Mary Gabriel's 'Madonna: A Rebel Life' chronicles the Queen of Pop's journey from her first performance to hits like 'Vogue' and 'Like a Prayer'.
Madonna didn’t become the Queen of Pop overnight. Over several decades, she earned the title through hard work, good music and many controversial moments.
Every year of the Vogue performer’s life is explored extensively in Mary Gabriel’s new biography Madonna: A Rebel Life, out Tuesday, which compiles interviews with the superstar and those around her to paint a complete portrait of her artistry and impact.
Throughout the over-800-page book, readers learn about each Madonna album and its creation as well as her experiences growing up in Michigan, moving to New York City, earning success as a pop star, marrying multiple times and raising six kids.
Below are seven revelations from Madonna: A Rebel Life, from her first time delivering a shocking performance to how she earned the nickname “Madge.”
Madonna's First Time Giving What Would Become Known as a Controversial "Madonna" Performance
While attending West Junior High in Michigan’s conservative Rochester Hills neighborhood, Madonna Louise Ciccone performed at the school’s talent shows — “my one night a year to show them who I really was and what I really could be,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I just wanted to do totally outrageous stuff.”
After dancing to Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man” during seventh grade, Madonna did a choreographed number to The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” the following year and shocked the crowd. Wearing shorts and a top covered in green-and-pink painted hearts and flowers, she and a friend moved in a sensual manner for the performance.
The audience was taken aback, as was Madonna’s father, Tony Ciccone, who considered the performance inappropriate and grounded her for two weeks. They never spoke about the moment in detail around the house, according to her brother Christopher Ciccone, but Madonna apparently was called a “slut” around town afterwards.
She was subsequently shipped off to her grandma’s house, which she liked, because her grandmother would allow her to go out with boys and drink beer. When Madonna returned home, she told Interview in 1985, her stepmother Joan “told me I looked like a floozy and I was really smashed.”
Soon, Madonna began adopting the term herself alongside a friend who also received the criticism. “We got bras and stuffed them so our breasts were over-large and wore really tight sweaters – we were sweater-girl floozies. We wore tons of lipstick and really badly applied makeup and huge beauty marks and did our hair up like Tammy Wynette,” she told Interview.
Madonna's First Time in a Gay Nightclub
After Madonna met ballet teacher Christopher Flynn — the first out gay man she’d ever known — in Rochester Hills, he took her to a nightclub called Menjo’s when she was 16. Located in an area of Detroit where LGBTQ+ community members had flocked, the club played songs like Vicki Sue Robinson’s Turn the Beat Around and Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing, while “men were doing poppers and going crazy,” she told Rolling Stone in 1984.
She appreciated the freedom everyone in the room seemed to feel, as she had felt the opposite in many other areas of her life. “In school and in my neighborhood and everything, I felt like such an outsider, a misfit, a weirdo. And suddenly when I went to the gay club, I didn’t feel that way anymore,” Madonna explained to The Advocate in 1991. “I just felt at home. I had a whole new sense of myself.
The First Song Madonna Wrote: "Tell the Truth"
After moving to New York City to make it as a dancer in 1978, Madonna quickly met a musician named Dan Gilroy, and they began dating. He taught her to play guitar, and she eventually moved into his Queens apartment before starting to play drums in Dan and his brother Ed’s The Acme Band (later known as The Breakfast Club).
Once Madonna was confident enough on guitar, she tried her hand at writing a song called Tell the Truth — her first of many. “It was maybe four chords, but there were verses and a bridge and a chorus, and it was a religious experience,” she told Rolling Stone in 2009. “The words just came out of me. I was like, ‘Who’s writing this?'”
Madonna Informed Fans on AIDS-Related Facts Before the United States Government
The AIDS epidemic was in full effect with Madonna embarked on her Who’s That Girl World Tour in 1987, and she’d already watched friends including Martin Burgoyne and Andy Warhol die from the disease. She was devastated and decided to turn her July show at Madison Square Garden into a benefit concert with proceeds donated to amFAR, becoming the first pop star to hold such a large fundraiser for the cause.
While she performed Papa Don’t Preach during the show, a message appeared on the screen behind her: “SAFE SEX.” She also dedicated Live to Tell to Burgoyne. At the venue, she distributed a brochure featuring information about how AIDS was spread as well as prevention tips — before the United States government had done such a thing.
“Right now there is no cure for AIDS but there is a way to stop it from spreading. Don’t let fear keep you from knowing the facts,” read a handwritten note from Madonna in the brochure. “Read this booklet — then give it to your best friend. It just might save his or her life… It just might save your own.”
The concert ultimately raised $400,000 for amFAR.
How Madonna Earned the Nickname "Madge"
Madonna moved to London as she started working on 2000’s Music album, and her fans in the United Kingdom appreciated the way she exhibited the behavior of a normal, everyday person rather than a massive celebrity. Soon, they began calling her “Madge” — which sounds like more of an average person’s name than “Madonna.”
She was romantically involved with Guy Ritchie at the time, and he reportedly told her the nickname stemmed from “Her Majesty” — seemingly attempting to convince her she wasn’t being labeled an everywoman.
The First Time Madonna Censored Herself
Several of Madonna’s controversies have come about because she refused to censor her own artistic messages. Former President George W. Bush was in office when she wrote the angsty, political song American Life and filmed a very controversial music video filled with images of war and commentary on its cultural effects. Crafted before Bush called for an invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the video was released afterwards and immediately deemed insensitive.
Not wanting to offend anyone, she withdrew the music video one day after it was released — marking the first time she’d ever censored herself, despite previously refusing to do so on several other occasions. This time felt different to her, as she had become a mother to two children — Lourdes and Rocco — and didn’t want them to have to face the brunt of her controversies. An alternate video was then released, featuring Madonna performing American Life in front of various nations’ flags as a sign of unity.
Madonna and Her Brother Christopher Fell Out After Decades of Friendship and Collaboration
Madonna was very close with her brother, Christopher Ciccone, who also acted as her assistant and interior designer for quite some time. They started growing apart around 2000, and she didn’t ask him to join her Drowned World Tour — her first string of concerts that he wouldn’t be a part of. Around the same time, he was also bothered by her choice to hire someone else to redesign her New York City apartment.
As she geared up to marry Guy Ritchie in 2000, Christopher became bothered by the filmmaker’s frequent homophobic remarks, which Madonna didn’t always shut down despite her allyship. Christopher — who identifies as gay — walked out of one wedding celebration event, feeling offended.
In 2008, Christopher published a book called Life with My Sister Madonna about their relationship. She was angry at the time and unsuccessfully attempted to halt its publication, throwing a copy of the book across a room upon receiving a copy.
He wrote further about Ritchie’s alleged homophobia in the book, prompting a response from the Snatch director at the time. “I don’t make anything of the book. The poor chap wrote it out of desperation,” he told The Guardian. “I don’t think it’d be intelligent to comment on that. I can’t give too much equity in what the chap’s gonna write in that book… But you’d be hard pushed to be a homophobe and marry Madonna.”
Now, Christopher and Madonna come to better understand each other. “We are at peace now and just spoke last week,” Christopher told Radar in 2019.