The immaterial girl

FEW people seem to respond to Madonna as if she were human. Rather, she polarises opinion as a one-woman zoo of controversy, ambition and marketing.

Of course, it’s this combination that has kept her in the public eye for more than two decades, but lately the zoo has not been the attraction it once was.

"Her film flopped, her music sucks and now she’s writing kids’ stories," says one industry insider, succinctly. "It’s time to wind down. Unless she’s writing Harry Potter and the Packet of Three, I’d say that Madonna’s star is heading west."

At the very least, it may be time for yet another image overhaul, although the public may be wearying of a pop singer who has more heads than Worzel Gummidge. In the past we have had Madonna the sexpot, the material girl, the bendy yoga toy, and currently Madonna the earth mother girl. Musically, however, she has bumping along the bottom for years, relying on her eye for the zeitgeist to boost interest. She may be losing her touch even here; her new music video for ‘American Life’, which features her throwing a hand grenade at a George W Bush lookalike who then uses it to light a cigar, has been doing the hokey-cokey in and out of the schedules. Shot as a critique of the war in Iraq, it seemed guaranteed to stir up a hornet’s nest - until someone got cold feet and the video was finally pulled altogether. Not the act of a radical or a rebel, but every bit the action of a woman anxious not to alienate any section of her record-buying public.

Being a pop icon has given her the leverage to do anything she wants, and that has included making movies, despite the fact that for most of us, a Madonna film is something you see if it’s a demand made by someone who has kidnapped your family. As star vehicles, films like Who’s That Girl (1991), The Next Best Thing (2000) and Shanghai Surprise (1986) have all turned out to be Trabants. More recently there was Mr and Mrs Ritchie’s Swept Away, where Madonna played a character who went from rich bitch to love slave on a desert island. Like most of her movies, it was hobbled by the fact that Madonna plays vulnerable with all the conviction of Pol Pot. It opens here next month - on video - and if the Ritchies ever contemplate divorce, they may both consider using it as grounds for cruelty.

Now Madonna is at work with her first story for children. Of course, some years ago, she released an album called Bedtime Stories; but her cover picture, with her Madgesty in full panda eye make-up and "helloo boys" mode, suggested an approach that JK Rowling could not have dreamt of. Songs such as ‘Inside of Me’, ‘Why It’s So Hard’ and ‘Deeper and Deeper’ also suggested that Bedtime Stories would raise some rather curious questions before the nightlight went out. But then, Madonna has not been a conventional mother. Madonna and the kids do not swing in the park, sing nursery rhymes or make mudpies on the beach. "The nannies do that bit," she says. "I take Lourdes with me to pick out light fittings or sit in my office. I like her to see me as I am."

And what does Lourdes see? "A very scary lady," says one former employee. "She goes everywhere with a huge entourage." She once swept into a room that had been especially redecorated for her, and instantly demanded a redesign because it clashed with her trousers.

As a businesswoman, Madonna’s clout is legendary. It is also one of the few aspects of her life that she prefers to keep from public view. For her 1991 fly on the wall documentary, Truth Or Dare, Madonna invited the camera to witness everything except business meetings. There are countless stories - some apocryphal - about her fiscal alertness, from moans about electricity bills to the time she sued her financial advisers for $2.5m after alleging they made her pay more tax than necessary. Madonna herself hates to be described as a Material Girl. At the moment her talk is of yoga and spirituality and she has even disowned her 1985 hit, redolent of Reaganomics and New Money. After pointing out that she didn’t write Material Girl, she has vowed: "I’ll never sing it again as long as I live."

Yet Madonna knew the value of a dollar from the time when she arrived in New York from Michigan with just $30 to her name. It was three years before anybody took her singing ambitions seriously. New York’s star DJ, Mark Kamins, supplied her big break, creating a club-scene hit with one of her demo singles, ‘Everybody’, and introducing Madonna to Warner Brothers records, who gave her a contract.

Her first number one, ‘Like A Virgin’, came in 1984. In 1985 Madonna sold more singles and albums than any other artist, with bouncy songs offering incentives to dance and record covers featuring lingerie and crucifixes. The title track of her 1989 album, Like A Prayer, won condemnation from the Pope after its video featured a scantily clad Madonna dancing with a black Jesus and burning crosses. She moved on into Playboy country with Erotica and movies such as Body of Evidence, assuring her fans that she was reclaiming the territory on behalf of girl power, rather than setting up gold-digging as some kind of distaff ideal that did nothing for female emancipation.

