The tragic real-life story of Madonna

Millennials and Generation Z have never known a world without Madonna, and Gen X came of age with her hits as the soundtrack. From the moment she took the music industry by storm with her 1983 self-titled debut album, audiences were hooked. She parlayed a pop-tart image into pop-icon status by unapologetically owning her sexuality and bursting through boundaries.

Following her 1984 performance of "Holiday" on American Bandstand, Dick Clark asked Madonna about her goals following the success of her debut album. The Material Girl famously answered, "To rule the world." A few months later, her follow-up album, Like a Virgin, rose to number one on the Billboard 200 chart, and — love her or fear her — the world was mesmerized by Madonna.

While she did conquer the music world, Madonna Louise Ciccone's path to stardom was not easy. Painful challenges along the way toughened her, which gave her the chutzpah to climb to the top of a changing music industry and navigate the trappings of fame. Her indelible contributions to pop culture show no signs of stopping (with a net worth to prove it), but fame brings its own set of troubles, some of which Madonna still navigates today.

Madonna's mother died when she was only five years old

Madonna's mother, who shared her first name, was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with Madonna's younger sister. Per Biography, the cancer couldn't be treated until her mother gave birth, and by the time she delivered the baby, the tumor was too advanced to eradicate. The elder Madonna passed away in 1963 at only 30 years old, leaving a heartbroken five-year-old girl and her five siblings to be raised by their father.

The lack of a female role model during her formative years contributed to Madonna's wide-open personality. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Madge said, "Some of my lack of inhibition comes from my mother's death. For example, mothers teach you manners. And I absolutely did not learn any of those rules and regulations."

Madonna told CNN she had "a feeling of emptiness and longing" following the tragic loss — feelings that likely propelled her to success. To fill the emptiness, Madonna sought adoration wherever she could find it. In a Rolling Stone interview, she told Carrie Fisher her unquenchable thirst for approval fueled her ambition by directing the longing outward. "OK, I don't have a mother to love me," she told Fisher. "I'm going to make the world love me." While there still are some fellow stars who can't stand Madonna, her loyal fans certainly bow down to the Queen of Pop.

Her overt sexuality was met with public disdain

The unapologetic sexuality in Madonna's work is celebrated by some and condemned by others. Her early antics — like writhing around in a wedding dress on the stage while performing at the first-ever Video Music Awards, singing about virginity — had the Moral Majority clutching their pearls. Between barely-there concert costumes, kissing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on live TV, publishing a book of erotic photographs, making an album called Erotica (with a title song about S & M), using religious imagery in ways that offended the faithful, and just about everything she said in live interviews during her first two decades in the public eye, to call Madonna controversial would be a gross understatement.

She became a provocateur early in life. As Madge told the Los Angeles Times, "Because I had such a large family, I realized that I would only be noticed and heard if I made the biggest noise. If I wanted my father's attention, I would get on a table and tap-dance and lift my dress and — guess what — he'd pay attention to me." In the same interview, she was asked why she thought people were threatened by her sexuality and not by that of other women. "Because they're not as powerful as I am. I reach more people ... my sexuality's boldness threatens people. I'm assertive. I'm not embarrassed or shameful or inhibited."

Madonna has a complicated relationship with religion

Madonna was taught the rules for good Catholic girls at a young age by devoutly religious parents, and she didn't question them until her heart was broken. She told the Chicago Tribune her father's remarriage three years after her mother's death was the initial catalyst for her split from religion. She felt he had been taken from her, and she coped by adopting the attitude, "I don't need anybody. No one's going to break my heart again" — Including God.

Addressing her conflicted relationship with religion in Harper's Bazaar, Madonna said, "I'm a big believer in ritualistic behavior ... But I'm not a big fan of rules." The religious symbolism that surrounded Madonna as a child appears in much of her work, which has provoked ire. Even the Pope called for her boycott. As she told the Independent, "There are certain religious groups who have turned [sex] into a sinful act. I've always tried to open people's minds to the idea that it's not something to be ashamed of."

