Plucky STAR

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

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - MORE COVER STORY - BY SEY­MOUR STEIN

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.


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


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.


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

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