"Manipulating people, that’s what I’m good at." Madonna says it matter-of-factly. and smiles. Her upper lip stretches taut across her wide mouth, her teclh flash, and she laughs. The laugh says she’s making a joke, and you’re not meant to believe it. But the eyes tell you to believe. The wide round eyes, staring innocently but urgently at you implore you to believe her. She is serious. She’s a serious girl.
Madonna wants desperately to be a star. A big star. Having a Number One single and a Number Two LP in the US, as she did in December, is nowhere near enough. She got in trouble for saying on American TV that her ultimate goal was to rule the world. She says to me instead that it is "to stand next to God." and laughs. But I believe her.
There is something special about her. It has little to do with her singing, which is indifferent, nor her dancing, which is merely proficient, nor her fashion sense, which we can summarise best perhaps by saying she is a fast learner. It has something to do with the beauty and sexuality she radiates, but even more, it is the effect of her extraordinary personality. Madonna is a strange, uniquely American creation: on the outside she is all ambition and determination, raw will to succeed. But on the inside, like a grain at the centre of a pearl, is a strange and unexpected fragility. The tension between these two makes Madonna a fascinating, even irresistible character; one who. it is all too easy to believe, is destined for the success she craves.
Possibly she will do it as a pop star, you feel but perhaps more likely, as an actress. And there are some people in New York who are saying she will be the next Marilyn Monroe …
"Madonna is a child-woman," says Maripol, her French-born clothes designer. "She is fun and joyful, but she is also a femme fatale. She is vulnerable – but then she’s not that vulnerable. She’s not tough exactly – but she’ll survive through anything. She’s a natural star. She is born to stardom."
What she was born to, in fact, was a large lower-middle-class Italian-American family in industrial Detroit, Michigan. The Ciccones might have been a very happy family, if Madonna’s mother hadn’t died early on of cancer, tragically misdiagnosed by the doctors. Young Madonna was only seven at the time and her world was shattered. Her father couldn’t cope with taking care of six children and holding down his engineering job, working on defence systems for the Chrysler Corporation, so the children were sent off to live with various relatives.
After several months of shuttling from relative to relative. Madonna’s father hired a lousckeeper and all the children were able to eturn home. But for Madonna there was no :oing back to the stability of earlier days. Her father went through a succession of housekeepers, none of whom Madonna remembers liking. He eventually married one of them, when Madonna was ten.
"My father’s marriage was a surprise to us because we all thought he was going to marry someone else who looked very much like our mother, and we were rooting for her. She looked sorta like Natalie Wood, or that’s what 1 thought she looked like when I was a child. But then suddenly he didn’t marry her … I wasn’t that fond of my stepmother. She was really gung-ho, very strict, a real disciplinarian."
Without getting excessively,Freudian about it, it seems fair to say that Madonna’s childhood experiences have a lot to do with the fragility and insecurity which Madonna exudes. But at the same time, she was a fighter. And the struggle to win the love she sought from her father, in competition with her stepmother and the seven other children in the house, turned the little girl into a very precocious young woman:
"From when I was very young, I just knew that being a girl and being charming in a feminine sort of way could get me a lot of things, and I milked it for everything I could."
The strict discipline of her Catholic school education reinforced Madonna’s feelings of being lonely and unloved – she describes Catholicism as "dark, painful and guilt-ridden" – and responded by becoming an even more flamboyant attention-getter.
"I wanted to do everything everybody told me I couldn’t do. I had to wear a uniform to school, I couldn’t wear make-up, I couldn’t wear nylon stockings, I couldn’t cut my hair, I couldn’t go on dates. I couldn’t even go to the movies with my friends. So when I’d go to school I’d roll up my uniform skirt so it was short, I’d go to the school bathroom and put make-up on and change into nylon stockings I’d brought. I was incredibly flirtatious and I’d do anything to rebel against my father."
Her craving for attention led her into performing. At school, she was a cheerleader and a baton-lwirlcr, but soon became more ambitious:
"Every chance to make up a little song and dance routine, I took advantage of it, and I always got standing ovations. Finally I decided to devote myself professionally to it. I started taking ballet classes with a really strict ballet teacher – he was very Catholic and disciplined. He’s the one who really inspired me. He kept saying ‘you’re different’ and ‘you’re beautiful’. He never said I’d make a great dancer, he just said you’re very special."
Dance and performing provided the outlet for her energies that she was seeking, and filled the voids she felt.
"I never had a group of friends in school. I kept to myself and did what I wanted to do. But it bothered me. I think I was lonely in lots of ways. And when I latched onto the dance thing, I was with older and more sophisticated people. I fell really superior. I just felt that all this suffering that I felt for not fitting in is worth it – I don’t fit in because I don’t belong here, I thought. I belong in some special world."
Madonna talks about the the development of her extrovert, showbiz ’sex-kitten’ persona with an almost clinical detachment. It is as if she too is amazed that such a lonely little girl could grow such a rock hard outer layer of ambition. But grow it she did, and by her late teenage years, the determination to be a star utterly eclipsed everything else in her life.