She dove into Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, in 1997 and practiced for nearly a decade but ultimately decided to back away, in part because it was interfering with her relationship with then-husband, Guy Ritchie. She has since been a scholar of many religions and a follower of none.

Madonna's first year in New York was traumatic

Madonna had a dance scholarship at the University of Michigan, but she felt she needed to live in New York City to truly thrive artistically. Sadly, reality did not meet her expectations when she moved to the Big Apple in the late '70s. She wrote in Harper's Bazaar. "New York wasn't everything I thought it would be. It did not welcome me with open arms." She was mugged at gunpoint, raped at knifepoint, and burglarized three times. Still, she was determined to have a successful career in the performing arts. 

She built an impressive dance resume, including studying under Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham, but – as she told CNN – it became clear her dance career would keep her in the starving-artist lifestyle, which was not the life Madonna had planned. Thankfully, her big break was just around the corner with the release of her first single, "Everybody," in 1982. It didn't make it into the Top 100, but it peaked at number three on Billboard's Dance Club Songs chart. Just like that, a star was born.

Sean Penn was the love of her life

Although a turbulent pair, in Madonna's 1991 documentary, Truth or Dare, the starlet admitted that Sean Penn "was the love of her life" (via Madonna: A Biography) — a quote "that she tried to have edited out." As it turned out, Madonna and Penn had divorced two years earlier, in 1989, and Madonna was dating Warren Beatty while Truth or Dare was being filmed.

Penn and Madonna married in August 1985 in Malibu on her 27th birthday, which was the day before his 25th birthday. But the relationship was tumultuous, and the couple earned the nickname "Poison Penns" for their volatile fights. There had been rumors Penn physically abused Madonna, but she denied them, and Penn settled a defamation suit he filed against Hollywood producer Lee Daniels for making those accusations. Daniels publicly apologized.

In 2018, Penn revealed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that he still loves Madonna "very much," while in 2013, Madge's BFF Debi Mazar dished on Watch What Happens Live that Madonna's "true love" was Penn. There have been no hints of a reconciliation, but these two might be a testament to the idea that true love never dies – even when a relationship does.

Madonna never knows whom she can trust

We often assume celebrities have an easy life, complete with nonstop adoration, but the reality of fame is not that simple. Madonna has millions of fans with great affection for her, but the adoration of a fan isn't the same as the love of a friend or partner. And, when you're at the top, it's difficult to discern who loves you for the person you are and who loves you for your money and power. Several people have taken advantage of Madonna's kindness and generosity over the years.

In 2017, art consultant Darlene Lutz, a now-former friend of Madonna's, placed up for auction some of Madge's very personal items, including a pair of underwear and a letter from ex-boyfriend, Tupac Shakur. Although she sought to stop the sale, the court eventually ruled against the starlet (via NBC News). If that's not all, journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis, to whom Madonna gave extensive personal access, wrote an article for The New York Times that left her feeling betrayed. Madge posted on Instagram: "The journalist who wrote this article ... was invited into a world which many people don't get to see, but chose to focus on trivial and superficial matters ... I'm sorry I spent 5 minutes with her."

Throughout it all, Madge is keeping her head high. At the end of a 2015 concert, Madonna announced (via Rolling Stone), "You know what they say –- it's lonely at the top. But it ain't crowded!"

Madonna's marriage to Guy Ritchie fell apart

Madonna and Guy Ritchie were married in an idyllic castle in Scotland in December 2000 — but the union was ill-fated because both partners felt imprisoned by the other. She felt artistically confined; he felt emotionally boxed. According to J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of Madonna, An Intimate Biography of an Icon at Sixty (via News.com.au), Ritchie was no longer able to have open discussions with friends and family for fear it would end up in the tabloids. He became more private as his public profile increased, and he didn't like feeling perpetually silenced. 

Madonna, on the other hand, told The Irish Sun, "There were many times when I wanted to express myself as an artist in ways that I don't think [Ritchie] felt comfortable with ...There were times when I felt incarcerated. I wasn't really allowed to be myself." The two parted ways due to incompatibility. The couple did not have a prenup, and the divorce was ugly. Madonna ultimately paid Ritchie $75 million in their divorce settlement.

