Singer and dancer Madonna (Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, born 1958) was a master marketer and sensational self-promoter who propelled herself to stardom, dominating pop charts, concert halls, film, and music video. She has been called "an outrageous blend of Little Orphan Annie, Margaret Thatcher, and Mae West," and "narcissistic, brazen, comi…. the Goddess of the Nineties."
Born in August 1958, Madonna Ciccone was the third child of six in a Catholic family living in Bay City, Michigan. Her father, Tony, a design engineer for Chrysler/General Dynamics, was a conservative, devout Roman Catholic and a first-generation Italian American. Madonna's mother and namesake was of French-Canadian descent. She died of breast cancer when Madonna was five years old.
Tony Ciccone moved the family to Pontiac, Michigan, and married one of the women hired to care for the Ciccone household. The adjustment was difficult for Madonna as the eldest daughter. She had considered herself the "lady of the house" and had received much of her father's affection and attention.
In her younger school years Madonna acted in school plays. As she entered adolescence, Madonna discovered her love and talent for dancing, an activity she pursued under the direction and leadership of Christopher Flynn, her private ballet instructor. Dedicated and disciplined, Madonna worked hard, but played hard as well, something Flynn made easy by introducing her to the disco nightlife of downtown Detroit.
Despite the glamour and sophistication she developed with Flynn, who was more than 20 years older than she, neither Madonna's extracurricular activities nor her father's disapproval kept her from caring for her younger siblings and working hard in school. She graduated early from high school with mostly "A's" and was awarded a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan. She stayed two years before going to New York City in 1978 with $37 and a wealth of determination and ambition.
An apartment in an East Village tenement building surrounded by crime and drugs was the place from which she began her steady and focused climb to superstardom. Her first jobs included figure modeling for artists and acting in low budget movies. She danced briefly with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, studied for a time with Pearl Lang of the Martha Graham Dance group, and went to Paris as a short-lived singer/dancer with French disco artist Patrick Hernandez.
Before she left for Paris, Madonna had developed a fascination with the music field. It started with rock and roll, playing drums and singing backup in several small bands. When she returned to New York she spent a lot of time writing songs, making demonstration tapes, and hanging out in such popular lower-Manhattan nightclubs as the Roxy and Danceteria. It was a simple, four-track demo called "Everybody" that earned Madonna a recording contract with Sire Records in October 1982.
The album Madonna sold few copies when it was first released in July 1983. However, repeated club performances and radio air-play of several cuts from the album eventually earned her three huge hits with "Holiday," "Lucky Star," and "Borderline." A flurry of chart-busting hits, videos, concert tours, and films followed. She seemed to have a Midas-like quality with most everything she did. Even a brief singing performance in a largely forgettable film, Vision Quest, resulted in the top-five love ballad "Crazy for You."
Her second album, Like a Virgin, released in late 1984, produced two number one hits—the title track and "Material Girl." Madonna was becoming an accomplished songwriter; she had written five of the songs herself. During the spring of 1985 she embarked on her first concert tour, which was so successful that she had to switch to larger venues as the tour progressed. On the heels of Like a Virgin came the detective/comedy film Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985 (directed by Susan Seidelman and co-starring Madonna and Rosanna Arquette), which spawned another popular single and video, "In the Groove."
The tour had thousands of teenage girls all over the country tying lace bows on top of their heads, wearing underwear as outerwear, and walking the halls of schools and shopping malls as "Madonna wannabees." Madonna had become an icon as much as a singer to her fans.
Madonna was married briefly to actor Sean Penn from August 1985 to early 1989; it was a marriage with many well chronicled ups and downs. In 1986 she released her third album, True Blue, from which three singles topped the charts: "Papa Don't Preach," about a pregnant teen who wants to keep her child; the title track, a light "girl loves boy" tune; and "Live to Tell," a soulful ballad from the soundtrack of At Close Range starring Sean Penn. In 1987 a movie starring Madonna called Who's That Girl was largely ignored, unlike the accompanying soundtrack and concert tour.
The release of Like A Prayer coincided with the breakup of her marriage, and included a fare-thee-well written by Madonna entitled "Till Death Do Us Part." However, it was the video of the title song portraying Madonna's confession to a priest followed by engaging in sexually suggestive behavior with him that caused a stir in the Catholic Church. The controversy resulted in a disagreement over a $5 million endorsement contract with the Pepsi company. Controversy again surrounded Madonna in 1990 when she was banned from M-TV before 11 p.m. with the sexually explicit video "Justify My Love."
