SHE STARES down at me from her poster on the wall, boldly thrusting her hips forward and smiling half to herself. I've lived with her for five years now -- longer than anyone except my parents. Her picture has followed me into four dormitory suites and two apartments as I moved from carefree college girl to Washington reporter. The poster is hidden behind the door now, but I still can't live anywhere without her.

Without Madonna. Yes, I mean her, the controversial pop star who has had 16 straight Top Five singles, more than the Beatles.

I'm not a 15-year-old wannabe. Unlike Madonna, I don't appear in public wearing lingerie or dye my hair to match my moods.

All the same, I worship Madonna, and so do thousands of other young professional women. At 31, she is one of us. And her example is empowering.

She is strong, self-reliant and, above all, sexy -- a woman who has made her mark on the world by refusing to play by its rules. She shares our sweet, romantic dreams about white weddings and happy-ever-afters, but she hasn't let them get in the way of her pleasure.

"She embodies things we would like to be in our wildest dreams but would never be in real life," says Hyungji Park, who is studying for a PhD in English at Princeton University. "She acts out confidently and flaunts what we don't acknowlege."

Any discussion of Madonna's appeal has to start with her songs -- pop stars only have power when they are on the Billboard charts. Madonna's music is enthusiastic, bouncy and, above all, perfect to dance to. Her recent appearance turned the Capital Centre into a gigantic disco -- 15,000 people, many of them years past their teens, stood and danced in their seats for nearly two hours.

"It's good psych music," says Sue Byrne, 27, marketing director for the Boston Bruins, who attended Madonna's earlier concert in Worchester, Mass. "I like to run to it."

But an infectious beat can't explain the worship she inspires from fans who have bought more than 60 million of her records. Madonna is an icon. Other artists appeal to our altruism. Susanne Vega's ballads about child abuse and Tracy Chapman's laments on racism tug our heartstrings and our consciences. Madonna speaks to our needs.

"I like her because she's so straightforward about her passions," says Laura Hundley, a 22-year-old Boston management consultant. "She's unabashedly fascinated by power, whether it's sexual power, physical power with her vigorous dancing, or spiritual power in her gropings with her Catholic faith."

Madonna's self-assurance extends to her own appearance. She has created and discarded a series of diverse images for herself -- from the scantily clad girl with a Boy Toy belt, to a Marilyn Monroesque blond. She acts out different fantasies, never pretending that the images are anything other than false fronts. Madonna has also refused to bow to conventional marketing wisdom and abandon the gay dance clubs where she got her start a decade ago. She has proven to be a tireless fundraiser for AIDS research and treatment. Her concert act includes men dancing together, and her latest hit song, "Vogue," features a craze rooted in the gay clubs, in which dancers pose like models.

Ultimately, Madonna's example is most powerful when it comes to personal relationships and sexuality -- for that is the area where young women are often most conflicted.

We were raised to believe in Prince Charmings who would protect us from the world, and so was Madonna. She fantasizes about her "true love, you're the one I'm dreaming of," and sings in another song, "I cherish the thought/Of always having you here by my side."

These fantasies prevent many young professional women, who readily seek success and stand up for themselves in the boardroom, from extending that self-confidence into the bedroom.

Not Madonna. She may dream of being rescued but she doesn't waste time waiting for a knight in shining armor. She choses her own partners -- "get into the groove/Boy, you've got to prove/You're up to me" -- and knows her own worth. "Second best is never enough/You'll do much better, baby on your own," she sings in "Cherish," and that's the advice she decided to take when her marriage to Sean Penn was crumbling.

Madonna resists the dangerous dichotomy that women must be sweet or sexy, virgins or whores. Instead, she believes that nice girls can -- and should -- enjoy sex.

Most descriptions of the controversial "Like a Prayer" video focus on its Catholic imagery: Madonna kisses a black saint, and develops Christ-like markings on her hands. However, the video is also a feminist fairy tale. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White waited for their princes to come along. Madonna finds her own man and wakes him up.

In her latest concert routine, she sings that she feels "Like a Virgin -- "been saving it all for you 'cause only love can last" -- while she grinds her hips and writhes on a red velvet bed in front of tens of thousands of fans.

For Madonna, there's no contradiction in singing about -- and acting out -- sexual fantasies in the same "Like a Prayer" album that included a sheet warning about AIDS that advocated safe sex.

Sometimes Madonna's emphasis on unrestrained self-expression takes her out of her depth and into dangerous waters. Some of her movies -- "Bloodhounds of Broadway," "Shanghai Suprise" -- flopped and some critics are skeptical of her decision to turn 1940s chanteuse for her latest album, "I'm Breathless: Songs From and Inspired by the Film 'Dick Tracy.' "

But even some loyal listeners -- including me -- had to take a deep breath when they heard her new song, "Hanky Panky." In it, Madonna asks to be tied up and sings, "I'll settle for the back of your hand, somewhere on my behind."

But we just shrugged and assumed Madonna was once again challenging our assumptions and testing our taboos.

"With Madonna, you've got to have an open mind," says Byrne. "If you're a stick-in-the-mud, you're not going to be able to sit down and watch a Madonna video."

Brooke Masters is a Washington Post reporter.