Кристофер Чикконе «Жизнь с моей сестрой Мадонной»
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Madonna - Celebration: The Video Collection (КУПИТЬ)
The Confessions Tour (КУПИТЬ)
Мадонна: Во имя игры (КУПИТЬ)
The Girlie Show
Книга «Жизнь с моей сестрой Мадонной»/«Life with My Sister Madonna» написана братом поп-звезды, Кристофером Чикконе/Christopher Ciccone.
Кристофер Чикконе начал свою профессиональную карьеру в качестве танцора в группе La Groupe de la Place Royal. Он был руководителем туров Мадонны («Blond Ambition» и «The Girlie Show»), режисером музыкальных программ. Работал художником, декоратором интерьеров и дизайнером. Свою книгу он выпустил в 2008 году. В ней он в деталях описывает «изнанку» жизни своей великой сестры. В книге показано становление карьеры Мадонны, взаимоотношения с родственниками и друзьями. Кристофер раскрывает феномен невероятного успеха Мадонны. Он развенчивает мифы о Мадонне, описывает почему и для чего они создавались. На страницах книги перед читателем предстает многогранная и харизматичная личность богини музыкального олимпа.
Критики довольно прохладно встретили новый бестселлер. Некоторые говорили о том, что Кристофер просто хотел заработать на своей сестре. Чикагская Sun-Times писала, что эта книга - «урок знаменитостям - в лицо вам могут говорить, как вы прекрасны, очаровательны, неповторимы! Не верьте ни слову - возьмите это книгу и убедитесь».
Представители самой певицы никак не комментировали выход новой биографии. Однако, по слухам, Мадонна встречалась с адвокатами в Лондоне и обсуждала возможность остановить выход книги.
Однако, никаких страшных тайн или сенсаций в книге нет. Кристофер Чикконе просто написал о сестре, как о живом человеке, а не поп-иконе...
«Life with My Sister Madonna»
For my father, Silvio, and to Joan,
who has always been a mother to me.
For anyone who came into contact with Madonna, to know her at all you had to know [Christopher]. The one was incomprehensible without the other. He was her dark side and she was his. Rupert Everett, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins SOME READERS MAY say that my dark side caused me to write this book, others that my sister’s did. Some may say that seeing Madonna through my eyes is a way of fully comprehending her; others who believe she walks on water won’t.
There are many ways of looking at this story—as a memoir of a shared childhood, as the celebration of an icon who turns fifty this year, as my autobiography…and as my answer to the eternal question “What is it really like being Madonna’s brother?” I had originally hoped that this book would also be a way for me to define myself and separate from my sister at last. Instead, it has been a catharsis. After getting some perspective on our story, I finally understand and accept that one aspect of my life will never change: I was born my mother’s son, but I will die my sister’s brother. I no longer balk at the truth, because when all is said and done and written, I am truly proud that Madonna is my sister and always will be.
His dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
THE LANESBOROUGH HOTEL, LONDON, ENGLAND, 8:30 A.M., SEPTEMBER 25, 1993
THE ALARM CLOCK rings in a low-key British way. I get up, peer through a gap in the thick, purple silk drapes, and the sun glimmers back at me. Luckily, the weather’s fine. After all, this is the UK, land of rain and fog. The Girlie Show tour, which I designed and directed, opens tonight, and we don’t want the crowd getting drenched before the show even begins. We. The royal we. Madonna and me. My sister and I, she who is still fast asleep in a mahogany four-poster bed in her suite adjoining mine. The royal we, so fitting for a woman who is sometimes a royal pain in my ass.
Although Buckingham Palace, the queen of England’s residence, is just across the road, in my estimation and that of millions of fans, she is the real queen of the universe—Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, my elder sister by twenty-seven months, who, just eleven years after the release of her first record, is now one of the most famous women in the world. I eat an orange. No big English breakfast for me, no matter how much I like it. Otherwise, I’ll probably throw up when Madonna and I take our scheduled six-mile jog at eleven. Just as we did yesterday, just as we will do tomorrow—and on every other day during the tour.
Schedule, in fact, is my sister’s middle name. Up at nine in the morning, in bed by eleven at night, with every hour in between planned by her as rigidly as any military campaign. With her mania for making lists, for running her life according to a timetable, in another incarnation Madonna could easily have run a prison, directed airport traffic, or been a five-star general. Sadly for her, though, her nights can’t be structured or played out according to a strict schedule, because she is an insomniac and rarely sleeps more than three hours each night.
Madonna’s insomnia only became apparent to me when we were living together in downtown Manhattan at the start of her career. Whenever I woke up during the night, she would be in the living room, perched on a white futon, which—no matter how many times we washed the floors—was always dirty. She was usually dressed in a white oversize men’s T-shirt, baggy, white cowboy-print sweats, sucking Hot Tamales, her favorite cinnamonflavored candies, and reading poetry—often Anne Sexton, whose lines sometimes inspired her lyrics. Or the diaries of Anaïs Nin, who, along with Joan of Arc, is one of her heroines. Anything to get her through those long, hot, airless Manhattan nights, nights when her mind didn’t switch off, when fantastical candy-colored visions of her future sparkled in her brain.
Unbridled desire for fame and fortune, you see, is incompatible with sleep. This morning, though, I am confident that my sister is sleeping, a deep sleep. Her tightly wound high-octane energy has meant that when she is on the road, she sometimes needs a sleep aid. But who can blame her? She’s now a superstar, a legend, one of the universe’s most famous women, and in just eleven and a half hours seventy-five thousand fans will be screaming for her, throwing themselves at her feet, worshipping her. The pressure to perform, to entertain, to sustain, and to simply remain Madonna is immeasurable, and even I—who am now the closest person on earth to the Queen of the World—can’t truly fathom how it feels to walk in her size-seven shoes, stalked by so much expectation, so much adoration, so many who love her, so many who hate her, so many who long for her to fall flat on her famous face.
NINE AND TIME to wake my sister. I unlock the door between our suites. Too late. Loud snorting—not a pretty sound—is coming from her opulent marble bathroom. She’s in the midst of her morning routine: swallowing a great gulp of warm salt water, gargling, snorting it up her nose, and then spitting it out. Abrasive in the extreme. But essential, she believes, for maintaining her voice. I flick through CNN for five minutes. Then I open the adjoining door to Madonna’s suite again. My sister, dressed in a white sweatshirt and black Adidas sweatpants, is sprawled on her powder-blue satin-covered bed, drinking black coffee with sugar, nibbling sourdough toast. I grab a bite and then give her a brief kiss. “You okay, Madonna?” She nods. “But I still didn’t sleep much.”
Like our father, a man of few words, neither of us have any use for small talk, as we know each other’s glances and gestures by heart and can decode them with unerring accuracy. So that when my sister places her hands on her hips, fishwife style, I know there’s trouble. When she starts picking on her nail varnish, usually red, I know she’s nervous. And when she tucks her thumb into the palm of her hand and wraps her fingers around it—a childhood habit of mine, but which she may have appropriated because she believes her fingers are too stubby and always tries to hide them—I know she needs reassurance. And for the past ten years, day and night, I’ve been happy to give it to her.
My job description may not be conventional—although I might sometimes be termed Jeeves to Madonna’s Bertie Wooster—my ability to reassure my sister in times of trouble or self-doubt is one of the primary reasons that— unlike a myriad of less fortunate others to whom she has granted admittance to Madonnaland, then summarily exiled—I have survived. I have endured both as her “humble servant”—as I sometimes sign my letters to her when I want to give her a hard time—and as the one person in our family ever to work for her long-term as her assistant/dresser/shoulderto-cry-on, and as the only family member with whom she still maintains a close relationship at this point. At eleven sharp, we jog through Hyde Park, dogged by a group of seedylooking paparazzi, all desperate for a shot of the Material Girl sans makeup. Madonna pulls her baseball cap down to obscure her face. We just keep on jogging.
At one, Madonna in her black, stretch Mercedes limo and I in my chauffeurdriven sedan are ferried to Wembley Stadium, in northwest London, just an hour away. We never ride to and from shows together, as we both want the freedom to arrive and leave whenever we like. Clusters of fans are already milling around by the stadium gate, some hoping to score a last-minute ticket, others to catch a glimpse of Madonna as we drive in. No chance of that, though. Our windows are blacked out, and when the cars stop at the back entrance, we head straight for her dressing room. As always, the promoter has lived up to every single one of Madonna’s requirements, all listed in a rider to her contract. Her dressing room has been painted all white, because she believes a white background frames her to the best advantage. Consequently, she insists that all her towels and bed linens also be white. Sigmund Freud would probably have a field day analyzing her predilection for the color symbolizing virginity. All her friends, family, and admirers know about her preference for white, and large vases of gardenias, white tuberoses, and white lilies—all her favorite flowers—fill the room. The scent is overwhelming. There are also four boxes of Hot Tamales, and packets of mint and lemon tea. Bottles of Evian—always at room temperature, never cold—are on hand, here and onstage, where I place them strategically, according to where I know she will always need them. Meat products are banned from the dressing room, as is alcohol, so that even if some obsequious promoter sends a few bottles of Cristal to the dressing room, at the end of the night they will be given away, unopened, and so will all the flowers.
Fortunately, the outside temperature is chilly, so for once the dressing room isn’t sweltering. Even in hot climates, no matter how steamy the weather, Madonna flatly refuses to use air-conditioning. She claims she is never warm enough, is always too cold, and that air-conditioning is unhealthy for her voice. Even in high summer, in the suffocating heat of Miami, New York, or L.A., her windows remain wide open and the air-conditioning off. Here and in every other dressing room she ever occupies, she has hung our late mother’s crucifix over the vanity mirror. Our mother’s photograph, taken a few years before her death, is also always on display. She was only thirty when she died. Yet none of us—not our father, not our brothers and sisters, not me, and certainly not Madonna—ever mention her name to one another, except on rare occasions. That just isn’t the Ciccone way. Although we are Italian on our father’s side, and French Canadian on our mother’s, we were born in Michigan and, when all is said and done, are Midwesterners to the bone.
I go onstage, where I look for any imperfections on the floor so no one—not the dancers or, heaven forbid, Madonna herself—will trip, make sure all the hydraulic lifts are working, all the lights are in the right position for the first number, and all the props are correctly placed. Madonna spends an hour in her dressing room doing vocal exercises—scales and breathing—and simultaneously stretching, limbering up for the show, rather like a cross between Anna Pavlova and Muhammad Ali in his prime. NEXT I SUBMIT to a press interview in town with one of the less lurid London papers because my sister refuses to do them anymore and has sent me in her stead. I am polite, friendly, and hope that my interview will favorably impact on tomorrow’s reviews, which we will read together over breakfast.
If Madonna does get a negative review, such as on The Virgin Tour when one or two critics lambasted her for being overweight, I know she will toss her head, pretend not to care, then rip up the review and fling it into the garbage. But ten minutes later, she will ask, “Christopher, do you really think they were right? Does my midriff really look fat?” I tell her that of course they were wrong, of course it didn’t—even though it did—and she is happy. I’m thankful that I don’t have to do any more media during our London stay, as I always prefer to remain in the background. Madonna isn’t doing any television either. In one of the most interesting dichotomies within her multidimensional psyche, while she is eminently comfortable simulating sex in front of a stadium audience of thousands during the Blond Ambition tour, and in a scene in the documentary Truth or Dare blithely demonstrating her oral sex technique on a bottle, anytime she has to appear on television, she becomes a basket case.
In fact, I felt awful for her when I watched her hands shaking in a trembling televised performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” from Dick Tracy at the 1991 Academy Awards. There were no screaming fans, and she—who always hated not moving while she performed—had to stand still while she sang. Had she been singing to an audience of fans, she wouldn’t have been at all nervous. But this time she was performing in an auditorium full of established actors and actresses, a group of people to which she didn’t really belong, who didn’t respect her as an actress but whose respect she desperately wanted to win. Hence her fit of nerves. Her nerves about appearing on TV surfaced again in 1994 when she went on the Late Show with David Letterman and ended up saying “fuck” thirteen times because she was so terrified and couldn’t think of anything else to say. Yet when I broached the subject, she refused to admit to TV fright and just said, “Because I felt like it,” defiant as a four-year-old caught with her hand in the cookie jar. That’s her way: downplay any insecurities, cover them up. Take the offensive.
