Madonna leaving a “Truth or Dare” screening at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival in her famous conical bra top. (Gilbert Tourte/AP)

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re opening up our archives to share interesting profiles of interesting women — as reported by some of our most interesting women writers. To follow more in the series, explore #womenbywomen on Twitter, and share your own favorites using the hashtag.

The Roots of Madonna: Getting down to Earth with the pop star 

By Martha Sherrill 

Washington Post Staff Writer 

May 14, 1991 

She looks like a wet cat. Her yellow hair has just been washed, and lies limp against her skull and bony shoulders. It’s split down the middle, parting two inches of black roots. She has a weak handshake. Her skin — luminescent in photographs — is pallid and dull. She looks less than herself, smaller than life. Or like she has a cold. This is the downside of being a star. Up close, if you’re not a camera, it’s just not the same.

“Go on,” she says. Her bluish-red mouth opens to a lambent smile. “Ask another question.”

Two bottles of Evian and some fruit sit like offerings before her. Piles of money would be more appropriate. She was the nation’s top-earning female entertainer in 1990. According to Forbes, she made $39 million in pretax earnings last year. She’s earned $125 million over the past five years. She’s sold 80 million albums. She’s had more consecutive hit songs than the Beatles.

“Everyone is attributed one characteristic when you’re hugely famous,” she says. “That’s all you are allowed to have. I’m only seen as this cold, calculating, ambitious bitch.”

Her sentences are complete. Her opinions are solid constructions. Her voice is high and hoarse. Occasionally there’s a trace of a trained accent — as though the voice of an English friend has rubbed off on her. She’s unnatural, and yet natural. Really, besides the hair jobs, she has left herself — the gapped front teeth and bent nose and full eyebrows — alone. She is the opposite of Marilyn Monroe: Nothing — inside or out — jiggles.

She doesn’t want any pictures taken today. “There are enough pictures of me already,” she says. There are enough interviews too. She’s given several round-table press conferences and two “one-on-ones” today — to promote “Truth or Dare,” her docu-Madonna, which opens Friday.

“Gettin’ bored with myself,” she says.

She’s not alone in this. Despite the raves for her new movie, a behind-the-scenes look at her “Blond Ambition” tour last summer, 73 percent of the adults who were asked “How interested are you in hearing about Madonna?” in a Time/CNN poll responded that they were “not interested” in hearing … another … thing …

The original newspaper presentation for Martha Sherrill’s 1991 interview with Madonna.

But did you know that she’s already changed her hair color again?

The big secret is that she has no secrets. Blab, blab, blab. In “Truth or Dare” she talks about the first time she used a tampon. She visits her mother’s grave. She hangs up on Warren Beatty. She has her throat examined. She swaps gossip with Sandra Bernhard. She gets her hair done — a lot. She sits with it stuffed inside a plastic bag, as she talks to her dad on the phone. (“We’ll come to any performance we can have tickets for,” her father says to her. “Daaaaad. This is my show,” she responds. “I can get you tickets to anything you want.”)

She prays with the dancers before performances. (“Dear Lord, give me that something extra to show everybody that I did make something out of my life.”) In Canada she’s threatened with arrest for indecency. In Paris she goes shopping at Chanel with her male dancers, and they emerge wearing more jewelry than she does. All over the world, she marches around in white hotel robes issuing bratty orders like Shirley Temple playing the Little Colonel.

“I have a fascistic side,” she admits. “But somebody’s got to be in charge.”

During a game of Truth or Dare around a Parisian cafe table, she’s asked: “Who has been the love of your life?” She answers: “Sean.” When dared, she displays her oral sex techniques on a bottle of Vichy water … then swallows.

It’s fresh. It’s outrageous. It’s unreality in black-and-white. And it’s certainly more entertaining than Madonna in person. You want to be her — for maybe a week. She gets away with murder.

Her staff lets her. You come to know them — Madonna’s people. “I find myself attracted to emotional cripples,” she says. And “I like to play mother.”

To charges that she exploits gay men — uses them to shock her audience — Madonna says: “What does exploitation mean? … In a revolution, some people have to get hurt. To get people to change, you have to turn the table over. Some dishes get broken. That’s the only analogy that I can think of. It’s the means to an end. And in the end, I don’t think anyone’s truly devastated by it. In fact, a lot of people have gotten work from it.”

The dancers and stylists all signed releases — allowing the movie to expose their lives, their problems.

“I took everybody to see the movie — the dancers and other people in it,” says Madonna. “We had sort of a group therapy session afterwards.”

She asked them how they felt. “Everybody was upset a little bit,” she says. “It forced them to look in the mirror.” Eventually, she says, she convinced them that they were being courageous and progressive, that their problems and lifestyles were no different from other people’s.

But still, they wanted to know … would their appearances in “Truth or Dare” keep them from getting other jobs?

“Are you kidding?” Madonna said to them. “In this country it works the other way around! The more notorious you are, the more you are going to work! Don’t you guys understand that?”

