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A star with staying power

Madonna's 2001 "Drowned World" tour was her first in more than eight years.

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Many have criticized Madonna as being more flash than substance. But her defenders point to her long-running popularity and her seemingly endless ability to stay one step ahead of the game.

"It's been 19 years. Come on, give the girl credit -- she's a star," said Seymour Stein, chairman of London Sire Records, who signed Madonna to her first record contract.

Mother's death

Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone was born August 16, 1958, to Madonna and Silvio "Tony" Ciccone. Her mother was a housewife, and her father was an automotive engineer. The family lived in a small brick house in Pontiac, Michigan, a Detroit suburb.

"I won't say that we were poor," Madonna once told CNN's Larry King. "But we were, I would say, lower-middle class."

One of six children, Madonna tried her best to stand out in her boisterous Italian-Catholic family. As legend has it, she would dance and sing on tabletops when the mood struck her.

Her mother died of cancer in 1963, a defining moment in Madonna's childhood.

"This was before pain management became an important part of cancer care," said J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of "Madonna: An Intimate Biography."

"Many people know her mother died when she was 5 years old. But what people don't know is how terrible that last year of Madonna's mother's life was for Madonna. She felt really frustrated by the powerlessness that went along with childhood," Taraborrelli said.

A few years after his wife's death, Tony Ciccone remarried, causing tension in his relationship with his young daughter.

"It was really difficult for Madonna to accept the fact that her father remarried," Taraborrelli said.

The family eventually moved to Rochester, Michigan. Madonna excelled both in her studies and as a cheerleader at Rochester Adams High School.

"She worked really hard to be a dancer. She was willing to practice a lot," recalled Karen Craven, who coached Madonna's cheerleading team.

Her mother's death may have fueled her drive.

"You walk around with a big hole inside you, a feeling of emptiness and longing ... and I think a lot of times that's why you become an overachiever," Madonna later said.

The hard work paid off when she received a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan. But college wasn't enough for Madonna. She was in a hurry to get on to bigger things.

New York dreamer

In 1978, she left the bucolic Midwest campus and landed in the heart of New York's seedy Times Square. She picked up occasional modeling jobs and stints with various professional dance troupes but had little more than her dreams on which to survive.

"I danced in a lot of companies in New York for years and realized I was going to be living a hand-to-mouth existence," Madonna recalled in an interview with King.

Although she had come to New York with the goal of becoming a famous dancer, it was her voice that finally got her noticed.

"People would hear me sing and they'd say, 'Hey, your voice isn't bad.' And I'd say, 'Oh, really?' " Madonna recalled. "I mean, I never had any training. I never wanted to be a singer."

In 1980, Madonna convinced an influential DJ to record a demo tape for her, featuring a dance track called "Everybody."

The song caught the ear of Stein, then the president of Sire Records.

"She was singing with all her heart and that's what came across," Stein recalled. "I was in the hospital and I had time on my hands, so I played it over and over again and I really, really liked it. I wanted to sign her immediately and, in fact, I asked her to come to the hospital."

Stein had high hopes for his young discovery and was anxious to make a good impression despite his status as a patient.

"I had a barber come in and cut my hair," he said. "And I got pajamas and a robe. I wanted to look my best. She couldn't have cared about that at all. I could have been Sarah Bernhardt, you know, like lying in a coffin, as long as my hand could reach out and I could sign a contract. She was as anxious or more anxious than I was. She wanted a chance to prove herself."

The Sire Records contract resulted in Madonna's first release. "Everybody" was a huge hit on the club scene, and Madonna's music began to gain attention.

Madonna's "boy toy" look circa 1984's "Lucky Star" inspired a generation of "wannabe" fans.  

'She was different'

In 1983, she released her self-titled debut. Sales started off sluggishly but picked up with the release of the hit single "Holiday."

The song's popularity netted the young singer an appearance on TV's "American Bandstand," a teen music program with a history of launching stars.

"I watched the kids and they loved her," said Dick Clark, the host of "American Bandstand." "She had some sort of bizarre outfit on. She looked different -- she was different -- and they loved her."

After the performance, Madonna told Clark that she wanted to "rule the world." It soon became clear that hers was not an idle boast.

By 1984, her first album was certified platinum, spawning the hits "Lucky Star" and "Borderline" in addition to "Holiday."

While she was recording a follow-up, a fashion craze developed among teen-age Madonna fans who imitated their new idol by dressing in torn-up clothes and rubber bracelets and tying rags in their hair. The Madonna look sparked a trend of young "wannabe" fans.

Before the release of her second album, "Like a Virgin," Madonna made an unforgettable appearance on the MTV Video Music Awards show, singing the title track from the album while writhing around on the stage in a wedding dress.

"It was the perfect blend of theatrics as well as this sort of psychological warfare," Rodgers said.

Along with the title track, the album produced the hits "Material Girl," "Angel" and "Dress You Up." It went platinum within a month.

