What Michael Portillo can learn from Madonna and Koo

The last time I saw Koo Stark, she was talking about the size of her post-pregnancy breasts to a captivated businessman. It was at one of our weekly New Statesman lunches, and the rest of the table stared on, mesmerised, as Koo prattled about lactating bosoms and post-partum libido. At her side, the sober-suited chap was trying his damnedest not to drool on his broccoli and cod. His heroic efforts at self-control evaporated, however, when he thanked me afterwards. "Breast lunch I've ever had," he enthused - and then beat a red-faced retreat.

Koo is an effortless scene-stealer. The same is true, if on a rather larger scale, of Madonna. Yet although they both reduce all the competition into insignificant cameo roles, women have a soft spot for the two fortysomething molls. These show-stoppers are proof that women need never accept the role in which society has tried to cast them, but can reinvent themselves in whatever way they want.

Once upon a time, women could not shed a reputation. If you'd been seen - let alone snapped by Hello! - on a playboy prince's arm, or provocatively posing nude in a book called Sex, you were typecast for ever as a loose woman, a good-time girl whom no one could take seriously - not even yourself. Those were the days when women swung from Madonna to whore in the course of a one-night stand or the click of a porn photographer's camera.

Compromising situations were just that - incidents that unravelled a lifetime of peerless propriety or dedicated professionalism. It didn't matter that you'd played Mother Teresa for 20 years: if you were caught discussing Ugandan relations with a man who was not your husband, there'd be hell to pay - or at least snubs to bear and abuse to hear. Those women who rebelled at being polarised between the goody-goody and the scarlet woman were seen as eccentric lady travellers, or moustachioed lesbian writers, who had to flee to the hills of Manchuria or to a garret on the Rive Gauche.

No more. Koo may have acted in a soft-porn film and served Prince Andrew as arm candy, but now she is a photographer with a big exhibition coming up, and a single mum to boot. Madonna may have grabbed her groin in front of an audience of millions and acted the spoilt starlet when she was Mrs Sean Penn, but now she's reconquering the world with a new concert tour, and playing happy couples with Guy Ritchie and her two children.

Along the way, the women have picked up and shed more than a few men, and Madonna has made herself a fortune; Koo has found his holiness the Dalai Lama, and Madonna the holistic well-being of yoga. What is important, however, is that, through these permutations and reincarnations, we take them seriously.

You may smile at the mention of Koo Stark and fondly remember the Sun headline "Koo! She's starkers" which accompanied the tabloid's rehashing of her soft-porn film stills; you may smirk at the thought of the Material Girl with her cone-shaped breasts of steel now transfigured into a model mama and wife. And yet their determination to step out of earlier moulds, to trade in one image for another, has triggered a surprising capacity in us to accept their new selves. We don't mind allowing these women's colourful pasts to blur into an unimportant backdrop, less a compromising history of which to be ashamed than an entertaining narrative to lend them an emotional hinterland. If we cannot forget their indiscretions, we can at least see them in perspective: Michael Portillo ought to take note, and heave a sigh of relief.

So women will join the men flocking to Koo's exhibition and Madonna's concert: we are grateful to them for showing us that no one need accept the box they are put in. No, not even women.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The slow death of Tory England