BACK AT WEMBLEY Stadium at three, Madonna and I go onstage for sound check. She sings one and a half minutes of each song, then rehearses some of the show’s more intricate dance moves for about an hour. When she finally comes offstage, I see that she’s far from tired, the adrenaline already coursing through her veins. Her blue eyes are bright, her skin is luminous, her color high—partly because of the pink Puerto Rican Majal face powder she always sends me to buy for her from a drugstore on Sixth Avenue and Fifteenth Street in Manhattan—partly through sheer excitement. Then at four we lunch together—carrot soup, veggie burgers, salad—all cooked by her vegetarian chef, who travels with us. During lunch, we dissect the previous day’s dress rehearsal: the mood of the band members and the dancers, which one is pissed off, which one needs to be coaxed and cajoled into doing the job properly, and which one has to be stroked—all in the interest of making tonight’s show spectacular.
On opening night, and for most of the tour, that’s my job, but Madonna has already made it easier. On all the tours—through a combination of charm, flirtation, and some maternal concern—she does her utmost to gain the dancers’ trust, loyalty, and friendship. To bring them as close to her as possible, but not too close. Everyone who works for her inevitably goes through the same stages. Stage One: disillusionment with the cold world outside. Stage Two: luxuriating in the sunlight of Madonna’s warmth and attention. Stage Three: moving through the sunlight, toward her. Stage Four: finding themselves in the coldest place of all, the place right up close to her. That, as far as she is concerned, is far too close for her comfort. Get to that stage, and she will feel that you know too much, you are a liability, and the result is a foregone conclusion. Stage Five: no more sunlight, no more closeness, no more Madonna.
Each tour, I would watch the dancers quickly fall under Madonna’s spell. Getting closer and closer to their perceived paradise of being anointed her close platonic friend and intimate. Then, at the end of the tour, being hurtled out into the cold world once more, never to see her again, except on TV, in a movie, onstage—but only from the audience’s perspective. One dancer on each tour will, however, spend more time with her, will receive special preference, be more intimate with her—and that person is a heterosexual dancer on the tour. On The Virgin Tour the dancer Lyndon B. Johnson filled that role. On the Who’s That Girl? tour, the dancer Shabadu. On the Blond Ambition tour, the dancer Oliver Crumes. And on The Girlie Show, dancer Michael Gregory.
The die was always cast during auditions, when Madonna inspected a lineup of dancers, much as Catherine the Great was wont to inspect a lineup of potential lovers. In Michael’s case, we held the dance auditions in New York and West Hollywood. We took Polaroids of the final ten candidates and videotaped them dancing. Then Madonna and I went home, examined the Polaroids, and viewed the videos together. Of all the candidates, I found Michael the weakest dancer, the one with the least personality. Yet Madonna fought me and insisted that we hire him. I decided there was no point in trying to thwart her, so he was hired. Here in London on The Girlie Show, he is now her chosen straight man, the boy to whom she turns whenever she is bored by the many gay men on the tour—me included—and to whom she will be maternal, kind, almost loving. It wasn’t a question of whether she and her straight man on tour ever make love, just that he is her insurance against the loneliness of the road. AT FOUR THIRTY, she has two hours of personal time; her chiropractor gives her a treatment, she has a massage, after which she remains on her massage table, trying to sleep, but fails.
At six thirty, she puts on part of the costume she will be wearing in the show’s first number: black, sequined shorts and bra, long black gloves, and the trusty black fishnets she always wears—even under trousers, jeans, or leggings—because she believes they protect her leg muscles. Even though her mind is running a mile a minute, while her hair and makeup are being done, she sits remarkably still, ever the disciplined trouper.
At seven thirty, it’s time for her new dresser, Daniel Huber, to finish dressing her. Although Madonna has now elevated me to director, she still tried to persuade me to carry on as her dresser, but I refused. She initially kicked against my refusal, but in the end capitulated. So now she’s about to strip naked in front of Daniel Huber. I know she’s at her most vulnerable, and that vulnerability will escalate as the show progresses. For although Madonna is notorious for her lack of inhibition, for posing nude for art students, modeling topless for Gaultier—in private, she is far too shy and prudish to allow herself to be seen naked at close quarters by a stranger. Diametrically opposed to her sex-goddess image, I know, but undeniably true. I’ve briefed Daniel ahead of time on the requirements for being Madonna’s dresser, and strategies for surviving the job without going crazy. So he fully understands that the best policy is to remain silent—no matter what abuse Madonna will inevitably dish out to him—and to talk only when answering the ubiquitous question “How do I look?” to which he is duty-bound to always respond, “Wonderful, Madonna, wonderful.”
Thus armed with my advice, he helps her into the rest of her costume—high, lace-up black patent leather boots and eye mask—then hands her the riding crop she will brandish in the first number, “Erotica.” At ten to eight, Madonna, the dancers, the band, and I all join hands and form a circle. Madonna leads the prayer: “Dear God, it’s the opening night of the tour in London. Please watch over my dancers and my band. I know everyone is nervous, me included. We’ve worked really long and hard to get here. Please help us make this a great show. I love you all. Go out there and break a leg. Kick some ass. Amen.”
Then it’s showtime. With security leading the way, Madonna and I, and her two backup singers, Niki Harris and Donna De Lory, all hold hands and begin the long walk from the dressing room, down the tunnel, then backstage, singing Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life,” while Madonna’s manager, dapper Freddy DeMann, with his pencil moustache, chews gum ferociously and follows behind. When we arrive at the back of the stage, Niki and Donna take their positions with the band. Madonna and I continue down a narrow access tunnel that leads under the stage, from where she will make her first entrance. Madonna and I wait there alone, holding hands. She is not shaking now. She is calm in the extreme, secure in the knowledge that she knows every dance step, every lyric by heart. She is confident, in control, with little self-doubt, aware that once she is on the stage, in front of her audience, she will be where she belongs, doing what she does best. I kiss her on the cheek and say, “You look amazing. You’re going to be great. I can feel it. There’s nothing to worry about. Everything is going to be perfect.”
She nods wordlessly, her eyes suddenly big and almost childlike. Before she takes her place onstage, out of habit I hold out my palm and she spits her Ricola cough drop straight into it. Then she gives me an elated, slightly frightened smile that says, “Here we go,” takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders, and steels herself to face her audience. The lights go up, and a burst of screaming hits us. An intense jolt of electricity bolts from the seventy-five-thousand-strong audience onto the stage and crashes over us like shock waves, powerful and exhilarating. Circus music booms through the stadium. Onstage, in front of a red velvet curtain, dancer Carrie Ann Inaba, naked except for a red G-string, slithers down a forty-foot pole, while a blue satinclad clown—the leitmotif of the show—watches onstage.
I am now standing in the pit, the five-foot gap between the front-row seats and the stage. As Carrie Ann reaches stage level, then slides below, the curtain goes up to reveal Madonna on a smoke-filled stage, singing “Erotica.” Her close-cropped blond hair glitters in the limelight and she cracks the whip. Her dancing is elegant, fluid, a tribute to the early training we both shared. And her body is a work of art, thanks to the daily two-and-a-half-hour gym regimen she follows when she’s not on tour. Her yoga classes, too, are responsible for her perfect tone and muscle definition, her queenly posture, her poise. In a yoga class, of course, all her competitive instincts come to the fore. Whether it is yoga or friendships or Kabbalah, my sister always has to be the best, the greatest—the one woman who can wrap her leg around her body twenty-five times and stand on one finger.
Madonna’s competitive spirit, of course, is part of what made her—well, Madonna. That, and her intelligence, her capacity to learn, her superlative memory, her unrivaled charm, and her talent for live performance, which—as I watched her in The Girlie Show—takes my breath away. I marvel at her connection with the audience, the vivacity and precision of her performance, the grace of her hand gestures, the artful turn of her head, exactly as we rehearsed them together. For the next number, “Vogue,” Daniel has added a black sequined headdress to her outfit, part Erté, partly Zizi Jeanmaire. The passionate interest Madonna and I both share in the icons of the past has heavily influenced the content and the vibe of The Girlie Show, and in particular The Virgin Tour scene in which she parodies Marlene Dietrich.
Throughout our time living and hanging out together in downtown Manhattan, and when I lived with Madonna in Los Angeles—initially in the home she shared with her first husband, my then brother-in-law, Sean Penn, and later in the one she sometimes shared with Warren Beatty—we used to stay up until all hours watching old movies together. Dietrich’s movies— especially The Blue Angel and Morocco—were particular favorites, but we also loved Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce, Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, and Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Madonna’s hitherto unrealized dream is to become a great movie star. I wish her well, but secretly believe that the only part that she is truly capable of playing is that of herself, Madonna. A part that she has created and curated. And what a part it is: cross Shirley Temple with Bettie Page, Elizabeth I with Lucille Ball, Bette Davis with Doris Day, and you have a flavor of the artist known as Madonna.
THE MOMENT THERE is a brief interlude between songs during The Girlie Show and Madonna goes offstage, I run backstage to her dressing room. If she was calm before the performance, during the interval she is always extremely nervous and jumpy. While she re-touches her makeup and sprays herself with Annick Goutal’s Gardenia Passion, her favorite perfume, I give her a heightened version of my standard pep talk: “You look fantastic. Your voice is strong. And your moves were terrific.” She stops trembling, takes a gulp of Evian. And strides back onstage. Part of what I said to my sister was true, part was slightly bullshit. Her moves are, indeed, terrific. Her voice, however, is another matter. My sister’s unwillingness to submit to the drudgery of regular singing lessons is a byproduct of the supreme self-confidence with which she was born. That selfconfidence has overridden any lack of training. She’s a showman—some may have better voices, but she is the living embodiment of the fact that discipline, vision, ambition, determination, drive, and, of course, selfconfidence are what make a superstar. Her legendary self-confidence also seems to be a family trait that I’ve inherited: I relish testing myself and I always embrace a challenge. Although I’ve been a designer, an artist, and am now a director, I have eschewed any formal training in these disciplines. Moreover, like my sister, I rarely submit to authority and prefer to plunge into a career and learn as I go along.
Until now, our strategy has worked for both of us, but now Madonna is starting to realize that the lack of a strict regimen of vocal training means that her voice is too thin for the demands she now places on it. One of her solutions is to hire Donna to be one of her backup singers, as her voice mirrors and supports Madonna’s. In contrast, Niki is on hand to provide the soul. Most of the time, Donna and Niki compete over who gets to sing which harmony, who is closest to Madonna, and who gets the most attention from her. Niki has a better voice than Madonna. Her voice is fully trained, and Madonna fights to keep her at bay because Niki is fully capable of drowning her out and often does. When that happens, Madonna sometimes orders Niki’s mike to be switched off.
Once or twice, Madonna has even raised the possibility of firing Niki. Not that she would ever do it herself. A remarkable chink in my sister’s dominatrix-style armor is that—although she makes a big show of screaming orders to her underlings during rehearsal, on the road, and, in particular, when she is playing to the cameras as in Truth or Dare—she is utterly terrified of confrontation, avoids it at all costs, can never bring herself to fire anyone face-to-face, and always delegates that task to one of her minions, usually me.
MADONNA IS SINGING “Holiday” now and, transformed by her blond Afro wig and sequined clothes, is every inch the seventies disco queen, skipping around the stage, joyful, euphoric, completely relaxed and happy. For the first time tonight, I catch her eye and wink. She winks back at me. A few moments later, she throws me a quick, triumphant smile, a tacit acknowledgment that all our work together has paid off, and that The Girlie Show is a success. I smile back, elated by our complicity. She ends the show on “Everybody”—her first hit and the first song she ever cowrote—the audience goes wild, and the stadium floor heaves with the dancing crowds. Madonna exits the stage. After a few minutes, a performer in the blue satin Pierrot costume and sad-clown mask reappears. This time—although the audience won’t know it until she removes her mask—Madonna is playing the clown.
