She’s a style icon, a sex symbol and the most successful female recording artist in the world. But as she approaches her 50th birthday, and on the eve of a new world tour, can Madonna – beset by media gossip – continue her remarkable talent for reinvention?
Madonna’s favourite board game as a 10-year-old child was Monopoly. Her brother, Christopher, later recalled that every time they played she would have a tantrum if she failed to buy up the most expensive properties on the board. “If she didn’t get Park Place [Mayfair in the English version], she invariably stamped her feet and said, ‘But it’s mine’.”
It says much about Madonna’s single-minded precocity that, four decades later, she not only owns a £7.5m Georgian townhouse in Mayfair, but that her estimated personal fortune of £160m would enable her to buy up much of Bond Street and Park Lane before passing Go.
From the very beginning, it seemed that Madonna knew exactly what she wanted. If she were denied it, she would simply stamp her foot and reiterate that unshakable childhood conviction that global fame was hers for the taking.
But now, on the brink of her 50th birthday and on the eve of a new 50-date world tour, the Madonna myth is in danger of unraveling. First, there were the persistent rumours of an estrangement from her husband of seven years, the British film director Guy Ritchie. Then gossip surfaced that Madonna had formed a ‘close emotional attachment’ with an American baseball star 18 years her junior, Alex Rodriguez, a man nicknamed ‘A-Rod’.
Shortly after the Ritchies issued a July statement insisting that they were ‘not planning on getting a divorce’, Madonna’s brother, Christopher Ciccone, chose to publish an excoriating memoir in which he painted his older sister as demanding, self-centred and monstrously egotistical.
Ciccone, a homosexual interior decorator, blamed the collapse of his relationship with Madonna on Guy Ritchie’s alleged homophobic tendencies and fondness for ill-judged witticisms about ‘poofters’.
He went on to claim that the Ritchies’ marriage was in such a state of crisis that they were seeking regular mediation from a Kabbalah rabbi. “Over the years,” Ciccone wrote, “my sister’s sense of loyalty and fairness has clearly been eroded by the adulation, the applause and the sense of entitlement.”
In recent weeks, the pressure on Madonna appears to have taken its toll. Rehearsals for her forthcoming Sticky & Sweet tour have reportedly been disrupted by frequent appointments with a doctor, a physiotherapist and a chiropractor as she struggles to cure a recurring knee injury.
She is said to be suffering from anaemia and has been pictured in the street looking gaunt and pale, her stringy frame accentuating the über-toned muscles that have become her trademark. She is the mother of three children, Lourdes, 11, Rocco, seven, and two-year-old David Banda whom she adopted in Malawi in 2006. This would all be more than enough for a woman half her age – let alone one who will be celebrating her half century on 16 August.
“It’s difficult after 40, let alone 50, for a star to stay mainstream,” says James R Parish, a veteran entertainment reporter for Variety. “As she gets older, she is getting an even more severe look to her face and it’s going to be increasingly difficult for her to stay in front of the microphone. She’s trying to keep touring, but it will be to a diminishing audience.
“It’s different with older male rock stars because, as with the Rolling Stones, the public tends to be more affectionate and forgiving. But with Madonna there will come a point when the gap between her and her audience is too big to be bridged.
“Every movie role she has done has bombed, apart from Evita, so she doesn’t have anything to fall back on other than her bank balance.”
And yet she is still a global icon, a performer who emits astonishing statistics like flashing lights from a disco glitter ball: the world’s most successful female recording artist, according to Guinness World Records; the top-earning female singer, with an estimated worth of £200m; one of the bestselling pop stars of all time, having shifted more than 250 million albums and enjoyed more number one singles than any other female recording artist in the UK. Last October, she signed a 10-year deal with the concert promoter Live Nation, worth £60m in combined touring and recording rights.
“The paradigm in the music business has shifted,” she said at the time, “and as an artist and a businesswoman, I have to move with that shift.”
