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8 Surprising Facts About Madonna From Her New Biography

Author Mary Gabriel explores the 65-year-old icon’s career — and controversies — in ‘Madonna: A Rebel Life’


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Little, Brown and Company / Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

It’s difficult to underestimate the impact of Madonna, 65, on American culture, particularly for the Gen Xers who first spied her cooler-than-cool look in her MTV videos for Borderline and Lucky Star. The Queen of Pop kept pumping out those chart-topping hits, while her evolving image influenced fashion and pushed boundaries for decades.

Enter Madonna: A Rebel Life, by Mary Gabriel (Oct. 10), author of, among others, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution. Her new book chronicles Madonna Louise Ciccone’s journey from suburban Michigan to no-last-name-necessary megastardom in exacting detail. Written without Madonna’s participation, it may be TMI for her more casual fans, but serious Material Girl devotees will surely eat up this weighty homage.

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While Madonna’s career highs (and lows) have been obsessively dissected for decades, Gabriel highlights some lesser-known aspects of her life and work. Among them:

1. She’s a classically trained dancer.

Known for her grueling tour performances, it’s no surprise that Madonna is a dancer by training. She started studying ballet in her teens and later earned a dance scholarship from the University of Michigan, but dropped out to move to New York and train under such top choreographers as Martha Graham and Pearl Lang. While she’d soon ditch her classical repertoire for sexier moves at New York hot spots like Danceteria and Studio 54, Madonna’s early dance training provided her with the discipline she would apply to building her music career in the years to come.

2. She was one of the “children of Warhol.”

Before she was the Queen of Pop, Madonna cavorted with king of pop art Andy Warhol and the up-and-comers of the NYC art world, including artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom she briefly dated (she even wrote her 1983 debut album in his apartment).

The trio of artists were all in the audience when Madonna’s first tour reached Radio City Music Hall, and Warhol and Haring attended her 1985 Malibu nuptials to actor Sean Penn. When Haring died of AIDS-related complications in 1990, Madonna dedicated the last U.S. show of her “Blond Ambition” tour to his memory, raising more than $300,000 for AIDS research.

3. She walked away from an early record deal.

In 1979, Madonna was scouted by two Belgian producers who wanted to bring her to Paris to record an album. Despite being hosted in all-out luxury (she had a driver and maid at her disposal), the then-21-year-old was miserable in the City of Light.

“All I wanted to do was make trouble,” she said, because she was stuck doing menial tasks over which she had no creative control. Claiming she wanted to return home for a vacation, she got the producers to pay for a round-trip ticket to the U.S. — and never returned to Paris.

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4. Her brother was her closest confidant — until their falling-out.

As Gabriel tells it, Madonna’s younger brother Christopher Ciccone was the central male figure in the singer’s life for decades — not only her best friend but a trusted adviser who worked alongside her on tour, decorated her homes and became known as the problem-solving “pope” within Madonna’s circle of collaborators.

Sadly, relations between the two siblings seem to have deteriorated, with tensions reaching a fever pitch when Madonna objected to the release of his 2008 memoir, Life with My Sister Madonna. “It was not going to be an ‘I hate Madonna’ book,” Gabriel quotes the younger Ciccone as saying. “That’s not how I feel.”

5. No, she wasn’t looking for her shoe during her 1984 VMA performance.

Madonna famously offered a scandalous performance of “Like a Virgin” at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, during which she was broadcast rolling around suggestively onstage — an attempt, she later maintained, to retrieve a lost shoe.

According to Gabriel, however, the shoe story is just a cover. Instead, Madonna retrieved her shoes prior to getting horizontal and “rolling lustily on the floor.” 

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6. She denies that she was ever physically abused by ex-husband Sean Penn.

Dubbed the “Poison Penns” by the tabloids, Madonna’s relationship with actor Sean Penn (her husband from 1985 to 1989) was strained by stalking paparazzi and Penn’s violent outbursts.

One persistent rumor, which Gabriel traces to a 1989 British tabloid report, is that some sort of violent incident took place between the couple in their Malibu home one New Year’s weekend. But Madonna denied allegations of physical abuse in a sworn statement in 2015, saying, “Sean has never struck me, ‘tied me up’ or physically assaulted me, and any report to the contrary is completely outrageous, malicious, reckless and false.”

7. The process of adopting her son David ‘crushed’ her.

In 2006, the now mother of six adopted her son David from the East African country of Malawi, where she had started to carry out philanthropic work for the nation’s orphans and other vulnerable children. What she wasn’t prepared for was the storm of criticism she would receive from human rights organizations (which tried to block the adoption in court), adoption activists (who claimed she was being given VIP celebrity treatment) and the media. The adoption pushback “crushed me,” Madonna said in a 2015 interview. “I have to say it was one of life’s great disappointments.”

8. She’s a major movie lover.

Madonna discovered foreign films as a student at the University of Michigan, prompting a lifelong passion for movies. She starred in hits including A League of Their Own (1992) and Evita (1996), directed the 2011 drama W.E. (about the romance between King Edward VIII and American socialite Wallis Simpson) and sprinkled classic Hollywood references throughout her projects. The 1989 Express Yourself music video, for example, was based on the 1927 silent film Metropolis. (She also acted in some serious duds, including 1986’s Shanghai Surprise, with Penn.)

According to the book’s epilogue, Madonna was slated to direct her own biopic, but recent news reports say that the project was put on hold earlier this year.

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