W

Right upfront in her letter in W's June issue, editor Julie L. Belcove admits that some of the magazine's recent photo layouts have been called "spectacular--and spectacularly self-indulgent.''

Spectacularly self-indulgent is inadequate, but begins to describe this month's 58-page portfolio by photographer Steven Klein of Madonna, the 47-year-old Material Girl, in "an abstract dance with six stallions.''

Wait a minute--a dance with stallions? Isn't that slightly off-brand for her? Wasn't there just something in the news last week about Madge kicking off her Confessions Tour by popping up on a life-sized mirrored cross wearing a crown of thorns?

Jesus, not that old crown of thorns thing again! And is she dragging out that crucifixion imagery one mo' time (with the added, mirrored disco element?) It's so 1983! At least this horse motif allows for slightly more traction, provocation-wise. For W, ''horsey'' has an upper-class connotation. While Lady Madonna was recently injured riding on her English estate, more important to this shoot is the obvious bondage potential (although I'm not sure many equestriennes wear latex rubber shorts from house of harlot.com or a crop from the Eros Boutique.)

Mostly, the whole setup seems to suggest that, yes, having outgrown every possible permutation of human-to-human sex (feel free to count the ways), Madge seems to have graduated, like Catherine the Great, to stallions.

Indeed, there's a shot showing the ever-confessional one lying on her back, on top of the horse, in a Los Angeles (sound stage) stable, seemingly satisfied, smoking a cigarette.

In the cover photo, she is shown in fishnets and hat, biting the riding crop--channeling Marlene Dietrich. Here's the problem with spectacularly self-indulgent: no matter how good any of the photos are, it's impossible to sustain interest for 58 pages. So the first 12 are given over to moody shots of the gorgeous animal emerging from the sea--very art school. There are a couple of shots that get at the nature of discipline and control between human and stallion, which are more interesting, in a Misfits sort of way. But the ones that go for sex and shock get pretty tiresome. This whole lying-on-top-of-the-horse thing is plain awful. It suggests that the horse is sick or dead; I thought of Barbaro, sadly.

Then M herself approximates a horse (including wearing a bridle on her face with custom silverwork and stonework, natch.) She sits on her haunches wearing a floor-length silky tail dangling from the back of her hat. Beastly-girl also exposes her back, as we see her looking at a bunch of horse's asses.

Don't cry for me, Palomino? I admire W for giving over so many pages to an art project, but in the end, it's just not that interesting. (As he took the still shots, by the way, Klein also shot video for her tour, which are part of the screen projections.)

Still, I found many of the smaller pieces upfront brightly written, and the profiles are great. I particularly enjoyed the piece on Amy Sedaris, (David's sister, who plays the character of Jerri Blank, a 40s-ish, wide-hipped woman who returns to high school, on "Strangers with Candy,'' the cult hit on Comedy Central.) The movie version of "Strangers'' will be coming out soon, and while others might try to promote their part, Sedaris instead talks about the problems with the fat suit, her blank mind, and her dental surgery: ''I was stretching my stitches to do Jerri's overbite, so it wasn't really healing properly. I had a lot of setbacks, you might say.''

Less practical than In Style, W is more sophisticated in a haute- fashiony, Euro-naughty way. There are also many pages of photos of social events, which are great for checking in on what people like Lillian von Stauffenberg are wearing these days.

In the end, this issue of W also demonstrates that no matter the contest, or context, whomever she poses with, Madonna, the ultimate publicity hound, conquers all.

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