With her seductively catchy smash hits and signature style, Madonna had the competition licked from the start. As she turns 60, More looks back on the dazzling rise and sheer gall of the Material Girl, through the eyes of those who know her best – startin
Iwas awaiting open-heart surgery in New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital in mid-1982 when the demo tape arrived. As penicillin dripped into my heart, I slotted it into my Sony Walkman and immediately felt an excitement. I liked the hook, I liked the voice, I liked the feel, and I liked her name. I liked it all and played it again.
I reached over and called up Mark Kamins, the DJ who was hustling this new singer and her song to record companies all over town. ‘Can I meet you and Madonna?’ He called back and said they’d drop by the hospital that evening. ‘What?’ ‘I know. I told her you were sick, but she really wants this.’
I hit all the panic buttons. ‘Get me a pair of pyjamas,’ I told my secretary. ‘Oh, and send me a hairdresser as soon as you can.’
Months before, Mark had started dropping hints about a dancing beauty who had introduced herself to him at Danceteria, the number-one downtown New York club. She charmed the pants off him, literally, and played him a self-made demo of a song called Everybody. He had reworked and revamped it and I was finally hearing it.
By the time Madonna walked into my hospital room, my hair was good and I no longer smelled like a farm labourer. Of course, she took one look at the tube stuck into my skin and squirmed. Not that she really cared about my predicament. She’d come to get a record deal before this old record guy croaked, along with his cheque-signing hand.
She was all dolled up in cheap punky gear, a club kid who looked absurdly out of place in a cardiac ward. She wasn’t even interested in hearing me say how much I liked her demo. ‘The thing to do now,’ she said, ‘is sign me to a record deal.’ She then opened her arms and laughed. ‘Take me, I’m yours!’
She didn’t take long to cut through the smalltalk. ‘And now,’ she said, ‘you give me the money.’
‘What?’ I snapped, a little irritated. I had no idea she was broke and hoping to leave the hospital with a cheque.
‘Look, just tell me what I have to do to get a f***ing record deal in this town!’ she hit back, sounding deflated. ‘Don’t worry, you’ve got a deal,’ I said. Lots of people have written about Madonna’s natural star power, and it’s absolutely true that when she was still a complete unknown she oozed a dazzling aura that even a hardened – and gay – veteran like me wasn’t immune to.
I’m a record business entrepreneur, the man who signed the Ramones, Talking Heads and The Pretenders, and shipped into America a whole bloodline of British bands, from Depeche Mode to The Smiths and Seal. My label, Sire, was by then a part of Warner Bros, and my business was turning great music into hit records.
The deal we agreed was modest: $15,000 per single, for three singles, with an option for an album. Knowing what we know today, that tiny agreement looks comical. However, all she had then was one clubby song that you couldn’t get on Top 40 radio. She wasn’t a musician, she didn’t have a band. To be honest, I was doing Mark Kamins a good turn; there was no reason to believe I was looking at a female Elvis.
The biggest joke of all was that I couldn’t even get the 15 grand out of Warner. I spoke to Mo Ostin, the dictatorial head of Warner Bros Records, while still in hospital. He said absolutely not. He told me I was signing too many acts. I told him Madonna was special, with immediate appeal to international audiences. Still he refused. In fact, he did everything in his power to kill the deal.
The whole thing was saved by Nesuhi Ertegun, the head of Warner’s international division, along with his brother, the legendary record man Ahmet. I tracked Nesuhi down on holiday and explained the situation. He didn’t even ask to hear the demo. He told me to rest up and, yes, he’d gladly pick up the tab. You had to love the Ertegun brothers.
