Singer, performer, actress. Born Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone 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.
Another heavy 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 1st, 1963, at the age of 30, her mother passed away. Madonna was five years old.
Her mother’s death 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.
But Madonna balanced this 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 attentions 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 in order 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 states in 1980, she joined Gilroy’s band as its drummer and later became its lead singer. Madonna formed several different bands of her own over the next few years, including Madonna & The Sky, The Millionaires and Emmy.
In 1981, Madonna decided to go solo and hired manager Camille Barbone of Gotham Records, to help her get her singing career on track. Camille 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 DJ and New York music producer Mark Kamins. Kamins then helped Madonna score a record deal with Sire Records. “Everybody” hit number one on the dance charts in 1982.
Using the success of the song as leverage, Madonna convinced Sire 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. The song “Holiday” also earned the singer an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in 1984. During her interview on the show, she told Clark that her main ambition was “to rule the world.”
This intensity and determination was apparent in her 1985 follow-up album, Like a Virgin, which hit number one on the Billboard Chart and went platinum within a month. 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 an instant No. 1 hit. She then started her first music tour, The Virgin Tour and watched 17 consecutive songs climb into the Top Ten on the Billboard Chart.
In 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 during the 80’s: 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 Dick Tracy resulted in two top-ten hits: “Vogue” and “Hanky Panky.” She also produced four more hit albums: True Blue (1986), Who’s that Girl? (1987), You Can Dance (1987), and Like a Prayer (1989).