.
It was fun but she knew me enough to never even think to cast me
in one of those numbers. So I definitely like the Girlie Show
more. It just seemed much more romantic and much more elegant as
a show, much more adult.
MT: We had the chance to speak to Alex Magno about the
Girlie Show and he told us that The Beast Within
from that show is the number he is most proud of.
What do you think about yourself being heavily featured in that
CW: Hey... That's MY number.
Yes absolutely. What is actually the story behind
it, which seems a bit criptic. It looks like a depiction of all
the evil that there is in the world, war, hate, slavery, jealousy,
So did you have the chance to discuss the meaning of it while you
were preparing it?
Sure. I don't remember the title of the song that preceeds it, the
one in which she's talking about her friend who died of aids...
MT: In This Life.
CW: Yes, In this Life,
exactly, that's the number that preceeds it, and so I think The
Beast Within was representing the toxic energy that can take
away a man's life, that can take you out, that can kill you and
it sort of came from there. It was really about this beast that
lives within us.
It was an amazing journey, I was really clear at the very the beginning
that it was the number that was going to feature me. But it wasn't
really until the number was done that I realized that Madonna was
not even intended to be on stage at all.
I though it was going to be a number that was going to be featuring
me and maybe she'd be standing up on a big platform or somewhere
else on stage, singing as we danced the song. But in the end it
was built as a full number for me.
And the other thing that was so great about it was the guy I ended
up doing the number with, Chris Childers, was one of the people
I suggested to Madonna when she asked me if I knew good dancers.
one of the first people that I mentioned, because Chris and I had
done all these jobs together.
We got cast together for a lot of jobs. When I realized that we
could have a whole dance scene for he and I it was just so perfect.
We dance alike, we trust each other so it was just awesome.
But it was a very hard choreography to do.
It was absolutely gruelling. Lifting him up and having him standing
on my back. It was a non stop eight minute number. I remember having
to do that number four times in a row to put the right lighting
and find the right camera angles. And even though it was rally hard
I know that when madonna was saying: Do it again, run it again"
she was making it perfect for me.
Then can we safely say that was your favourite number in the Girlie
Show or maybe there's another one you love a lot?
CW: Yes that was a great number for me.
There was another great one, Justify My Love. It starts
out really slow and women have big gowns. It was really great. There
was something great about the costumes. They originally came from
major movies and major shows that have been done, that Madonna rented
for the tour.
Well, speaking about costumes you had the chance to work in the
two Madonna tours that had major costume designers, Jean Paul Gaultier
and Dolce & Gabbana...
CW: Yes that was great. To look back at my career
and thinking about the great people I had the chance to meet during
Herb Ritts for example, he did some photos that were used in the
Truth Or Dare movie. I had really an opportunity to work
with some landmarks.
have been involved in different presentations of one particular
You were in the original video, the MTV Awards version,
the Blond Ambition and Girlie Show numbers. What
do you think about vogueing?
CW: Well as much as I know about it, and I don't
really know much about it, I think can be seen as a sort of "liberation"
for many young gay people. It can be liberating as it can let people
be what they are.
And I go for anything that allows people to honour the truth of
who they are. And that's what vogueing is about.
So what's your favourite performance of Vogue?
CW: The MTV one. That was
absolutely my favourite without question. Again, that level of production
had never been done on MTV. The costumes, the fans, drama.
MTV had just no idea, we just came out and rocked.
Usually the numbers that allow me to integrate acting are the ones
that work for me. The ones in which you have to get into a character.
had the chance to see the Blond Ambition backstage in Truth
Or Dare. But we don't know much about how was travelling during
the Girlie Show. Do you have a fondest memory of that?
CW: It was very different for me,
one because the entire experience of traveling around the world
like that was now a familiar thing to me. The first time it was
all new. I had never been on a private jet, never travelled with
the paparazzi after me. The second time I knew how to handle all
that. It was all much more comfortable and I felt more in my skin.
