Sweep away the high tack of the Desperately Sought Susan and Madonna is revealed as a startling beauty of almost eighteenth-century purity. The skin, the eyes, the hair. Michael Gross chronicles her change of face.
All make-overs should be like this. The gooey girl has become a glamour queen. The slept-on hair is now soigné and platinum white. The swelling belly is flat as a board. The tarty look has softened to a cinematic siren’s. The teenage-rebellion clothes are suddenly svelte. And there is a message in all this shiny newness. Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone Penn is proclaiming herself the rightful inheritor to the long-vacant throne of blonde ambition.
In the flesh she’s lissome, compact, alert. Wearing all black—shirt, Capri pants, porkpie hat, flat dance shoes — she’s lost that slightly pubescent quality of puppy fat. Backstage at Lincoln Center, while everyone else gobbles cake on her birthday, she nibbles rice cake. She’s as rigorous with herself as that other former dancer Joan Crawford. She runs five miles or works out every day, sometimes as early as six A.M. The skin is translucently beautiful, gleaming with all the limelight it has soaked up, luminous white beside the pristinely bleached hair. Even as a child she disciplined herself to stop sitting in the sun. “And I don’t eat any flesh,” she adds with distaste. “Vegetarians are paler.”
The little mole on her upper lip is like an eighteenth-century monarch’s mouche. The unbleached eyebrows seem to arch more commandingly over the blue-green eyes. “Foley, get over here,” she directs the director on the set of her latest video. Two years of superstardom, one year of marriage, and the wanton has become a willful woman.
The video empress’s new clothes show how much she’s grown up since she snaked to the top of the charts. Back then, she was a parody of what she might actually have been — a dirty little Catholic girl, quite unlike her blessed namesake. Singing with torqued tongue about being like a virgin, she flaunted a raggedy-girl mixture of crucifixes and visible brassieres, tulle and studded leather, bared midriff and lace gloves. Three multimillion-selling albums, ten consecutive hit singles, sellout tours, came with the adoration of numberless nine-year-olds. It was the invasion of the wannabes. America’s stores, streets, and schoolyards swarmed with mimic Madonnas. The look even filtered into the “mad” fashion fantasies of couture copycats in Paris, notably Christian Lacroix at the house of Patou and Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld.
The style was also pivotal to Madonna’s first proper film, Desperately Seeking Susan, which kick-started her second career (and don’t think Shanghai Surprise or Goose and Tomtom will stop it). Another wanna-be, this time a spoiled suburban housewife, tried to gain some sort of magical freedom by shrugging herself into Madonna’s totemized jacket. The movie went from sleeper to sizzler so fast it made Hollywood heads spin. Not least that of lovely Rosanna Arquette, who, poor child, thought she was its star.
Image burnout is the video performer’s plague—look what happened to Madonna’s postmodern peer group, Boy George and Cyndi Lauper. According to Jamie Foley (the director of one Sean Penn movie, three Madonna videos, and now her second comedy, Stammer), after Susan, Madonna “had 1985 written all over her.” But she was not about to be left behind like last year’s fingerless gloves. Maripol, the Frenchwoman who’d designed Madonna’s piled-on costume jewelry and a line of Madonna-signature accessories, went bankrupt this fall, her lawyer says, since the singer “changed her image.”
The Madonna style had become a straitjacket, and that straitjacket was going out of style.