At 39, here is the most scrutinized female life of the 20th century – with possible exceptions of Diana Spencer’s and Marilyn Monroe’s. The willing architect of her own fame and notoriety, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone was born in 1958 to a homemaker and a Chrysler engineer in Bay City, Mich. The family moved to Pontiac, where their home was fiercely Catholic. Mrs. Ciccone taught her her girls that it was sinful to have pants that zipped up the front. Piety proved no defense against earthly disease, and she died after a long struggle with cancer, when Madonna was just 6. Her teen years were committed to a single goal: getting out of the house – and Pontiac. She spent a year at the University of Michigan, then bounced to Manhattan as a dance student, hawking her demos like any pushy hopeful.
In the 23 years since she writhed across MTV screens in 1984’s “Lucky Star,” Madonna has sold more than 100 million records worldwide and had 29 Top 10 hits. She has appeared in 15 films; most recently she carried Alan Parker’s megaproduction of “Evita.” I last spoke with Madonna just before her 1992 book, “Sex,” was published; at that time she told giggly stories about guerrilla photo sessions at a Miami gas station wearing a black lace body stocking. Her nights are much different now. Last year, Madonna gave birth to Lourdes Ciccone Leon, a child conceived with trainer Carlos Leon.
Madonna is close to finishing a new album. As we spoke, she was awaiting the arrival of her yoga teacher. “She was in one of the first all-female bands,” Madonna said. “Have you heard of the Ace of Cups? They toured with the Grateful Dead. I like to poke her brain, get information out of her.”
When you were growing up, what were the first female voices that really spoke to you?
I grew up in Pontiac, so Motown was a big part of my upbringing. But I was also really, really into Joni Mitchell. I knew every word on Court and Spark; I worshiped her when I was in high school. Blue is amazing. I would have to say of all the women I’ve heard, she had the most profound effect on me from a lyrical point of view. Motown, I liked the sound of it.
You said that you always knew you’d have to leave home. How and when did you start planning your escape?
When I was 5. I knew I wanted to move. I knew that I was living in a very sheltered world. In high school I decided that as soon as I graduated I was getting the hell out of Dodge. I had a choice between going to the University of Michigan and moving to New York. I went to UM for a year and liked it a lot. But I decided I wanted to cut to the chase. So I moved to New York. I was 18. I didn’t know anybody in New York. But I had this fantasy about New York since I was a little girl – that I had to go there. I took my first airplane trip to the Big Apple, came into LaGuardia [Airport], took my first cab ride, and got dropped of in Times Square.
What do you recall as the hardest part of being ambitious but poor?
[Laughs] Not having a place to take a shower or bath. Having to go out to dinner with idiots so I could come home and use their bathrooms. Living a hand-to-mouth existence didn’t bother me so much. Not having a huge amount of comfort for me was like a bathroom problem, you know. I lived in the Music Building for a year – I was basically squatting illegally. I was only supposed to be rehearsing. There was only a sink and toilet on each floor. trying to make that work and feel clean was a bit of a nightmare.
Once you were on the road to becoming solvent, what did you do with the first royalty check?
I bought a synthesizer and a bicycle. I lived in SoHo, on Broome and West Broadway, in a loft. I just wanted to ride my bike everywhere. I carried it up six flights of steps – along with my synthesizer. Separate trips.
Early on, can you recall any instances where being female is the music business might have made things more difficult?
I didn’t take the time to notice; I din’t think about it. I saw it as a struggle that I was going to embrace and I didn’t think, “Oh I have it harder because I’m a girl.” I thought, in fact, that maybe people extended things more to me because I was a girl. I don’t know.
In reading about you, I’ve been rather shocked at the violence and the sexual content of the negative comments about Madonna. Where do you think that’s coming from?
It’s Human Nature. If something about another person really, really bothers you and gets under your skin, it elicits a violent reaction to something in yourself. I absolutely think that’s true of me and other people.