In 1979 Madonna was eating out of New York dustbins.
Five years later she ruled the world.
27 January 1984. Madonna is due to give her second ever British performance. Last night, she appeared on Top Of The Pops, miming along to Holiday, her debut UK single, currently languishing in the lower reaches of the Top 40. This afternoon, she’s at The Hacienda, the Manchester club that will later be immortalized by acid house. Her performance is part of a live segment on Channel 4’s cult music programme The Tube.
Clad in belly-revealing tank top and with punked-up hair, Madonna writhes through the song with suitable gusto. Behind her are two male dancers wearing Lycra. In the audience is New Order’s Peter Hook, who, like many, watches the performance with a mixture of shock and bafflement. Not only is serious music show The Tube an incongruous place to showcase a brassy New York wannabe — the programme’s other selling points tonight include an interview with straight-faced music critic Paul Morley, plus The Factory All Stars, members of New Order, Quando Quango and The Wake covering electro numbers — but Madonna isn’t even on the stage. With the Factory gear up there, the singer and her dancers are forced to perform on the dancefloor.
Nevertheless, Hook sees something he likes. After Madonna’s performance, he and New Order manager Rob Gretton make a beeline for The Hacienda’s sole dressing room. Inside are Coronation Street’s Pat Phoenix, a dozen teenagers hired for their breakdancing skills, a pyrotechnician known as Bob The Fire-Eater and Madonna. Cornering the singer, Hook and Gretton wonder if she might like to give them a personal reprise of Holiday? They’ll even match her appearance fee: GBP 50. Inevitably, she tells them where to go.
Further indignity follows. Local DJ Mike Pickering has provided Madonna’s accommodation for the night. Arriving at his Chorlton semi with New York DJ Mark Kamins in tow, Madonna manages to lock herself out. “They left the Yale key in the outside lock,” remembers Hook. “Then the porch door shut behind them. When Pickering got up in the morning, Madonna and Kamins were asleep on the steps.”
Despite all signs to the contrary, Madonna’s performance soon served notice of the impending phenomenon. “I was up in Tyne-Tees TV at Newcastle, manning the control room,” says The Tube’s then-producer, Malcolm Gerrie. “The next day we were bombarded with calls. The switchboard just lit up with people wanting to know more about Madonna. We knew then that she was going to be huge.”
He wasn’t wrong. Madonna was on her way to becoming the biggest star of the ’80s. In a time where multinational record companies grew ever more powerful, spending vast sums of money on marketing and engineering careers like never before, Madonna’s rise didn’t originate in any promotions department. It came from her. Against impossible odds, Madonna became the world’s biggest star because Madonna decided that she could be. “I won’t be happy until I’m as famous as God,” she said. Equipped with little more than an instinct for survival and terrifying self-belief, she orchestrated every aspect of these early years, from songs to clothes to image, to choosing who should – and would – produce her music. In the early ’80s, years that would come to define the most enduringly successful – both critically and commercially – career in the history of pop music, she proved one thing: Madonna knows best.
Madonna Louise Ciccone was born on 16 August 1958 in Bay City, Michigan, where her mother was visiting her grandparents at the time. The third of six children, “Nonni”, as she was affectionately known, was auditioning for the role of star child within the family by the time she could talk. Attempting to impress her Italian-descended father Silvio (Tony) and French-Canadian mother (also called Madonna) by dancing on table-tops like Shirley Temple and deliberately hurting herself for sympathy, she quickly established herself as the centre of attention. “I just knew that being a girl and being charming in a feminine sort of was could get me a lot of things, and I milked it for everything I could,” she later explained. “I was always very precocious as a child, extremely flirtatious.”
The defining moment in Madonna’s childhood came aged five, when, after a year in decline, her adoring mother died of breast cancer. She was just 30. “If I hadn’t had that emptiness, I wouldn’t have been so driven,” she later recalled. “All of a sudden I was going to be the best singer, the best dancer, the most famous singer in the world. Everybody was going to love me.”
Despite a rebellious streak — aged 13 she scandalised a talent show organised by her local church by arriving onstage in a bikini and gyrating to The Who’s Baba O’Riley — she proved a model school pupil. At Rochester Adams High, Madonna worked hard, took up gymnastics and drama and became a cheerleader. She lost her virginity at 15 to an older schoolmate, something she later described as “a career move”. By 16, dancing had become her whole life. Under the tutorage of local ballet instructor Christopher Flynn — who escorted Madonna to Detroit gay clubs so she might experience the heady rush of the dancefloor first-hand — she won a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan. However, Flynn was concerned Madonna would simply be biding her time at university and suggested she drop out. If she was really going to make it, he said, she needed to head for New York. In July 1978, Madonna purchased an $88 Northwest Airlines ticket and stepped on a plane for the very first time. Her father was furious.
Legend dictates that when Madonna touched down at New York’s LaGuardia airport with just $35, a pair of ballet shoes and her winter coat, she instructed the cab driver to, “Take me to the centre of everything!” Yet, this period of her life has been greatly romanticised, not least by Madonna herself. “I’d go to the Lincoln Centre, sit by a fountain and just cry,” she told Madonna magazine in 1990. “I’d write in my little journal and pray to have even one friend.”
“Oh please!” says her brother Martin in J Randy Taraborrelli’s hook Madonna: An Intimate Biography. “She never sat by a fountain and cried. She had loads of friends. She later made it all part of the glamorous legend that is my sister. That’s what she does best, she creates legend.”