Madonna: The Power and The Glory | The First Penthouse Interview

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A Spire of Lifestyle Aspiration
Powerful Madonna

Penthouse Retrospective

by Nick Tosches

September, 1985

Madonna — Round 1

Fame and fortune, she said, are all she wanted from the world. She got what she wanted, and the world, too.

Madonna The Power and The Glory

Madonna Penthouse CoverIt was exactly two years ago this month that Penthouse published its first sensational portfolio of Madonna photographs. At the time, her fame, immense as it was, still bore the blush of its bloom. In little more than the span of four seasons, she had gone from being Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, formerly of Bay City, Michigan-cute, unknown, scuffling-to being simply and spectacularly and sublimely Madonna, the sweetheart and sex goddess of the Western, and the Eastern, world.

It was her fate, her destiny, her luck, her fortune cookie from the Big Chinese Waiter whose name and the wind over Weehawken are one. The world was ready for it. More than that, the world was ravenous for it: the return of the blond goddess, the renewed snap of the great magical garter more powerful than a thousand E.R.A.’s barreling headlong down the vast sexless water slide of Judeo-Christianity. The world was ready for it, the appetite was there; and she was there, bless her, to give it what it wanted. But she proved herself to be much more than just a phosphorescent flash of platinum-blond body heat. She and the world-it was not merely a matter of a quick fuck between them. It was a ring through the nose and a blown kiss, the beginnings of a liaison that has just gotten hotter and hotter with the passing of time.

“There are about a million opposites living inside of me,” Madonna once said. In the two years since Penthouse showed her as the world had never seen her, more than a few of those opposites have come to light. Divine Monroe reborn, peepshow floozy, suffering grisette in gingham, virgin and whore, little girl and bride, saint and man-eater, angel and sinner she has swept through all these guises and more. At times, it has seemed that she is nothing more than a series of masks illuminated from behind; and it has been the mercurial mystery of that elusive radiance behind the masks that has captivated. Unknowable-if, indeed, there is anything to know she enthralls, in a way that flesh in the hand never could. The true heart of her talent, the true heart of her gift, may be just that: She illuminates masks well. She gives good light.

Her last album, True Blue, released in July 1986, surpassed its predecessor, Like a Virgin, in international sales. This was no meager feat, as Like a Virgin had yielded three immense single hits (”Material Girl,” “Into the Groove,” and the title cut) and risen to No. 1 in nine countries, earning Madonna more than $8 million in royalties. True Blue was dedicated “to my husband, the coolest guy in the universe.”

That husband, of course, is Sean Penn, whom she had married on August 16, 1985, her 26th birthday. This petulant and pugnacious young method actor, two years her junior and a minor player in the breadwinning scenario, distinguished himself by consummately playing an asshole onscreen, and even more consummately offscreen. Perhaps as disliked by the lowly public as Madonna has been adored, her marriage to him tested that adoration. Marriage, it appears, tends to deflate the stock of a sex symbol. It is an infidelity to the adorer-an adultery to the males, an abandonment to the females, an irrevocable symbolic rending of a maidenhead and bond that lived in illusion if not in fact. Of course, if an icon must marry, it is better, image wise, that it marry another icon-a Joltin’ Joe for Marilyn, or, in the bargain basement, a Brigitte Nielsen for Sylvester Stallone. Madonna’s choice was thus not only baffling, it was dangerous. That she survived this test, stock unhurt and adoration unflagged, is a tribute to her sovereignty. That she remained unscathed after calling him “the coolest guy in the universe” was more than a tribute; it was perhaps a tiny miracle-or, at the very least, testimony to the fact that, as far as sex symbols are concerned, a little stupidity worn on the sleeve can be just as attractive as a little beauty spot worn on the face.

In any event, the public drew the line at the cinematic pairing of the two. With The Falcon and the Snowman to his credit, Penn is perhaps the most famous graduate of that group of youthful emoters called the Brat Pack. Madonna had been in a few pictures herself. In 1980, while still unknown, she had been in an hour-long skin drama by Stephen Lewicki. Called A Certain Sacrifice, it had been distributed only sub rosa. There was a small role in Vision Quest a few years later; then, in 1985, her big part in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan. (Coproducer Sarah Pillsbury-right on the doughboy money-said she saw in Madonna a “punk Mae West” who was a “total fantasy for both men and women.”) Though she won wide praise for her work in Desperately Seeking Susan, praise was a credential Madonna no longer needed. By now, she was a goddess. Publicists, envisioning the possibilities of her and Penn together on-screen, gushingly invoked Lombard and Montgomery, Bacall and Bogart. In fact, “this film doesn’t need publicity,” Penn himself said upon firing unit-publicist Chris Nixon during production. “The people will go to see it because we’re in it.”

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Written at what was thought to be the zenith of her career how could we know there would be so much more? From the obscure-yet-promising moniker of "punk rock Mae West" to reigning queen of pop and beyond it was all there at the start.

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