The Former Cheerleader

She reaches into the Corn Belt, into Middle America, and shocks them. Where does that impulse come from? “It’s a very boring, humdrum place,” she says. “I was raised in that world. I know the ignorance that they wallow in — and that they prefer to live in — because it’s easier for them. I’m just trying to pull all their Band-Aids off.”

She was born in Pontiac, Mich., on Aug. 16, 1958. She’s a 32-year-old classic Leo — if you believe such things — bossy, proud, a showoff. She was named after her mother, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, who died when her daughter was 6. In “Truth or Dare,” there’s a scene of Madonna visiting her mother’s grave site. She crouches on it. She lies next to it. Her brother, set designer Christopher Ciccone, is seen hiding by a tree.

Christopher didn’t want the scene shot originally, Madonna says. He felt it was too private, too personal. Perhaps embarrassingly manipulative. “In the end, I love my family and everything,” says Madonna, “but I had a goal in making this movie. I set out to do it. I set out to have the courage to be really personal and revealing. I had to stick with that. My brother didn’t have to come. He chose to be there. I took that as a sign of acceptance.”

Madonna arrives at the premiere of her documentary, “Truth or Dare,” in 1991. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Her father, Silvio Ciccone, raised his five kids alone for several years; then the Chrysler engineer married the family housekeeper and had more kids.

“I was really left in charge of the family — for a while,” Madonna says. “I was definitely the most goal-oriented child because of that. I had to have the best report card. I had to be in all the talent shows. I had to [psych out] my older brothers because they had all the privileges. They got to stay out all night. They got to take their shirts off in the summer. They got to take my father’s car. They got to go to girlfriends’ houses. You know what I mean? They got to do things. So I had to get back at them.”

In high school she was a cheerleader for two years. She got mostly A’s. She had long, dark hair. A guy who took her to a couple of dances once described her as “sort of straight” and “on the jock side.” In her junior year she got into dance, and idolized her gay instructor. (“I fell in love with him, and the way he treated me,” she told the Advocate, the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine.) She chopped her hair off, quit shaving her armpits and legs. She got a four-year dance scholarship to the University of Michigan. She didn’t finish, but a fellow student once recalled her belching in ballet class.

She liked attention.

Getting herself to New York in 1978, she took dance classes and did nude modeling for photographers (the pictures turned up in Penthouse and Playboy in 1985, and only worked to her advantage — proving that Madonna’s body is all hers). A boyfriend taught her to play guitar and drums. She’d join a band, learn what she could, get out.

“I was always commercial-minded,” she has said.

Madonna performing at the Academy Awards in 1991. Her song won an Oscar for best song. (Reed Saxon/AP)

She got a record deal in 1983, an album called “Madonna.” It sold nearly 9 million copies. A year later — when she was 26 — she made the cover of Rolling Stone. Her next album, “Like a Virgin,” was released then, and sold 11 million copies. Her music videos were released, one by one, on MTV. In 1987, “True Blue” sold almost 17 million copies. In 1989, “Like a Prayer” sold 11 million.

“Being a pop star is the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “Really. I never set out to be a singer. I didn’t go to New York and struggle for years as a dancer. I never set out to do it. It just happened.”

Breaking into the movies hasn’t been like that. She’s a little like Audie Murphy, movie-wise: Nobody knows quite what to do with her. After a big start in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” she made the forgettable “Shanghai Surprise” and “Who’s That Girl?” and “Bloodhounds of Broadway.” The reviews of her performance in “Dick Tracy” weren’t mixed, just unremarkable.

Does she feel trapped by pop stardom?

“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I have tons of money and tons of friends. What else do you need in life?”

Hidden Profits

She thrives on order. She makes lists. She goes to bed early. She doesn’t drink. She doesn’t smoke. She doesn’t eat meat. She exercises in her own gym for three hours every morning. She’s strong enough to survive excess publicity.

“It’s a great feeling to be powerful,” she once said. “I’ve been striving for it all my life.” She’s the president — and sole owner — of mega-million-dollar businesses: Boy Toy Inc. is her music company, Siren is her movie company, and Slutco is her music video company. She employs hundreds — mostly women.

Is she the future of feminism? “Madonna is a true feminist,” wrote Camille Paglia, author of “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson,” in the New York Times. “She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time.”

Madonna laughs a bit at this. “I just do it,” she says. “It was never my goal to be a feminist. I never invited Bella Abzug to my concert, okay?”

Asked her future plans, she barely blinks. “To be brief and crude, I want to act in more movies. I want to direct movies. I want to produce movies,” she says. “I want to develop a lot of my favorite books into screenplays. I want to make movies about people who inspire me. I want to get more involved in theater and performance art. I want to write a book of erotic short stories. I want to, um, tons of things. I want to be an entrepreneur and find struggling artists and help them with their careers. I’d like to have a baby — that takes some time, you know. I mean, there’s tons of things to do.”

