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