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.
Every item ever written about Madonna touts her membership in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Not so. Soon after her arrival in New York, she apparently won a work-study scholarship and was later asked to take classes with the troupe's third company, which is a little like getting a tryout for the sub-junior-varsity team. Still, it was her first encounter with people who were as driven as she. "I thought I was in a production of Fame," she giggles. "Everyone was Hispanic or black, and everyone wanted to be a star."
Madonna was not to the minors born. She left Ailey after a few months and hooked up with Pearl Lang, a former Martha Graham star whose style Madonna describes as "a lot of pain and angst." This was not a match made in heaven, and she left the company soon after.
Living a hand-to-mouth existence in the city and continuing to ignore the pleas of her father that she cease this silly business and finish college, Madonna started scanning the trades for less limiting work: parts where she would not only dance but sing. And that's when she met Dan Gilroy.
He wasn't drop-dead hip like the other guys she'd known; he was an affable, self-effacing fellow from Queens. He and his brother, Ed, were both musicians and had rented out an abandoned synagogue in Corona, Queens, where they lived and rehearsed.
Madonna and Dan met at a party and hit it off – she spent a couple of nights at the synagogue. "He stuck a guitar in my hand and tuned it to an open chord so that I could strum," she remembers. "That really clicked something off in my brain." She cut back to only one dance class a day.
While the relationship was still in its infancy, however, Madonna was given what seemed like the chance of a lifetime; to go to Paris and do background singing and dancing for Patrick Hernandez, a disco lunk who had lucked into a "worldwide hit" with the forgettable "Born to Be Alive." She would be given a beautiful apartment, a maid, a voice coach, people to guide her career. "I was in seventh heaven." she remembers. "I kept thinking, 'I can't believe it. Somebody noticed me.'"
In Paris, everything was as promised, but she wasn't happy. "I was like the poor little rich girl," she recalls. The guidance was a joke. No one would talk to her in English. They said they wanted to turn her into the next Edith Piaf, but how could they if she hadn't written anything? She felt lonely, miserable and confined. "Once again I was forced into the role of enfant terrible. All I wanted to do was make trouble, because they stuck me in an environment that didn't allow me to be free." So she'd order three desserts in a fancy restaurant and skip the entree. She took up with a Vietnamese kid with a motorcycle. She went to Tunisia with the Hernandez tour, club-hopped with some lively locals and went swimming in a one-piece body stocking. You see, she just wanted to be noticed.
Of course, there was still this guy in Queens, batting out letters to his loved one. "He was my saving grace," she says. "His letters were so funny. He'd paint a picture of an American flag and write over it, like it was from the president, 'We miss you. You must return to America.' He really made me feel good." A walloping case of pneumonia persuaded her to come back. As soon as she hit stateside, she rang the synagogue.
She spent the better part of a year there, writing songs for the first time and learning how to play a variety of instruments. "My intensive musical training," she says with a sigh. "It was one of the happiest times of my life. I really felt loved. Sometimes I'd write sad songs and he'd sit there and cry. Very sweet."
In that nurturing atmosphere, Madonna and the brothers Gilroy started a band called the Breakfast Club, with fellow ex-dancer Angie Smit on bass and Madonna on drums. They would rehearse every day there; Madonna had yet to move in with her beau. "I stayed there so much, but I hadn't really moved there yet, and I remember when I said, 'Can I just live here, Dan?' And he said. 'Well, we have to ask Ed.' And I said, 'Ed! You have to ask Ed?'"
The Gilroys had been honing their musical skills for a number of years, but simple craft is not the surest way to success in the music business, and Madonna had something that was more useful: moxie. Dan Gilroy recalls it well. "She'd be up in the morning, a quick cup of coffee, then right to the phones, calling up everybody – everybody. Everyone from [local record dealer] Bleecker Bob's to potential management. Anything and everything."
"I was just a lot more goal oriented and commercial minded than they were," says Madonna. "I just took over in the sense that I said, 'What do you know? Teach it to me.' I took advantage of the situation. I wanted to know everything they knew, because I knew I could make it work to my benefit." Cold words? Perhaps.
She knew what to do. "Immediately, when I started working with them, I started thinking record deals, making records and doing shows and stuff like that. And, of course, most of the people you have to deal with are men, and I think I just was naturally more charming to these horny old businessmen than Dan and Ed Gilroy." As Madonna herself realizes, Dan Gilroy "had created a monster. I was always thinking in my mind, 'I want to be a singer in this group, too.' And they didn't need another singer."
Dan found himself torn between his girlfriend – who wanted to sing more, who wanted the band to use her songs – and his brother, Ed. After a year, Madonna announced her intention to return to Manhattan and pursue a singing career. The romance – and the instructional period – were over. "I knew that with that kind of drive and devotion to getting ahead something had to happen." Gilroy says. Was she more talented than her confreres? "No, she didn't strike me as . . . well, she was fun, you know? She'd be working at this design thing that I was doing and she would kind of break into a dance in the middle of the day. An incredible attention getter. So that's got to tell you something."
