“One of the things that’s interesting about this society is the way people immediately attach a personality and moral issues to how someone looks,” Madonna reflected recently. “You can’t escape it if you’re in the public eye — the only thing to do is ride the wave.”
Probably no pop star has endured more public scrutiny — and scorn — in the last two years than Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone Penn of Pontiac, Michigan. No sooner had her second album, Like a Virgin, skyrocketed to the top of the charts than the press declared open season on Madonna, portraying her variously as a slut, a symbol of a soulless, materialist society, and an upstart.
A born trouper, Madonna toughed out the assaults. Even when Playboy and Penthouse splashed old nude photos of her across their pages, the star feigned indifference. And since then she has had to contend with the merciless voyeurism of paparazzi intent on peeking inside her marriage to actor Sean Penn. Madonna has withstood the pressures far better than her husband, who now has several lawsuits pending against him for assaulting photographers. According to insiders, the public frays have been echoed in private. For, in marrying the 1986 equivalent of her 1950s hero, James Dean (the subject of the song Jimmy, Jimmy on her third album, True Blue), Madonna got more than she bargained for. Her rebel dream man also turned out to be a typically old-fashioned, possessive husband.
By weathering these public storms with grace, Madonna has turned her image around and emerged as something of a media heroine this year. The album True Blue, which she coproduced, proved that Madonna was no producer’s tool — she could do most of it herself. Playing a pregnant teenager wearing an “Italians do it better” T-shirt in the music video for Papa, Don’t Preach, she revealed a waifish vulnerability that added emotional dimension to her brassy pop-tart image.
“True Blue was really a labor of love, and I’m very proud of it,” Madonna said in a rare face-to-face interview recently. “I’d never heard the expression ‘true blue’ until I met Sean, who uses it all the time. The album is dedicated to him. It’s a special album, because it says exactly what I wanted it to say. I wrote almost all the lyrics and felt the freedom to do whatever I wanted in the studio.”
In person, Madonna radiates a bright, sharp animal magnetism that is accentuated by brusque, slightly theatrical body language. Her husky speaking voice is noticeably lower in pitch than her k’dlike singing voice. Extremely matter-of-fact in conversation, Madonna unblushingly drops four-letter words, but only if they help her make a point more quickly.
The twenty-seven-year-old star appeared for her interview in the New York offices of Warner Bros. Records wearing a white dress dotted with pink and blue flowers. She wore very little makeup. The dress and her fresh-scrubbed appearance gave her the air of a sophisticated teenager, circa 1959.
Madonna’s 1986 public look is pure movie star: Marilyn Monroe’s lusciousness softened by a touch of Grace Kelly’s refinement and crowned with a short late-fifties haircut that recalls the gamine glamour of Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn, and the late Jean Seberg. “I have a book of pictures of Jean Seberg,” she said. “She was the most beautiful woman. Growing up, I was attracted to all those glamorous, beautiful women who don’t seem to be around anymore. Brigitte Bardot was at one end of the spectrum and Grace Kelly at the other. I want to bring back glamour.”
Just sitting and talking Madonna can command admiration in a way few other stars can. Her awareness of her own sexiness is so intense it borders on being intimidating. Complimented on her beauty, Madonna responded with a gracious and confident “thank you.” Throughout the interview, she took sips from a bottle of diet soda and sat very erect with her chin jutted slightly. Her green-eyed gaze was direct and penetrating. Her gestures were the impatient movements of someone who doesn’t like to waste time; one sensed she could grow bored in an instant.
“People have written that I set the cause of women back a million years, and I say they’re all wrong,” Madonna said with a quick shrug. “Those people are afraid of their own sexuality. I like the fact that men appreciate my voluptuous body. But that doesn’t mean I want to be subservient. I stand for the things feminists stand for because I do what I want to do and I’m in control of my own life and I am very happy.”
The album True Blue reflects Madonna’s take-charge attitude. “The record is about someone who is growing up, who wants to be strong and go after what she wants,” she said. “But there is also more sadness in the songs on this record than on my first two albums. Live to Tell is a very sad song that I wrote for Sean’s movie At Close Range. It’s about being very young and having to grow up quickly because you’ve seen certain things that force you to be a grown-up ahead of your time.”
Madonna anticipated controversy over Papa Don’t Preach, the album’s second single and the one song on the album whose lyrics she didn’t write. “People will take the song wrong and assume that I’m telling every young girl to go out and get pregnant,” she said. “I’ll admit that when I first heard it, I thought, ‘Oh, please — I’m going to keep my baby?’ It seemed silly. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was about a girl who is making a decision in her life. She has a really close relationship with her father and wants to maintain it. To me, the song is positive, because she wants to make it work.”