Mayte and Me

It’s new-life, new-leaf time for the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. With his marriage to Mayte, a new record contract, and the success of his CD “Emancipation,” he’s in a free and (relatively) easy mood.

Eve MacSweeney

It’s midnight at SmashBox studios, in L.A.’s desolate Culver City. The team—photographer (napping), his two assistants, two stylists, hair, makeup, two record-company reps, and me—has assembled for the night ahead. The clothes—Helmut Lang, Gucci, Galliano (for him and her, and they share a shoe size)—have been hung on the racks, the jewelry laid out on the bench. We chit, we chat, we stroll back and forth for another canapé or Coca-Cola, but there’s suspense in the air. Everyone’s attention is subliminally fixed on the door at the far end of the studio, to which out eyes flicker repeatedly, as if expecting a hot wind to blow through.

With the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, who now goes by the slightly less chewy title of the Artist, there are more variables than with most. The man who scrawled SLAVE on his cheek during the final stages of disentanglement from his recording contract with Warner Bros. is clearly his own master now: Earlier in the day, he rescheduled a sedate Sunday afternoon session to this late hour, right after the Image Awards at the Pasadena Civic, where he was receiving a Key of Life special achievement award from Stevie Wonder. Besides, there’s no absolute guarantee that he will show, or for how long; that he will talk, or for how long. A couple of days before, he had posed for a photographer, then left after the first roll of film had been shot, not digging the vibe. He’s a night owl, his people tell us, and tonight he’ll be on a high. For the rest of us, it’s caffeine all the way.

Finally it happens. And it’s less a whirlwind than a light breeze as the Artist, his wife, Mayte, and one bodyguard walk quietly through the door and introduce themselves. The Artist is wearing a long feminine rollneck sweater and bell-bottoms, a pendant with a rendering of his name, O(+>, an elaborate silver sickle-moon cuff on top of one ear, and pink Cuban-heeled boots. Mayte, sleek and sexy, wears a one-shoulder Versace dress, a ponytail, an ankle bracelet, and a large rock on her fourth finger. Aaron, the bodyguard, who looks like a deflated version of a James Brown thug—young, shaved-headed, and Eastern European-looking, with an earpiece and the obligatory facial scar—gets straight on the phone. The Artist’s luggage was lost between Minneapolis and Los Angeles, and he’s trying to track it—I think I hear the word purple. A message has been discreetly conveyed, and the Sam Cooke that has been playing on the sound system is replaced with the Artist’s current triple CD, Emancipation, which at three hours long almost lasts us through the session. Mayte settles in for makeup, and I sit down with the Artist to talk.

After all the ripples that surround him, being one-on-one with the Artist is a bit like finding yourself in the eye of the storm. In conversation, he’s low-key and polite—not charming, exactly, but with flashes of warmth. Signs of the showmanship he displays onstage—his is the tightest, the most humorous and entertaining live act I’ve ever seen—occasionally break through his offstage wariness.

At first his eyes are on the wall, then he gets more animated and turns the kohl-rimmed beauties on me. (This, I gather, is a fairly recent breakthrough in the Artist’s interview etiquette.) Part of his relative openness these days is no doubt because these are happier times for him: He married Mayte, a 23-year-old Puerto Rican dancer, just over a year ago, and he’s signed a new record deal, on his terms, with EMI. (What’s particularly rankled him about his Warner Bros. contract was that he doesn’t own his own master recordings, and that the company rationed his musical output.) Emancipation, which he released at his own financial risk, has just gone double-platinum —“Not bad for someone whose career was supposed to be in the gutter,” he says, with a trace of bitterness. There’s a sense that he has come through an early midlife crisis—he has, after all, been a professional musician for half of his 38 years—in which he’s wrestled with success, ego, religion, and control, and struggled to come to some sort of resolution.

We start with this, and with what the word emancipation means to him.

"You have to emancipate people first from themselves,” he says. “Your ego want to have the biggest and best for yourself. But you have to think what path that would lead you down. You find nothing that satisfies you. You’re continually given things you’ve seen before —money, gold records, sold-out shows. You forget that you should be thankful.” Just when you’re gasping at this humility rap, he comes through with some humor. “Do you have to have a big ego to be an artist?” I ask. “If you do it right,” he says, and smiles.

