Book review: Life with my sister Madonna

BY Christopher Ciccone (with Wendy Leigh) Simon & Schuster, 352pp, £17.99 Review by LEE RANDALL

NO MATTER HOW CAREFULLY YOU try to control your image, there's always someone lurking in the background with a tale or two that'll yank the halo off your impeccably coiffed head. Generally it's someone who knew you way back when.

Thus we arrive at the latest entry in the Mommie Dearest School of Biography, in which said halo is not only removed, but trod upon by one whose insider credentials make him instantly believable. That would be Christopher Ciccone, brother of Madonna. His is the intimate guide to little Madonna and how she grew – into a gorgon with monomaniacal tendencies.

That, at least, is the short and nasty tabloid version. The reality, like this compelling book, is far more complicated.

As children, Madonna and her younger (by 27 months) brother weren't especially close. It was a big family – six kids from father Silvio's marriage to the "original" Madonna, and two more from his remarriage to Joan. Christopher was three when his 30-year-old mother died of breast cancer. Such was the emotional constipation of the Ciccone household that she was rarely spoken about again.

Christopher speculates, reasonably enough, that the early loss of their mother "may have put a combination of sorrow and iron into Madonna's soul … and may well have contributed to her insatiable craving to be loved and admired by the entire world". For his part, he transferred his love and longing to his older sister and became, for many years, her devoted servant.

Their relationship didn't gel until their teens, when Madonna, perhaps after realising her little brother was gay, took him under her wing. Ciccone's portrait of their childhood is illuminating partly because it shows that his sister was a little dictator even then, riding roughshod over the family to ensure that she got her own way.

All the children disliked their "evil" stepmother, but Ciccone has come around, and though he tells many a tale against her, his ultimate assessment is respectful and loving. So, he acknowledges Joan's courage in taking on a young, grief-stricken family and doing her best to raise another woman's children. As far as her reputation among the kids was concerned, it didn't help that she believed in old-fashioned discipline, hard work and frugality. It's the ultimate irony, writes Ciccone, that Joan is the person Madonna, with her Draconian rigidity, most resembles today.

Madonna left home as soon as she was able, but dropped out of university to pursue fame in New York. She did not, her brother insists, arrive penniless and alone, but had money in the bank and a support system in place. Before long she summoned him to join her, but when he arrived – penniless and without friends – she refused to let him stay with her as promised.

It would prove to be a lifelong pattern: Madonna snapped her fingers and Christopher rushed to her side, only to be dismissed, often worse off financially and emotionally, than if he'd stayed put.

For years their lives were inextricably link-ed – Christopher was Madonna's dresser, mopping her off between numbers and co-ordinating costume changes. He helped craft her looks and designed and directed some of her lavish shows. He carried out all the interior design of her numerous properties and helped her amass an art collection that's worth upwards of $100 million by today's prices, and includes pieces by Picasso, Leger, Kahlo and Lempicka. Most vitally, Christopher buoyed her emotionally throughout. It wasn't a reciprocal arrangement – the Madonna we meet here is self-absorbed to a ridiculous degree.

In time, the relationship soured. It had to do with money. It had to do with Christopher's replacement by a succession of men who had the advantage of being romantically linked to his sister. The most dangerous of all was Guy Ritchie, whose homophobia and insecurities proved deadly for family relations.

This is a must-read for gossip lovers. It's breezy and riveting and there are more scandalous anecdotes involving sex, drugs and rock and roll per square inch than in a year's worth of Popbitch mailings. I especially enjoyed the section laying bare the fakery involved with bringing the "documentary" In Bed with Madonna to the screen. Unlike that cinematic offering, there's an air of authenticity here that you don't find in your average stranger-penned hagiography.

Yet I've heard that a great many Madonna fans are outraged by this warts and warts saga. How any of these titbits can come as a surprise baffles me – Madonna's a lot of things, but warm isn't an adjective that springs to mind. Still, it has to be said that while this book is nothing if not self-serving, Ciccone does stop and examine his own ignoble behaviour and motives. Finally, for all the mud he slings at his beloved big sister, what comes through is just how much he still craves her approval – a fact he'd hotly deny. If this book proves anything, it's that it's not just mum and dad who f*** you up, it's your entire family.