Who Is Madonna?
Madonna is a pop music singer and actress who went solo in 1981 and became a sensation in the then male-dominated 1980s music scene. By 1991, she had achieved 21 Top 10 hits in the United States and sold more than 70 million albums internationally. In January 2008, she was named the world's wealthiest female musician by Forbes magazine.
Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone was born in Bay City, Michigan, on August 16, 1958, to parents Silvio "Tony" Ciccone and Madonna Fortin. Tony, the son of Italian immigrants, was the first of his family to go to college, where he earned a degree in engineering. Madonna's mother, an x-ray technician and former dancer, was of French Canadian descent. After their marriage in 1955, the couple moved to Pontiac, Michigan, to be close to Tony's job as a defense engineer. Madonna was born three years later, during a visit with family in Bay City. The third of six children, Madonna learned early on how to handle her role as the middle child, admitting that she was "the sissy of the family" who often used her feminine wiles to get her way.
Her parents' strict observation of the Catholic faith played a large role in Madonna's childhood. "My mother was a religious zealot," Madonna explains. "There were always priests and nuns in my house growing up." Many elements of Catholic iconography — including her mother's statues of the Sacred Heart, the habits of the nuns at her Catholic elementary school, and the Catholic altar at which she and her family prayed daily — later became the subject of Madonna's most controversial works.
Family Tragedy: Death of Mother
Another large influence on Madonna's early life was her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer during her pregnancy with Madonna's youngest sister. Treatment had to be delayed until the baby reached full term, but by then the disease had grown too strong. On December 1, 1963, at the age of 30, Madonna's mother passed away. Madonna was only five years old at the time of her mother's death. The loss significantly affected Madonna's adolescence. Haunted by the memories of her mother's frailty and passive demeanor during her final days, Madonna was determined to make her own voice heard. "I think the biggest reason I was able to express myself and not be intimidated was by not having a mother," she says. "For example, mothers teach you manners. And I absolutely did not learn any of those rules and regulations."
She fought especially hard against the rules imposed by her stepmother, Joan Gustafson, who met Madonna's father while working as the family housekeeper. Madonna says Gustafson often made her take care of the younger children in the household, a task she greatly resented. "I really saw myself as the quintessential Cinderella," Madonna later said. "I think that's when I really thought about how I wanted to do something else and get away from all that." She rebelled against her traditional upbringing by turning her conservative clothing into revealing outfits, frequenting underground gay nightclubs and rejecting her religious background.
Music and Dance: Late 1970s
Madonna balanced the insubordinate side of her personality with a drive for perfectionism and high achievement. She was a straight-A student, cheerleader and disciplined dancer who graduated from high school a semester earlier than her peers. In 1976, her hard work earned her the attention of the University of Michigan, which offered her a full scholarship to their dance program.
In 1977, during her undergraduate studies at Michigan, Madonna was awarded a six-week scholarship to study with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City, followed by a rare opportunity to perform with choreographer Pearl Lang in 1978. At the urging of her dance instructor, the budding star dropped out of college after only two years of study to move to New York and further her dance career. Once in New York, Madonna paid her rent with a handful of odd jobs, including nude art modeling, serving at the Russian Tea Room and performing for the American Dance Center.
In 1979, Madonna began dating Dan Gilroy, one of the founding members of a ska-influenced pop-punk band called Breakfast Club. Gilroy introduced Madonna to the head of a vaudeville review in Paris, and she spent some time in France working as a showgirl. During this trip, she fell in love with the combination of singing and performing. When she returned to the United States in 1980, she joined Gilroy's band as its drummer and later became the lead singer. Madonna formed several different bands of her own over the next few years, including Madonna & The Sky, The Millionaires and Emmy.
Rise to Pop Stardom
In 1981, Madonna decided to go solo and hired manager Camille Barbone of Gotham Records to help her get her singing career on track. Barbone showed Madonna how to navigate the male-dominated world of the music business, and helped put together a studio band that accentuated the budding star's hip style. Friend Stephen Bray, a musician in her band, wrote her first hit, "Everybody," and Madonna used her brash business style to get the recordings to New York music producer Mark Kamins. Kamins then helped Madonna score a record deal with Sire Records. "Everybody" hit No. 1 on the dance charts in 1982.