Yes, but given the tensions, was Dan glad to see her go? "Well, no," he says. "I missed her very much." He had taken her in and had taught her the skills she needed, and now she was leaving him. Most of the time she hadn't even had to work a day job. "Ah, well, I was doing a job anyway, so having her there was just a bonus," says Dan. "It was fun. It was a good year. And besides," he jokes, "I have a palimony suit now, you know? Marvin Mitchelson, where are you? Of course, he doesn't win too many of those, does he?"
Back in the big city once more, Madonna quickly summoned a ragtag band around her. Good fortune struck in the form of a telephone call from her old Michigan boyfriend, drummer Steve Bray – he was coming to New York. "I found out that, oddly enough, she needed a drummer," he recalls. "So I said, 'Fine, I'll be there next week.'"
"He was a lifesaver," says Madonna. "I wasn't a good enough musician to be screaming at the band about how badly they were playing."
Times were very lean as they began working together, playing and writing songs. They moved themselves, their equipment and personal belongings into the Music Building, a garment-center structure that had been converted into twelve floors of rehearsal rooms. It housed the cream – if you can call it that – of the post-New Wave scene in New York. Nervus Rex was there, and so were the Dance and the System. "I thought they were all lazy," says Madonna of that scene. "I felt a lot of affection for them, but I thought that only a handful of people were going to get out of that building to any success."
Bray notes that Madonna was not exactly the most popular person on the scene. "I think there was a lot of resentment of someone who's obviously got that special something. There are so many musicians out there, but there are only a few who really have that charisma. The community out there kind of, I think, frowned on her about that. She had trouble making friends."
It didn't matter much to Madonna, who felt that most of the groups there wanted only to hit it big among their pals. She wanted to be big nationwide, and the scene didn't approve of such a desire. "It was like living in a commune," agrees Bray, "very close-minded thinking – if you're good in New York, if you can get regular jobs at CBGB's or at Danceteria, that's fine, you've made it. And that's definitely not the case."
Her band changed names like socks: first they were the Millionaires, then Modern Dance and finally Emmy, after a nickname that Dan Gilroy had given Madonna. ("I wanted just Madonna," says she. "Steve thought that was disgusting.") By any name, it was a hard-rocking outfit that was continually beset by snafus, especially when it came to guitarists. "She was playing really raucous rock & roll, really influenced by the Pretenders and the Police," says Bray with a sigh. "She used to really belt. If we'd found that right guitar player, I think that's when things would have taken off . . . but there are so many horrible guitar players in New York, and we seemed to get them all."
The money was too short, and the band finally split up. Meanwhile, a manager heard a demo that Madonna had put together (it was an early version of "Burning Up") and signed her up. As part of the deal, she was put on salary and moved out of the Music Building, ending up in spacious digs on New York's Upper West Side. Madonna was quick to pull Bray onto the gravy train. Her new band – called Madonna – started playing the circuit yet again.
Madonna's notion of music, however, was starting to change. It was the heyday of urban contemporary radio in New York, and Madonna was captivated by the funky sounds emanating from boom-boxes all over town. She started writing material in that vein, but the band and her manager hated it. "They weren't used to that kind of stuff, and I'd agreed with my manager to do rock, but my heart wasn't really in it."
She would rehearse rock & roll with her band, then stay behind with Bray and record funkier stuff. There were fights, arguments, the band was pissed off. She'd come so far; how could she turn back now? But . . . "I finally said, 'Forget it, I can't do this anymore. I'm going to have to start all over.'"
And so she did, with the loyal Bray once more at her side. During the day, she and Bray would write songs; at night, she'd hit the clubs: Friday night at the Roxy; other nights at Danceteria, the offical home for white hipsters with itchy feet and a sense of humor. It was fun, sure, but it was also a way to press the flesh, to work the room, to bounce up into the deejay's booth, lay a cozy rap on him and slap a tape into his hand.
At Danceteria, she caught the eye of Mark Kamins, a widely respected club deejay with ties to record companies. "She was one of my dancers, you could say," says Kamins. "There was a crowd out there that came every Saturday night to dance." Did he know she had other ambitions? "Hey, everybody does at a nightclub, but she was special." He was impressed enough with what he saw to hit on the young woman now and then. She gave him a copy of her vaunted funk demo, a recording she and Bray had made that included a song called "Everybody." "I was flirting with him," she admits. Kamins and she started dating. He listened to the record and liked it. He put the song on at the club – just a four-track demo! – and people danced to it. He went into the studio with her and produced an improved version. And he went to Sire Records and single-handedly got her signed to a deal.
Bray was jubilant – at last he'd get to produce Madonna for real. What he didn't know was that Madonna had promised Kamins that in exchange for his work on her behalf he would get to produce her debut album. Executives at Sire and its parent company, Warner Bros., had already given their okay.
Madonna, however, had a surprise for them both. Neither Kamins nor Bray would be producing Madonna. The job instead fell to former Stephanie Mills producer Reggie Lucas. Why?