Daily Mail reported a "mystery legal blow up" between Madonna and Ritchie in December 2019. Ritchie asked for the "enforcement or execution of a judgment or order," likely over custody of the children, Daily Mail asserts. Madonna and Ritchie share a biological son, Rocco, and a son they jointly adopted from Malawi, David Banda.

She has a turbulent relationship with Malawi

Madonna has created a big family. Per The Sun, she has a biological son, Rocco, with ex-husband Guy Ritchie; a son from Malawi she adopted with Ritchie in 2006, David Banda; a biological daughter, Lourdes, with Carlos Leon; another daughter, Mercy James, adopted from Malawi in 2009; and twin girls, Stelle and Esther, adopted from Malawi in 2017. Madonna and Ritchie's adoption of David Banda, a then-13-month-old orphan whose father could not care for him 2006, and her founding of the Raising Malawi organization to support the country's children, sparked a relationship with Malawi that has seen its ups and downs.

Madonna received push-back against her adoptions because she is not a resident of Malawi, and some Malawians resented her receipt of special permission from courts to adopt. She even got into a war of words with Malawian President Joyce Banda over claims Madonna has "exaggerated" the contributions she has made to the country, a dispute mostly surrounding her charity's plan to build schools.

Madonna even received ire from the biological family of one of her adopted children, Mercy James, who accompanied Madonna on a trip to Malawi in 2014. When Mercy James' birth grandfather discovered she was in the country, he told Daily Mail Madonna had promised to bring Mercy James to visit them and that he had heard nothing "about her welfare" since the adoption, adding, "She has my blood flowing in her veins." Adoption, like life, is sometimes messy.

Madonna has experienced sexism throughout her career

At Billboard's Women in Music 2016 event, Madonna gave a speech about sexism and misogyny, noting that, while there seem to be no rules for men in the entertainment industry, there are plenty for women. "If you're a girl, you have to play the game. You're allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don't act too smart. Don't have an opinion that's out of line with the status quo. You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a s**t, but don't own your s***tiness ... And finally, do not age." Much of the sexism the starlet has faced in recent years has been due to ageism. It is egregious to her that, while men are never told to turn off their sex appeal regardless of age, women in the entertainment industry seem to have a forced expiration date on being sexy. Madonna has decided this is another norm she will shatter.

Madge knew she was breaking gender stereotypes by being a boss-lady back in 1991, saying to the Los Angeles Times, "Women are traditionally raised to be subservient, passive, accepting. The man is supposed to be the pioneer. He makes the money, he makes the rules." Madonna has made great strides in turning those norms upside down, but many of the age-old struggles she faced against sexism are still being fought today. Thanks to her groundbreaking antics, though, the battles continue to become easier.

Madonna is 'interested in pushing people's buttons'

Madonna's provocative personality has taken center stage in her career, making it easy to overlook her talent. Critics have opined that her success is in spite of, rather than because of, her vocal talent. In fact, in her documentary, Truth or Dare (via Rolling Stone), Madonna herself even said, "I know I'm not the best singer and I know I'm not the best dancer, but I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in pushing people's buttons, in being provocative and in being political." Still, some choose to judge her on raw talent alone.

Joni Mitchell told W Magazine (via JoniMitchell.com), "Madonna has knocked the importance of talent out of the arena." Of her 1988 Broadway debut in Speed-The-Plow, a Daily News theater critic declared (via CrossingsDavid Mamet's Work in Different Genres and Media), "No, she can't act!" A few years later, a New York Magazine review of her performance in Dick Tracy read, "She's an awful actress, but she's adequate as a masochistic, two-dimensional floozy."

Haters aside, Madonna has won critical acclaim in many genres and scores of awards, including a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Eva Peron in Evita. During her acceptance speech as she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she thanked everyone "who said [she] was talentless...that [she] couldn't sing," adding, "They pushed me to be better, and I am grateful for their resistance" (via The New York Times).