Watch CBS News

Iconic Celebrity #4: Madonna

1010 WINS Iconic Celebrity Madonna

Known for her ever-changing, chameleon-like persona, Madonna is as much a brand as an individual. A media–savvy trendsetter, Madonna's uncanny business sense is matched only by her talent. A veritable force of nature, Madonna's ability to control her image, career and destiny was honed from an early age.

Complete 1010 WINS Iconic New York Series »


A Little Girl Grows Up Too Fast

The third child to Michigan residents and Italian immigrants Madonna and Tony Ciccone, Madonna Louise Ciccone was nicknamed Nonni to differentiate her from her young mother. When Madonna was 6 years old, her mother lost a battle with breast cancer, leaving the young girl confused and bereft of a maternal figure.

Despite her early heartbreak, Madonna excelled in school, getting good marks and gravitating towards dance studies in high school. Madonna's dance talent was undeniable, and she was awarded a dance scholarship to study at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. She did not graduate, instead choosing to come to New York and study with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.


An Unkind Welcome to City Life

Life in New York was difficult. She began waitressing at Dunkin' Donuts, but she was unable to pay the bills. Already quite at ease with her physical self, Madonna opted to earn rent money by posing for art students in the nude.

She lived in ramshackle and dangerous apartments and was raped on a rooftop by two men at knifepoint She was also held-up at gun point and was the victim of several apartment robberies. All of this understandably left her shell shocked. However, she was undeterred from her professional goals.


Turning Hardship Into Triumph

Madonna took up the drums and started to sing pop music in the band Breakfast Club. During that time, Madonna also made the rounds as a backup singer and dancer in the New York club and then-thriving disco scene. Eventually, Madonna started to craft her own lyrics, writing songs in partnership with an old college flame. Mark Kamins, a popular DJ, was spinning at New York's trendy Danceteria club and played her tapes for the crowd, who went wild. Kamins then brought Madonna to the attention of record producer and founder of Sire Records, Seymour Stein, who helped jump start Madonna's wild ride to stardom. Kamins would produce her first hit, the dance anthem, "Everybody."


Controlling Her Destiny

Madonna continued to record hits and was working on her first album, "Madonna," for Warner Brothers, when she expressed discontent with the production techniques used on multiple tracks. She turned to then romantic partner, John "Jellybean" Benitez, for guidance, and ultimately worked with him on remixing a number of songs and recording her first global monster hit, "Holiday." She continued to ruffle feathers, feed the industry machine and carve out hit after hit with songs like "Material Girl" and "Like a Virgin."


A Style Is Born

Film roles followed, but it was her upstaging of star Rosanna Arquette in the sleeper film "Desperately Seeking Susan" that brought the full thrust of Madonna's ability to rule a room, and create trends, to the forefront. "Desperately Seeking Susan" showcased a tantalizing combination of Madonna's iconic fashion sense and New York City's coolest, downtown neighborhoods. The combination proved irresistible. Sweet, young teeny boppers competed with their mothers to out-Madonna Madonna's look, making fingerless lace gloves and crucifixes the go-to accessories of the era.


Cementing An Ever-Changing Persona

Madonna's music and fashion style continued to morph over the next decade, following nothing other than her own uncanny ability to discern the next big thing and be the first one to create it. Unafraid of controversy, Madonna recorded and released the "Like a Prayer" video, which was condemned by the Vatican for its use of stigmata and sexual content, costing her a contract with Pepsi. Undeterred, Madonna's music broadened its range, vacillating between spunky pop ballads and dark, edgy sexual melodies. Her Who's That Girl Tour was all but banned by the Pope in Italy, who urged the faithful to stay away.

Madonna's personal life was also ever changing. A screen collaboration and early marriage to actor Sean Penn delighted fans, but dissolved after four years. A later marriage to director Guy Ritchie, following the birth of their son, Rocco, lasted longer but also dissolved, after eight years.

After many years of controversy as a performer, her motherly side shone through and Madonna made headlines for a new reason, with the controversial adoptions of two children from Malawi, Africa.


An Icon, a Legacy and a Woman

Currently, Madonna continues to turn heads, make trends and she's doing it all her way. A clothing line, Material Girl, is designed with her daughter, Lourdes, and her health clubs, Hard Candy Fitness, have expanded internationally.

She has sold over 300 million records throughout her career and paved the way for generations of women new to the music business.

Her social conscience has expanded, leading to benefit performances for Malawi and Haiti.

In her 50s and still astonishingly gorgeous, Madonna's love life also continues to sizzle. Her current beau is 26-year-old dancer Timor Steffens.


Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.