As children, we were rarely taken to the circus, but as adults, Madonna and I loved seeing Cirque du Soleil in Battery Park, Manhattan. We both loved the Cirque du Soleil because of the sexy, bizarre, and fresh way in which they approached the concept of the circus. The Cirque went on to become a great inspiration on our future work together and, in particular, on The Girlie Show. There is, however, something of an irony in my sister dressing as a clown, because she is the world’s worst joke teller. I cringe whenever she attempts to tell a joke, either in private or in public, because she always botches the punch line. I understand that her basic inability to be truly funny stems from the childhood loss of our mother. For even in the midst of the upbeat Girlie Show, amid the worship of the crowd, the intoxication of the night, the sad clown eyes betray a profound truth about my sister. Like me, somewhere deep inside—because we lost our mother when we were so young—no matter how far Madonna climbs, how famous she becomes, how wealthy, and how loved, her soul will always be pervaded by a secret sadness. Just listen to some of the lyrics she has written during her twenty-five-year career, for such songs as “Oh Father” and “Live to Tell,” to name a few.
THE CLOWN SCENE is over now; Madonna removes her mask with a flourish, bows low, and leaves the stage. As I wait for her in the wings, I do my utmost to blot out the deafening applause. She runs up to me, I throw a large white towel over her, put my arms around her, and hurry her out the stage door. She’s dripping with sweat and breathing heavily. I can tell by the look on her face that she knows the show has gone well. Within seconds, she’s in the limo with her assistant, Liz, her publicist, and her manager, Freddy, rehashing the show, while inside the stadium “Be a Clown” booms through the sound system, and the audience screams for more Madonna. Back at the hotel, Madonna’s suite is filled with yet more white flowers. She removes her makeup, takes a shower, then we go downstairs and join the cast and crew for a private champagne party in the Library Bar.
On opening night here in London, she could easily have celebrated her success with England’s glitterati, who would all willingly have flocked to pay tribute to her. But that has rarely been her way. Apart from when we play Detroit or L.A., she always leaves the stadium straight after the second encore, then spends the rest of the evening hanging out with her team, the dancers and musicians from the show, whom she concedes are partly responsible for her success. While one of Madonna’s favorite phrases is “This isn’t a democracy,” and she is utterly unable to laugh at herself, I am impressed at how egalitarian she is to party with her team on opening night rather than with other celebrities. At the same time, way at the back of my mind, in a dark place I try not to probe, a voice I’ve spent a lifetime studiously ignoring tells me that part of the reason my sister doesn’t relish hanging out with celebrities is that if she did, she would no longer be the only big fish in a small pond, the queen bee, the star. Moreover, the majority of celebrities—her equals—wouldn’t laugh at her unfunny jokes, pander to her moods, or make her the center of their universe, the way her acolytes invariably do. She doesn’t stay long at the party. Instead, less than half an hour after we first arrive, she asks me to take her up to the suite.
IN THE ELEVATOR, I am suddenly overwhelmed by a rush of euphoria. My opinion of my sister as a performer is at an all-time high. On a personal level, as a brother, my love for her is unbounded, and we have never been closer. “You were great tonight, Madonna,” I say, “really great.” We hug each other. “I love you, Christopher, I really do,” she says, “and I’m very proud of you.” “I’m proud of you, too. And thank you for giving me this opportunity. Love you.” I check that she has enough lemon tea in her room and that her humidifier works. Then I go back to my suite.
Tonight, we are on top of the world, my sister and I. And no one and nothing can touch us, not even our own human fallibility. We live for the performance, the show. The love, the closeness, the creativity. Tonight, I know without a shadow of a doubt that we are in step, in sync, in unison, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney putting on a show, you and me against the world, together, now and for always. I contemplate our glorious future, both personal and professional, and it shimmers before me, flawless and without end. My own words echo in my mind: Thank you for giving me this opportunity. Love you.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity. Love you. THEY SAY THAT those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad with pride. They also say that what the gods give, they can also take away. Tonight represents the high point of my life, but in the future both sayings will epitomize not a god, but a goddess—my sister Madonna. She will become mad with pride, with fame, with the oleaginous pandering of the sycophants, the mindless adoration of the masses. And what she has given me—the joy of creating with her, of being with her, of loving her and being loved by her—she will ultimately take away.
ONE The great advantage of living in a large family is that early lesson of life’s essential unfairness.
Nancy Mitford I AM ELEVEN years old and just another of the eight Ciccone kids about to have dinner with our father and stepmother, Joan, in the harvest-yellow kitchen of our home on Oklahoma Avenue, Rochester, Michigan. We are squashed around the dark oak table—just recently stripped and restored by Joan, and still stinking of varnish—and we are happy because we know we are getting chicken tonight. My four sisters are all wearing variations of maroon velvet dresses with white lace collars, all made by Joan from the same Butterick pattern. Madonna hates hers, but Joan has told her to “shut up and put it on” and has made her wear it anyway. Another night, Madonna might have run to our dad, and he’d probably have given in and let her wear something else, but tonight he was at a Knights of Columbus meeting and arrived home just in time for dinner. As always—not because we are poor, but because Joan is frugal—she has only made two chickens to divide between the ten of us. I feel as if I’ve spent half my life fighting to get the breast, which I love, but failing, simply because I’m too slow off the mark and everyone else beats me to it. Tonight, though, I’ve made up my mind that I’ll get the breast at last. But before I can swing into action, it’s my turn to say grace. We all stand up and hold hands. I take a deep breath. “Dear Lord, thank you for this beautiful day. Thank you for all my brothers and sisters.”
My elder brother Marty, who has just been caught smoking in the basement and has been disciplined by my father, snickers. My younger sister Melanie—born with a silver streak on the left side of her hair, across her left eyebrow and left eyelash—assumes I’m sincere and flashes me a tender, beatific smile. My elder brother Anthony, who is coming down from a bad peyote trip and is still clutching Carlos Castaneda’s Separate Reality, closes his eyes tightly. My sister Paula, always the underdog, makes a face. My baby half sister, Jennifer, gurgles. My baby half brother, Mario, in his high chair, plays with his rattle. My father and my stepmother exchange a quick approving glance. My older sister Madonna lets out a loud, prolonged yawn. I glare at her and go on.
“Thank you for Grandma Elsie and Grandma Michelina. Thank you for our father and for Joan. Thank you, dear Lord, for the food we are about to receive, and could I please have a chicken breast tonight?” Everyone cracks up, even Madonna. I strike out. I don’t get the chicken breast. Not quick enough off the mark because I am still heartily laughing at my own witticism. Poetic justice, I suppose. But at least I don’t go hungry—because no matter how often my sister Madonna has portrayed herself as the quintessential Cinderella and insinuated that Joan was our wicked stepmother, Joan has never starved or mistreated us.
On the other hand, she doesn’t believe in lavishing expensive food on us either. She always reserves any delicacies—Greek olives, Italian salami, expensive cookies—for her guests, whereas the kids’ biggest treat is granola. Whenever Joan isn’t around, no matter how much else we’ve eaten that day, just for the hell of it we sneak into the kitchen and pilfer a gourmet cookie earmarked for the guests. One Saturday morning, when I am fifteen, she summons us all to what she terms “the Formal Dining Room.” She has spent the last few months redecorating it, during which time we have been banned from going in there. I assume she is about to unveil her latest decorating feat to us. While my siblings aren’t exactly clamoring to view the new and upgraded dining room, I, at least, am slightly curious about the results. I just hope that Joan doesn’t expect me to applaud her efforts, because insincere applause isn’t yet part of my repertoire. That will come later, on the many occasions when I sit through one of my sister’s movie performances and don’t want to hurt her feelings. Consequently, I find it difficult to mask my reaction when we file into the Formal Dining Room. Moss-green shag carpet, strips of stained wood on the walls, tiles in between them that Joan describes as “antiqued,” one of her favorite words. I know it’s the seventies, but nonetheless, my design instincts have already begun to form and I am far from overwhelmed.
But Joan hasn’t summoned us to the Formal Dining Room so we can admire her decorating prowess, but because one of us kids is in deep trouble. In Judge Dredd mode, she announces that the angel food cake she’s only lately bought for coffee with her friends is missing, and she wants the culprit to come clean. “You’ll sit here all day, until someone confesses,” she decrees. None of us says a word. She puts an Andy Williams album on the turntable. I think to myself, Torture by music? I fix my eyes on the Asian landscape—a fall scene of junks sailing along a river—that our father has brought back from his recent L.A. trip and mentally repaint it myself.
After an hour, Joan leaves the room. We sit around the table in silence, examining one another’s sheepish faces, each of us secretly trying to guess the identity of the culprit. Although I don’t openly accuse her, I mentally finger Madonna for the crime, simply because I know that although angel food cake tastes too bland for her, she may like the name. Besides, filching it would be another notch in the gun that—figuratively speaking—she has continually pointed in Joan’s direction. Half an hour later, Joan returns and announces that a neighbor has come forward and says he witnessed the theft through our kitchen window. Moreover, he has identified the thief: me.
I am innocent, but have no way of proving it. Besides, my friends are waiting for me in our tree house. They’ve just received the latest Playboy in the mail, and I am dying to get out of the house and sneak a peek at it. So I confess to having stolen the angel food cake. I am duly punished for my transgression: grounded for a week, without any TV. Many years later, the true culprit is unmasked when Paula confesses that she took the angel food cake, but by then it was far too late, as I had long since been punished. My own fault, of course, for having confessed to something that I didn’t do. The birth of a behavior pattern, I suppose, and a harbinger of things to come. Since Joan married our father, one of the pleasanter rituals she’s established is that each of us can select our own birthday cake. Madonna always picks strawberry shortcake. My choice is always pink-lemonade ice cream cake. Soon after the angel food cake debacle, I am on tenterhooks as to whether Joan will still make me my favorite cake. To my relief, now that I have been punished for supposedly stealing and have paid the price for my crime, Joan has forgiven me. And I get my pink-lemonade ice cream birthday cake after all.
Making cakes is Joan’s greatest culinary accomplishment. But in general, she was an abysmal cook back then. She makes Spanish rice, but forgets to put in the rice and often serves us a massive bowl of stew from the freezer and, with a self-satisfied smile, says, “I just cooked this fresh.” “Freezer fresh!” we all chant under our breaths, careful that our father doesn’t hear us because we don’t want to make him mad. He demands that we treat Joan with the highest respect and insists we call her Mom. All of us struggle with the respect mandate and, for many years, practically gag when we obey our father and address Joan as Mom.
MY NATURAL MOTHER, who was named Madonna, died when I was just three years old. I have only one clear memory of her. I am running around the green-grass backyard of our small, single-level home on the wrong side of the railroad tracks and step on a bee. As I cry my eyes out, my mother gently places me on her knee and soothes the sting with ice. I feel safe, protected, and loved. For the rest of my life, I will yearn to recapture that same feeling, but will always fail. The sad truth is that I was too young when my mother died to ever really know her. For me as a child, the only way in which she existed was through pictures. One of the many I loved was taken of her sitting astride a buffalo— she is so vibrant, so charismatic, so alive, such a star. Looking at her then, I couldn’t believe she was dead, that I would never see her again. Nor could I reconcile her joie de vivre with her extreme piety. I only learned about my mother’s intense religious devotion twenty years ago, when my father sent all of us a bundle of her love letters to him. She wrote those letters when my father was away in the air force, and he and my mother were courting.
I read just one of these romantic missives written by my mother. After reading it, I couldn’t bring myself to read any more as I am not a very religious man, and the extremism of my mother’s religious sentiments is difficult for me to grasp. Although her letter is loving and sweet, to me it seems a bit fanatical. All about how God is keeping her love for my father alive, God this and God that. I am unable to read any more because I have quite a different picture of my mother in my head and don’t want to distort it. My father sends Madonna copies of those same letters, and I imagine that she also reads them. Nonetheless, we never talk about the letters, or about our mother. We avoid even mentioning her name.