I asked Madonna if, as a Catholic, she found it difficult deciding to lose her virginity.
"Oh no. I thought of it as a career move."
Laughter – and again those wide eyes which refuse to let you take it as just another joke.
At 17 Madonna set off in search of her special world – she went to New York. "It was the first plane ride of my life. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have a place to stay, and 1 only had $35 in my pocket."
Times were rough at first. She moved around constantly, was often broke, and didn’t really enjoy the dance schools she enrolled in. But she graduated to the world of rock’n'roll, sensing that it held out the best possibilities for stardom.
The story of her rise to fame has such a methodical inevitability, you’d think it was written in Hollywood. Indeed, Madonna’s story would have made a far better film than the actual Flashdance. In New York she met a boy named Dan, who persuaded her to join his rock band and move in with him. He taught her to play guitar and write music. Then a boy named Steve, an old boyfriend from Detroit, whom she bumped into by chance in New York, inspired her to take her music in a disco direction, and to make some demo tapes.
Her next boyfriend introduced her to New York’s thriving "new wave" nightclub scene. Madonna developed an interest in trendy fashion and became one of New York’s "night people". She went to the trendy discos nearly every night, and told everybody she met that she wanted to be – was going to be – a big star.
It was in the NY clubs that she developed her own dress style, one which is still with her. Picture it as a wrestling match between knitwear and lingerie, with major damage sustained on both sides. She makes up for the skimpiness of her garments with a stunningly excessive collection of jewellery, mostly in metal and rubber, much of it with a strong Catholic motif (crucifixes and rosaries in places which would give nuns apoplexy). The jewellery – from Maripolitan on Bleecker St. – is mi/ch the best bit, and you don’t need to have the body of Madonna to wear it.
Mark Kamins. DJ at Danceteria, met her in those days: "Madonna was special – young and a little bit naive. She had her own style -always with the little bellybutton showing, the net top, and the stockings. But she always knew what she wanted to do. She had a tremendous desire to perform for people. When she’d start dancing, there’d be twenty people getting up and dancing with her."
It was Mark Kamins – yes, he was a boyfriend too – who gave her her first big break. She persuaded him to play her demo cassette at Danceteria one Saturday night. The song was "Everybody". Mark loved it and so did the club regulars. He took it round to the record companies. Sire immediately signed her to make three 12-inch dance-orientated singles. Once again it was as much her personality as her music ability that got her the record deal.
Seymour Stein, the president of Sire Records, is one of the shrewdest and most discerning figures in the New York music business. Not known as a sucker for pretty young girls, he nevertheless was struck by Madonna’s "specialness".
"I was in hospital when I heard about Madonna. From what I’d heard I wanted to meet her immediately. So Mark Kamins brought her in and I signed the contract there, right in the hospital. You know, you normally don’t care what you look like when you’re in hospital. But I shaved, I combed my hair. I got a new dressing gown. From what I’d heard, I was excited to meet Madonna. And there was something that set her apart immediately. She was outgoing, strong, dynamic …"
"Oh no, I’d say … self-assured."
The first two singles, "Everybody" and "Burning Up", were big disco hits, but. with very low-key promotion, made only a slight impact in the pop charts. At this stage, many of Madonna’s disco fans actually believed she was black. Her success in the discos convinced Sire, and their parent company Warner Brothers, to release an LP with the third single and to wheel out the big promotional guns, which are vital for breaking into the pop charts in America,
The single, "Holiday", went Top 20 and became a summer anthem in America. It is perhaps the quintessential Madonna song – a catchy tunc and a disco beat wrapped in a crisp New York production, elegantly straddling all the racial and stylistic boundaries that compartmentalise the American charts.
And that was without a video. The ncxl single, "Borderline", was promoted with a very neat little video. Madonna plays a leather-clad street girl frolicking around Manhattan’s Lower West Side with cars, spray painl, and, of course, boys. When American youth got their eyes on her – those clothes! those lips! those crucifixes! that bellybutton!! – there was no stopping it. She had made the Big Time.
Now with hat she calls the "Warners’ star machine" solidly behind her, there can be little doubt that the best is yet to come. The latest single, "Like A Virgin", reached Number One in the US with the help of a video in which Madonna goes to Venice to cavort with gondolas, lions, and – no prizes for guessing -boys. Its cost is believed to have run into six figures. The second LP, also called "Like a Virgin", is produced by Nile Rogers, ex-Chic, after his work with David Bowie, once again the hottest producer in New York.
Her music is developing, refining the early disco dolly style into a purer pop, but also straying into other areas of black-influenced music. There are some refreshing echoes of Motown on the new LP – as well as an unfortunate sacrilege to the memory of the old Rose Royce song "Love Don’t Live Here Anymore".
But however much the music may be developing, Madonna’s image seems fixed immovably in the role of the sex kitten.
Her album jacket photos and her lyrics all seem to suggest that her highest aspiration is the one she wears on her famous belt: "BOY TOY".
Within the world of pop, what does Madonna stand for, besides the pleasures of BoyToy-hood? Madonna unfortunately seems to have no answer to this question. Not only has she not thought much about her own image, it seems as if she hasn’t thought much about pop music at all. It is as if the ambition and the success are all that concern her: the route taken to achieve them seems barely worth a second glance. Let’s ask her.
