Madonna’s ‘Make My Video’ MTV Contest Winner, 30 Years Later: Angel Gracia Still Feels ‘True Blue’
Thirty years ago, MTV actually played music videos. And the network played a lot of Madonna videos. So many, in fact, that it devoted an entire day — Oct. 30, 1986, also known as “Blue Thursday” — to Madge’s “Make My Video” contest, running a marathon of fan-made “True Blue” music videos that ranged from semi-professional film-school projects to amusingly amateurish camcorder clips of tots in ballet-recital tutus or tweens in Desperately Seeking Susan lace hair-bows lip-synching into hairbrushes. A week earlier, the top 10 contest entries even took over the cable channel’s regular Dial MTV countdown show, and one of those contenders — a sepia-toned depiction of ‘60s malt-shop romance, lensed by Venezuela-born, Miami-based college student Angel Gracia on a $600 budget — won the $25,000 grand prize, and became the official video for “True Blue” in the States. And MTV history was made.
“It’s a bit shocking, actually. S—, I’m getting old,” Gracia laughingly tells Yahoo Music when he realizes he won the “Make My Video” contest three whole decades ago, when he was just 21. Gracia credits “True Blue” with launching his legitimate film career, which has included shooting commercials and even working with Ridley Scott. But he recalls that his video almost didn’t make it past MTV’s submission process at all.
“I sent it in, but the day before the deadline, the tape was returned to me with no explanation,” he reveals. “So I threw a fit and asked my dad to please fly me to New York overnight, so I could hand-deliver this thing.” After landing in New York at 6 in the morning and looking up MTV’s Times Square address in the phone book (“There was no Internet then”), a determined Gracia pounded the Manhattan pavement until 9 a.m., waiting for MTV’s office to open.
“I walked downtown, freezing my ass throughout, drinking coffee, just to warm up and keep walking. By the time I made it to MTV, I had an overdose of caffeine; I was hyperventilating and sweating cold when I went up to the counter,” he chuckles. “I go to the secretary and with far more broken English than I have now, I tell her, ‘I came all the way from Miami to deliver this video, because it was sent back to me with no explanation. I worked very hard on this, so it has to be in the competition!’ I still remember her horrified look. So she picks up the phone and calls somebody, and then two somebodys come out looking scared. So she must have said, ‘This guy is just dying for you to grab this tape.’ So I give them the same speech, and they said, ‘Sure, we’ll take a look at it.’ And they took the tape.”
As a relieved Gracia exited MTV’s headquarters, mission accomplished, he spotted a FedEx truck outside being loaded with what appeared to be rejected videotapes. “Later I found out that when they reached 3,000 [contest entries], they couldn’t view them anymore — because they had to view them all, select 10, and play them for hours on rotation for fans to vote, and they physically couldn’t view more than 3,000. They had underestimated Madonna’s popularity! So when I won and I was back [at MTV], they showed me the room where the tapes were, and there was a mountain of them on the floor. I guess I was number 3,001.”
It’s understandable why Gracia was so desperate to make sure his video was considered; the aspiring director had indeed labored hard on this passion project. Teaming up with a slightly older filmmaker, Cliff Guest, whom he’d met while interning on a local low-budget horror flick, he pooled all of his resources to make the shoot happen. Guest and his friends donated equipment, including a homemade steadycam, to the cause. Coral Gables High in Miami granted Gracia use of the school’s entire drama department, and let him film on campus. (Gracia’s younger sister, Anabel, and her two drama-student friends played the leading roles.) A friend’s father lent the crew a 1957 Thunderbird convertible. And four days and 600 bucks later, Gracia and Guest had a winning video on their hands.
Gracia admits that while he was “obsessed with MTV” growing up and “watched it religiously,” he wasn’t a massive Madonna fan; his tastes leaned more towards progressive rock. “I was into Genesis and Queen and all that stuff,” he says. “Madonna was not on my radar… I almost felt bad [for winning], in the sense that I wasn’t a real fan, but then it felt good that I got it right without being a fan. And the fans voted for it, so it’s like a bittersweet thing.” Guest, however, “was a real fan of Madonna” — so he was even more nervous than Gracia to meet the pop star when the directorial duo awkwardly accepted the “Make My Video” prize in person.
“Make My Video” contest winners Angel Gracia and Cliff Guest with Madonna on MTV in 1986
“I was shocked and frozen to be on live TV for the first time in my life,” Gracia recalls. “You know, the strange thing is that they wanted us to meet Madonna live, so we didn’t get to meet her until we were on the air. She was behind a wall backstage, but we could hear her, and she sounded very bratty. Very squeaky voice. So the first shock is when you hear her and you have a bigger-than-life image of the person, then when she comes out, she’s like this little thing. It was kind of weird to see someone so big and so small at the same time.
“And she seemed nervous, too. So we’re all nervous. So she comes in and we meet her for like a minute before we go on the air. She has the microphone on and she sits next to us they ask her to do a mic check, and she screams into it — she goes, ‘Blah, blah, blah!’ I can only imagine the poor guy in the sound booth, getting his eardrums blown by this mic check. And then she looked at us and said, ‘I’m glad you guys did the video, because it was my favorite.’ She actually said that to us right before, and then 3, 2, 1 — Madonna! We were stuttering, and my friend was completely paralyzed. But that was the extent of our conversation with her.”
But that wasn’t the extent of Gracia’s run on MTV. While an alternate video for “True Blue” starring Madonna and her pal Debi Mazar aired overseas, Gracia’s version spent weeks in high rotation on America’s regularly scheduled Dial MTV countdown program. “We were always in the top two against the Bangles’ ‘Walk Like an Egyptian,’ a song which I hated because it was always competing against us. I hated the Bangles,” he laughs. And later, Geffen Records, hearing that Gracia and Guest had managed to shoot a decent music video on a meager three-figure budget, offered them “a deal for a year to do some of their low-budget acts, for about $10,000 per video — which for us was an upgrade!”
And eventually, Gracia came to appreciate Madonna’s similarly strong work ethic, too. “That’s a strength that she was able to reinvent herself over and over. I was always shocked every time she came out with a new album and a new look and a new style,” he says. “She’s a visionary. She knows where the music is going, and she surrounds herself with really talented people. She may not be the best singer in the world, but you don’t have to be. There’s something to be appreciated, the amount of work she puts into stuff.”
So, did Gracia ever cross paths with Madonna again, after their bizarre, fleeting on-air encounter 30 years ago? “I did meet her coincidentally at a party years later, whenever Michael Moore was nominated for the Oscars for Bowling for Columbine,” he recalls. “She shows up and she’s with Guy Ritchie and I was like, ‘Oh, s—. I have to talk to her. I can’t just not say anything.’ So I just walked up to her and I go, ‘Hi, I’m the kid from that 1986 music video. I just wanted to thank you, because you started my career.’ I remember her shock — she was looking at me, rewinding her brain, just trying to remember the whole thing.
“She said, ‘Oh, great.’ We didn’t talk much. I’ve exchanged words with Madonna twice in my life, and it’s always been a short sentence. I felt a bit stupid, like a fan trying to get a picture with her. But I had to get that in there: ‘Somehow, let me thank you. I owe you my career in some way.’”