We Ciccones may be afraid to confront our emotions, but little else fazes us. After all, we have pioneer blood in our veins and are proud of it. In 1690, my maternal ancestors, the Fortins, fled France and sailed to Quebec, then a complete wilderness, and settled there. Quintessential pioneers, they wrested a life for themselves and their families out of that wilderness. More than two hundred thirty-five years later, my grandmother Elsie Fortin, and my grandfather Willard Fortin, marry and honeymoon in splendor at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. Although Elsie will spend a lifetime denying it, the family tree confirms that she and Willard are, in fact, distant cousins. Maybe that explains why Madonna and I, along with our brothers and sisters, are such intense human beings, our personalities and characteristics, our strengths and weaknesses, so magnified.
Our Ciccone ancestors, too, are unconventional and enterprising. At the end of World War One, my paternal grandfather—Gaetano Ciccone, then just eighteen—was forced to dig ditches high up in the Italian Alps and nearly froze to death. Convinced that the Fascists, whom he hated, were about to take power in Italy, he quit the army and returned to his home in Pacentro, a quaint medieval village in Abruzzi about 170 kilometers east of Rome. There, a match was made between him and one of the village girls, Michelina, whose father paid him a $300 dowry to marry her. With that money, in 1918, he bought a ticket to America, got a job in the steel mills in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, then sent for Michelina. My grandparents had five sons, which is surprising, given that as far back as I can remember, my grandmother and grandfather don’t sleep in the same room together. Even in old age, each and every night, my grandmother assiduously bolts all seven locks on her bedroom door.
My grandparents live in an old, two-story yellow-brick house with creaking floorboards, a dank basement, and a dark, gloomy attic where bats sometimes fly around. Grandmother Michelina’s taste in furnishings is austere in the extreme. The large, imposing burgundy mohair living room set is uncomfortable, and I don’t like sitting on it. All in all, the house is dark and brooding, much like my grandparents. My grandmother spends most of her time in the kitchen, cooking Italian specialties such as gnocchi. When she isn’t cooking, she is constantly in her pale yellow bedroom whose wood floors are all worn away from her continual pacing. Rosaries hang all over the room, faded Palm Sunday fronds are affixed to the wall, candles constantly burn, and pictures of Jesus are on every surface. If ever I go into the room, I find my grandmother on her knees, praying to the Virgin Mary, probably that my grandfather will quickly die and quit bugging her at last.
All I remember of my grandfather is a heavyset, hunched-up old man who drinks too much and only lightens up when he shows us how he can peel an orange in one try. After he dies, my grandmother continually moans that he is haunting her. Generally, we don’t like visiting our father’s parents. Luckily for us, we only spend part of the summer with them. We do like our Ciccone uncles, though, in particular Uncle Rocco, after whom Madonna named her son. As children, we favor our Fortin family, in particular our mother’s mother, Grandma Elsie Mae, whom we call Nanoo. She always tells me that I was my mother’s favorite and that she used to call me the “Show Me!” kid, because I always used to point at things and demand, “Show me!” In many ways, Nanoo is a second mother to all of us. She was widowed a year before my birth, has soft, curled brown hair, arranged in the style of the fifties, kind brown eyes, generally wears pastel-colored dresses, very classic, never flashy, and always smells of L’Air du Temps, her favorite perfume. She is a lady in every sense of the word.
Nanoo’s husband, our late grandfather Willard, a timber merchant, was relatively wealthy. Pink is Nanoo’s favorite color, so one birthday he gave her an all-pink kitchen: a pink stove, pink refrigerator, pink dishwasher. Nanoo’s home is elegant, just like Nanoo herself, and is furnished with all things comfortable—such as the burnished yellow leather davenport on which I always love playing. In her basement, there is a wood-paneled barroom, shuffleboard, and an incinerator—which fascinates me. Nanoo is quite liberal. Her sons smoke pot in the basement. She calls me Little Chris. I love going to her home because she loves us unconditionally and gives us all equal amounts of attention. When she finds out that my favorite candies are Circus Peanuts, orange marshmallows in the shape of peanuts, she starts keeping them for me in a chicken-shaped ceramic dish on her kitchen counter.
She lets us eat as many desserts as we want and cooks us our favorite foods: savory meat pie and chicken soup with thick noodles, a special recipe from northern France. To this day, I still make both recipes and always think of her. In fact, two months ago I spent a few days with her in Bay City. Nanoo is ninety-eight in 2008, and the second part of her life has been sad: Her husband died before his time, and she lost four of her eight children when they were young adults. She also had to stand by and watch as many of her remaining children struggled with alcoholism—an ongoing problem with many of my aunts and uncles, one that continues to haunt our family—but she has always been incredibly stoic. A few years ago, she was hit by a car and needed two knee replacements. Now she is almost blind and living in reduced circumstances, and fifteen years ago she was forced to move into a smaller house.
Nanoo’s home was a haven for us Ciccone children, a place where we were all equal and Madonna wasn’t the star, the way she was at home. Nanoo’s refusal to deify Madonna may, in part, be an explanation for the following scenario: When Madonna first became wealthy, I suggested she pay off Nanoo’s house, buy her a car, and engage a full-time driver and cook for her, anything to make her life easier. After all, aren’t rock stars who hit it big supposed to take care of their families? But my sister—who in 2008 is worth in excess of $600 million and who has reportedly donated an estimated $18 million to Kabbalah—opted at the time to send our grandmother just $500 a month and to pay her monthly household bills, for Madonna, a drop in the ocean. When I think of Madonna’s wealth, I can’t help but think she’s being stingy with the grandmother who helped raise us. Nanoo, however, doesn’t think that way and is grateful to Madonna for helping her and would never for a moment expect or ask for anything more.
DURING THE KOREAN War, my father, Silvio—“Tony”—is stationed in Alaska. There, he serves with my mother’s brother Dale, and they become fast friends. Soon after, my father is best man at Dale’s wedding, where he meets my mother. They fall in love and on July 1, 1955, are married in Bay City, Michigan. My parents move to Thors Street in Pontiac, a satellite city to Detroit. The neighborhood is opposite a large, empty field that will later become the site of the Pontiac Silverdome. Subsequently, Tony, Marty, Madonna, Paula, me, and Melanie are born in that order. Our parents have chosen to live on Thors Street because it is in a planned community that is one-third Mexican, onethird black, one-third Caucasian, and they hope that living in such a multiracial community will foster racial tolerance in all of us children. Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video, featuring her kissing a black saint—which she conceived to highlight her belief in racial equality—is one of the many proofs that they succeeded.
Our backyard is right next to the train tracks, beside a big chain-link fence. Right near our house is also a massive electrical tower, which continually emits a buzzing noise that drives us crazy. Behind the tracks, a slope drops fifteen feet down into the sewers. When we are old enough, we climb down the manhole next to the tracks and follow the sewers wherever they go. This is our version of playtime. Although our father isn’t really allowed to tell us because his job is so top secret, he works in the defense industry, designing firing systems and laser optics, first at Chrysler Defense and then at General Dynamics. One day, when I am in high school, he comes home with a revolutionary night-vision telescope, plus a photograph of a tank. After he shows them to us, he warns us never to talk about it. We all promise not to. But now I know what my father does for a living, and I think his profession is cool.
He feels he can trust us to keep our word because, from the time that we were small, he has drilled us in the importance of honesty and ethics. The early loss of our mother may have put a combination of sorrow and iron into Madonna’s soul—as it did in mine—and may well have contributed to her insatiable craving to be loved and admired by the entire world. That craving helped catapult her to stardom. But if the untimely loss of our mother indirectly drove Madonna to become a star, it is our father who instilled in her the tools that maintained her stardom: self-discipline, reliability, honor, and a certain stoicism.
Our father’s stoicism comes to the fore when, on December 1, 1963, our mother dies at the age of only thirty. Madonna is old enough to remember our mother’s death and has spoken to the media many times about the days before she died, her death, and the aftermath. “I knew she was sick for a long time with breast cancer, so she was very weak, but she would continue to go on and do the things she had to do. I knew she was very fragile and kept getting more fragile. I knew that, because she would stop during the day and just sit down on the couch. I wanted her to get up and play with me and do the things she did before,” Madonna remembered.
“I know she tried to keep her feelings inside, her fear inside, and not let us know. She never complained. I remember she was really sick and was sitting on the couch. I went up to her and I remember climbing on her back and saying, ‘Play with me, play with me,’ and she wouldn’t. She couldn’t and she started crying.” Our mother spent a year in the hospital, but, according to Madonna, strove to put a brave face on her suffering and never betrayed it to her children. “I remember my mother was always cracking up and making jokes. She was really funny so it wasn’t so awful to go and visit her there. I remember that right before she died she asked for a hamburger. She wanted to eat a hamburger because she couldn’t eat anything for so long, and I thought that was very funny. I didn’t actually watch her die. I left and then she died.” Although I was only three when my mother was on her deathbed, I remember nestling in her warm and comforting arms. We are in a strange white room with hardly any furniture. My mother is lying in an iron bed, and my father and all my brothers and sisters are standing around the bed in front of us. They start to leave the room. I snuggle closer to my mother. My father lifts me gently out of her arms. I struggle against his strong grip. I don’t want to leave my mother. I start wailing pitifully. The next thing I remember, we are in the car and I cry all the way home. I never see my mother again. Nor am I taken to her funeral.
I have few memories of my life in the first few years after my mother’s death. All I remember is that afterward, a series of women look after us, and that Joan is one of our nannies. Joan, our “wicked” stepmother—is the woman whom I now, of my own volition, call Mom. She’s certainly earned the title. With the passing of time, I’ve grown to love her and, in retrospect, believe that only a slightly crazy woman, or an extremely romantic and brave one, would marry a man with six children. But when she first comes into our lives, we all simply despise her. The seeds are sown by the Fortin side of our family, who—after our mother’s untimely death—dream of our father marrying one of her close friends. He dates her for a while and then decides not to.
When our father marries our nanny Joan instead, the Fortins are incensed and forever after refer to her as the Maid. I prefer to think of Joan as the Sergeant Major, because as soon as she marries our father, she sets about organizing his unruly children according to a timetable, rules, and regulations. Rather like a five-star general. Ironically, although Madonna won’t like the comparison, as she has grown older, the one person in our family whom she most resembles is Joan. Much as hearing this will drive her crazy, in recent years she has become more and more like Joan, insisting that everything has to be done her way, according to her timetable, and that life must be lived by her rules. Whenever Madonna and I live together for any period of time, I am automatically subject to her stringent set of rules, which include banning me from smoking in the house, and her insistence on maintaining perfect tidiness. Sometimes, her decree that I stick to her rules leads to a battle of wills between us. The truth is that I sometimes feel the need to assert myself and rebel against the hold she has over me. Moreover, I am not fond of rules, and often tire of obeying the ones Madonna sets so stringently. I know that I’m being the little brother, kicking against my big sister’s rules and regulations, but I cant’t help it.
An example; I get up early for breakfast, make myself some sourdough toast, and leave the dishes in the sink because I intend to do them when I get home later in the day. I go upstairs, only to hear Madonna screeching, “Christopher, you didn’t put the damn dishes in the dishwasher again.” I am suddenly overcome with the sense that I am back home again and that Joan will rush out at any moment and chastise me. “I’ll do it when I get home,” I yell back. “Do it now!” she screams. I don’t. She does, with a great deal of clattering and complaining. She’s irritated and I guess I don’t blame her. I also understand why her behavior is sometimes a carbon copy of Joan’s. For just as Dietrich was one of the major cinematic influences on Madonna, her family—Joan and my father—also played a big part in making my sister the legend she has become, as I, too, would down the line.
