Pop legend Madonna is known for her constant reinvention as a performer. Her biggest hits include “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Like a Prayer,” “Vogue,” “Secret,” and “Ray of Light,” among many others.
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 lossMadonna’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.