This was agendaless exhibitionism, as hollow and self-serving as turkeys taking a stand against Christmas, but it took Sex, a photo album of Madonna and chums having a "good time", to make her rethink and retrench. The book was, by her standards, a failure, suggesting that La Ciccone had stayed one stop too long on the sex train.

For someone apparently so interested in sex, she has had difficulties pairing it up with lasting love. At first her boyfriends were high-profile; John F Kennedy Junior, and Dennis Rodman were consorts, and in 1986 she married actor Sean Penn, who now says, rather magnificently that "I am no better an expert on her than anyone else. I was drunk most of the time." The relationship could have been on a Burton and Taylor scale of bad behaviour and lavish living, but the pair parted more quickly and even more acrimoniously after four years.

Other bedtime companions included the odd woman, and there were few odder than the letter-box-faced comedian Sandra Bernhardt. Later Madonna aimed her cupid’s arrows rather lower down the social scale. Andy Bird has been described as a British filmmaker, although Alan Parker may have little to fear from a man who crashed on friends’ sofas when not living with Madonna. But eventually his indolence allowed the relationship to fizzle out.

In 1995, she asked boyfriend and former fitness trainer Carlos Leon to father her child and a financial agreement was drawn up whereby Leon would give up his claim to Lourdes. Carlos was not the first boyfriend she had approached about her desire for children. That most vanilla of rappers, Vanilla Ice, dated her for eight months in 1993, during which time she persuaded him to strip for her Sex book ("She looked like a slut and so did I."). When she asked him to father a child, he was regularly abusing heroin and cocaine, but that is not the only reason why he turned her down. "She kept on at me. She freaked me out," he recalls, adding gallantly: "I didn’t want her to be the mother of my child because I thought she was too old."

For those who know the Madonna story, it is irresistible to link this obsession with motherhood and motherly love to the loss of her own mother to cancer when the singer was six. Madonna’s adolescent rebellion against her sternly Catholic father, Tony Ciccone, lasted 20 years. On one hand she would try her hardest to shock him, but on the other she craved his approval. Now she seems to be imitating his style of parenting: television was restricted in her youth. Now she is forbidding Lourdes to watch it.

Lourdes Maria Ciccone Leon is precious cargo, even after the birth of half-brother Rocco. Named after the sacred Catholic site, at first Madonna was fiercely protective of her child’s privacy and professed outrage when the paparazzi snatched pictures. Soon afterwards, however, Madonna and child appeared together on the cover of Vanity Fair. Lola’s world changed very quickly when Madonna met Guy Ritchie. From being an adored single child of an adored single mother, she now has to share Madonna with a new half-brother and a stepfather.

In a sense, however, Madonna has found the best match possible; a partner who is just as ambitious and as infatuated with fame and image as she. Once an indolent upper-class public schoolboy, Ritchie has now transformed himself into a film director and a diamond Cockney geezer who likes to take the "missus" for a pint down the old rubadub. He claims he is not intimidated or impressed by his wife’s greater fame or wealth, and to prove it, directed not only the humiliating Swept Away, but also a car video where she appeared to wet herself. You might be forgiven for suspecting that Guy is secretly trying to sabotage his wife so she’ll spend more time back at the cat and mouse.

In The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald commented that, in the end, the life of his hero, Jay Gatsby, amounted to a collection of successful gestures. And the same may be said of Madonna, who has made it her business to seize opportunities whenever they wafted into reach. Experience has made her tough, controlling and guarded. According to former lover, Vanilla Ice, "sexually, she was available, but emotionally she was like Fort Knox".

But is there much more to Madge than meets the eye anyway? Her past suggests a woman who does not have convictions as much as an ability to get behind every fashionable trend of the past 15 years - big hair, personal trainers, affairs with personal trainers, yoga, motherhood, hip porn, Kabbalah, nose rings and himbos - but nothing seems to stick.

Madonna believes her next move may be to save the planet: "When you think about the state the world is in, the terrorism and imminent war, the planet being destroyed and desecrated, it is a public figure’s responsibility to not just raise public awareness but to offer solutions and to be very involved," she says, ominously. "I think it is my responsibility to enlighten people on a spiritual level."

This, from a woman who cannot even disabuse her husband of the notion that London has moved on from the era of the East End hardman. Or that Vinnie Jones is an actor.