“I really did feel completely abandoned at that point in my life,” she told Prime Time Live. “And I’m sure that has influenced every decision that I’ve made and sort of left me with a feeling, a hunger, a longing, a feeling of emptiness. You sort of grow up being afraid to love things because they’re going to leave you.”
Not that she turned into some kind of moody recluse. Moira Messana, who as a child lived two doors down from Madonna and played with her daily remembers, “We’d put on plays in the backyard. We’d make things up, and we’d fight over who would get to be the star.”
Messana, now a mother of four and an artist in Pinehurst, North Carolina, named her own daughter Madonna after her childhood friend. She remembers Madonna then as “a sweet, beautiful little girl… she had long, real dark brown hair with a curl to it. And a beauty mark on her face. I remember her saying she was going to have it removed.”
Messana, who baked and sold those kids’ cakes with Madonna, also recalled early signs that her friend was a gifted performer. “I remember going to a dance with her and she cleared the floor with her dancing… everyone was off to the side and watching… She was flipping around and doing splits. She was probably 12 or 13 at the time.”
In 1966, Madonna’s father married the family’s live-in housekeeper, Joan Gustafson, and the couple had two more children. Madonna reportedly had a hard time adjusting to her new stepmother, but still managed all A’s at her Catholic school. In high school, she was a cheerleader and involved in theater (her graduation yearbook photo shows a smiling teenager with bouffant dark hair, heavy dark eyebrows, and a single activity listing: Thespian Society). But after years of classical ballet training, her real interest was dance, and she entered the University of Michigan on a dance scholarship.
Madonna lasted three semesters at Ann Arbor, where, her roommate Whitley Setrakian remembered, “She had a way of owning the room when she came in, and I’d never really met anyone quite like her.” So poor she lived on butterscotch candies and taught her roommate how to shoplift, Madonna still managed to get good grades — but decided what she really wanted was a career in New York.
It was her first plane ride, her first cab ride (once she arrived), and she didn’t know a soul in the city. Small matter. If there was one thing Madonna could do, it was network. Through Norris Burroughs, a boyfriend she met at a party, Madonna was introduced to Dan and Ed Gilroy, who had a band.
The Gilroys gave her a place to stay, taught her to play guitar, and she began singing With them.
But it wasn’t instant success. To support herself, she worked at a donut shop, modeled for nude photographs (which resurfaced years later in Playboy and Penthouse), and generally lived by her wits. After falling out with the Gilroys, she formed her own band and hit the local college club circuit. Kids loved her, but one record executive complained she sounded like Minnie Mousse on helium.
She persevered, eventually signing a contract with Sire Records, distributed by Warner Brothers. Her first albums, called simply Madonna, was released in July 1983 and brought her national recognition. The album spawned music videos and the first national look at Madonna herself, ripped T-shirt, crucifix earrings, and all.