Still, the notion of “me against the world” proved hugely appealing. “Life was simpler when I had no money,” she later admitted. “When I barely survived.” Rummaging through bins for bits of lettuce (she was vegetarian), spending what money she had on popcorn. yoghurt and peanuts (cheap, nutritious) and washing in public toilets, the 20-year-old dragged herself from dead-end job to dirt-cheap accommodation and back. She worked at Dunkin’ Donuts and as a cloakroom attendant, and posed nude for art classes and photographers. “You got paid $10 an hour,” she explained, of the infamous photos. “It was $1.50 at Burger King.”
Even at the renowned Pearl Lang dance school — where she soon secured a place—Madonna was determined to stand out. Where other dance students wore leotards, Madonna opted to work out in ripped tights, T-shirts held together with foot-long safety pins and a head full of hair bows. When dance failed to provide the fast track to fame that Madonna had envisaged, she quit. Her parting shot to the class: “I think I’m going to he a rock star!” She slammed the door on her way out.
In May 1979, at a Manhattan party, she met and started dating Dan Gilroy, who, with his brother Ed, played in The Breakfast Club, a local punk band. This, surely, would provide a quicker route to success. Moving into the brothers’ home in a disused synagogue, Madonna became an itinerant member of the group, dividing her attention between guitar, drums and singing. She’d bash away at the drums, sometimes for five hours a day. At night, she’d hustle for bookings. But The Breakfast Oub were going nowhere fast. Madonna quit, leaving heartbroken Gilroy behind when she did. “You’re all naked ambition and no talent!” he reportedly chided. But she’d made up her mind: to be the centre of attention, you needed to be the singer.
So Madonna started a new hand with an old boyfriend, Steve Bray. Variously known as The Millionaires, Modern Dance and Emmy (one of Madonna’s nicknames, Bray drew the line at calling the group Madonna), they played Anglophile rock influenced by The Pretenders and The Police. One night the group performed at Max’s Kansas City, the nightclub/restaurant where Bruce Springsteen and Aerosmith had played their first New York shows, and where they caught the attention of Camille Barbone. a music businesswoman from Queens. She immediately offered Madonna a contract, on one condition: she ditch the band. “[They] were awful,” Barhone later remembered. “But I was amazed at her musicality. She didn’t have the strongest voice, but she’s one of the best performers who ever lived.”
Acknowledging Barbone’s bisexuality, Madonna flirted her way to cash loans, free accomodation and music business contacts before the pair fell out over the band’s musical direction. Barbone favoured straight-ahead rock, while Madonna’s ear had been turned by the disco sound of Debbie Harry’s solo album Koo Koo. In their final telephone conversation, Madonna reportedly told Barbone, “I’m a bitch, you’re a bitch, we can work something out.”
Meanwhile, Madonna was back to washing dishes. “That was the fearless part of her,” remembers Barbone. “Walk away from what she knows, jump into the abbys.”
Her next move was to blag a job at the cloakroom at Danceteria – the club at the centre of New York’s party scene – start romancing DJ Mark Kamins and persude him to play one of her demos, Everybody, over the PA. Whenever its simple call-to-arms chorus(“Everybody/Come on, dance and sing/Everybody/Get up and do your thing”) came on, she’d hit the dancefloor and show off her latest look – fishnet tights, fingerless gloves, stockings tied around the head and denim jacket tagged with her new graffiti name: “Boy Toy”.
“I was in hospital with a hole in the heart,” remembers then Sire records president Seymour Stein, recalling the first time he met Madonna. “I’d had it all my life, but it didn’t bother me until I turned 40, then it began acting up – probably because of the rock’n’roll lifestyle. It was around the 15th day (in bed) and I had begun to vegetate. I hadn’t shaved in days, my hair made me look like The Wild Man Of Borneo and I was walking around in a hospital gown with a slit up my ass.”
Madonna wasn’t fazed. “She just cared if my hands worked, so I could sign a contract,” he says. “She had the song Everybody on cassette. My first impression was this ruthless – and I mean this in a very positive way – determination to succeed. After she left, Mark said. What do you think? and I said, You know, if it was Halloween and the shortest way home was through a graveyard, she’d take it.”
Stein contracted Madonna to release two 12″ disco singles. Everybody, produced by Kamins, was a hit on underground dance radio and in the clubs. Accordingly, Kamins was astonished to be dropped as producer for the second single, Burning Up. But Madonna was moving on again. Her next step was to woo Jellybean benitez, DJ at The Funhouse, another of New York’s hipster hangouts. The pair became lovers. When Madonna came up short of material for her debut album, Benitez played her a demo of Holiday, written by Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens of the pop group Pure Energy. Benitez had already offered it to Supremes icon Mary Wilson and singer Phyllis Hyman but both had turned it down.
“That record launched my career as a record producer,” says Benitez. “A lot changed for both of us very quickly. Was I as ambitious as her? Yeah, definitely. That’s why we got along so well.”
Bolsted by Holiday, Madonna’s eponymous debut would eventually sell more than 10 million copies. In February 1984, after her appearance on The Tube, it limped into the UK charts at 37. Madonna would later say that the songs were weak. No matter: she kew where to head next.
For her second album, Like A Virgin, Madonna followed her instinct and teamed up with Chic’s Nile Rodgers. His irresistable grooves would bolster singles Material Girl, the title track and Into the Groove (the latter added later, after the success of the film Desperately Seeking Susan) into worldwide smashers. “She was very forceful even then,” Rodgers remembers. “She told me flat out that if I didn’t love the songs sge was going to play me, then we couldn’t work together.”
Having grasped the business of making a smash record, Madonna moved to the next stage of her domination plan: cultivating a highly marketable image. Frequently referred to as “the first star of the MTV era”, the singer was afforded the perfect opportunity to make a lasting impression at MTV’s inaugural Video Music Awards on 14 September 1984. Hosted by Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler and featuring appearances by Rod Stewart, Tina Turner and David Bowie, it was a music event on an unparalleled scale.
Madonna knew she had to make maximum impact. “Up until a week before the show, she didn’t know what kind of set she wanted,” remembers former MTV executives Les Garland. “One day she calls and goes, I’ve got it. I want a tiger. I want to lay around and sing Like A Virgin to a tiger. I said I’d check it out. I did, and called her back saying they’re not going to let us have any tigers at (New York venue) Radio City. So she comes back with (the notion of) a 17-foot cake we only had five days to build for her. It threw us over budget, that friggin’ cake. At rehearsal, she’s climbing up the cake and has this wedding thing (dress) with nothing else on underneath. She looks down and says, How does my butt look? Looks good from down here, I say.”