I am the youngest of four kids and my mom’s only daughter. My mom was one of nine girls in her family, so you can imagine the tidal wave of estrogen that washed over me in the form of dresses, hair bows and dolls when I was born. They had such high girly hopes for me. But I grew up with three brothers, so you can imagine how I failed to meet their expectations. My mom wanted a girl who liked to do her hair, play dress up and be pretty. What she got instead was a little girl who rough-housed with her brothers and wanted a plastic Rambo knife for Christmas (the top part was also a compass!). My mom wanted me to like pink; I liked blue. My mom wanted me to act lady-like; I could burp the alphabet. My mom wanted me to like Debbie Gibson or Belinda Carlisle, but instead, I liked Madonna.
And not ’80s Madonna, mind you. I liked ’90s, vogue-ing, cone-bra-wearing, hitchhiking naked for Sex book Madonna. So I completely understood my mom’s concern that Madonna would encourage her child to be a brazen slut. But here I am in my late 30s, and I never once hitchhiked with my ass hanging out or owned a cone bra ever. (I do admit to having overdosed on vogue-ing a time or two, but it wasn’t a problem Bengay couldn’t take care of.) In actuality, my mom had nothing to worry about, because Madonna was a positive influence on me, both then and now.
Here are five things about Madonna that made her a great role model for the awkward and insecure teenager I used to be.
1. She’s a Hard Worker
Madonna didn’t start off in the music business with the help of a manager dad or mom. The only support she was getting was from her own two feet. Madonna is a brand, yet she started with just $35 in her pocket and a part-time job at Dunkin’ Donuts. In the first couple years, Madonna was practically homeless, eating popcorn every day because it was all she could afford. She was robbed, she was raped, and her dreams of being a professional ballet dancer were eventually dashed (she was too short). No one would have been surprised if she gave it all up and went back to Michigan. But Madonna didn’t throw in the towel. Instead, she tweaked her brand vision and focused on making music instead, which she promoted without the help of YouTube or social media. Meaning, Madonna hit the pavement every night, passing out her cassette tapes to any DJ who would take it. And now, more than 30 years later, she’s still working hard as she prepares to embark on her new Rebel Heart world tour next month (which I’m going to in October!).
2. She Speaks Her Mind
We live in a world where celebrities have publicists who carefully craft the words they say so that they are safe for public consumption. They say the right thing, make no mistakes, leave feathers unruffled, and in return, we get uninteresting, one dimensional, Hollywood handcrafted celebrities. If you want to see true realness, check out Madonna’s 1990 Nightline interview, where she defends her video, “Justify My Love” (which was also the first video MTV banned) and challenges the media’s conservative views on nudity and sex. Madonna stumbles, mispronounces things and sometimes sounds like she wants to kick that smug look off the newscaster’s face. It’s not perfect, definitely unscripted, and yet, I remember being so impressed by her. This was Madonna going off in her own words, defending her passions and voicing her opinions.
3. She’s an Overly Confident Woman
And she doesn’t apologize for it, which made a huge impression on me. I remember seeing Madonna’s interview on American Bandstand. When Dick Clark asked her what her plans for the future were, she responded, “To rule the world,” and not in a jokey manner, but more like she was making a prediction. She was proud of who she was and of her body, her mind and her sexuality. Simply put, she just oozed self confidence. If you want to see it up close and personal, watch Madonna’s “Vogue” performance for the MTV movie awards, and tell me those aren’t the look and movements of a woman who thinks she’s absolutely fabulous.
It might be off-putting and obnoxious for a lot of people, but for seventh-grade me, her over-the-top confidence was something I wanted to have for myself.
4. She’s a “Bitch”
Madonna once famously said, “I’m tough, I’m ambitious, and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, okay.” In just once sentence, Madonna turned a demeaning insult into a compliment, and from that day on, I learned that the proper response to being called a bitch is a simple, “Thank you.”
5. She Doesn’t Care What Other People Think
Long before Taylor Swift started singing about shaking off other people’s negative opinions, Madonna was already a full-time professional at shaking things off. At the height of her popularity in the ’80s, the media found nude pictures Madonna had posed for before she got famous. The photos were plastered on every newspaper and magazine and shown on all of the news channels. They called her a slut, a tramp and everything else in between. But instead of hiring a team of publicists to issue an apology for the news or even write out an explanation, Madonna’s only response to her nude pictures was:
Even now, after racking up countless awards, number-one songs, albums and record-breaking tours, Madonna gets half the respect that her male counterparts do and is still the media’s favorite punching bag—attacking everything from her music, her looks, her behavior and now, her age. But Madonna thwarts the media’s attempts to make her feel bad about herself time and time again by just not giving one single fuck about what anyone says about her and by using her amazing success as a big middle finger to all the haters.
Happy Birthday, Madonna. Thank you for always being such a badass.