Madonna ended up selling more than 300million records for Warner. Over two decades she clocked up 12 No1 singles, 48 Top 10s and eight No1 albums, and all that’s just in the US alone. Madonna is as big as it gets, up there with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles and Michael Jackson. So let me just repeat that detail for posterity: had Mo got his way, Madonna would not have been signed to Warner Bros. Of course, when she broke worldwide, Mo quickly claimed her for himself. I break out in a rash whenever I hear the myth that Madonna somehow slept her way to the top. Trust me, no big shot picked her up and sprinkled her with stardust. I certainly didn’t know then just how big she would be, but I did believe with all my heart she would be really big. I defy anyone to sleep their way to No1 and stay there for well over three decades. If there was a trail of whimpering, wounded men along her path to the top, it was only because various guys tried to hold on to her. But as they’d all learn, she didn’t need any of them. The thing to remember about Madonna’s early days is that she was penniless in New York without a safety net. Just look at her early photos; it’s all dime-store junk, wristbands, hairspray, heavy make-up. She was certainly a looker, but I was not interested in her appearance. What I heard was something in her voice, and a personality that drew in disciples and over time gathered an army. Each studio collaboration bore at least one great tune, every photo-shoot produced at least one knockout image, every record company meeting converted new believers. She kept raising the stakes until a growing number of voices started agreeing that, hell yeah, this hot chick should maybe be given a bigger break.
Holiday got inside the Top 20 in January 1984 and was technically the first hit. The big bang, however, turned out to be Borderline, the fifth single. There really was no stopping her from that point on. It was Madonna who asked if Nile Rodgers, who had seen blockbuster success with Chic, David Bowie and Duran Duran, could produce her second album, and a very smart choice that was – although it nearly blew the lid off the Warner boardroom.
Nile smoothly declined a 3% royalty, offering to accept 2% on sales up to two million, or 6% on everything if the album sold more.
When the top brass showed me the deal, I couldn’t believe they’d let this happen.
‘Are you guys crazy?’ I gasped. ‘With a producer like Nile Rodgers, Madonna is definitely going to sell two million.’
‘Well, Madonna will have to pay,’ they said bluntly. This meant short-changing Madonna so that Nile’s cut would be sliced out of hers.
Warner’s problem, however, was that Madonna had recently appointed Allen Grubman, the toughest showbusiness lawyer in New York. And when the
Like A Virgin album came out in November 1984, it sold six million copies almost immediately.
Mo, who hadn’t been interested until then, read the numbers and hit the roof. But with Grubman limbering up in the background, I knew how much s*** was going to fly.
When Grubman entered the room, it was like a wrestler stepping into the ring. He was a heavyweight Brooklyn Jew who delivered every legal slam in filthy language and personal insults. ‘The artists did their jobs. You f***ed up. So now you wanna f*** Madonna.’ He’d come to repel them into submission.
When Mo could physically take no more, Grubman stood up to exit the battle scene. Everyone knew the score. From here on in, Warner was going to accept pretty much whatever Madonna wanted.
She was in charge now.
I DEFY ANYONE TO SLEEP THEIR WAY TO THE TOP AND STAY THERE FOR FOR WELL OVER THREE DECADES
With the arrogance and mischief for which she would very soon be famous, Madonna had a game she liked to play in the spring of 1983, just as her career was beginning to heat up. In the company of her backing dancer Erika Belle, she would go to the Mudd Club, the centre of New York nightlife at the bottom of Manhattan, and terrorise attractive men. ‘Rika,’ she’d announce to her friend, ‘I’m the best-looking white girl here and you are the best-looking black girl, so let’s do it.’ They’d target cute boys, boldly kiss them on the mouth, take their phone numbers and, while the hopeful young men were still watching, crumple up the numbers and throw them away.
As she approaches 60, it’s clear that Madonna’s life and career amount to far more than a list of the men she loved and left, or occasionally lost. But then again, few women have had such a remarkable talent for making men – and women – fall in love with them, or had such a good time doing it. Madonna’s romantic history features actors, pop stars, models, producers, sporting icons, film directors, sons of presidents. But like those deluded boys on the dancefloor, most of them haven’t managed to slow her down for long. As an early boyfriend, the DJ Mark Kamins, put it: ‘She wasn’t difficult to be around – she just didn’t stick around.’