"I was really scared," she says. "I thought I had been given a golden egg. In my mind, I thought, 'Okay, Mark can produce the album and Steve can play the instruments." Uh-uh – Steve wanted to produce. "It was really awful, but I just didn't trust him enough." The pair had a bitter falling out. "Steve didn't believe in the ethics of the situation."
"It was very hard to accept," he says today.
And what about Kamins? "Similarly, I didn't think that Mark was ready to do a whole album." Kamins got the word, not from the woman who had promised him, but from Sire. "Sure, I was hurt," he says gruffly. "But I still had a royalty coming from the record."
Madonna was still performing, but not with a band. Instead she'd hop onstage at dance clubs and sing to backing tracks or lip-sync, enlivening her performances with the sort of lusty dancing that has now become her trademark. That's where Lucas – unaware of the intrigue that had preceded him – first saw his newest act.
"I wanted to push her in a pop direction," he recalls. "She was a little more oriented toward the disco thing, but I thought she had appeal to a general market. It's funny about that thing with Kamins. The same thing that happened to him pretty much happened to me on her second record, when they had Nile Rodgers."
And the rest was history, though it was a history that was a long time in the making. The LP's first single. "Holiday," was not an immediate success, but Madonna was content. "All I said was, 'I know this record is good, and one of these days Warner Bros. and the rest of them are going to figure it out.'"
It's likely that her videos were the breakthrough, as Madonna perfectly merged her dance training with her knowledge of the randier things in life. How did she manage to put across such seething sexuality where so many have tried and failed? "I think that has to do with them not being in touch with that aspect of their personality. They say, 'Well, I have to do a video now, and a pop star has to come on sexually, so how do I do that?' instead of being in touch with that part of their self to begin with. I've been in touch with that aspect of my personality since I was five."
Keeping her in touch with that side of her personality off the set these days is master mixer John "Jellybean" Benitez. The pair met during one of Madonna's stints at the Fun House, the disco where Jellybean first earned his reputation. They have stayed together for the past year and a half, but Madonna flinches at the suggestion that this is her most stable relationship.
"Why does it seem like that?" she queries before giving a throaty laugh. "We've had our ups and downs, let's not fool anybody." Still, the relationship was serious enough for Madonna to bring him home and meet her parents. Why has Jellybean held on where so many have fallen by the wayside? Would you believe ambition?
"We both started to move at the same pace," says Jellybean. "My career has exploded within the industry, and hers has exploded on a consumer basis. We're both very career oriented, very goal oriented." Which may mean that the relationship is safe . . . at least for the time being.
Our dinner is finished. Along the way, Madonna has coolly sussed out the room for us: Yes, that's Rudolf of Danceteria in the corner with his girlfriend, Diane Brill. You know, she usually seems like she's strapped in her clothes, don't you think? Madonna's been all but unnoticed, but that's okay. In your hometown, coolness is its own reward. Elsewhere her influence is becoming pervasive. The Madonna clones are ratting their hair, putting on rosaries and baring their bellies from coast to coast.
It is an indication of the peculiar state of pop stardom these days that Madonna has gotten only the most fleeting glimpses of her own fame. She hasn't toured – won't, in fact, until next year – hasn't performed live in a long time. She hasn't even left New York a lot. She can count on one hand the numbers of times she's been mobbed.
For now, the buzz of recognition is still easily dealt with, even on a trip uptown to Danceteria. "It's like going back to my high school," she coos in the cab, and her arrival does bring out that exact mix of admiration, excess cordiality and what-are-you-doing-here puzzlement. She gets a hug from graffiti artist Keith Haring and is kissed on the mouth by a nearly endless series of hepcats. ("Gotta be careful who you kiss on the mouth these days," she says, wiping her lips.) There's no gawking, no crush of unknowns, no autographs requested, but her presence clearly delights everyone else who's there.
She's an unqualified success. But did she exploit people to get there? "I think that a lot of people do feel exploited by her," says Dan Gilroy. "But then again everyone's got so many expectations about a relationship with her. She's very intense immediately with somebody, very friendly. Perhaps people feel, 'This is what our relationship is about,' and then if there is any cooling of that, it's taken to be a rejection."
And what's the final tally? In addition to reaping a chunk of royalties from Madonna and for the one song he produced on it, Mark Kamins says that his affiliation with her has given his career a shot in the arm. Reggie Lucas is inundated with projects. Steve Bray eventually patched it up with Madonna – "the relationship's too old to have something like that stand in its way" – and shares writing credit with her on four of her new album's songs. And Dan and Ed Gilroy of the Breakfast Club (whose first LP is due early next year) were able to find a new drummer to replace Madonna: Steve Bray, who has the final word on those whom Madonna has touched.
"Exploited? People say that, but that's resentment of someone who's got the drive. It seems like you're leaving people behind or you're stepping on them, and the fact is that you're moving and they're not. She doesn't try to be that polite. She doesn't care if she ruffles someone's feathers."
True, Madonna? She smiles. "C'est vrai."