Thinking back to my childhood, I suppose Joan had little alternative than to rule us with a rod of iron. We were so wild, so willful, so set on undermining her at every turn. And I am sure that when she first married my father, she wasn’t fully prepared for us pint-size saboteurs determined to make her life miserable. Small, blond, Nordic, born in Taylor, Michigan, Joan, always in her green capri pants, with her love of antiques, “antiquing,” and freezer food, may well have started out in life as an archromantic. After all, she married our father the same year The Sound of Music—the tale of Maria, a governess to Captain Von Trapp’s seven children, who ultimately married him, whereupon the whole family all lived blissfully ever after—was first released and probably thought we’d become a Midwestern version of the Von Trapps and she’d be Maria, warbling “Climb Every Mountain” while we all clung to her adoringly.
Instead, Marty and Anthony—probably deeply disturbed by the death of our mother—turn out to be the wildest kids in the neighborhood and sometimes make her life hell. Mostly, though, they take out their ire on us, their siblings. One time when Madonna isn’t looking, they pour pine sap into her hair, and she can’t remove it, so great chunks of her hair have to be chopped off, while she screams “My hair! My hair!” Then—when she sees her shorn image in the mirror—she bursts into tears. My brothers, however, remain unrepentant and continue to vent most of their aggression on her, and not on the rest of us, perhaps because she has always hogged our father’s attention and they sense that he may love her best. By now, the Ciccone family has moved away from Pontiac and settled down on Oklahoma Avenue in Rochester instead. Our new home is a two-story, redbrick colonial, with green aluminum siding and a wagon wheel embedded on the front lawn.
The move to Oklahoma Avenue is exciting. There is a little creek at the back of our house, and a massive old oak tree in the backyard that I love to climb, until I fall out of it and almost break my back. The most glaring difference between Pontiac and Rochester is the alarming lack of people of color living in the neighborhood. Everyone is white, and I often wonder what happened to our multiracial little world. On the other hand, life chez Ciccone is never dull or uneventful. One morning during the summer, Madonna and I are in the kitchen having breakfast when we hear Anthony and Marty yelling our names. “Get out here, Madonna and Chris, we wanna see you right now!” Just yesterday, our father—much against his better judgment, and only because they have promised him they will rid the yard of the scourge of squirrels currently swarming everywhere—bought Anthony and Marty BB guns. Madonna and I exchange glances, then sneak out the side door and into the garden. Petrified that Marty, stocky and terrifying even without the BB gun, and Anthony, tall and intimidating, will start firing at us, we run as fast as we can.
We get to the slimy green swamp behind our house and start wading, not caring that we both end up looking like understudies for Elphaba in Wicked. Fortunately for us, Anthony and Martin turn out not to be so intrepid. They prowl the edge of the swamp, fire the guns at us, and cast around for a way of catching us without getting all slimed up as well. Meanwhile, Madonna and I are halfway to Hitchman’s Haven—an old, boarded-up Victorian mansion, set on sixty acres with a large pond, surrounded by massive weeping willows and ancient oak trees—where we hide out for the rest of the morning until we know Marty and Anthony are safely inside the house scoffing their lunch. According to local lore, Hitchman’s is a former asylum where Judy Garland was once an inmate. Unlike ex-child-star Judy, Madonna neither sings nor dances as a child. But when it comes to cozying up to our father and grabbing all his attention, she definitely upstages the rest of us—not because she is in training for a future career as an actress, but because she is clearly suffering from some type of Electra complex—the female version of the Oedipus complex.
All of us kids are competing for our father’s love and attention, but ever the competitor, Madonna usually wins and gets it. No matter that she is too old to sit on our father’s knee, she clambers up and stays there. At Easter, she demands that out of all the dyes we use for coloring Easter eggs the blue dye be reserved just for her, and he makes sure it is. At her confirmation, she demands a special dress and gets it from him. And whenever possible, she snuggles close to our father and pushes the rest of us away. None of us can quite work out why our father is so in Madonna’s thrall. In retrospect, after looking at a picture of her without makeup, the reason becomes dramatically clear: she is the mirror image of our mother. The uncanny resemblance must simultaneously have broken our father’s heart and exercised a haunting power over him. Moreover, my sister’s very name, Madonna, must vastly have strengthened her emotional hold over him. I think of my mother with a mixture of love, loss, and longing, and irrational as it may have been, for as far back as I can remember, I believe I unconsciously transferred a degree of those tremulous emotions onto my sister Madonna. And I’m sure my father did as well, which afforded her a certain power over all of us and instilled in her the confidence that she could be and do pretty much what she wanted. A partial explanation, I think, of how our adult relationship would subsequently unfold.
No matter that Madonna generally wins the battle for our father’s love and attention, the rest of us keep trying for the leftovers. Consequently, there’s always an undertone of animosity among us all, which makes it impossible for us to get to know one another, or to genuinely care about one another. As we grow older, we each sort of break off from the family and do our own things. Madonna divides her time between studying, cheerleading, and luxuriating in her unchallenged role of daddy’s girl; Anthony and Marty are the “bad boys” who become authentic macho men, the kind both Madonna’s husbands aspired to be; Paula is always left out; and I am generally lumped together with Melanie and our half-siblings, Mario and Jennifer, and deeply resent it. Usually, Melanie and I are forced to babysit for Mario and Jennifer, and—to our shame—vent our dislike of Joan upon them, while simultaneously reenacting our older brothers’ bullying behavior without realizing that we are robotically repeating their pattern. One time, Melanie and I are alone in the house babysitting Mario and Jennifer. We gravely explain that something terrifying has just happened. There’s been a news flash on the TV: a serial killer has escaped and just been spotted prowling around our neighborhood. We whisper that we have to turn off the lights so he won’t know we are home, otherwise he might break in and slaughter us all.
Mario and Jennifer huddle together behind the couch, petrified. Meanwhile, Melanie and I sneak into the kitchen, grab butcher knives out of the kitchen drawer, and creep out of the house and into the street. About five minutes later, we burst through the front door, brandishing the knives, and chase Mario and Jennifer around the house in the dark. They scream and cry so much that, in the end, we get them a cup of granola and say we are sorry. When Joan discovers what we have done, Melanie and I are grounded for a week and forced to do double chores. In the best of times, even if we are all being close to angelic, chores remain a fact of life for us. First thing every morning, we all check the chore list Joan has posted on the refrigerator. An example from my late teens: “Christopher to do the dishes and clean the yard. Paula to do the laundry. Marty to take out the garbage. Melanie to polish the cutlery. Mario to match the socks. Anthony to cut the grass. Jennifer to mend the clothes.”
Generally, my older brothers never have to do dishes or the laundry. And my sisters are never enlisted to cut the grass or take out the garbage, but I always have to do both the girls’ chores and the boys’. I never understand why. I don’t mind doing the laundry, though, because that way I can get a march on my brothers and sisters by grabbing the only 100 percent cotton sheets we possess, a floral print. When I do, I feel as if I am sleeping on silk. To this day, I retain an addiction to 100 percent cotton sheets. Joan rarely allocates any tasks to Madonna, in tacit recognition, I think, of her special place in our father’s heart. Besides, I believe Joan is a little afraid of her. I don’t recall my father ever scolding Madonna or disciplining her, except once. Madonna comes home late one night, Joan slaps her, and she slaps Joan back. Madonna is grounded for a week and banned from driving her car—a 1968 red Mustang that we all wish we had. Another time, Madonna and some friends drive over to the local gravel pit, about twenty miles north of Rochester, where we always go swimming. She and Paula much prefer swimming when they aren’t with our father and Joan because our father has banned them from wearing bikinis, which Madonna resents.
During the summer, though, because Madonna wants to protect her fair skin, she never sunbathes like the rest of us. But she’s always been a good swimmer and enjoys swimming at the pit. On this particular day, however, we aren’t with her. Late that night, she arrives home with a black eye and a bloody nose. Joan is really upset because she does care about Madonna, and all of us, and asks her what happened. It turns out that a group of bikers drove up to the pit and started playing loud music. Everyone else was really annoyed, but only Madonna had the guts to go up and say something. So one of the biker chicks beat her up. Madonna shrugged the whole thing off, her confidence and bravery intact. Apart from the odd excitement, such as Madonna and the biker chicks, our lives fall into a certain rhythm.
School days invariably begin with us all rushing to get ready, always late, flinging our clothes everywhere, making Joan so mad that she invariably comes out with her favorite phrases: “Your room looks like the wreck of the Hesperus” or “Your room looks like the Russian army went through it.” We, of course, have no idea what she is talking about. She sighs, then makes us her school lunch standby: cracker sandwiches—two saltine crackers with mayonnaise between them, which we hate. Then we all run for the bus stop, just two houses away, slipping and sliding along the key road, trying to catch up with the yellow school bus, and usually making it— but not always. Which means having to walk the three miles between our home and school.
When we ride home from school in the bus, we crane our heads out of the windows to see if Joan’s car is in the driveway. Because if it isn’t, we know we’ll have a great afternoon. No red-faced stepmother, no one to yell at us or chase us around with a wooden spoon or slap our faces if we defy her. If Joan is a strict disciplinarian, our father isn’t exactly a pushover either. He is a man of action, who makes his intentions clear and doesn’t deal in ambiguities. He lets us know when we did wrong and lets us know when we did right. A conservative Catholic, he attends church every Sunday and is a church deacon. If we swear or make a smart-ass comment, he drags us into the bathroom and tells us to stick out our tongues. Then he gets out a bar of soap and scrubs our tongues with it. When he’s worked up quite a lather in our mouths, he finally lets us rinse our mouths and spit. It’s a long time before any of us make the same mistake again. If our father and Joan decide we have been well behaved, in the evening we are allowed to watch TV with them in the family room. Our favorite programs are My Favorite Martian, Mister Ed, The Three Stooges, and I Dream of Jeannie.
We aren’t allowed to watch television often, but it isn’t banned. Madonna, however, doesn’t allow Lola or Rocco to watch any TV whatsoever. But when I last visit Madonna’s Sunset Boulevard home, I find it puzzling that there are TVs all over the house. AS THE YEARS go by, our father and Joan develop a benign, loving companionship. They are not touchy-feely—but then neither am I, nor Madonna, not even when she was married to Sean Penn, or when she was dating Warren Beatty. Although we are a Catholic family and always celebrate Christmas and Easter, our father belongs to the Christian Family Movement, which fosters tolerance between Christians and Jews. So every year, we celebrate Passover together. I often wonder whether Madonna’s early familiarity with this sacred Jewish holiday—and with Judaism in general—was not only the genesis of her attraction to Kabbalah, but what also helped her bond with the powerful Jewish music moguls whom she charmed at the start of her career. As for me, as a child, I assume that our Passover celebrations are part of Easter and, until I become an adult, never quite grasp that there is a difference. At Christmas, we always attend midnight mass at St. Frederick’s or St. Andrew’s, which is intensely dramatic and our first introduction to theater. During Lent, our father makes us go to church every morning before school. We are such a large family that we each can’t afford to buy nine gifts every Christmas. Instead, about two weeks before Christmas, our father puts a big paper lunch bag on the kitchen table. We each write our names on a separate piece of paper, then put them in the bag. Our father shakes the bag, and we each pull out a name. Then we buy a Christmas gift for the named person, and no one else.
One Christmas, when I am fourteen, I draw Madonna’s name, but don’t have any money to pay for her gift. My father goes to Kmart for an auto part. Marty and I go with him. The place is abuzz with Christmas shoppers, loud Muzak, and glowing fluorescent lights. I wander the aisles worrying how I am going to get a gift for Madonna. When my father and Marty aren’t looking, I steal a small bottle of Zen perfume for her, stick it in my overcoat pocket, and skulk out of the store. Suddenly, I’m grabbed from behind, marched into the manager’s office, ordered to empty my pockets, and the Zen falls out. I am caught and fear my father’s wrath more than anything else. Next thing I know, I can hear over the PA system, “Is there a Mr. Ciccone in the store?” Within a moment, my father is in the manager’s office. He looks at me, says, “You stupid little shit!” and yanks me out of the store. In the car, he doesn’t say a single word to me, but I know I am in big-time trouble. I am shocked when he does nothing. I suppose he knows that I haven’t stolen for myself, but because I wanted Madonna to have her Christmas present.
