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.
“I wanted to change my clothes,” she tells me determinedly. “You wait for things to cool off. You wait for your image not to be plastered up everywhere. It goes in cycles. If you’ve got a product, you promote it.” And then again: “Obviously, if you spend a couple of years wearing lots of layers of clothes and tons of jewelry and it just takes you forever to get dressed and your hair is long and crazy, then you get the urge to take it all off and strip yourself down and cut your hair all off just for a relief. Everybody does that, you know?”
Everybody doesn’t have to go as far as she does, however, in her bid to become Myth America. A product promoted that strongly can only be replaced with something equally powerful. Threatened with self-image immolation, Madonna conjured one of the icons that had fascinated her pre-teen years in the Midwest, the one that shared her beauty mark and her bleach job, the most potent image of stardom in the post-Warhol world. Marilyn. (Others had already invoked Monroe — Debbie Harry, for instance, and that weird English boy who called himself Marilyn.) Madonna’s re-enactment in her “Material Girl” video of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” production number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was knowing, defiant, and successful.
The subsequent transformation must have been self-inspired; no one manipulates Madonna. “It was Madonna’s idea,” confirms “Material Girl” producer Simon Fields. “She loves Marilyn.” So much so, apparently, that the National Enquirer ran a story about Madonna (b. 1958) believing she was a reincarnation of Marilyn (d. 1962). Madonna calls that the best lie she’s ever read about herself. Whatever, throughout our conversations, each time Monroe came up, defensive blue-green eyes challenged me to dare again to state the obvious.
“This gal has control over her own destiny that Marilyn never did,” says Arnold Newman, an acquaintance and photographer of Monroe. “She reminds me more of Streisand in her determination.” The Barbra comparison may come out of left field, but the point about Madonna’s self-determination rings true.
“I think she does a lot of homework,” says Kevin Dornan, who did her costumes for the Lincoln Center workshop of David Rabe’s Goose and Tomtom. “She’s consciously trying to evoke her idols, but she’s enough of a star to fit each style and make it her own. She goes about it very methodically.”
Ever since “Material Girl,” Madonna has been shuffling looks like playing cards, a Judy Holliday – Lana Turner gangster’s moll in Goose and Tomtom, a Deborah Kerr – Veronica Lake missionary sinking in the swamp of Shanghai Surprise, a knocked-up blue-collar Italian Jean Seberg in the “Papa Don’t Preach” video. She had a gown previously worn by Sophia Loren flown in specially from the West Coast for the Vanity Fair photo session. But she wouldn’t try on Catherine Deneuve’s 1964 Chanel suit that the-stylist had discovered. “It’s not me,” she said.
Observes Bill Travilla, who designed Marilyn’s costumes in eleven films, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “She’s searching for herself.”
Madonna thinks she’s found herself. “I’m aware of the messages I’m sending out,” she says. “People are more aware that I have a brain in my head and a head on my shoulders and I am in control of myself and I have a sense of humor.”
She’ll need the latter for the one role that’s giving her the most difficulty, that of Mrs. Sean Penn. If she’s intent on making herself into one of those mythic beauties, he’s dead set on something in the James Dean – Ernest Hemingway mold—truculent, brooding, hard-drinking. She says she was first attracted to the baddest young dude in Tinseltown because he seemed “reckless, adventurous.” They shared the same juvenile-lead cockiness. Now, as she grows up, cynical observers have already started to question his usefulness and versatility as a style accessory. When he took to spitting on photographers, each expectoration splashed his wife’s once only tactically tarnished image. Of their recent joint ventures, Shanghai Surprise continued his string of bombs. And when the press was banned from Goose and Tomtom, word nonetheless leaked: only Madonna was mesmerizing. A star is born?
Director Foley denies that the rolemodeling is calculated. “There’s nothing behind her other than instinct and impulsiveness. She’s unlocked enormous pent-up yearnings for a glamorous image,” he says. “She’s hooked onto a moonbeam.”
