“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.”
“One writer said recently that I liked to ‘wade into the fire,'” she continued. “I hadn’t thought about it until I read those words, but I think it’s true. I don’t like things to be black-and-white. Papa Don’t Preach was sent to me by Michael Ostin, the man who also discovered the song Like a Virgin. As soon as I heard Like a Virgin, I knew that’s what I wanted to call my album, just to tick everybody off. It was a loaded statement that I knew would be misinterpreted. People thought I was saying I just wanted to have sex, when it meant just the opposite. It celebrates the idea of feeling untouched and pure. I liked having the secret knowledge that what it said was good.”
“Everybody also misread Material Girl. I thought a song about a girl who wants everything was absolutely hilarious and that people would get the joke. It made me realize that you can’t expect everybody to get your sense of humor. But since then I’ve found that people eventually do get what they didn’t initially. That’s been a nice sur-prise.”
The loudest clucking over Madonna’s supposedly evil influence came during her 1985 “Virgin” tour, when droves of girls arrived at her concerts dressed in trash-flash getups.
“Those kids got the joke, but their parents didn’t,” Madonna said dismissively. “You didn’t see any of those girls running off and doing awful things because they bought my records or went to my concerts. What they saw in me was a rebel kid who says what she wants and does what she wants and takes a joy in life.
“I’ve always dressed to provoke people,” Madonna reflected. “It all goes back to when I was a child attending Catholic schools, where you have to wear a uniform and everything is decided for you. You start going out of your way to do things that are different in order to stand out. It was a rebellion I carried with me when I moved to New York to become a dancer and didn’t have a lot of money. At my dance classes, all the ballerinas had their hair tied back in a bun, so I chopped all my hair off and ripped my leotard down the front and put little, tiny safety pins all the way up, just to provoke my teacher, because I knew it would annoy her. I was saying, in effect, ‘Where is there a rule that I have to wear a black leotard and pink tights and have my hair in a bun? Does it make me a better dancer?'”
“Going out dancing in clubs with my girlfriends in New York was a big deal then, and I would always dress for provocation,” Madonna continued. “When I was young, I used to get rosaries all the time. They were very beautiful, and I became so infatuated that I started collecting them and hanging them on my doorknob. One day I put one around my neck, and I liked the way it looked. So I decided to wear two, and then three. It got a lot of interesting responses, so I started piling them on. At the time I had short hair that was growing out and at an awkward stage. So instead of using a headband to keep it off my face, I took a pair of tights and tied them around my head. And instead of wearing foundation garments on the inside, I started wearing them on the outside. I liked the way that looked, too. All of a sudden, I was supposed to be making a huge fashion statement, but it wasn’t intentional.”
A movie career is the natural next step for Madonna, who made her Hollywood debut playing the title role in Desperately Seeking Susan and followed that up with Shanghai Surprise, in which she costars with Sean Penn. The new movie, a love story, is set in China in the late 1930s. In it she plays a missionary who falls in love with a drifter. For Madonna, filming this movie proved to be sheer torture.
“We didn’t get to shoot in Shanghai, because in 1938 the city was a den of ill repute and the Chinese government is ashamed of that image,” she said. “We ended up having to shoot a lot of it in the old slum areas outside of Hong Kong. I’ve never seen such an ugly city. It is a concrete jungle of nothing but shopping malls and skyscrapers. Many of the places where we shot were run by the Chinese Mafia, and we had to pay them off to work on location. Sometimes they sabotaged us to get more money. Once, they killed our power generator, and we had to close down the set. Another time, we were in a village about an hour outside of the city with only one tiny road leading out. They blocked the road and demanded fifty thousand dollars to let us leave. All the cops had been paid off, and no one would help us. The movie was set in the summer, but we were filming in the winter, and so I nearly froze. Sean got to wear long johns under his baggy suit, but there was nothing I could wear under my thin little dresses to keep me warm, so I kept getting colds. To top it all off, we had a lot of problems with the director. If nothing else, it was a great survival experience.”
Although Madonna has been offered many movie projects, some of the roles she has coveted have eluded her. “I read the story of the torch singer Libby Holman and wanted to do her biography so badly,” she said. “I called up the producer Ray Stark, who owned it, but he said he had already promised it to Debra Winger. I was also interested in doing a remake of Judy Holliday’s Born Yesterday, but Whoopi Goldberg is supposed to be doing it.”
Madonna is somewhat torn between pop stardom and her movie ambitions, but music is still her first love. “Music will always be a part of my life, though I don’t know in what way,” she reflected. “To me, music is a much more accessible art form than movies, because it touches everyone. More people hear the radio than go to movies, which are a lot more elite. With music, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from.
“I always knew I was born to be a star, but I never in my wildest dreams expected that I would become this big,” she continued. “It’s the greatest thing but also the hardest thing in the wad when you have everybody’s attention and the admiration and support of people you really respect. If you want to get a message across to people and affect the mass culture — whatever that message is — you can do it. But, at the some time, you belong to everybody. Coming to terms with that part of it can be a bore. It’s all finally a trade-off.”
The song on True Blue that best describes what it’s like to be Madonna in 1986 — the center of a media tornado — is called Where’s the Party? “It’s my ultimate statement about what it’s like to be in the middle of this press stuff with everybody on my back and my world about to cave in,” she said. “Whenever I feel like that — and it does get to me sometimes — I say, ‘Wait a minute. I’m supposed to be having a good time here, so where’s the party?’ It doesn’t have to be this way. I can still enjoy my life.”© Seventeen