I realize that it would be heartwarming if I claimed to have stolen the perfume for my sister because I loved her so much, but that isn’t true. I didn’t then really love her at all. In fact, I hardly knew her. I felt alienated from her, alienated from my whole family. I was not a bad child, not a good child, just quiet, and watching, always observing. IN 1972, THE whole family takes a road trip across America in our dark green van. True to form, Madonna makes sure always to squeeze herself into the front bench seat, between our father and Joan, practically pushing Joan out of her seat. Each of us is allowed to bring as many things as we can that will fit in a cardboard Rolling Rock case—Rolling Rock was my paternal grandfather’s favorite beer—with our name on it. The girls paint flowers on their boxes; I paint mine with red, white, and blue stripes.
At night, my father and Joan sleep in the van, and we kids all sleep in a dark green army tent that reeks of mold and mildew. We drive for hours and hours, and the whole trip is a free-for-all. We visit the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Hoover Dam, and Yellowstone National Park. When we get to California, Joan suggests driving along Santa Monica beach, but the van gets stuck in the sand. We are all tired and irritable. Luckily for us, nearby surfers come to our aid and explain to my father that by letting air out of the tires we will widen their surface contact with the sand and the van can be dislodged. We do and it works. LOOKING BACK, I suppose our grand road trip across America is another example of my father’s educational ideals, which include exposing his children to their country. He also believes in the virtue of hard work. When I’m twelve, one morning during summer vacation, he opens the front door, pushes me out, and says, “Don’t come back without a job.” I wander around Rochester for hours until I come across a sign at a local country club looking for caddies. I get the job, train for a week, and on my first day at work, I walk out because my employer treats me so badly. My father, too, has more lofty ambitions for me. In fact, his dearest wish is that all his children become attorneys, engineers, or doctors. Fortunately for Madonna and me, he isn’t opposed to the arts either. Thanks to him, all us Ciccone kids have piano lessons. And when any of us admit that we have artistic ambitions—albeit slightly reluctantly—he encourages us to live out our creativity. I’m surprised by his somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward our career choices. Then I learn from my father’s mother that my father’s brother Guido, a talented painter, was forced by his wife to jettison his ambition to become an artist and work in the steel mills instead. Consequently, he was deeply unhappy for most of his life. Clearly, my father witnessed Guido’s unhappiness and vowed that none of his children would suffer in the same way.
Naturally, my father, a deeply private yet even-natured man, never discusses Guido’s sad fate. On the surface at least, he is repressed and not in the least bit comfortable with emotions, and will never delve into them—his own, or anyone else’s. However, as time goes by, he will relax more, and much to my surprise we will become good friends. For as far back as I can remember, my father’s greatest passion has been wine making. In this, he is following in the footsteps of his own father, who used to grow grapes and make wine in Pennsylvania. He spends much of his free time making wine in the basement. As a result, the house always smells of wine and of vinegar. My father is proud of his wine. Years after I become an adult and leave home, I come back for a family gathering and crack an awful joke, comparing the taste of his latest vintage to salad dressing. He says nothing, but his hurt is palpable, and I feel dreadful and realize how dear his wine making is to him.
Every few weeks, our father tells us to go down to the laundry room in the basement, where he cuts our hair with barber’s clippers, which I hate because all my brothers and I have the identical haircut. On one memorable occasion, he sits me down and says, “Christopher, you need to learn about sex, about relationships between men and women.” I flush scarlet, sink into my chair, and say, “Dad, please, let’s cut my hair so I can get out of here. I know how babies are made.” Although my own sexual nature is still a mystery to me, Madonna’s precocious sense of her sexuality, as well as her star quality, came to the fore during her first talent show. Her biographers all claim that the talent show took place when she was at St. Andrew’s, but I remember it as being at West Junior High School.
I am twelve, and Madonna is fourteen. The whole family goes along to see her perform in the nondescript school auditorium. None of us have any idea what Madonna’s act is going to be, but we are excited and want to support her. We sit in the second row fidgeting as we watch all the other kids’ usual runof- the-mill talent-show turns—one tap dances, another plays the harmonica, another recites a poem—and wait for Madonna to come on. Then, in a scene straight out of the movie Little Miss Sunshine, Madonna suddenly twirls onstage, covered from head to foot in green and fluorescent pink paint, which creates the illusion that she is stark naked. She’s wearing shorts and a top that are also covered in paint, but as far as my father is concerned, she might as well be naked. According to his strict moral code, her appearance is utterly X-rated, and he puts down his camera in horror. Madonna starts dancing—or perhaps writhing is a better word. Although Carol Belanger, my sister’s school friend, is also onstage dressed exactly the same way, and writhing about just as much, next to Madonna, she fades into the scenery. None can take their eyes off Madonna. Moreover, her performance is the most scandalous one that anyone has ever seen in that conservative community.
Madonna and Carol’s act takes about three minutes. When the lights go up, there is little applause. Everyone in the audience is dumbstruck. People exit with a great deal of barely suppressed muttering. Afterward in the car going home, none of us say a word, and my father keeps his eyes resolutely on the road. We all know that Madonna is in deep trouble. When we arrive home, he calls her into “the Formal” and shuts the door behind them. When she finally emerges, her face is tearstained. Her performance is never again mentioned. For the next month, her teenage talent-show performance becomes the talk of Rochester. At school, kids sidle up to me and whisper, “Your sister Madonna is a slut.” I have already been bullied and called a fag—a word I don’t understand—that my sister’s being called a slut doesn’t bother me at all. But I can imagine that my father is utterly mortified in front of his friends and at work. Little does he know that this is only the beginning… As for me, the night of the talent show marks the birth of my fascination with my sister Madonna. For on that night, I understand she isn’t like everyone else; she is profoundly different. It isn’t until later that I discover so am I.
TWO Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild W. B. Yeats
IN JUNIOR HIGH school, I am as much of a loner as I am at home, and the fag-calling gets worse when, at thirteen, I take up the violin. Luckily for me, after one of the bigger guys at school, Jay Hill—for reasons I never quite manage to fathom—comes to my rescue, the other kids stop bullying me. Into high school, I decide that my best bet is to ignore the bullies and let them fear me instead. So I grow my hair long, buy a dark green army coat that goes down to my knees, grow a mustache, and lurk around the school silent, brooding, and impassive. After a while, even my teachers grow afraid of me, primarily because in class, my violin case always in hand, I wordlessly stare at them. I have no real friends, but plenty of curious onlookers. Away from school, I discover science fiction, and in particular Frank Herbert’s Dune, which evokes the possibility of worlds other than the one in which I live, makes a great impression on me, and becomes my only escape from everyday reality.
Practically daily, I stand on the sidewalk outside my parents’ house, smoking a cigarette and watching a plane high above me, and think, I wish I were on that plane. I’ve got to get out of here. Trouble is, I haven’t the remotest idea when or how. During my sophomore year of high school, Madonna starts going out every Thursday night and coming home looking tired but happy. We aren’t close enough for me to ask why, but I know something has changed for her. Soon after, she gives up cheerleading, loses weight, and starts wearing black sweats instead of her usual brown-and-gold-plaid skirts and sweaters. I observe the change in her, intrigued.
One rare evening when Madonna and I are at home alone, she finds me reading in my bedroom and tells me that every Thursday night she has been attending Christopher Flynn’s Christopher’s Ballet School in Rochester. I am taking art classes and violin lessons, so the idea of ballet classes doesn’t seem so foreign to me. Consequently, when Madonna asks if I’d like to come and watch one of her ballet classes, I jump at the opportunity. I suppose I am flattered. My big sister has noticed me at last. And I am curious if not a little wary, because I instinctively know that my father won’t like my becoming involved in such a female pursuit. But Madonna wants me to come with her, and that is enough for me. ON A COOL Thursday evening in the fall, Madonna and I stealthily slip out of the house together. I am wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt, Madonna is in pink-and-black sweats, and she drives us into downtown Rochester. In the car, I clam up because I am so apprehensive. Madonna doesn’t talk either. I feel as if we are embarking on a great but dangerous adventure together. Then we arrive at a stone building on the corner of East Fourth and Main, just across from Mitzelfield’s department store, where Joan would sometimes buy us clothes, if we were lucky and she didn’t feel like making them.
Before we walk into the building, Madonna says, “Christopher Flynn is a great guy,” so before I meet him, I already know he must be. We go upstairs to the second-floor studio, and she introduces me to Christopher. I’ve never met anyone like him in my life. He is around five foot eight, a lean man with dark brown hair, and dressed in gray jazz pants and a tight leotard with a shirt over it. His voice is high and haughty, and I think he sounds like a girl. I follow him and Madonna into the dance studio and find a group of fifteen girls, ages twelve and up, all in pink tutus and tights, but no guys. I stick out like a sore thumb, but I’m used to that, so when Christopher tells me to sit on the floor and watch, I do. I can’t believe that Madonna is so meekly taking her place among fifteen other girls, all standing at the barre, and—like them—obeying Christopher’s every order without question. When he pokes her with a stick because her plié isn’t low enough or her turnout isn’t correct, she unflinchingly complies. She has never shown our father so much obedience. I develop instant respect for Christopher.
Moreover, the music is beautiful and the dancers are graceful. I think to myself that ballet is pretty cool, but wonder how I fit in. Class finishes, and everyone leaves but Madonna, Christopher, and me. He asks me if I want to take a class with him. Before I can answer, Madonna chips in, “I think you should, Chris, I think you’d like it.” I don’t know whether I can dance, nor do they. I tell them that I don’t think my father will appreciate my taking ballet classes. “I don’t think he’d be happy at all,” I say, looking at Madonna for affirmation. “Just don’t tell him,” she says. “We can figure it out.” We. Suddenly, my sister and I are we. A novel experience. And I like it. I also like the idea of studying ballet with her, of having something in common with her other than just our crazy family.
But I still have one reservation: “It’s all girls.” “So?” says Madonna, bridling. Christopher diverts me from any potential conflict with my sister by chatting to me about ballet, what it represents to him, how he’d danced with the Joffrey Ballet in New York. I am intrigued and think, Maybe I really can do this. In the end, Christopher talks me into joining the class, primarily by challenging me. “It isn’t going to be easy,” he says, “I’m not going to babysit you.” A challenge. A new world. Maybe even a way out of Michigan. I say I’ll think about it, and Madonna and I leave. The moment we get into the car, she immediately says, “So what do you think? How do you feel? Are you going to do it?” I tell her I’m afraid of our father’s reaction. She says, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” My sister is going to take care of something for me. The emotional impact on me is incalculable. The following Thursday, I attend my first ballet lesson with Christopher Flynn.
UNTIL I JOIN Christopher’s Ballet, Madonna and I haven’t been friends and haven’t socialized together. Now, though, every Thursday, we go to Christopher’s together. And no one in our family knows. Not even Paula, to whom Madonna is, at this point, really close. Sometimes I wonder why Madonna invited me, not Paula, to come to class with her, but I was playing the violin, and folk dancing, while Paula wasn’t into any of that. So I go to Christopher’s, and my life changes. Not dramatically, but subtly. I discover that Christopher is my sister’s mentor, that they are close, and that she is even a little in love with him.