Popular, sexually curious and never short of boyfriends in her teenage years in Detroit, Madonna lost her virginity at the age of 15 with high school heart-throb Russell Long, before shifting her attention to school football player Nick Twomey – now a pastor in Traverse City, Michigan.
Her outward persona was the alpha-female big mouth, but Madonna has protested that she was never promiscuous and only slept with her steady boyfriends. In the summer of 1978, Madonna arrived in New York, but it was to be four years before she got her first record deal, let alone the kind of fame she desired. In the meantime, she suffered a trauma that very nearly broke her spirit, and quite possibly shaped her sexuality from that day on. In a run-down part of town near the dance studio she attended, she was grabbed on the street by a thick-set black man who led her at knifepoint up the steps of a tenement block to the roof. There, he forced her to perform oral sex before leaving her crying and shaking on the rooftop. Back at her tiny apartment, she thought about going back to Michigan. But she stuck it out, burying deep her sense of shame and isolation and pushing onward. It might be argued that her anger at the attack came out afterwards in a need for complete sexual control. Many friends have suggested that she used sex in those days to get attention, a meal, a bed for the night. As a woman who felt powerless, it was one way to show men that she was the dominant one. In New York she rekindled a romance with Stephen Bray, a musician she’d met while studying dance at the University of Michigan. He was a key collaborator on some of her first recordings, and he realised early on that being Madonna’s boyfriend was a difficult job. ‘Some people are very upfront and some are like “You’ll find out eventually you’re not my boyfriend and that I’m seeing 12 other people.” That was more her approach,’ he said. ‘I learned... not to count on her in that area.’ When Madonna persuaded Kamins to play her homemade demo tape, she quickly became his girlfriend, and they moved into a small flat on the Upper East Side. ‘We had no money and we were sleeping on milk crates,’ he remembered. ‘She wasn’t a home-maker. There was only one thing on her mind. I bought some lingerie for her one night and she wasn’t interested. To Madonna, a boyfriend was secondary. She knew how to use her sexuality to manipulate men – everyone from promotion guys to radio programmers.’ By the time her first single Everybody was setting New York alight in 1982, Madonna was the lover of a young, upand-coming black artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Her disciplined lifestyle contrasted with his penchant for getting stoned and sleeping till the afternoon.
According to Basquiat’s assistant, Steve Torton, Madonna bailed out because Basquiat ‘never saw the sun. She said she couldn’t take it. I saw her and I said: “How’s Jean?” and she said: “He’s on dope. I went over there tonight and he was nodding out on heroin. I’m not having anything to do with that.” She moved out, just like that, totally emotionless.’
Soon, Madonna moved into a spacious apartment with John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez, producer of her early hit Holiday, in New York’s SoHo. ‘She was my girl,’ he said. ‘We spent hundreds of hours necking in the studio between takes,’ he recalled. ‘We had a very open relationship. It was part of my lifestyle, her lifestyle.’
When it finally arrived, stardom came fast, propelled by hits including Lucky Star,
Borderline and Like A Virgin. Her relationship with Benitez lasted two years, but it was falling apart when she found herself pregnant with his child. She decided not to keep the baby, but it was an agonising decision for her. That was the moment she met hot-headed actor Sean Penn on the set of the Marilyn Monroe-inspired video for her single Material Girl. He became her protector, and a jealous, domineering force.
‘It wasn’t passionate love at first sight in the beginning, but it slowly became that for both of them,’ said Penn’s friend, the film director James Foley. ‘Suddenly they were madly in love and inseparable and couldn’t wait to get married. She became the entire centre of Sean’s life.’
On her wedding day, in the grounds of a clifftop house at Point Dume, Malibu, in front of guests including Cher, Carrie Fisher and Andy Warhol, Madonna wore white taffeta and a bowler hat. In their determination to get a shot, photographers disrupted the ceremony by hovering over the site in helicopters. ‘Madonna was going ballistic, giving [the paparazzi] the finger, while Sean was running in the house for his shotgun,’ recalled Bill Meyers, the keyboardist in Madonna’s band.