Much of her success relies on this capacity for constant reinvention: from the New York street kid of the Desperately Seeking Susan era, wearing fishnets and fingerless gloves, to the airbrushed glamour of a reincarnated Marilyn Monroe, resplendent in pink satin and peroxide blonde for the ‘Material Girl’ video. More recently, she has restyled herself as a Seventies roller-disco queen, complete with Farrah Fawcett hair and Lycra leotards.
“She’s absolutely a style icon,” says Jane Bruton, the editor of Grazia magazine. “Right from the beginning, she really set trends and she’s the mistress of reinvention. What I like about her is that she’s not afraid to experiment and that means she is much longer-lasting than most celebrities. She’s been at the top for a long time and there are not that many people who have managed to maintain the public’s interest for that amount of time.”
Part of the reason we remain so intrigued is her talent for controversy. For much of Madonna’s career, she seemed to revel in shocking for the sake of it, deliberately egging on her critics with provocative sexual imagery like an over-excited adolescent mooning through the windows of a nursing home. The Roman Catholic church condemned her for burning a crucifix in the ‘Like A Prayer’ video and the Pope urged people to boycott the 1990 Blonde Ambition tour because of a scene involving simulated masturbation.
Yet through it all she gave the impression that she was in control of her own sexuality. Madonna was, literally and figuratively, always on top – a rare feat in an industry that had historically relied on a casual exploitation of Barbie-doll sexiness and unthreatening girliness to shift records. This image of a strong, sexualised woman unafraid to display the traditionally male virtue of aggressive ambition burnt itself on to the consciousness of a generation of teenage girls. “I would have no problem if my daughter looked up to Madonna as a role model, make no mistake,” said Paul McKenzie, the editor of Touch urban music magazine. “I don’t think we’ll ever see another star of her magnitude, and that’s because she shows complete professionalism and dedication.”
McKenzie says that, when Madonna agreed to do a 20-minute live gig for the BBC 1Xtra radio station earlier this year, she insisted on a four-hour rehearsal – unheard of for such a short live performance. ‘She would run through each number, then she would stop and she would have picked up on every single thing that was out of place – lighting cues, props, everything that needed changing. It was unbelievable. She wasn’t being a diva, but she knew exactly what she wanted.
“No other woman has been as impressive at working the media, working her looks, the marketing and the music. She’s done every single angle incredibly successfully and the only other people who have done that are maybe Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Madonna is a huge star who transcends time and race, which is why she’s still relevant.”
Her cultural muscle has been underlined by the very visible development of her physical strength. When, after the birth of her first child at the age of 38, Madonna discovered Ashatanga yoga in the late Nineties, it appeared that almost everyone followed suit. What had previously seemed a rather unglamorous hobby practised by worthy hippies on Moroccan nudist retreats became the quintessential exercise du jour. Suddenly, it was fashionable for a woman to look physically powerful.
“Madonna brought yoga much more into the mainstream,” says Scott Bryant, a personal trainer and fitness coach who has worked with celebrity clients. “When she started doing it, she was 100 per cent a strong role model for the women I worked with – they really liked and admired her. Now, I get women saying they want to look like her, but not as muscular. Physically, Madonna understands the importance of maintaining her muscle mass especially because she’s almost 50, and if she carries on with her current regime, with serious strength training and running, she should still be looking good in her late sixties or seventies.”
But will she still be performing in her sixties? At an age when she should be claiming her free bus pass, will she be taking to the stage in a Las Vegas casino, a souped-up version of her younger self, swathed in ostrich feathers and diamanté? Or have her recent, highly publicised troubles left her inevitably frailer and less able to withstand another decade of life in the unrelenting spotlight?
&dsquo;At some point, she’s going to start looking like a mum trying to be down with the kids,” says McKenzie. “It’s about being graceful enough to know when to stop, and personally I don’t see her lasting another five years. She might be Superwoman, but even Madonna can’t defy age.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate her. If that Monopoly game is anything to go by, then Madonna might still be capable of stamping her foot and getting what she wants for years to come.