Other films featuring Madonna include Shanghai Surprise (1986), in which she co-starred with then-husband Sean Penn; Dick Tracy (1989), the film that launched her short-lived affair with Warren Beatty and also was accompanied by a Madonna-sung soundtrack; and Truth or Dare, her own feature-length video/documentary compiled of footage from her Blonde Ambition Tour of 1990-1991. Madonna also appeared in Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own (1992); and she co-starred with Willem Dafoe in Body of Evidence (1993). Each work contained some form of "out-there" sexuality that titillated her fans, and kept the press and critics focused on her.
By 1992 Madonna had established herself as a worldwide entertainer and a sharp, confident business woman. In April of that year she signed a $60 million contract with Time-Warner, which included a multi-media package with her own record company (under the Maverick label), HBO specials, videos, films, books, merchandise, and more than six albums.
The announcement of the seven-year deal was timed with the combined release of the album Erotica, an extended video, and a coffee table picture book called Sex. The book can only be purchased by adults and comes in a Mylar, vacuum-sealed cover. It has scores of black and white photographs by fashion photographer Steven Meisel. Madonna appears mostly without clothes in compromising positions with everything from men and women (in all combinations, positions, and numbers) to chairs, dogs, and slices of pizza. She was even shown hitch-hiking in Miami wearing nothing but high heels. The book was a sellout across the country.
A perfect example of the paradox represented by the serious and the playful Madonna all in one, Sex was published at the same time as The Madonna Connection, a series of scholarly essays by academics who had been tracking the phenomenon of the Material Girl for several years.
Madonna's career evolved with phases and images distinct and carefully planned. There was her lacy underwear, big hair, and black jewelry phase (her self-described "chubby" phase, as she referred to it in an M-TV anniversary program); then the 1940s and 1950s sultry, sleek glamour phase reminiscent of Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe; the lean dancer; the businesswoman; and the unashamed, uninhibited sex goddess. Each phase seemed to be accompanied by a different lover, including Chicago Bulls' bad boy Dennis Rodman in the spring of 1994.
Part of Madonna's genius was to recognize when the mood of her audience changed. In the late 1994 release of Bedtime Stories, written primarily by Madonna, a new image emerged projecting a softer eroticism and more soulful sound. By the mid-1990s she seemed more intent on establishing herself as a serious artist than making headlines with yet another boyfriend. She set her sights on playing the leading role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's movie musical Evita, and after repeated auditions convinced producers that she would bring a unique understanding to the portrayal of Eva Peron. Like Eva Peron, Madonna was a strong, willful woman who mesmerized her followers and also felt misunderstood by her critics.
Madonna was in the midst of personal as well as professional change. In her personal life, she settled into a relationship with Carlos Leon, her personal trainer. Meanwhile, in 1995, she accepted an industry award for Most Fashionable Artist as well as VH1's Viewer's Choice award for Most Fashionable Artist, and in December of 1996, Billboard magazine's Artist Achievement Award.
Her determination to play the staring role in Evita paid off. While the film—and her performance—received mixed reviews, no one could take away her dedication, hard work, or box office success. In January 1997 Madonna was nominated for and won the Best Actress Award at the 54th Annual Golden Globe Award Ceremony. Later that spring, the song "You Must Love Me" from Evita won the Academy Award for Best Song. The film's premier in late 1995 was upstaged in October when Madonna gave birth to a girl named Lourdes Maria Ciccone Leon. Madonna described the event to People magazine as, "the greatest miracle of my life." She even traded in her pink Hollywood mansion for a home in a low key suburb of Los Angeles.
The Material Girl turned serious actress, singer, song writer and mom appeared to have it all in the late 1990s. She accepted it all—including the stress of living a fish-bowl existence—with characteristic calm, as if she were planning the next phase. She told Time magazine, "I never wish I had a different life. I am lucky to be in the position of power that I am in and to be intelligent…. It's not my nature to just kick back."
Most of the published information on Madonna is found in newspapers and magazines. See New York Daily News (May 31, 1985); People (May 13, 1985); The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul (1989); USA Today (April 21, 1992); New Yorker (October 26, 1992); New York Times Book Review (October 25, 1992); Newsweek (November 2, 1992); Nation (December 14, 1992); Entertainment Weekly (April 15, 1994; September 22, 1995); Esquire (August, 1994); People (April 29, 1996; October 28, 1996; December 30, 1996); Billboard (November 16, 1996; December 16, 1995); New York Times (March 24, 1997); and Forbes (September 23, 1996). □
Learn more about Madonna