It was also a completely different dynamic because we had four female
dancers in the ensamble and the men that were in the Girlie
Show were more the guy type. So the Girlie Show for
me overall was much more enjoyable.
And there was a maturity in the performers. By the time Madonna
put together the Girlie Show a lot of those dancers had
already been working a lot. Luca, Chris and Carrie Ann had already
been doing a lot of stuff. You can trust those performers on stage
and you know if something goes a little weird you know you don't
have to get nervous with people like that around.
How did the Madonna public change from Blond Ambition to
the Girlie Show?
CW: I do remember the audience for the Girlie
Show being a bit older. By the time we did the Girlie Show
Madonna had a lot of different kind of projects to her career that
brought a different level audience. It was more an introspective
audience, more psychologically evolved.
MT: And what have you been up
two between the two Madonna tour?
CW: Well I worked with Janet Jackson, I did two
videos with her, one of them was Love Will Never Do Without
You directed by Herb Ritts. And basically the Blond Ambition
Tour and Truth or Dare opened a lot of other doors
My acting career started and I landed my first guest role in L.A.
Law. I remember when we finished the Blond Ambition Tour
Madonna and I used to have really nice cool conversations. I remember
we were on the plane, coming back and she said to me: "You
should pursue acting."
That was a specific conversation that she and I had and that's what
I went after which is also what I always wanted to do. When I was
in Chicago in the dance company I was taking acting classes. I was
much more interested in being an actor. My caerer has been really
interesting. I feel like the evolvement of my dance career really
just sort of happened. I feel I had more interest in having an acting
career but my dancing career happened first.
You are also working on a book. On your website you say it is the
most important thing you will be doing in your career.
CW: Well, the most corageous...
MT: What is the book about?
Is it about you?
CW: It is definitely about
me, it is really the journey of me coming from behind the scenes.
Although I've had nice acting roles I have not yet been in the position
to be in the forefront for a project completely, to lead the show.
In a way it is also a spiritual book. It's a combination of prose
and poetry. It's basically divided into five different sections.
In each section there's a theme and at the end of the prose the
theme is supported by poetry.
Each section ends with questions that the reader has to answer.
Questions that address the theme in relation to their own life.
It's that sort of spiritual book that will hopefully help other
people investigate themselves.
Let's say it's like a sort of your own version of Truth Or
Dare through a different medium...
CW: Yeah right. I never thought about
that, it's really interesting...
MT: When is the book going to be out in
CW: I'm intending for it to be out this coming
MT: So we'll see it the end of next year.
CW: No, hopefully by the Summer.
MT: Let's talk about your own talk-show, The
Carlton Connection. Your show is not only about stars but
also about people working behind the scenes...
MT: How the idea of a talk show came up?
CW: Well I like to talk a lot (laughs), that's
where it came from.
And honestly I'm a real investigator of life, I'm a Gemini.
So I'm intrigued with a lot of things and I'm always curious about
people, different kinds of people. I thought that was the best
format for me to investigate people. So that's how it started.
MT: Carlton, one last question, maybe the harder
one. What is you fondest memory of Madonna?
My fondest memory of Madonna has nothing to do with tours. My fondest
memory of Madonna happened in 1995 when I was having a really hard
time in my career, Madonna became aware of that and she allowed
me to live for a few months in the castle that she had in Hollywood.
I stayed there three months, she was out of town for the majority
of that time.
I will always be in debit to Madonna no matter what.
It was a real hard time for me and she reached out in a way she
really didn't have to. She could have helped me in other ways but
the fact that she truly, truly, let me know that she trusted me
in her personal space at that degree really meant a lot to me.
MT: That's awesome.
MT: Carlton, thanks a lot for this conversation
and for sharing a part of your life with us.
CW: Thanks a lot to you.
For more information about Carlton please visit his official
Pictures courtesy of Calrton Wilborn used by permission.
This interview © 2006 MadonnaTribe