As my self-appointed Pygmalion, Madonna often comes to watch me, although she is in a different class, and is complimentary about my progress. Once, the two of us see a TV program about Fonteyn and Nureyev. I fantasize that maybe one day that could be Madonna and me, dancing together, just like Nureyev and Fonteyn. But that’s a long way away and I know it. We aren’t even buddies yet—more Pied Piper and follower—but I feel that my sister is starting to care about me, and I like the feeling. Meeting Christopher Flynn and discovering ballet has introduced Madonna to a new world and opened up a possible escape route from Michigan. I think she looked back at the home and family she was so anxious to leave, sensed that I might be like-minded, recognized something within me, and decided to nurture it. In retrospect, if my sister hadn’t reached back and brought me into her world, I might never have escaped Michigan, and my life would have been different. Taking me with her to Christopher’s Ballet School was the greatest gift Madonna has ever given me. A once-in-a-lifetime gift. But…
As I grow older and wiser, I learn that Madonna always has her eye on the main chance. No matter how potent the spell she casts over me, no matter how generous the gifts—there is always a sting in the tail, always a but… In the midst of her almost maternal altruism toward me, she has her own agenda for prompting me to join her at Christopher Flynn’s; he doesn’t have any male dancers in his class, and he needs one. The romantic in me would like to have it otherwise, but the truth is that Madonna’s motives, as always, for whisking me out of Oklahoma Avenue and into her brave and wondrous new world are not unmixed. She adores and venerates Christopher, considers him her father, her mentor, her lover. He needs a male dancer for his class, so Madonna produces me. Yet no matter what her motives, and the bitterness that will one day arise between us, I will always be in her debt. Madonna leaves home in the fall of 1977 and goes to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to study modern dance. Now that she is out of the house, Paula gets a room by herself at last. But although I am wrapped up in high school, I still miss going to class with Madonna and feel a little lost without her.
I’m a senior in high school, but at least I’ve got my own car at last, a used green Dodge Dart. I haven’t seen much of my sister since she left home, but I’ve thought of her often. She’s the first of us Ciccone kids to go to college, which I think is really cool. I am curious about her life there and eager to find out all about it and am delighted when she invites me and my parents to see her perform in her first ballet at the University of Michigan. So here I am. Seventeen years old. Long seventies hair styled into an Afro. Fu Manchu mustache. Black Sears pants, brown polyester Sears shirt with big sleeves and a three-button cuff—a present from Joan—and brown Sears platform shoes with a blue-and-red stripe on the toe. Driving myself from Rochester to Ann Arbor, I have no intimation that, thanks to Madonna, over the next six hours my destiny—both sexual and professional—will become set in stone.
AT THE CAMPUS theater, the Power Center for the Performing Arts, I meet up as arranged with my father and Joan. During the show—“Hat Rack,” an experimental ballet—I sit with them. They look utterly bemused by what they see onstage; Madonna is wearing a black bra and shorts, and two male dancers are wearing black shorts. Together, they all roll around the stage. Odd angular movements, not at all the ballet I had studied with Christopher Flynn. I also find the dancing a trifle bizarre, but I still can’t take my eyes off the stage, off Madonna. I can’t stop thinking that this is the kind of dance I’d like to do. I’ve never seen movements like this: leaps, turns, bare skin, dancing in bare feet. I am overcome with the feeling that I could do this, I could be a modern dancer. I decide right then to follow in Madonna’s footsteps, give up ballet, and study modern dance at college instead. Of course, I don’t say a word to Joan and my father about my new resolution. I’m still in a trance, high on my brilliant prospective career.
We all go backstage to congratulate Madonna. She is all flushed and happy, giddy, excited, and glad that her first college show has gone so well. Joan and my father tell her she was great. Joan asks the questions I secretly wanted to ask: What did the ballet really mean? What was the plot? What was your character? For once, Madonna is polite to Joan and makes a valiant stab at answering. Then she asks me what I think. “Interesting, strange,” I say thoughtfully. She asks me if I want to hang out with her later. Thrilled, not just because she is my sister, but because she is a dancer, living an enviable lifestyle, I say yes, yes, I do. She changes into leggings, boots, a coat and hat. I tell my parents I’ll drive myself home later. We eat a quick dinner at a restaurant on the corner of Huron and South First Street, the Oyster Bar and Spaghetti Machine. During dinner, I ask her questions about “Hat Rack.” She tries her best to help me make some sense of it.
Then she asks me if I want to go to the club downstairs with her. I’m a seventeen-year-old high school kid from a hick Michigan town. I’ve never been to a club before. Entranced, I say that I do. And then I follow my sister into yet another new world. A door stands with a sign saying THE RUBAIYAT in Arabic cursive. Standing in front of it, a sumo-sized man grunts, “Three dollar. No holler.” Madonna pays for both of us.
Inside it’s dark, but I can make out an exposed cable-covered brick wall and red banquettes arranged along the walls. In the middle is a wooden dance floor, lit by strobes and Christmas lights. An arched wooden latticework and a large silver disco ball hang from the ceiling. Years later, Madonna will make her entrance from a similar silver disco ball in her Confessions Tour. Even at this early stage in her life, no experience, no visual image, is wasted on her.
“Stayin’ Alive” pounds through the club. And then it hits me. The whole place is filled with guys. Guys dancing close, guys dancing apart, guys dancing together. I nearly freak out. I turn to Madonna and, honest to God, ask, “But why aren’t there any girls here?” Madonna looks at me, incredulous. “Well, Christopher,” she says in an unusually patient voice, “this is a gay bar. You know, for men.” All of a sudden, a wave of relief sweeps over me. I don’t know what, I don’t understand why. I just know that everything is as it should be. The DJ spins “Boogie Nights.” Madonna grabs my hand and pulls me onto the dance floor. But I am far too busy avoiding the eyes of the men around me to really enjoy dancing with Madonna. I just look down and struggle not to examine either the men or my emotions. I realize that this isn’t Madonna’s first time at the club. Later, she tells me that Christopher Flynn first took her there and that they go often. I don’t want the night to end, but when the club closes, I offer to drive her to her dorm.
Once in the car, Madonna asks, “So, Christopher, what did you think?” I gaze out the car window and hum a few bars of “Stayin’ Alive.” “I mean, what did you really think?” I know she expects me to admit that I’m gay, but I’m just not ready to confront my own sexuality. “What do I think?” Then I retreat back into my comfortable shell. “Well, I think it was fun, the music was great.” After that, we arrive at her dorm, and she gets out of the car. We both know that there has been a radical shift between us. My sister has shown me a reflection of my sexuality and I can no longer hide it—at least, not from myself. She has opened my eyes, and I am scared. I GRADUATE HIGH school and spend the following summer working at a local gas station. I go to college at Western Michigan, and because of Dune and other books I read after that, I decide to major in anthropology. I am a romantic at heart, love movies and secretly see myself as a latter-day Errol Flynn, so I decide to minor in fencing. Later, my ideal will be William Holden, but you get the picture.
I make the belated realization that if I ever really want to learn the lessons being taught in college, I can no longer just sit in class and keep my mouth shut. Almost overnight, I am transformed into an adult version of the Show Me! kid. I challenge every assertion made by my teachers. I question everything. Prove it. I don’t believe you. Show me. I learn more in one semester at college than I did all the previous years at school. After the second semester, I decide that I want to continue dancing and take modern dance class as well. I break the news to my father, and to my relief he doesn’t get mad. Instead, he looks disappointed, and I feel awful. My elder brothers never finished school, he hoped I’d study to become a scientist, and now he knows that won’t happen. He doesn’t try to stop me, though. All he says is, “I don’t approve, and if you want to take dance classes, you are going to have to pay for them yourself.”
So I support myself by working in the dorm cafeteria, and by giving blood as often as possible, for $50 each time. I also befriend various women in my dorm, and they fulfill my newly acknowledged need for female friends, or stand-ins for my sisters. One chilly winter morning, I see my roommate—with whom I have nothing in common—coming out of the shower naked and I get a hard-on. I am gay. He doesn’t notice my physical reaction, although I am utterly embarrassed. Happily, midsemester he moves out of my room, leaving me to a private room and a great freshman year.
At the end of that year, although my father is paying half of my tuition, I run out of cash, transfer to Oakland University, and move back home again. Enter Madonna once more, primed to introduce me to yet another new and enlightening experience. This time around, though, I initiate it. I have witnessed her smoking pot with her friends, am curious, and want to do what my big sister is doing. So I ask her about it. Two days later, she presents me with a joint rolled in pink paper. “That’ll be fifty cents,” she says, and holds out her hand for it. So I pay her. An accomplished businesswoman, even then! By now, with Christopher Flynn’s encouragement, Madonna has left Ann Arbor without graduating and moved to Manhattan. Later, she will claim of that first trip, “I came here with thirty-five dollars in my pocket. It was the bravest thing I’d ever done.”
She was, indeed, brave in not graduating, and in defying our father, who was horrified that the first of his children to get into college was now dropping out. I remember that even I thought that what she was doing was extreme. But as for arriving in Manhattan with just $35 and ending up in Times Square because she didn’t have anywhere else to go—that’s pure mythology. First of all, she was a middle-class girl with plenty of contacts in Manhattan—other dancers, other instructors—and far from being this lost, friendless little waif who didn’t even have a crust of dry bread to eat, she had money in her pocket and a support system all in place. She may have spent a night sleeping at the Music Building, but that was likely because she was hoping a producer or musician might come by and discover her. Mythology. The further she got into it, the more mythological the story of her first trip to Manhattan became. Shades of Anaïs Nin—the author who was also mistress of embellishing her own biography.
I know, though, that even with far more than $35 in her pocket, and a group of friends, those first few months after moving to the Big Apple couldn’t have been altogether easy for Madonna. First, she studied with choreographer Pearl Lang, made a few bucks from posing nude for art students, and spent a few months in Paris as the protégé of two French music producers who wanted to groom her as the latest sensation américaine. Afterward, she tells me that she was sick almost all the time she was in Paris—a throat infection—not unrelated, she confesses, to how much she hated being there. MEANWHILE, I AM safely, if not unhappily, tucked away in my second year of college in Rochester, Michigan. When one of my college buddies invites me to spend part of the summer at her parents’ home in Darien, Connecticut, I call Madonna and ask her if I can visit her in Manhattan. She says yes. Moreover, she will take us out to dinner when we get there. By the time we get to town, en route to Connecticut, Madonna is living in Corona, Queens, in a synagogue that has been converted into a studio, and playing drums in her boyfriend Dan Gilroy’s band, the Breakfast Club. So my friend and I arrive at the airport, rent a car, and drive out to Fifty-third Avenue in Queens, right by the World’s Fair grounds, and end up at the synagogue, a big, wide-open space, still with religious carvings on the walls, but with clothes and instruments thrown all over the place. The whole thing seems a bit sacrilegious to me. But at least my sister seems pleased to see me.
She immediately tells me how great the band is, how big they are going to get, and orders them to play a song for me. She’s at the back of the band, playing the drums, but is still drawing all the attention. I feel compelled to look at her, not at the person fronting the band. That’s just the way it always is with Madonna. At the same time, I can’t help wondering what has happened to the serious college student, the dedicated modern dancer who dreamed of one day opening her own dance studio. Although she tells me she still takes an occasional dance class, Madonna the modern dancer has clearly gone the way of Madonna the cheerleader, the all-American girl, and Madonna the nascent prima ballerina and besotted disciple of Christopher Flynn. Now she’s morphed into a female, punk Ringo Starr in ripped jeans, a white T-shirt, black fishnets, and her hair pulled back in a ponytail. It seems to me she is just goofing off, with no direction anymore. I am somewhat bemused and rather disappointed, but yet again admire her breathtakingly stubborn sense of self-confidence.
Later in the evening, a stretch limo pulls up outside the studio. Madonna tells us she’s taking us to dinner at Patrissy’s, a music-business hangout on Kenmare Street in Little Italy. I think to myself how weird it is that she’s living like a starving artist, but has suddenly got a limo at her disposal. I remember thinking, or her telling me, that it belonged to some guy she met in Paris, set on wooing her. I am puzzled, but impressed. However, I am distracted from the studio, and even my sister when we drive over the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, which seems to me to be spangled with stars, and for the first time in my life I see the lights of Manhattan glittering in front of me. I am engulfed by a sense of wonder. I’m not yet in love with the city, but I’m definitely in lust. After a brief weekend in the white wilderness of Darien, Connecticut, I go back to Oakland University. To support myself, I work the entire summer, first as a janitor in a retirement home, then in a local hospital’s kitchen, which I enjoy.