"Madonna, what videos do you like?"
"Oh. I don’t know. John, what videos do I like? You know … ." (John – current boyfriend John "Jellybean" Benitez – shrugs.)
"What music do you like?"
"Oh, I like Bronski Beat . . . John, what else do I like?" (John shrugs.)
"I like music that has soul. I like good music."
"What actresses do you like?"
"Marilyn Monroe, Carole Lombard."
"Great. What current ones?"
"Oh, Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon – but John likes them more than me."
"All of your songs seem to be about boys …"
" ‘Over And Over’ isn’t."
"What’s that about?"
"Well, what else would you like to write about?"
Long pause . . . My childhood. I’d write about growing up and feeling lonely. How you never find the love you need at home."
"Are you a Boy Toy?"
"That’s a joke. It’s a tag name given to me when I first arrived in New York. In New York people wear their nicknames on their belts. You have to see the joke."
"Yes, but do you feel happy recommending to the girls of America that they turn themselves into Boy Toys?"
"It’s a personal statement. It’s not for the women of the world, only for myself."
"So what is the statement? That you’re burning up for my love? That you’re bending over backwards for my love?" (cf "Burning Up").
Pause – long enough for those beautiful eyes to send out a bolt of pure animosity – but also for a bit of thought.
"It’s a statement for innocent sexuality."
"So you are encouraging all the junior high school girls of America, not to mention the Catholic school girls – to indulge in innocent sexuality?"
(Exasperated) "Boy Toy is a joke."
To judge from the above, not particularly pleasant exchange, Madonna is set fair to become the Jane Fonda of the under-21s, exhorting girls everywhere to fight the noble struggle against stomach bulges, unsightly blemishes, and lonely nights without the man of their dreams. But there may be more to Madonna …
Later this year will appear Madonna’s first feature film. Desperately Seeking Susan. In it she plays a free-spirited young girl who captivates a middle-class housewife. It sounds like an ideal role for her. The film is directed by Susan Seidelman, who made the well-received Smithereens. Madonna is very keen to do more acting, and indeed shows far more enthusiasm for movies than for pop music. She senses that her special qualities, her "child-woman"-ness and her honesty, as well as her wit, lend themselves far better to the more nuanccd medium of film than they do to the very direct, plastic medium of pop.
The comparison between Madonna and Marilyn Monroe goes beyond the physical resemblance, and beyond Madonna’s penchant for punctuating her singing with Monroe-esque squeaks, squeals, and gasps. Like Marilyn, Madonna had an unhappy childhood which gave her a bottomless desire for public acceptance, and a conviction that she could only win it with sex appeal. Like Marilyn, Madonna has the intelligence and wit to raise the sex appeal above the level of crass vulgarity (like Marilyn, this requires the right directors).
"Madonna, what do you like about Marilyn Monroe?"
"Her innocence and her sexuality and her humour and her vulnerability."
"You have all those qualities." "I know."
As Madonna walked silently down the streets of Greenwich Village, decked out like some Christmas tree in nylons, but shrinking with uncertainty under all the glances she gets, and brightening only when she is sure each look is admiring. I was reminded of Dame Edith Sitwell’s description of Marilyn, Monroe: a "beautiful ghost".
Like Marilyn. Madonna seems to have allowed the obsessive quest for fame and adulation to blot out her enjoyment of all the lesser pleasures of life. Not only docs she not seem to take much pleasure from music or dancing, she doesn’t even seem to enjoy her boyfriends very much.
I was very surprised, in light of all the gossip now circulating about how Madonna had used her boyfriends ruthlessly in her climb to the top, to find that her past boyfriends all remembered her fondly; while she seems to have found very little worth remembering in any of her relationships. New York is full of rumours that her current relationship with ‘Jellybean’ is on the skids – another likely victim of the goddess fame. Madonna’s hardened case of ambition may carry her to great success, but it risks also crushing the sensitive girl that remains inside.
One of her ex-boyfriends told me:
"1 think Madonna’s living out the Monroe myth even more than she suspects. Sex is Madonna’s calling card. She knows she’s a sex symbol, and she uses it in a self-conscious way. to the point where it’s become her only way of communicating. It’s becoming the only way she can feel comfortable and know she’s wanted.
"She’s deeply terrified of herself and of being alone with herself. Yet she’s a much more interesting person than she knows, and a much more fragile person than she wants to admit. But I fear for her if she doesn’t change the way she operates."
That sounds not only like a recipe for unhappiness but the best argument that could be made against BoyToyhood as a desirable objective for any girl.
It also sounds, just possibly, like a prescription for a very good actress.
Maripol was with Madonna the night she performed live on national TV at the MTV awards:
"When we left, the kids were waiting for Madonna in the street, cheering. As we went into the limo, I was watching her.
"She was looking at all the kids, and she was wondering why she was here. She wanted to be there, with them, in the street, yelling at herself. And I looked at her face, and it was pure innocence and pure joy.