Madonna and I are face to face at a corner table at Evelyne's, a cacophonous but spiffily appointed French restaurant in the heart of New York's most newly gentrified neighborhood, the East Village. Things are changing rapidly in this part of town. Its Ukrainian meeting halls and no-frills eateries are under siege from the upscale crowd invading with their asparagus ferns and health-club memberships. Although in transition, many of the neighborhood's blocks still have the same seediness they had when the teenaged Madonna Ciccone first plopped herself down in her own digs.
"The first apartment I ever had all by myself," she recalls between sips of Campari, "was on Fourth Street and Avenue B, and it was my pride and joy, because it was the worst possible neighborhood I could ever live in." Back then she was a struggling dancer, the girl from the University of Michigan who was "dying for attention – but the right kind, you know?"
She has gotten it. Her sirenlike voice and ultrasultry video presence have yanked her from downtown obscurity. She has notched two Top Ten singles, "Borderline" and "Lucky Star," and her album, Madonna, has gone platinum and is still high on the charts after a more than forty-week run, postponing the release of the already recorded follow-up LP, Like a Virgin, itself as chock-full of hits as its predecessor.
Consider Madonna, though, and it's easy to drift away from her songs and prattle instead about her videos. They have practically rediscovered what it means to project raw sex appeal: feverish tugging on her dress in "Burning Up," as if she couldn't wait to tear the garment off her body; her pouty-lipped antics for "Borderline"; and the upfront eroticism of "Lucky Star," her breasts and bottom thrust at the camera, index finger teasingly tucked into her mouth. Still, her most important bodily part has been her naked tummy, exposed by her two-piece outfits, the curve of it oscillating through male minds everywhere.
Now Madonna has a spacious loft in even-tonier SoHo, a movie deal (she's currently making Desperately Seeking Susan for Orion Pictures), and an expanse of money and stardom winging her way. Which is why she can glance out the window of this restaurant and say, "Feels great to come back to this neighborhood and know I'm not as poor as everyone else."
That rub you the wrong way? Too bad – that's her style. She's in the same sans-midriff getup featured in her videos, but in person, she doesn't adopt the coyly fetching approach you might anticipate. This is a woman who saves her sex-bomb act for the times when the meter's running. And don't let her oft-flashed "Boy Toy" belt buckle fool you. The men who have gotten close to her – tough guys a lot of them – have gotten their hearts broken as often as not. Throughout her life, there has been one guiding emotion: ambition. "I think most people who meet me know that that's the kind of person I am," she says. "It comes down to doing what you have to do for your career. I think most people who are attracted to me understand that, and they just have to take that under consideration."
Some have; some haven't and have lived to regret it. "You'd think that if you went out with someone in the music business that they'd be more understanding," she says, "but people are the same wherever you go. Everybody wants to be paid more attention to."
Madonna Louise Ciccone – she was named after her mother – had plenty of attention early in her life. Born in Bay City, Michigan, twenty-four years ago to a Chrysler engineer and his wife, she was the eldest daughter in a family of six: Daddy's little girl. But her world shattered when she was six, as her mother succumbed to a long bout with cancer. The tragedy brought her yet closer to her father, and there have been few women in her life ever since. "I really felt like I was the main female of the house," she remembers. "There was no woman between us, no mother."
Her little world altered just as dramatically when Madonna was eight, on the night her father announced to the family that he was going to marry the woman who had been the family's housekeeper. Madonna was shocked. "It was hard to accept her as an authority figure and also accept her as being the new number-one female in my father's life. My father wanted us to call her Mom, not her first name. I remember it being really hard for me to get the word mother out of my mouth. It was really painful.
"I hated the fact that my mother was taken away, and I'm sure I took a lot of that out on my stepmother." Perhaps smarting from what she took for rejection by her father, Madonna threw herself into the world of the fantastic. In eighth grade, she appeared in her first movie, a Super-8 project directed by a classmate, in which an egg was fried on her stomach (even then he knew). She watched old movies at revival houses. She acted in plays at the series of Catholic high schools that she attended. She danced to Motown hits in backyards. Indeed it was dance that became the consuming passion of her adolescent life. She'd take all her classes early so she could leave school and head into the big city to take yet more classes. She saw world-famous companies whenever they came through town. And her ballet teacher became what she calls "my introduction to glamour and sophistication." He showed his charge a world she didn't know existed. "He used to take me to all the gay discotheques in downtown Detroit. Men were doing poppers and going crazy. They were all dressed really well and were more free about themselves than all the blockhead football players I met in high school."
Rigid, but with a sense of humor, he became Madonna's first mentor: "He made me push myself," she says. By all accounts, she was a wonderfully talented terpsichorean, and he thought she could make it big. "He was constantly putting all that stuff about New York in my ear. I was hesitant, and my father and everyone was against it, but he really said, 'Go for it.'"
Boasting a solid grade-point average in addition to her dancing skills, Madonna graduated from Rochester Adams High School in 1976 and won herself a scholarship to the University of Michigan dance department. Once there, the seventeen-year-old Madonna – no less luscious in a short, spiky, black hairdo – pored through poems by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath ("any really depressed women") and attempted to wreak all manner of havoc in her hoity-toity ballet classes.
One former classmate of Madonna's recalls a grim plié exercise – deep knee bends with the stomach held in and the posture perfect – that dissolved when Madonna emitted a huge belch. Or the hot day when the lissome lass moaned what a drag it was to have to take class in leotards, and why couldn't she just wear a bra? "I was a real ham," she says, chortling. "I did everything I could to get attention and be the opposite of everyone else. I'd rip my leotards and wear teeny little safety pins. And I'd run my tights. I could have gone to a nightclub right after class."
That's exactly where she wound up one night: the Blue Frogge, the U of M's pastiest preppie disco. She was dancing away – engulfed in right-assed white boys doing their John Travolta imitations – when around the corner came this black waiter.
"He was real cute," she recalls. "Someone all soulful and funky looking you couldn't help but notice. First time in my life I asked a guy to buy me a drink." And he did. The guy she'd picked up was a musician named Steve Bray, and he would eventually change her life. Bray – witty, sophisticated, cool – was a drummer in an R&B band that did the lounge circuit. Madonna became a regular fixture at their gigs.
"She wasn't really a musician back then; she was just dancing," says Bray today. Aside from her beauty, Bray recalls being captivated by the veritable aura around this feisty, footloose female. It was unmistakably the aura of ambition. "She stood out, quite. Her energy was really apparent. What direction she should put that energy in hadn't been settled, but it was definitely there."
"Those were good days," Madonna recalls. "But I knew my stay at Michigan was short-term. To me, I was just fine-tuning my technique." After five semesters, she turned her back on her four-year free ride and headed for New York City. Steve? Oh, yeah. "Looking back, I think that I probably did make him feel kind of bad, but I was really insensitive in those days. I was totally self-absorbed." It wouldn't be the last time.
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