At college, I devote myself to dance, and by the second semester of my second year in college I’m the lead male dancer in the college company. I am now twenty, and for the first time ever, my father and Joan are coming to see me dance onstage, in Rodeo, an Agnes de Mille ballet. I have never been onstage performing for an audience before, so I’m naturally nervous. I’m also terrified that my father will make the connection between my dancing and my being gay. Since our night at the Rubaiyat, Madonna and I haven’t discussed my sexuality again, nor does anyone else know about it. My nerves take over to such a degree that backstage at the dress rehearsal, my mind on the upcoming opening-night ordeal, I trip and fall. I am rushed to the hospital, where an X-ray establishes that I’ve broken my big toe in two places, and two other toes as well.
I’m in terrible pain, but the next night, after my toes are taped together, accessing some hitherto recessive trouper gene that Madonna and I have inherited from some far-off, unknown ancestor with theatrical leanings, I vow that the show must go on. With that in mind, I go onstage and, with three broken toes, do twelve jetés, one after the other. Every second is agony, but I get through it with nary a whimper. During the intermission, although my father is far from happy that I’m becoming a dancer, he congratulates me and says that he is amazed that I was able to dance with three broken toes. As the show carries on, the pain does become unbearable, but I endure it in my stoic way, unaware that my suffering will soon be assuaged, my stoicism rewarded with a dancer named Russell. I’ve noticed him before, but nothing has happened between us. Tonight, though, with my mutilated toes, I’m the hero of the hour. And as Russell and I undress in the locker room, primed to take a shower, he stops suddenly and kisses me.
Initially, I am stunned. Then I relax and linger in the moment. I am about to fall into Russell’s arms when the locker room door opens. We quickly step back from each other, undiscovered. Not long afterward, Russell invites me over to his house one night when his mother is asleep. We start watching TV together. His hand touches mine as he rolls on top of me. “You want to put what where? Don’t even think about it!” I say. Shaken and dumbfounded, I jump up, put my clothes on again, and go home fervently wishing that I knew more about what to put where and when. Time passes slowly as I discover my homosexuality and lose my virginity while in the backseat of Russell’s gold Datsun. One night, at a drive-in movie, I am with Russell in the car, he presses a latch, the car seat flips down, and so do I.
Coincidentally, Madonna also lost her virginity with a guy named Russell— and in the backseat of a car, as well. Clearly, we don’t share merely almost identical genes, but also similar fates. Trust her, though, to best me by having her first time in a Cadillac, not a Datsun. I finally accept that I am gay and even grow to like the idea. But not so much that I want to broadcast it to anyone, not even to Madonna. So I keep my relationship with Russell a deep secret from everyone, especially my family. A FEW WEEKS later, my parents are out for dinner. Russell and I go downstairs to my elder brother’s old bedroom in the basement, figuring it’s safe for us to fool around there. And infinitely more comfortable than the vinyl backseat of my Dodge Dart or Russell’s Datsun. We take our clothes off and start making out. We are so foolishly oblivious that neither of us hears footsteps on the stairs. Within seconds, my sister Melanie is standing there in the doorway, her mouth wide open, her face as white as the streak in her hair. She runs up the stairs again. I’m screwed in more ways than one.
Russell and I quickly get dressed. I ask him to stay in the basement. I head up the stairs and come face-to-face with my brother Marty, the most macho Ciccone of all Ciccones. He gets right in my face and yells, “What the fuck are you doing down here? Are you a fucking faggot? Are you?” For a split second, I evaluate my alternatives. I decide to stand my ground, and prepare to take what’s coming. “Yes, I am a faggot, Marty.” Then, with as much swagger as I have been able to muster before or since, I add, “So what are you going to do about it? Kick my ass?” Marty takes a step back from me. “That’s what I came down here to do.” There is a pause, during which I silently kiss what I consider to be my good looks good-bye. “But I’m not going to,” he finally says. He marches back upstairs, and that is that. Or so I believe.
CUT TO THE Ciccone Vineyard, Traverse City, Michigan. My father’s seventy-fifth birthday party, two years ago. Marty approaches me while I am sitting on the veranda and says, “There is something I need to apologize for.” I immediately flash back to that night in our basement. “You don’t really need to.” “I really do.” “Please, don’t. It’s cool, we’re cool.” But Marty won’t be diverted from his mission. “I’m really sorry for what I said, but I didn’t like that you were gay, and I’m sorry for being such an asshole.” And that, as far as Marty is concerned, really is that. BY 1980, I make the radical decision that anthropology can wait. So can professional fencing. I decide to become a dancer instead. My father is not happy. He doesn’t give me a hard time, though, because I know despite his protestations, he wants me to be happy.
So I move to downtown Detroit, work part-time in a sandwich bar, and take a job with Mari Windsor’s Harbinger dance company. Over the year I spend dancing with Harbinger, I get a deeper education in dance. I discover Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham, and new and inspiring styles of dance. Madonna, however, is not impressed. During one of our periodic phone calls she says, “If you really want to be a dancer, Christopher, you have to be in New York.” I know she’s right, but don’t know if I’m ready yet to take on the Big Apple. Sensing that I am tempted, my siren of a sister says, “Come to New York, and you can stay with me in my apartment. I’ll introduce you to people. I’ll take classes with you. I’ll get you into a company.” Within days, I pack everything I own into my big green duffel bag, and off I go to Emerald City, where I assume Glinda the Good Witch will be awaiting me with open arms.
AS PREARRANGED WITH Madonna, I fly to JFK and take a cab into the city. The driver drops me a few blocks from the address Madonna gave me, so I have to walk a bit. By now, it’s late at night and I arrive at Madonna’s apartment, in a prewar building on West Ninety-fourth and Riverside, my back aching from lugging the duffel bag. Nonetheless, overflowing with excitement and great expectations, I ring the bell. The door opens, whereupon I am confronted by Madonna Part Four (Part One, the cheerleader; Part Two, the serious dancer; Part Three, the punk drummer), whom I hardly recognize. She is dressed in an odd-looking outfit: black crop top, short red plaid skirt, black panty hose, ankle boots, black leather studded bracelets, and a black rag knotted into her matted hair. She takes a lipstick-stained cigarette out of her mouth. Before I can exclaim, “But, Madonna, you’ve never smoked before!” in one breath she announces, “Hi, Christopher, you can’t live here after all.” Straight and to the point, with no sugarcoating. “What do you mean I can’t live here? I just gave up my life in Detroit. My apartment, my job, everything.” Madonna shrugs. “Whatever…”
Seeing my crestfallen face, she relents slightly. “You can sleep on the floor for a couple of nights, but that’s it.” I’m dumbstruck. She reaches into her jeans and pulls out a tablet. “Here, try this. It’ll make you feel better.” Feeling like a hick, I ask her what it is. “Just take it,” she says firmly. I take it from her and later discover that it’s ecstasy—or MDMA as it was called at that time.
I also note that, unlike the joint, at least this time, she hasn’t charged me. She beckons me to follow her into the apartment. With wood floors and crown molding, it’s one of those prewar apartments with lots of bedrooms that are prevalent on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We enter an open foyer that leads into a large living room filled with broken furniture. To the right of us, a kitchen and another living room; to the left of us, a thirty-foot hallway. I am amazed at the size of the place. Walking through the cavernous apartment, I am surprised that my sister has said there is no space for me, but I don’t voice my thoughts. Madonna’s bedroom is the third on the right. I later discover that she is only renting her bedroom from an unidentified landlord, and that the apartment isn’t hers at all. The bedroom doesn’t have any furniture in it, except a mattress with dirty pale blue sheets on it on the floor in the middle of the room. A sink is in one corner; a naked lightbulb swings from the ceiling. The only other light comes in through a window without shades or drapes, boasting a gloomy view of the brick wall opposite. Piles of punk-style clothes are all over the floor. The cracked plaster walls are all white. There is no art, except for a tattered Sid Vicious poster taped to one of them.
Madonna gives me a faded old blanket and a pillow, leads me into the living room, then leaves me alone. I throw the blanket on the floor, and to my surprise, it moves. Literally. I pick it up again and realize that my sister’s announcement has so dazed me that I haven’t noticed that I have company, about 5 million cockroaches crawling all over the floor. Right now, though, I am far too tired and dispirited to care. I put the blanket down again and try to sleep. Meanwhile, the cockroaches crawl all over me. If the insects don’t keep me awake, the various people arriving and departing throughout the night do. Madonna looks in on me, then promptly disappears. What am I doing here?
I am both shell-shocked and angry. My sister initially seemed to be looking out for me, inviting me to stay with her in Manhattan, but now clearly doesn’t want me here at all. I simmer with hurt and rejection: Glinda the Good Witch suddenly seems more like Glinda the Bad. Early the next morning, I knock on Madonna’s bedroom door. After a few minutes, she opens it, bleary-eyed. “I can’t stay here because of the bugs, Madonna. You gotta help me—I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
She thinks for a second, then makes a call. “Hi, Janice, my little brother Christopher needs a place to stay. Can he stay with you for a couple of weeks?” I hold my breath while Madonna waits for an answer. Then she adds, “No, he can’t stay here, Janice. I thought he could, but the guy that owns the apartment found out and says he can’t.” Now, at least, I know why she changed her mind. And while I am still a little irritated that she couldn’t be bothered to explain that to me in the first place, I am relieved that at least she isn’t just throwing me out on the street. And living with Janice Galloway, a dancer from Michigan who went to college with Madonna, turns out to be fun. And I am happy that her one-bedroom, sixth-floor walk-up on First and Ninth is completely bug-free.
Together, Janice and I subsist on canned tuna and crackers. At night, dressed in our jazz pants and leg warmers, we hang out in the gay bar across the street and, during the day, race from audition to audition, surviving from hope to hope. I live with Janice for about three months in her two-room apartment. Now and again, I hang out with Madonna, and we see Martha Graham’s dance company together. Although Madonna has clearly jettisoned her dance career and is set on becoming a pop star, she still loves to see proper dance performances. I love spending time with her, but I am in survival mode, and landing a paying dancing job is all that matters to me. Finally, to my relief, I am offered a job dancing with an Ottawa-based dance company, Le Groupe de La Place Royale. I call Madonna and give her the news.
“You really think you should take it?” she says. “I mean, it’s not New York. It’s not where you need to be if you want to be a dancer.” Imitating her blunt manner, which I’ll eventually permanently make my own, I inform her that she has been less than helpful to me, that I don’t have any money, and that the company has offered me $300 a week, twice what most New York dancers are earning. She gives a small sigh, says, “Well, fine,” and hangs up the phone. Brother dismissed. LIFE IN CANADA is quiet, cold, and regimented. Even being part of a dance company feels like a regular job. We take class and rehearse from nine to five, Monday through Friday. Not quite what I had envisioned, but I learn a lot and become a much better dancer. When I go home to Michigan for vacations, Madonna isn’t there, but the rest of my family seems stunned that I’ve become a dancer and am actually getting paid to do it.
I go on tour with the company to Europe—to Wales, to England, and to Italy—but however glamorous my life seems, I yearn for something more challenging. Naturally, when I hear the siren’s call once more, this time luring me back to the Big Apple, I don’t turn a deaf ear. “Come back to Manhattan,” Madonna says. “I’ve got a manager now. I’ve written a pop song. I’ve got a contract. I’m making a record: ‘Everybody.’ And I wrote it. Great, isn’t it?” “Great, Madonna, I know that’s what you want and I’m glad for you.” I try hard not to sound patronizing, but knowing that I’m probably failing. “But I need backup dancers to go on track dates with me, so how about it?” she says quickly.
“Track dates?” “Yeah, in clubs all around the city. Coupla hundred a time. They play my record, I sing to it, and we all—you, me, and another dancer—dance to it.” I hesitate for a fraction of a second, my first abortive trip to New York still fresh in my memory. “And you can come live with me,” she continues, as if she were reading my mind. “I really can?” “Definitely. You know you’re the best, Chris. You know how great we dance together, how great we look together. And I need you.” My sister needs me. I’m on the next plane.