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Visitors to Madonna's $6.5 million Beverly Hills mansion on a recent afternoon could stroll through and behold master-works by Picasso, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and...resident artist Lourdes Leon, age 6. Alas, Lourdes belongs to the enfant terrible school of art, which has her famous mom clenching her teeth in frustration. "My daughter spilled black paint on the bedroom rug," says a stressed Madonna. "We're not really sure how it happened. She was left alone for two minutes, and, well, it's not pretty." So where is her husband, British film director Guy Ritchie? "He's upstairs, working on a script," she says. "I'm much more the disciplinarian of the house, although Guy is getting more involved." Then, flashing a playful grin, she adds, "I'd have to fire him as a dad if he didn't get more involved. I can't be the hard one all the time."

Madonna, looking to soften her image? Chalk it up to motherhood, marriage—and mysticism. "I am in a very good place; it's all good," says the singer, dressed casually in a sleeveless blouse and khaki capris and sipping an iced blended chai tea in her cozy music room. Which isn't to say that she's about to join the minivan-driving Mommy and Me masses any time soon. Taut and toned at 44, Madonna is still a master provocateur, posing for recent fashion photos with her legs stretched behind her head, filming (and then yanking) a controversial antiwar music video for a new album, American Life, and still generating tabloid headlines on two continents. But with two kids and a husband with whom she says she is "deeply" in love, it's clear that Madonna has mellowed. A lot. "Barbie fashion shows are a big deal in this house," she says, nodding at Lourdes, who is frolicking in the yard. "We get invited up to her room. She passes out tickets. The whole thing."

When Madonna starts talking Barbies, even Skipper knows that something's up. "She is softer, warmer, more compassionate, more open and more secure," says Rabbi Eitan Yardeni, who has been tutoring the singer in Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, for seven years. "The transformation is amazing," adds her friend and manager, Caresse Henry, a member of Madonna's inner circle for 14 years. "It started with the birth of her daughter, but after she met Guy [in '98], everything really changed."

Has it ever. These days the pop star has adopted a laid-back domestic life—split between a 7,000-sq.-ft. L.A. home and a 1,200-acre estate in Dorset, England. "Our whole life is based around the children," she says of Lourdes (whose dad is Madonna's ex, personal-trainer-turned-actor Carlos Leon) and Rocco, her 2-year-old son with Ritchie, 34. "We get up with them in the morning. I get my daughter ready for school. I spend time with my son before he goes off to his daycare. Either Guy or I am always with them at dinner, and we spend evenings together." And don't forget the occasional sing-alongs with her husband. "Guy's favorite thing to do is sit around the campfire and sing," she says. "Kumbaya" it isn't. "It usually involves beer," she adds. "And we do the ballad of 'Mattie Groves,' a Scottish folk song about a woman who cheated on her husband and he killed her. It's a nice little ditty."

Don't bother reading between the lines. Recent talk of trouble in the couple's 2½-year marriage "is totally absurd," says Madonna. What about the tabloid report that Ritchie gave her a black eye? "So dumb." She is quick to shoot down other rumors as well. Is she pregnant? "No, but I'd like to have more kids." Does she hate London? "That's just English journalists grumbling." And come to think of it, why is the former Blonde Ambition star now a brunette? "I was born a brunette," she says. "Every once in a while, I try to experience my natural hair color."

More significant is the fact that Madonna is finally easing up on her famed yoga intensity. "I really pushed myself," she says of her seven-day-a-week "obsession." (She now practices four days a week.) "I could've been a member of Cirque du Soleil. It got to the point where I didn't have a glass of wine and I had to go to bed early because everything was around my yoga." Which isn't to say that the star, who follows a macrobiotic diet, is any less disciplined. "Toast is a splurge on a macrobiotic diet," she says. "And french fries."

If fries count as an occasional indulgence, then TV and Web surfing are definite no-no's. "I don't have time for that tomfoolery," Madonna says with a laugh. Though she's a fan of Eminem and Missy Elliot, she has never watched American Idol nor had she ever tuned into NBC's Will & Grace before agreeing to an April 24 guest appearance. ("For fun," she says. "To say I did a sitcom.") Instead the singer funnels much of her energy into the study of Kabbalah, which examines God, creation and the role of human beings. So what's a nice Catholic girl doing in temple? "Getting answers to my questions about life," she says. "The core of Kabbalah is the same as Christianity, and that's to love your neighbor as you love yourself. The difference, at least for me, is that Kabbalah gives me the tools to apply that to my life." The philosophy has taught her other things. "The soul of everyone is good," adds Madonna. "What's not good is the ego. And all the ego is Satan trying to control you. Your job in life is trying to control the Satan in you."

Since first visiting the Beverly Hills Kabbalah Center in '96 with a friend, Madonna has become an avid pupil, along with Ritchie and Lourdes. "He understands there are laws of the universe one has to live their life by," she says of her husband. "That's the glue that will hold us together."

Of course, there are—ahem—other factors at work as well. Sex in her 40s "is better than ever," she says, then notes in mock horror, "Oh my God! Is that going to be a caption? Oh well. I'm a very passionate person, and when you really love someone, the sex and love is going to be great."

Not so great, on the other hand, was the public reception of Swept Away, the couple's critically panned film that was pulled from theaters only three weeks after its release. "Everybody wants to know, 'God, weren't you really bummed out by the reaction?' Yes, I was," she says. "But did it affect my relationship with my husband? No. If our relationship couldn't have handled the failure of that movie, what would have been the basis of it?" Besides, she says they had fun filming it. "Contrary to what people think," she says, "I take direction very well."