'Madonna' Album: 'Borderline,' 'Lucky Star' and 'Holiday'
Using the success of the song as leverage, Madonna convinced Sire Records to produce the full-length album Madonna in 1983. The album was a slow but steady success, and included the hit singles "Borderline," "Lucky Star" and "Holiday." Soon, girls all over the country were imitating Madonna's distinct sense of fashion, which included fishnet stockings, lace lingerie, fingerless gloves and large crucifix necklaces. "Holiday" also earned the singer an appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand in 1984, where she told the host that her main ambition was "to rule the world."
'Like a Virgin,' 'Material Girl' and 'Angel'
This intensity and determination was apparent in her 1985 follow-up album, Like a Virgin, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Chart and went platinum within a month. The title track, produced by Nile Rodgers, would later be listed as Madonna's biggest pop hit of all time, with the song remaining on the top of the charts for six weeks. She had two other Top 5 hits from the record: the tongue-in-cheek, empowering "Material Girl" and the dance ditty with bounce, "Angel."
'Crazy for You'
She also starred in her first mainstream feature film, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), and performed the soundtrack's single, "Into the Groove," which hit No. 1 on the U.S. dance charts. Her next single "Crazy for You", which she performed for the 1985 film Vision Quest, also became a No. 1 hit. She then started her first music tour, The Virgin Tour, and watched 17 consecutive songs climb into the Top 10 on the Billboard Chart while also creating a wave of iconic music videos, constantly re-crafting her persona.
Movies and More Hit Songs from the 1980s and 1990s
Over the next five years, Madonna's life was a whirlwind of activity. On August 16, 1985, she married actor Sean Penn and co-starred with him in the film Shanghai Surprise (1986). She then went on to star in three more movies over the next few years: Who's That Girl (1987), Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989) and Dick Tracy (1990). Madonna's soundtrack album I'm Breathless: Music From and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy resulted in two Top 10 hits: "Vogue" and "Hanky Panky." She also released four more hit albums: True Blue (1986), Who's that Girl (1987), You Can Dance (1987) and Like a Prayer (1989).
'Like a Virgin' MTV Video Music Awards Performance
As always, Madonna mixed her drive for success with her penchant for scandalous behavior. It started with her controversial 1985 performance of her hit single "Like a Virgin" on the MTV Video Music Awards, which involved writhing around suggestively onstage in a wedding dress. Then came her marriage to Penn, which was marred by reports of domestic violence and his assault of a photographer — behavior that landed him a month's jail time and eventually led to the couple's very public divorce.
'Like a Prayer' Music Video
In 1989, Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video aired on MTV as part of a lucrative Pepsi endorsement. The video featured interracial relationship themes, burning crosses and a blending of sexual innuendo and religious ideologies. As a result of the video, Pope John Paul II urged fans not to attend her concerts in Italy, and Pepsi pulled their endorsement of the star.
Despite the public outcry, Madonna had become more popular than ever. The Like a Prayer album spawned a No. 1 title track as well as additional hits like "Express Yourself," "Cherish," "Keep It Together" and "Oh Father." By 1991, she had achieved 21 Top 10 hits in the United States and sold more than 70 million albums internationally, generating $1.2 billion in sales. Committed to controlling her career, Madonna helped found Maverick Records, a label under the Warner Music Group, in April 1992.
'Truth or Dare' Documentary
She also continued to gain attention by pushing social boundaries. First came the film Truth or Dare (1991), a revealing documentary about her Blonde Ambition tour. This was followed by the publishing of Sex (1992), a soft-core pornographic coffee-table book featuring the pop star in a variety of erotic poses. Despite its controversial nature, Sex sold 150,000 copies on the day of its release in the United States alone. Three days later, all 1.5 million copies of the first edition were sold out worldwide, making it the most successful coffee table book ever released.