From the moment they got engaged, Madonna and Penn found themselves number-one fodder for tabloid stories. In 1986, while they were filming Shanghai Surprise, Penn was arrested after hanging an intruding photographer by his ankles from the balcony of their ninthfloor hotel room. He broke out of jail and escaped the city by jetfoil. In 1987, while Madonna was on her Who’s That Girl tour, he served 33 days of a 60-day sentence in the Los Angeles County Jail after assaulting an extra, while on probation for punching songwriter David Wolinski, who had kissed Madonna on the cheek.
In December 1987, Madonna filed for divorce and, while estranged from Penn, had a three-month dalliance with John F Kennedy Jr, though her efforts to meet John-John’s mother, the glacial Jackie Onassis, were rebuffed. The affair soon cooled, not just because of Jackie O’s hostility. Madonna was less than impressed with JohnJohn’s love-making technique. ‘It’s like going to bed with a nine-year-old,’ she said.
She returned to Penn, but by the end of 1988 he had reached a point of psychological crisis. On December 29, he allegedly held Madonna prisoner in their Malibu home – some claim he pinned her down and sat on her for hours. In January 1989, Madonna filed for divorce, and this time her decision was final.
Soon after, she accepted an invitation from 52-year-old Hollywood lothario Warren Beatty to discuss the part of Breathless Mahoney in his new film Dick Tracy. The complete opposite of Penn, Beatty was poised, subtle and assured. He was an oldschool movie actor, as smooth and perfumed as the air in the Hollywood Hills. And he was delighted that Madonna was interested in him. Critics have suggested that their affair was a publicity stunt for the movie, but while it created a great deal of press interest, there was also genuine affection between them.
However, 1991’s candid documentary film In Bed With
Madonna, filmed in the dying days of their affair, couldn’t disguise the fact that Beatty was growing tired of his younger lover. He didn’t appreciate her crude roadie-like humour and
the way she bossed him around. The constant, intrusive camera was, for him, a step too far.
Madonna’s risqué 1992 coffeetable book Sex featured photographs taken with another famous boyfriend, the rapper Vanilla Ice, who complained afterwards that he had no idea the pictures would be published. The two had begun dating after she went to a concert of his in the early Nineties. ‘It was fun,’ he said, ‘she was a sweetheart.’ But after the book came out he refused to speak to her. Madonna’s affair with cross-dressing basketball player Dennis Rodman became one of her biggest regrets. At first, Madonna appreciated the flamboyant Rodman’s style. According to the indiscreet Rodman, Madonna hounded him for months, viewing him as a perfect physical specimen and a potential husband and father. But she was hurt when Rodman gossiped about her in his book, while remarking in private that he wasn’t that great in bed.
Now in her mid-30s, Madonna was anxious to have children. In an elusive search for Mr Right, she had brief relationships with various unlikely men – including rapper Tupac Shakur, the year before he was killed in a drive-by shooting.
It was in the summer of 1994 that Madonna met a more promising partner, Cuban-American fitness trainer Carlos Leon. She’d noticed him jogging in Central Park and arranged an introduction via her assistant. The affair grew slowly, away from the limelight. She enjoyed meeting his parents, a hardworking couple living in a modest 91st Street apartment.
For a while she could make-believe this was just a normal relationship.
But Leon had a hint of Latin machismo in his temperament. She found him possessive and jealous, and he didn’t relish playing second fiddle to Madonna the star. While filming Evita she discovered she was pregnant with Leon’s baby, Lourdes (Lola), born on October 14, 1996. Soon after the birth, their relationship foundered, fuelling rumours that Leon had been a mere sperm donor.
Then, just a few months after the release of her triumphant 1998 album
Ray Of Light, Madonna met Guy Ritchie at a summer party at Sting’s house in Wiltshire in western England. In Ritchie she found someone very like herself: driven, determined and, as a laddish film director with a privileged upbringing, adept at reinvention.