Taking on Hollywood

Not content to be just a pop music star, Madonna tackled acting with a critically acclaimed role in the 1985 movie "Desperately Seeking Susan."

Her link to Hollywood grew more intense when she met actor Sean Penn, best known then for his role as a surfer dude in the 1982 movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

While Madonna craved the spotlight, Penn despised it. "She loved it," Taraborrelli said. "She worked very hard to get this type of attention. Sean, on the other hand, felt like it was a real intrusion."

But love won out, and the couple wed on her 27th birthday in Malibu, California, as journalists whirred overhead in helicopters.

Madonna's film career soon faltered when the bomb "Shanghai Surprise," co-starring her husband, hit the screens in 1986.

The marriage faltered as well. Madonna filed for divorce in early 1989.

"She wasn't used to failures," Taraborrelli said. "She had only been used to successes up until that point. So it was a bitter pill to swallow."

Although their relationship was rocky, Madonna still holds Penn in high regard.

"He's an incredible human being," she said on "Larry King Live." "Even though things didn't work out for us, I don't regret marrying him for a minute."

Pushing the envelope

Madonna found refuge from the pain of her failed marriage by throwing herself back into her work. In 1989, she unleashed a new album, "Like a Prayer," which produced three No. 1 singles.

As in the earlier hit "Papa Don't Preach," which referred to teen pregnancy and abortion, Madonna again inflamed religious groups with the single "Like a Prayer." The song's video was filled with burning crosses and sexual innuendo.

Madison Avenue was not amused. After signing the singer to a much ballyhooed multimillion dollar deal, Pepsi yanked a commercial featuring the song "Like a Prayer" after only one airing.

Madonna gets a chiropractic adjustment in "Truth or Dare," a 1991 documentary of the singer's "Blonde Ambition" tour.  

In 1990, Madonna embarked on her "Blonde Ambition" tour. Her sexually charged performances drew the ire of law enforcement officials.

The tour coincided with the release of her album "I'm Breathless," which featured music from her star turn in the 1990 movie "Dick Tracy."

It was a good year for Madonna. Not only was she invited to perform music from "Dick Tracy" for the Oscar ceremony, she walked down the red carpet with Michael Jackson on her arm.

But Madonna was just getting warmed up. Her next move was to make the video "Justify My Love," which was so racy that even MTV refused to air it without cuts. Madonna, however, refused to edit it. After the controversy whipped up a frenzy of publicity, the star released the unedited video into stores across the country.

She topped that scandal with the publication of a book titled simply "Sex." The intensely graphic book was a collection of photos revealing Madonna's sexual fantasies. Even her staunchest fans were shocked.

"These were the years when she was trying to make a statement that there is nothing wrong with sexuality," Taraborrelli said. "But she was at the same time pushing it right down people's throats, and a lot of people were offended by a lot of the things she was doing at the time."

From Material Girl to mom

In 1994, Madonna released the album "Bedtime Stories," which included her biggest hit to date. The romantic ballad "Take a Bow," No. 1 for nine weeks, revealed a vulnerable side of Madonna that had been obscured by her previous "sexcapades." It marked the beginning of another transformation.

She returned to movies to portray Eva Peron, the 1940s Argentine first lady, in a lavish musical. Madonna had lobbied for years to land the starring role in "Evita." She felt a special kinship with the real-life character, whose love of fame and ability to generate controversy mirrored Madonna's life in some respects.

"It was really important to her to help and stand up for the rights of people, and I also feel that," Madonna said in an interview.

While filming, Madonna learned that she was pregnant, and on October 14, 1996, she gave birth to a daughter, Lourdes. Madonna never married the father, Carlos Leon, who was her personal trainer.

"I love looking into her eyes," Madonna said of Lourdes. "I love watching her grow. I love watching her absorb life around her."

Madonna's performance in "Evita" garnered her a Golden Globe for best actress in a musical or comedy.

The awards kept coming. In 1998, she released "Ray of Light," with lyrics and musical styles embodying a newfound maturity. Madonna won three Grammys for the album. She grabbed another Grammy the following year for her song "Beautiful Stranger," which was featured on the "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" soundtrack.

At 43, the pop star has managed to stay contemporary with hits like "Music."  

Motherhood agreed with Madonna, and she eventually announced she was pregnant again, this time with British film director Guy Ritchie. Rocco Ritchie was born August 11, 2000, just as the title track of her album "Music" was taking off on the charts.

At the end of 2000, Madonna married Guy Ritchie in a private ceremony in Scotland. But marriage did not mean the diva was settling down.

In 2001, Madonna launched her first world tour in more than eight years. The "Drowned World Tour" kicked off in Barcelona, Spain, and quickly became the summer's hottest ticket, with scalpers getting up to $3,000 per seat.

Most who know her think that Madonna is years away from her swan song and that she still has a few tricks up her sleeve.

"If you look back at all the female superstars who have come and gone in the span of her career, it is just not safe to bet against her," Stein said.

And how does Madonna feel about her long journey?

"I wouldn't trade my life for anyone's," she said.

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