The album Erotica (1992) was unveiled at the same time and proved equally successful. By the end of 1993, the album had reached double-platinum status. Bedtime Stories came next in 1994, with its groovy lead single "Secret" and the beautifully melancholic "Take a Bow."
Movies and Music: Late 1990s - Present
'Evita,' 'Immaculate Collection' and 'Music'
By 1996, Madonna had proven her versatility as a star in both film and music. She starred in the critically acclaimed screen adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita (1996), which also featured Antonio Banderas. She won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical, and in the film she performed "You Must Love Me," which earned an Academy Award for Music, Original Song.
Madonna had released the greatest hits album The Immaculate Collection in 1990, following that years later with Something to Remember (1995), a round-up of her balladry that included the new song "You'll See." In 1998, she released Ray of Light, a critically-acclaimed outing that had her delving into electronica and spiritual exploration with the help of producer William Orbit. More hits came in the form of songs like "Frozen" and "The Power of Good-Bye." Madonna also earned three Grammys, two for the Top 5 title track and one for the Ray of Light album itself.
Then came Music (2000), another successful electronic project, this time with more overt, unpredictable dance leanings and the bulk of production handled by French whiz Mirwais. She also continued her work with Orbit, as seen on a couple of Music tracks and the Grammy-winning homage to 1960s-psychedelia, "Beautiful Stranger," part of the soundtrack for the movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
The pop star then made the move from the big screen to the London West End stage in the play Up for Grabs (2002) and wrote her first children's book, The English Roses, which was published in 2003, the same year as the release of her album American Life. Madonna was inducted into the inaugural U.K. Music Hall of Fame in 2004, and her next album Confessions on a Dancefloor came out the following year. Around this time Madonna became the artist with the most gold-certified singles in the United States, beating The Beatles' longstanding record.
Her professional life continued to boom: In January 2008, she was named the world's wealthiest female musician by Forbes magazine. Madonna earned much of this income from her H&M clothing line, a deal with NBC to air concert footage and her Confessions tour — the highest-grossing tour for a female artist to date. She also continued to sing, act and manage a number of business interests, splitting her time between the United Kingdom and the United States.
She was the writer and executive producer of I Am Because We Are, a documentary about the lives of Malawi's AIDS orphans, and the art-house film Filth and Wisdom, both with 2008 releases. Her album Hard Candy was released in April of the same year, and her Sticky and Sweet tour became her first major venture with concert promoter Live Nation.
In 2009, she released a fourth greatest hits album, Celebration, which became Madonna's eleventh No. 1 album in the United Kingdom. With the release of the record, Madonna tied Elvis Presley as the solo act with most No. 1 albums in the United Kingdom.
'W.E.' Film, Super Bowl XLVI
In 2011, Madonna released her latest film project, W.E., about the American divorcée Wallis Simpson and her romance with Britain's King Edward VIII, contrasted with a more contemporary relationship. Edward gave up his crown to marry Simpson, and the couple became known as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Working behind the camera, Madonna co-wrote and directed this romantic drama, which received decidedly mixed reviews. She, however, did pick up a Golden Globe for an original song she co-wrote and sung for the film, "Masterpiece."
Madonna received another lukewarm reception when it was announced she would be performing at Super Bowl XLVI in February 2012. Ahead of the show, many football fans complained about her selection as part of the halftime entertainment. She put on an impressive show, however, which featured her latest single "Give Me All Your Luvin'." This time around, it wasn't Madonna who created waves during the show. Her musical guest, M.I.A., provoked an outcry when she used an obscene hand gesture in her live performance.
Madonna released her studio album, MDNA, in March 2012. On her tour to support the record, she courted controversy. Madonna occasionally flashed her audiences and used Nazi imagery while performing in France. At a concert in St. Petersburg, Russia, she spoke out in support of LGBT rights, which had landed her in legal trouble. She was sued for more than $10 million for breaking a law against promoting homosexuality to minors, but charges were later dismissed.
Tumultuous Road to 'Rebel Heart'
Through 2014, Madonna was reportedly at work on her next album, said to be collaborating with producers like Avicii and Diplo as seen via Instagram. In December of that year, however, more than a dozen songs planned for her 2015 album Rebel Heart were leaked online. An Israeli singer was later arrested and indicted for the thefts related to the leak.