She knows the cardinal rule of creativity: Do something once, get paid for it twice — or three times, maybe four. While newspapers reported that Madonna made only union scale ($1,440 a week) to play Breathless Mahoney in “Dick Tracy” last year, Forbes cleverly discussed the hidden profits of the venture: her publicized affair with Warren Beatty, her percentage points of the gross box office revenues from film, video and merchandise (which will eventually total an estimated $5 million), and the $14 million she made from the “Dick Tracy” soundtrack album.

And … when Time Warner’s HBO unit bought her “Blond Ambition” concert movie for $1 million and it became the most watched non-sports event ever aired on HBO, it sold her own “I’m Breathless” album, sold more tickets to “Dick Tracy” and probably fueled interest in her next project, “Justify My Love.”

And now. . . the bargain of the century: For just $4 million, Madonna contracted 26-year-old Alek Keshishian to direct a backstage “documentary” of her “Blond Ambition” tour. This became “Truth or Dare,” which will now sell more albums, more concert videotapes and copies of “Dick Tracy.”

This commodification bothers people. Journalists particularly — they feel the most manipulated, perhaps — make jokes that she’s just “a CEO in black underwear” or “the quintessential PR woman.” There is a sense that she doesn’t sing well, that the songs she co-writes are only decent dance music, that her dancing is merely competent, that her beauty comes from a bottle. That her only genius is selling herself.

“In the business world and in the world of politics, it’s considered an asset,” Madonna says of her manipulative image. “But in the entertainment industry, it’s easier for people to deal with me by undermining my talents by saying that I’m not a good actress, not a good singer, not a good musician — or anything like that. But what I am is a good manipulator. They take everything else away from me, but give me that.”

Sleep-Over Parties

Her taste in guys could be better. There’s a feeling now, in interviews, that Madonna doesn’t have a very satisfying love life. There’s a sense of her cagedness, her castle-prison, her unhappiness over her failed relationships.

Sean Penn, to whom Madonna was married from 1985 to 1988, now lives with actress Robin Wright, and they have a child. Warren Beatty is now seeing Stephanie Seymour, a 22-year-old Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. Her romance with model Tony Ward, who appeared in her “Justify My Love” music video, ended several months ago. He had been married just before meeting her.

In the Advocate, she revealed that her first sexual experiences were with girls. “We didn’t have those sleep-over parties for nothing,” she said. She also said that despite “lots of crushes” on women, she’s only “been in love” with men, “because ultimately the approval I seek is my father’s.”

Approval? Her father’s? Is she going about it the right way? He’s old-fashioned, conservative, a devout Catholic. Before Silvio Ciccone came to see his daughter in concert, he asked if she “undressed” onstage. In “Truth or Dare,” she lifts up her top and flashes her breasts at the camera. For her, it’s akin to sticking her tongue out.

Dad hasn’t seen the movie yet.

Is she worried?

“Yeah, sure,” she says. “I don’t ever want my father to feel bad or feel hurt or anything like that, but being confrontational and dealing with the past has always been a very hard thing for him. Forget about the movie, let’s just say sitting in a room talking about things. He’s had a lot of tragedies in his life, and the fact that he’s survived them all is a miracle. But you know, it’s like, I have to find myself,” she says. “I have to know my past. This is one of the ways I’m doing it.”

Beyond Admiration

“My poor father,” Madonna says. The National Enquirer calls him once a week. “And he’s not press-savvy.” She tells him to hang up the phone. She tells him not to talk. He’s changed his telephone number many, many times. “But I feel bad about that,” she says. “If I’m going through a divorce or I’m having an abortion or whatever, my father should not have to talk to the press about it. They torture my family.”

J. Randy Taraborrelli is writing his next unauthorized biography about her, after having scorched Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

Madonna spends most of her time in Los Angeles now, for privacy. “I love it here,” she says. She can walk in her garden. She can drive her cars. She can eat out with friends and be, for the most part, left alone.

“I don’t mind when people come up to me in a restaurant and go, ‘God, I think you’re great.’ I love that,” she says. “It’s the obsessive fanatics whose attention seems very hostile. It’s beyond admiration. It’s very crazy. . . ”

Weird mail?

“Weird mail and just their constant attention,” she says.

She wants attention, yes, just not the constant kind.

“It’s always fat people too,” she says. “They are the most unattractive social outcasts, like really overweight girls or guys with lots of acne that follow me around and pester me. It’s frightening because not only are they bothering me, but they’re horrible to look at too.”

Is she afraid of becoming a has-been?

“Has-been is a phrase that other people use,” she says. “So far, even if I stop now, I will have accomplished so many things. What’s a has-been? That was my time. That’s what I did. . .  People buy into that has-been stuff because it’s the public’s need to humiliate performers after they’ve kept them on a pedestal for long enough.”

Read more: 

The 6 strangest moments from Madonna’s PR campaign for “Rebel Heart”

On the Rebel Heart tour stop, Madonna doesn’t miss a beat

Be still the unseemly beating of Madonna’s “Rebel Heart”