The business with his name is in part a negation of ego, but the slave/emancipation riff is also more political than the Artist’s publicity machinery would have us believe. He talks about slave names. “Nel-son,” he enunciates. “I’ve been looking for the Nel in my family tree, and I don’t see one. You really do belong to something or someone, and until you get out from under that, you’re not free.” (Obviously the bank doesn’t tolerate these complexities: A check he later sends the magazine for ownership of these photos, which he insists on, is stamped with a no-nonsense P.R. NELSON.) He likes to roam the Internet, he tells me, under a name we’ll never know.

God has helped him, and so has Mayte. The Artist is very serious about God, and he’s very serious about sex. He expresses his amazement that anyone could accept an award and now find the time to thank God. “That’s how you can really tell what time it is,” he says. (And judging by the recent Grammys, God is at the top of a lot of artists’ lists these days.) As for sex, when I ask him how it feels to finally be free of his Warner Bros. deal, he tells me, “It’s like eighteen orgasms at once.” I laugh, but he’s not trying to be funny. Later we talk about Kamasutra, the ballet he is currently creating for Mayte. It is, he says, “perfect music to make love to.” And he means it.

"Mayte grounds me,” he says. “She doesn’t try to change me, but she makes me more aware of certain things. She’s given me respect for life. She’s brought in animals to the house—two dogs, two cats, two doves.” Together they’ve been working on a charity, Love 4 One Another, for underprivileged children and people in need.

The couple are very clean and green. Mayte, he says, has a vision of the future where kids will go to nightclubs not to drink or take drugs but just to chill and get into the music. And she’s converted her husband to a “complete vegetarian kick"—he talks of wanting to get a farmer on the payroll at Paisley Park.

The sadder element of their marriage—the fact that they apparently had a physically impaired son who died soon after birth—is off-limits, and is something that you sense the Artist has again made an effort of will and spirit too come to terms with. “When you have faith in God, you don’t have bad days,” he says at one point. When I ask if I can talk to Mayte, he demurs, saying that she’s had a lot to deal with lately.

The famous eyes are beginning to stray toward the door, so I wind up the questions. Then the fun begins in front of the camera. The Artist and Mayte try on clothes, falling about in hysterics at the sight of him in a red-and-white-leather biker-style Galliano jumpsuit. “You look like Eval Knievel,” she says. “They got some pretty weird clothes back there,” he tells me with a camp roll of the eyes, before getting back onto safer ground by pulling out his own array of trilbies and fedoras.

Visually they make and interesting couple: he so delicate, she with a dancer’s body, womanly curves, and a broad-planed, beautiful face. Physically, she’s relaxed and confident, at ease with herself. Posing together, she and the Artist throw shapes like a practiced double act, as though they do this every day in the mirror—and they probably do.

After three costume changes and a hundred variations of the embrace, the Artist sends the hairdresser out from under the lights to announce that they’re about to call it a night. He takes one more trip across the floor in those Cuban heels and, without looking at Aaron, holds a finger out toward him for his pendant. And they’re off.

Three weeks later, the Artist throws a private party at Manhattan’s Life club to celebrate Emancipation’s sales. It’s a cool scene, with black royalty gracing the small subterranean room, into which a Minneapolis DJ has been imported to spin the decks. Quincy Jones is here, and Spike Lee, Tony Rich, L.L. Cool J, and Savion Glover; industry big-wheels Guy Oseary, Dallas Austin, Motown’s Andre Harrell, and Def Jam’s Russell Simmons; and a smattering of white rock stars, such as Billy Corgan, Marilyn Manson, and Joan Osborne, whose song about God, “One of Us,” is covered on Emancipation. Lenny Kravitz arrives with much ado in an enormous hat and shades. The Artist, dressed in red, moves through the crowd, with Aaron in discreet attendance, taking in the jazzed-up, low-key vibe until 6 A.M.

Everywhere he goes, he is smiling, smiling.