Madonna Louise Ciccone was born to Catholic parents Madonna Louise (née Fortin; 1933–1963) and Silvio Anthony “Tony” Ciccone in Bay City, Michigan, on August 16, 1958. Her father’s parents were Italian emigrants from Pacentro, while her mother was of French-Canadian descent. Tony worked as an engineer designer for Chrysler and General Motors. Since Madonna had the same name as her mother, family members called her “Little Nonni”. Madonna later commented about her name, “How could I be anything else but what I am having been named Madonna? I would either have ended up a nun or this.”She has two older brothers, Anthony and Martin, and three younger siblings, Paula, Christopher, and Melanie.
Upon being confirmed in the Catholic Church in 1966, she adopted Veronica as a confirmation name. She was raised in the Detroit suburbs of Pontiac and Avon Township (now Rochester Hills). Months before her mother died of breast cancer at age 30 on December 1, 1963, Madonna noticed changes in her behavior and personality, although she did not understand the reason. Her mother was at a loss to explain her medical condition and often began to cry when Madonna questioned her about it. Madonna later acknowledged that she had not grasped the concept of her mother dying.
Madonna turned to her paternal grandmother for solace. The Ciccone siblings resented housekeepers and rebelled against anyone brought into their home who they thought would try to take the place of their beloved mother. Madonna later told Vanity Fair that she saw herself in her youth as a “lonely girl who was searching for something. I wasn’t rebellious in a certain way. I cared about being good at something. I didn’t shave my underarms and I didn’t wear make-up as normal girls do. But I studied and I got good grades… I wanted to be somebody.” Terrified that her father Tony could be taken from her as well, Madonna was often unable to sleep unless she was near him.
Madonna’s stepmother and father, Joan and Tony Ciccone (2009)
In 1966, Tony married the family’s housekeeper Joan Gustafson. They had two children, Jennifer and Mario. Madonna resented her father for getting remarried and began rebelling against him, which strained their relationship for many years afterward. She attended St. Frederick’s and St. Andrew’s Catholic Elementary Schools, and West Middle School. Madonna was known for her high-grade point average and achieved notoriety for her unconventional behavior. She would perform cartwheels and handstands in the hallways between classes, dangle by her knees from the monkey bars during recess, and pull up her skirt during class—all so that the boys could see her underwear.
Madonna’s father put her in classical piano lessons, but she later convinced him to allow her to take ballet lessons. Christopher Flynn, her ballet teacher, persuaded her to pursue a career in dance. She later attended Rochester Adams High School where she became a straight-A student and a member of the cheerleading squad. After graduating, she received a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan and studied over the summer at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina.
In 1978, Madonna dropped out of college and relocated to New York City. She said of her move to New York, “It was the first time I’d ever taken a plane, the first time I’d ever gotten a taxi cab. I came here with $35 in my pocket. It was the bravest thing I’d ever done.” She had little money while working as a waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts and with modern dance troupes, taking classes at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and eventually performing with Pearl Lang Dance Theater. She also studied dance under the tutelage of Martha Graham, the noted American dancer and choreographer. Madonna started to work as a backup dancer for other established artists. One night, while returning from a rehearsal, a pair of men held her at knifepoint and forced her to perform fellatio. She later found the incident to be “a taste of my weakness, it showed me that I still could not save myself in spite of all the strong-girl show. I could never forget it.”
While performing as a backup singer and dancer for the French disco artist Patrick Hernandez on his 1979 world tour, Madonna became romantically involved with musician Dan Gilroy and they lived in an abandoned synagogue in Corona, Queens. Together, they formed her first rock band, the Breakfast Club, for which Madonna sang and played drums and guitar. In 1980 or 1981 she left Breakfast Club and, with her then boyfriend Stephen Bray as drummer, formed the band Emmy. The two began writing songs together, but Madonna later decided to promote herself as a solo act. Her music impressed DJ and record producer Mark Kamins who arranged a meeting between Madonna and Sire Records founder Seymour Stein.