I know she tried to keep her feelings inside, her fear inside, and not let us know. She never complained. I remember she was really sick and was sitting on the couch. I went up to her and I remember climbing on her back and saying, “Play with me, play with me,” and she wouldn’t. She couldn’t and she started crying and I got really angry with her and I remember, like, pounding her back with my fist and saying, “Why are you doing this?” Then I realized she was crying. (Madonna stops talking and covers her face with her hands and cries.) I remember feeling stronger than she was. I was so little and I put my arms around her and I could feel her body underneath me sobbing and I felt like she was the child. I stopped tormenting her after that. That was the turning point when I knew. I think that made me grow up fast. I knew I could be either sad and weak and not in control or I could just take control and say it’s going to get better.
Then my mother spent about a year in the hospital, and I saw my father going through changes also. He was devastated. It is awful to see your father cry. But he was very strong about it. He would take us to the hospital to see her, and I remember my mother was always cracking up and making jokes. She was really funny so it wasn’t so awful to go and visit her there. Then my mother died. I remember that right before she died she asked for a hamburger. She wanted to eat a hamburger because she couldn’t eat anything for so long, and I thought that was very funny. I didn’t actually watch her die. I left and then she died. Then everything changed. My family was always split up and we had to go stay at relatives’.
STEPMOTHER. As soon as my father started hiring housekeepers we were all back together again. He just kept going through housekeepers because we never got along with them. Then he married one of our housekeepers. I don’t really want to talk about my stepmother. I was the oldest girl so I had a lot of adult responsibilities. I feel like all my adolescence was spent taking care of babies and changing diapers and babysitting. I have to say I resented it, because when all my friends were out playing, I felt like I had all these adult responsibilities. I think that’s when I really thought about how I wanted to do something else and get away from all that. I really saw myself as the quintessential Cinderella. You know, I have this stepmother and I have all this work to do and it’s awful and I never go out and I don’t have pretty dresses. The thing I hated about my sisters most was my stepmother insisted on buying us the same dresses. I would do everything not to look like them. I would wear weirdcolored knee socks or put bows in my hair or anything. I also went to Catholic schools, so I had to wear uniforms that were drab. I guess that was the beginning of my style.
KID STUFF. My father made everyone in our family take a musical instrument and go to lessons every day. I took piano lessons but I hated them. Finally, I convinced my father to let me take dance lessons at one of those schools where you get ballet, jazz, tap and baton twirling. Anyway, the dance school was really like a place for hyperactive young girls. I was pretty rambunctious.
I wasn’t really a tomboy. I was considered the sissy of the family because I relied on feminine wiles to get my way. My sister was really a tomboy and she hung out with my older brothers. They all picked on me, and I always tattled on them to my father. They would hang me on the clothesline by my underpants. I was little, and they put me up there with clothespins. Or they’d pin me down on the ground and spit in my mouth. All brothers do that, don’t they? I wasn’t quiet at all. I remember always being told to shut up. Everywhere, at home, at school, I always got in trouble for talking out of turn in school. I got tape over my mouth. I got my mouth washed out with soap. Everything.
Mouthing off comes naturally. Every time there was a talent show or a musical in school, I was always in it. Cinderella and the Wizard of Oz and Godspell and My Fair Lady: the ingenue role was always mine. But when there was a role for, like, a forward, bad girl, everybody sort of unanimously looked over at me when they were casting it.
VIRGINITY. I remember when I was growing up I remember liking my body and not being ashamed of it. I remember liking boys and not feeling inhibited. I never played little games; if I liked a boy, I’d confront him. I’ve always been that way. Maybe it comes from having older brothers and sharing the bathroom with them or whatever. But when you’re that aggressive in junior high, the boys get the wrong impression of you. They mistake your forwardness for sexual promiscuity. Then when they don’t get what they think they’re going to get, they turn on you. I went through this whole period of time when the girls thought I was really loose and all the guys called me nympho. I was necking with boys like everybody else was. The first boy I ever slept with had been my boyfriend for a long time, and I was in love with him. So I didn’t understand where it all came from. I would hear words like slut that I hear now. It’s sort of repeating itself. I was called those names when I was still a virgin. I didn’t fit in and that’s when I got into dancing. I shut off from all of that and I escaped.
DANCING. When I was in the tenth grade I knew a girl who was a serious ballet dancer. She looked really smarter than your average girl but in an interesting, offbeat way. So I attached myself to her and she brought me to a ballet class, and that’s where I met Christopher Flynn, who saved me from my high school turmoil. He had a ballet school in Rochester. It was beautiful. I didn’t know what I was doing, really. I was with these really professional ballet dancers. I had only studied jazz up to then, so I had to work twice as hard as anybody else and Christopher Flynn was impressed with me. He saw my body changing and how hard I worked.
I really loved him. He was my first taste of what I thought was an artistic person. I remember once I had a towel wrapped around my head like a turban. He came over to me and he said, “You know, you’re really beautiful.” I said, “What?” Nobody had ever said that to me before. He said, “You have an ancientlooking face. A face like an ancient Roman statue.” I was flabbergasted. I knew that I was interesting, and of course I was voluptuous for my age, but I’d never had a sense of myself being beautiful until he told me. The way he said it, it was an internal thing, much deeper than superficial beauty. He educated me, he took me to museums and told me about art. He was my mentor, my father, my imaginative lover, my brother, everything, because he understood me. He encouraged me to go to New York. He was the one who said I could do it if I wanted to.
NEW YORK. I saved up enough money for a oneway ticket and flew to New York. It was my first plane trip. When I got off the plane, I got in a taxi and told the driver to take me to the middle of everything. That turned out to be Times Square. I think the cab driver was saying, like, “O.K., I’ll show her something.” I think he got a chuckle out of that. I got out of the cab and I was overwhelmed because the buildings, you know, are really high. I walked east on 42nd Street and then south on Lexington and there was a street fair. It was the summer and I had on a winter coat and was carrying a suitcase. This guy started following me around. He wasn’t cute or anything, but he looked interesting. I said hi to him, and he said, “Why are you walking around with a winter coat and a suitcase?” And I said, “I just got off the plane.” And then he said, “Why don’t you go home and get rid of it?” And I said, “I don’t live anywhere.” He was dumbfounded. So he said, “Well, you can stay at my apartment.” So I stayed there for the first two weeks. He didn’t try to rape me or anything. He showed me where everything was, and he fed me breakfast. It was perfect. (In Southernlady accent) I relied on the kindness of strangers. So then I auditioned and got a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey school. I wasn’t worried about not getting anywhere as a dancer. I knew I was a decent dancer. It was great. I moved from one dive to the next, I was poor. I lived on popcorn, that’s why I still love it. Popcorn is cheap and it fills you up.
IDOLS. Growing up I thought nuns were very beautiful. For several years I wanted to be a nun, and I got very close to some of them in grade school and junior high. I saw them as really pure, disciplined, sort of aboveaverage people. They never wore any makeup and they just had these really serene faces. Nuns are sexy.
I also loved Carole Lombard and Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe. They were all just incredibly funny, and they were silly and sweet and they were girls and they were feminine and sexy. I just saw myself in them, my funniness and my need to boss people around and at the same time be taken care of. My girlishness. My knowingness and my innocence. Both. And I remember Nancy Sinatra singing These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ and that made one hell of an impression on me. And when she said, “Are you ready, boots, start walkin’,” it was like, yeah, give me some of those gogo boots. I want to walk on a few people.