Needing to be noticed, she made waves. At parochial school, she rebelled against the drab uniforms and flashed bright-colored underpants. In high school, she flirted – stuffing her bra, painting on lipstick an inch thick – and danced, and at seventeen, she won a dance schollarship to the University of Michigan.
But Michigan couldn’t hold her. After a few semesters, she headed for New York, where she did some dancing (she was in an Alvin Ailey company), some modeling (the specter came back to haunt her later), and some going hungry. She once said she picked through garbage cans searching for abandoned french fries. It may be true, and if it isn’t, who cares? Madonna has always known how to make a good story better. She learned to play several instruments and worked in “loft and garage bands.” Pure rock didn’t satisfy her (she was a disco fanatic, she wanted to make music people would dance to), so she kept moving, searching for her personal sound.
At one point, she took a side trip to Paris, because a manager said he could make her another Piaf. He couldn’t. Or at least he didn’t, and Madonna returned to the Apple to begin her real push. She wrote songs, and she recorded tracks – original music, on tapes – and took them around to dance clubs and get disc jockeys to play them, while she sang along, live.
“You could almost feel like you were a star, when you were singing to tracks for five thousand screaming maniacs at the Paradise Garage,” says Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s friend, and a Warner Brothers Records vice president. Madonna agrees. “To me what was the world. That’s what I loved, nightclubs and discotheques. And then when the mass audience started catching on to who I was, I was like, Oh I guess that wasn’t the whole world.”
Even after her debut album for Sire Records, it took a year before anybody outside the clubs paid attention. Madonna was not discouraged. She went to David Bowie’s record producer and convinced him to produce her second album. She got a part in the movie Desperatelly Seeking Susan, and she embarked on a twenty-eight-city concert tour. The little girls who came to the shows wore fingerless gloves, crucifixes, bustiers, and tied their hair with chiffon rags on slavish imitation of her idol.
“They got the humor part of it,” she says. “For so long, people had been telling girls, “You have to dress to be nonedescript. You have to look masculine if you want to be in control.” And here was someone being sexy and having fun and dressing up and doing exactly what those little girls wanted to do. And making all the decisions, and having power and success.”
That year – 1985 – Time magazine put Madonna on the cover. The headline read, Why She’s Hot.
Not to be outdone in her heat department, Penthouse and Playboy rushed into print with with nakedpictures shot back when Madonna (looking more plucked chicken than wannon) scrounged for her supper by posing for “art” photographers. Then an English magazine, expounding on the fickle nature of popularity, wrote that “fear and loathing have come very quickly to Madonna.” Had she, in fact felt loathed?
“Very definitely,” she says. “The people who adored me were the children who understood where I was coming from. The people who loathed me didn’t get it, and my success pissed them off. There’s a lot of idiots in the world, and anyway, it makes for more interesting articles. Wouldn’t you rather read an article about a slut than a plain-Jane wallfloer? I know I would. Anyway, I think it would be kind of boring if everyone really just loved me a hundred percent.”
On August 16, 1985, Madonna married Sean Penn, who loved her a hundred percent, and whose passion for privacy was as fierce as her passion for being cheered in public. Opposites attract, and if a girl who has lived by the maxim “Hey, look at me!” wants a boy who would just as soon dig a moat around their house, that’s their business.
The couple first met on the set where Madonna was making her “Material Girl” video. “The director was a friend of Sean’s, and she knew that he sort of had a crush on me and she said, ‘Hey, I’m working on Madonna’s video, do you want to come and meet her?'”
“So I was standing up at the top of these steps, waiting – they were doing some lighting – and I looked down and noticed this guy in a leather jacket and sunglasses kind of standing in the corner, looking at me. And I realized it was Sean Penn, and I immediately had this fantasy that we were going to meet and fall in love and get married. Which is exactly what happened.
“I came down the steps and walked right by, very cold, I just said, ‘Hi.’ And he kept hanging around. Hours had gone by, and it had gotten dark, and I saw him poke his head around the corner again, and I was like, Oh, you’re still here? So I went outside to talk to him.”
“There were people everywhere, so it was hard for us to have this conversation, but we were just kind of throwing questions at each other and being really provocative. I had given flowers to everybody in the cast and the crew of the video, all the guys, and I had one left. So when Sean was leaving, I said, ‘Wait, I have something for you.’ And I ran upstairs and I got this rose for him.”