She’s been compared to almost every female from Cinderella to Barbarella. And, though she now discourages all that as actively as her husband discourages paparazzi, she still rattles off the names of her idols easily enough — all except one, Marilyn. Bardot, Grace Kelly, and Ann-Margret were her favorite childhood stars, she says. Later heroines were Martha Graham and Georgia O’Keeffe. Dietrich and Garbo too: “Strong beauties,” she says. “I like to think of myself that way.” Instinctively, she positions herself. Beautiful, but strong. A feminist’s Marilyn.
She learned, early in life, to manipulate fashion signals. She turned her parochial-school uniforms into instruments of rebellion, pulling them over her desktop so boys could peek up her skirts. “I’ve been provoking people since I was a little girl. I was very interested in being alluring.”
Poignant details of a banal Catholic girlhood follow. She sought to escape her Michigan hometown from “the moment I was old enough to know I was depressed,” she recalls — about the time her mother died, when she was six. “What fuels my ambition is the desire to be heard. And to find my mother, I suppose, – Another echo of Marilyn.
She’d sneak out of the house, the clothes she wasn’t supposed to wear hidden underneath her overcoat. At wealthier friends’ houses, she’d try on their fancy clothes. Mooning over movie stars, she “longed to be able to wear tight sweaters and pointy bras.”
Freedom came at fifteen when a friend took her to ballet classes outside Detroit. “I met a dance teacher. He gave me a sense of culture and style. He was the first homosexual I’d ever known. He opened a door.” She danced through. “I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve found it.’ “
Surrounded by dancing gay boys, she cocooned herself in androgyny, her first metamorphosis. “I was evolving into something else.” There were still problems with uniforms. “Ballet becomes very regimented too. I didn’t want my hair back in a bun. I didn’t want to wear pink tights and a black leotard. I may be doing the same steps,” she says, “but I’m not like anyone else. I want to be different.”
The next style step was also thanks to a man. She was in New York in 1978, living like a gypsy, innocently modeling for art classes (the nude skeletons that rattled out of her closet and into Penthouse and Playboy), picking through glad rags at thrift shops. “I was very much a waif.” At an audition she met a Continental rock star named Patrick Hernandez. “I’m sure you’ve read this,” she moans. The media myth of her rise is of a trampled staircase of men. She heads off any discussion at the pass. “I’m so sick of saying it. I got lucky. I went to Paris. It was an education.” They gave her money to buy flashy disco clothes. “I wasn’t into it.” She bought black boots, black jeans, and a black leather jacket. “I had my ears pierced and put safety pins in.”
Soon she was back in New York, discovering downtown. “Up until then I had no idea it existed.” She got a record deal and started hanging out in the Latin clubs where her records first became popular in 1983. Her new friends were graffiti artists like Futura 2000 — she once got evicted from an East Village apartment when one daubed his name on the walls. “You have to put your name everywhere,” she says, “and everybody had their name on a belt buckle.” Hers read “Boy Toy.” “I was a flirt. I toyed with boys.” The Latinos also wore studded bracelets. Madonna got some of those and “Adidas sneakers with different-color laces, nylon tracksuits in all bright colors, belts, leather caps, and gloves with the fingers cut off. Eventually, when I started becoming an image in pictures, it was the combination of the dance and the ragamuffin and the New Wave and this Puerto Rican street style.”
And Catholic Church style — for there were the rosaries too. “Beautiful and mysterious,” she says, “something that looked like suffering.” Beautiful suffering. Innocence and provocation. Madonna and Magdalene. “You know where it comes from,” she says. “Catholic upbringing. I was exorcising the extremes my upbringing dwelt on. Putting them up on the wall and throwing darts at them.”
Enough of the past. She’s only been wearing it to get to the future. “I know what’s out there and I know what I have.” She told the world that in no uncertain terms at the start of the “Material Girl” video, which, remember, was her idea. Scene One: a screening room. “She’s fantastic,” raves a cigar-smoking mogul, studying the rushes of, of course, Madonna. “I knew she’d be a star.”
“She could be,” replies a lackey carefully. “She could be great. She could be a major star.”
“She is a star, George,” the mogul states.
“The biggest star in the universe,” George agrees quickly, “right now as we speak.”
© Vanity Fair