Ritchie was still dating model Tania Strecker, and would meet Madonna in secret, sharing passionate trysts in a tiny flat in Soho’s Wardour Street. By the beginning
GUY SAID MADONNA ‘LOOKED LIKE A GRANNY’ WHEN COMPARED TO HER DANCERS
of 2000 she found herself pregnant with son Rocco. The pair married at Skibo Castle in Scotland at the end of that year.
For a time, it seemed like Madonna had finally met her true match. But in spite of Rocco and their adopted son David, the relationship gradually unravelled.
Madonna was ‘needy’, Guy wasn’t interested in Kabbalah, and he was critical of her, reportedly saying that onstage she ‘looked like a granny’ compared to her nubile backing dancers. The divorce battle, which concluded in November 2008, was brief but brutal.
Her first serious romance after Ritchie was with Brazilian model and DJ Jesus Luz, who was 22 when they met on a photo-shoot in December 2008. They split in 2010, and Madonna was soon in the arms of a dancer called Brahim Zaibat. That lasted three years, in defiance of a 30-year age gap.
Since then she is rumoured to have dated dancer Timor Steffens and model Aboubakar Soumahoro, both in their 20s, and in June last year she was linked to early-30-something Kevin Sampaio, a Portuguese model.
Madonna enjoys the companionship of the young, good-looking and carefree – life is complicated enough with six children and a career, so why not? And it’s this love and passion that continues to fuel her music.
© Lucy O’Brien, 2018. Madonna: Like An Icon is published by Corgi on July 26, priced €12.60.
SHE ALWAYS CONFRONTS AND MANAGES TO CHALLENGE THE CAMERA
For more than half her life she’s been one of the most photographed women on the planet, repeatedly gracing the covers of Vanity Fair and Vogue as the muse of everyone from Richard Avedon to Mario Testino. Testino, best known for his iconic photographs of Princess Diana, claimed that his photoshoot with Madonna for Versace in the 1990s is his most memorable shoot of all time. ‘All are unique,’ he said. ‘But that was a real moment for me.’
Right from the start of her career, Madonna knew exactly how to get the kind of arresting shots that would help make her famous. When Deborah Feingold photographed her in Feingold’s studio flat in New York in 1982, it was clear that even aged 24 and yet to release her first album, the young singer was incredibly focused.
‘She took the elevator to my seventh-floor flat and got straight on with it,’ Feingold recalls of the shoot for Star Hits magazine.
‘She was completely in control of everything. She knew how she wanted to look, how to move, and how she would look from every angle. We barely spoke. She just danced and I shot – about 48 frames. We didn’t talk about anything.
‘I had a bowl of candy in the room and she just took some bubblegum and then picked up a lollipop and licked it. After about 15 minutes, we knew we’d both got what we wanted and she left.’ Brian Aris was asked to photograph the young singer two years later, in London. ‘Madonna arrived on time but with a large entourage – and there was a spat at the end when one young man tried to collect a number of my Polaroid pictures,’ he said. ‘Madonna didn’t conform to the normal pop profile of the period. She didn’t want overmade-up styling. ‘Compared to the big hair and extraordinary make-up used by stars like Boy George and Eurythmics, her look was pretty subdued. ‘She had serious attitude and knew exactly what she wanted, but there were no tears or tantrums. Madonna had great sex appeal and a unique look. She always confronts and challenges the camera.’ Jo Knowsley
Above: Madonna in 1983. Right: with record label boss Seymour Stein in 1985. Below, right: An early photo session from 1978
Madonna in 1983, the year Holiday was released. Below: as a teenager in her high school yearbook
LOVERS: Madonna with exhusband Sean Penn, 1986. Right: with Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy. Inset: with Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982. Below: Dennis Rodman
LIKE MOTHER: Madonna with ex-boyfriend Carlos Leon and their daughter, Lourdes, in 2016. Below, left: with Guy Ritchie, 2006
BACK IN BLACK: The sleeve photo, shot by Patrick Demarchelier, from the single Justify
My Love, 1990
THE FUTURE’S BRIGHT: A young Madonna posing for photographer Brian Aris in London, 1984