Then again, she has always been her own best navigator. One of six children born to Madonna Ciccone, a homemaker who died when the future star was only 5, and Tony, 71, a former auto engineer, Madonna Louise Ciccone grew up outside Detroit and moved to New York City in 1978 after dropping out of the University of Michigan. "I thought everything was about having everyone adore you," she says. "I came to New York dreaming of becoming a professional dancer and somehow I fell into music. Everything following that was like, 'Oh my God! What's happening to my life?' You get caught up in that."

The next two decades in Madonna's life are well documented: the tumultuous four-year marriage to Sean Penn in the mid-'80s, the romance with Warren Beatty, the nude photos in her '92 Sex book. Throughout "I wondered if she would meet the man who would help her have all the things money couldn't buy," says pal Henry. "I wondered if she'd let someone in."

Enter Ritchie, whom Madonna met at a garden luncheon hosted by Sting's wife, Trudie Styler. Having split from boyfriend Carlos Leon two years earlier, Madonna was instantly drawn to Ritchie, the London-bred son of John, a retired advertising exec, and his ex-wife, Lady (Amber) Leighton. "He had an incredible light around him," she says. Plus, "he was not intimidated by me. I felt the sparks. He did too."

For the next year, Madonna says, "we did everything we could to make it not happen." Why? "You go into denial," she muses. "You say, 'Oh no, I'm not ready for that.' " But eventually they dropped the act, and in August 2000 they welcomed Rocco. Four months later they married at Scotland's Skibo Castle. "My wedding was a great day," she says. "A fairy tale."

Not that marriage has always been happily ever after. "I think it's a lot different than what we expected," she says. "Guy and I have done a lot of growing up in the last few years, and we understand that marriage is about having shared goals. We have things we each want to do, but we're clear that partnership comes first." As do the kids. "She's definitely a hands-on mother," says choreographer James King. "We'd be in the middle of rehearsal on the Drowned World tour and, say, in the middle of doing 'Holiday,' Lourdes would come in and Madonna would stop everything and ask what kind of day she had at school."

Even if Swept Away was just that, Ritchie and "the Missus" continue to collaborate unofficially. Just as Madonna reads every draft of Ritchie's scripts, she played him numerous versions of each song on American Life. It was Ritchie who bought Madonna her first acoustic guitar three years ago. "It was like a whole new world," says Madonna about composing on guitar. "I'm a late bloomer, but hey, better late than never." The songs on her lush new album explore her personal evolution as a result of marriage, motherhood and Kabbalah, or as she says, "the nitty-gritty and what is important." The title track, she says, is a reflection on the meaning of her own success. "I symbolize the American dream, someone who came from nothing and then supposedly had everything. But did I? Is the American dream everything? I think the answer is no. There's more."

Not only that, but the former Material Girl—whose personal fortune is estimated at more than $300 million—says she has changed her tune. "Don't get me wrong. It's fabulous I have these beautiful homes and paintings," she says. "But the most important thing in life is love. I know it sounds corny, but everybody knows it's true."

As warm and fuzzy as that sounds, the "American Life" video is considerably less so. Just before it was set to air on VH1, Madonna pulled the video, in which she is shown lobbing a cigar lighter shaped like a hand grenade at a President Bush lookalike. Yanking it "was probably the right thing to do," says Rick Krim, an executive vice president at VH1. Given the recent Dixie Chicks brouhaha, he adds, "we're in a volatile state and this clip probably could have ignited some of those reactions." For her part, Madonna says she had a change of heart about the video after the war in Iraq began: "Children, brothers, wives and sons were over there and people at home were worrying about them," she says. "I'd be putting salt in their wounds."

For now, Madonna is looking ahead, hoping to make another movie—"There's a completely original musical I want to do, a bit of an extravaganza"—and trying not to scrutinize herself too closely. "Every once in a while, I see a little wrinkle on my face and I go, 'Bummer,' " she says. "But whenever I look in the mirror and get a little too critical of myself I go, 'Stop it.' I'm not going to get caught up in thinking you have to stay eternally young and perfect. I am what I am." Thus far, she says she hasn't undergone any plastic surgery or Botox, but "never say never. Is plastic surgery for me? I don't know. I don't like the idea of someone putting you to sleep and then taking knives to you."

Nor is she wild about frequent press speculation that she is having another baby. "My pregnancies are always a bit more tension-filled than other people's because I spend the first five months hiding them. When everyone does find out, it's a hailstorm." Both children were delivered by cesarean. "Eww," she recalls. "Neither of them were pleasant experiences."

Now, well, it's dinnertime, and Lourdes and Rocco are sitting at a stainless-steel kitchen table munching pasta that's been whipped up by a personal chef. "How is it?" she asks. "Good," they both reply. Lourdes, Madonna notes, "is 6 going on 16." It's an age her mom remembers well. "At one point I only cared about clothes and boys and french fries," she says. "I've grown. I've discovered things I had no idea of when I was in my 20s." Among them: the value of inner peace—and the fact that fashion trendsetting is best left to those with more youthful Blonde Ambition. "I don't want people to dress like me anymore," she says. "Now I want them to think like me. Dress like Britney Spears and think like me, and everything will be fine."

Michelle Tauber
Todd Gold in Los Angeles and Elizabeth McNeil in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Todd Gold,
  • Elizabeth McNeil.