To counterattack the theft, Madonna released six songs online before Christmas, with the tracks reaching the Top 10 of iTunes' charts in various countries. However, more controversy followed in January when the singer released via Instagram doctored portraits of prominent leaders and artists like Nelson Mandela and Bob Marley bound by black chord, mirroring the cover art of her forthcoming album. In February 2015, there was another album leak of Rebel Heart.
That month, Madonna also performed lead single "Living for Love" live at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards with a bull and matador theme. More than two weeks later, she performed the song at the Brit Awards, but fell down a short flight of stairs due to a wardrobe mishap, with the singer later reporting that she had suffered from whiplash.
The official version of Rebel Heart, Madonna's 13th full-length release, was released on March 10, 2015, with the deluxe version consisting of 19 tracks. The album was noticeably more stylistically diverse than its predecessors in terms of musical production, lyrically veering from vividly sexual provocation and contemporary boasting to quieter reflection.
After confirming she was working on new music in early 2018, the iconic singer revealed in an April 2019 video announcement that studio album No. 14 would be titled Madame X.
"Madame X is a secret agent," she says in the video. "Traveling around the world. Changing identities. Fighting for freedom. Bringing light to dark places. She is a dancer. A professor. A head of state. A housekeeper. An equestrian. A prisoner. A student. A mother. A child. A teacher. A nun. A singer. A saint. A whore. The spy in the house of love. I’m Madame X."
Soon afterward, Madonna released the single "Medellín," a joint effort with Colombian singer Maluma, and the duo teamed up to deliver a steamy performance of the song at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards.
Personal Life and Children
Madonna was married to actor Sean Penn from 1985 to 1989. Madonna became a mother in 1996, giving birth to Lourdes Maria (Lola) Ciccone Leon, whom she had with her lover and personal trainer, Carlos Leon. In 2000, she married British director Guy Ritchie and gave birth to their son, Rocco John Ritchie, the same year. Madonna and Ritchie split in 2008.
On the eve of her 50th birthday in 2008, Madonna faced more challenges in her personal life. She spent much of the previous year fighting allegations that she circumvented traditional Malawi laws to bring home her newly adopted son, David Banda, whom she had been raising since 2006. Critics accused Madonna of using her vast wealth to fast-track the adoption process, a charge she vigorously denied. A coalition of 67 local rights groups challenged the interim custody order on the grounds that existing laws in Malawi do not allow for international adoptions.
Madonna's application to permanently adopt the boy was approved by Malawai's high court on May 28, 2008, the pop star's lawyer said. "It's a beautiful and positive judgment," Alan Chinula told reporters. "Finally the court has granted Madonna full adoption rights of the boy. ... It's all over, thank God." She decided to adopt from Malawai again, and in June 2009, after another legal battle, she was granted custody of Mercy James.
In February 2017, Madonna announced she had adopted 4-year-old twins, Estere and Stelle, from Malawi, posting a photo with the girls on her Instagram account.
In 2017, Madonna attempted to legally halt the auction of several of her personal items, then in the possession of ex-personal assistant Darlene Lutz. However, the singer had previously signed a release from "any and all" future claims against her former friend and employee, and as a result, a judge ruled that the disputed auction could continue the following year.
The list of personal items included panties and a hairbrush, but the one that drew the most attention was a break-up letter from former boyfriend Tupac Shakur. In the letter, the rapper expresses his feelings that while dating a Black man likely boosted her reputation for being "exciting," he only stood to suffer for being involved with a white woman. "I never meant to hurt you," he writes. "Please understand my previous position as that of a young man with limited experience with an extremely famous sex symbol."
In August 2018, Madonna sparked more headlines with her tribute to the recently deceased Aretha Franklin at the MTV Video Music Awards. After mentioning that Franklin "changed the course of my life," Madonna launched into a lengthy sidebar about her own early music career, setting off critics who wondered why she was using the tribute to talk about herself.
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