Madonna’s mother died of breast cancer when her daughter was just 5. Little Nonni, as she was known then, was further devastated by her father’s remarriage three years later to a woman with whom Madonna has never made peace. “From that time on I felt like Cinderella with a wicked stepmother. I couldn’t wait to escape.” Meantime she reveled in her individuality. “We had to wear uniforms to [parochial] school, so I would put bright panty bloomers underneath and hang upside down on the monkey bars at recess,” she says with impish glee.
When she was 10, her family moved to Rochester, Mich., where Madonna joined the Camp Fire Girls and limited herself to schoolgirl pranks. Childhood pal Carol Belanger recalls peeking through convent windows with Madonna “to see the nuns without their habits. We found out then they had hair.” By high school Madonna had discovered Motown, become a cheerleader and begun startling her friends with her outspokenness.
“Sometimes I’d literally put my hand over her mouth to shut her up,” says Belanger, remembering the time the pair drove to a nearby lake in Madonna’s red Mustang. A group of bikers began dropping firecrackers on them, and “Madonna yelled up and told them to knock it off. The next thing I knew, one of the biker girls came down and started hitting her in the mouth. We finally got away, but Madonna had a black eye and bruised cheek.”
In her junior year she began ballet classes with Christopher Flynn, now 54 and a University of Michigan dance professor. Abandoning cheerleading, she cut off her brown shoulder-length hair, “pierced her ears, got into nuts and berries, stopped shaving her armpits and legs,” says her high school chum Mary Conley Belote. “She was kind of far-out.” Flynn remembers her as “one of the best students I’ve ever had, a very worldly sort of woman even as a child. We would go to gay bars, and she and I would go out and dance our asses off. People would clear away and let her go.”
Deciding that a ballet career was her ticket to the top, Madonna spent three semesters at the University of Michigan and then headed for New York. She arrived in 1978 with a satchelful of tights and toe shoes, $35 in cash and a giant baby doll under her arm to keep her company. Her footwork earned her a work-study spot with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. But frustrated by her inability to leap into the limelight, she began exploring other possibilities. She starred in a minor underground film, playing a vengeful weirdo who dominates three sex slaves. Through theatrical contacts she met the impresarios behind European disco singer Patrick (Born to Be Alive) Hernandez. “They liked me and took me to Paris to make me the next Edith Piaf,” she says scornfully. “They made me meet these awful French boys and I would throw tantrums. They would just laugh and give me money to keep me happy.” After six months she returned to New York and eventually moved into a Lower East Side building with her friend, illustrator Martin Burgoyne, now 22. Madonna left when their adjacent apartments were ransacked by neighborhood kids, and fled to Abbie Hoffman’s old 13th Street digs. Burgoyne rejoined her 48 hours later when his apartment was further vandalized by toughs with chicken droppings and blood.
By 1982, at the age of 24, Madonna had enough street savvy to start her on the pop-tart trail. She bounced around the SoHo art rock/New Wave scene until she had a demo of her own music and had “charmed” Danceteria deejay Mark Kamins into playing her stuff. Next stop Sire records, whose president, Seymour Stein, was in the hospital at the time recovering from an attack of endocarditis. “I got this call from my assistant about a Madonna tape that Mark brought,” he says. “I arranged for her to meet me at the hospital; then I shaved and had someone bring me a bathrobe from home. When she walked into the room, she filled it with her exuberance and determination. It hit me right away. I could tell she had the drive to match her talent.”
Her first album, Madonna, was released in July 1983 and did a slow burn through the dance-club circuit until it eventually crawled onto radio play lists and yielded two hits, Borderline and Lucky Star. The slow ignition of that debut effort allowed Madonna the luxury of plotting further career tactics, and her first task was hiring a no-nonsense personal manager. Her approach was simple. She asked herself who the biggest act in the world was at the time? Michael Jackson. Who was his manager? Freddy DeMann. DeMann has since lost Jackson as a client but was intrigued when a brash blonde he’d never seen showed up in his office in the summer of 1983. “She had that special magic that very few stars have,” he remembers.