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Madonna Monroe

Marilyn Monroe has inspired Madonna on so many occasions. Let’s have a closer look at the history of that fascination.

Madonna is undoubtedly one of the biggest female legends of the 20th and the 21st century. Over the course of her 30-year career she has developed a multimedia brand whose influence on pop culture is unmeasurable, and it’s hard to imagine the entertainment business today had she not entered it at the beginning of the 80s. Madonna paved the way for many contemporary stars and is regarded as a pioneer among female icons, but in the co-called ‘pre-Madonna times’, another blonde was setting our senses on fire – and that was Marilyn Monroe. That’s right – at first, the two ladies don’t share much in common, apart from the global fame and blonde hair (in both cases unnatural, though). But what about that story from a few years ago, when one Las Vegas man tried to sell a photo of ‘naked Marilyn’ when it turned out it actually was… Madonna. Let that symbolically link the two ladies.

The queen of pop has often drawn inspiration from Marilyn, or, according to mean commentators, imitated her. A lot has been said about it, especially in the social media era where it’s easy to formulate superficial ‘who copied who’ comparisons. Monroe’s presence in Madonna’s art and image is a phenomenon beyond any formulas, worthy to be studied in detail.

Late 1984 marks the beginning of ‘madonnamania’ in the USA – a handful of hit singles and widely commented performance of “Like a Virgin” at the VMAs opened her the door to the long-desired career and fame. It wasn’t only her catchy tunes that won the public, but also the distinctive image which at that time was a fresh quality and quickly found millions of followers who passionately started wearing lace gloves, leggings and Boy Toy belts. To promote the “Material Girl” single, Madonna opted for an unlikely step – instead of exploiting the massively popular current image, she decided to turn herself into Marilyn Monroe and in the song’s music video recreated a scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She assumed that it would fit well in the whole Material Girl message. The critics didn’t really get it and Madonna openly discussed her acting aspirations. The public concluded that she’s imitating Monroe to claim her spot in the Hollywood history. The nickname Material Girl has stuck to Madonna ever since, much to her irritation.

The press quickly started to look for similarities between the two stars, even outside of the visual sphere, which at the time still wasn’t that prominent. In the late 1984 interview for The Face, the author looks for parallels in their lives. One of them is a quite unhappy childhood, which would stimulate the desire for attention and acceptance. The way to achieve it for both turned out to be their natural sex appeal which they often exploited in proximity to vulgarity. When asked what she likes about Monroe most, Madonna replies without hesitation: “Her innocence and her sexuality and her humour and her vulnerability”. When the journalist states that Madonna has all those qualities, she agrees. As related by Madonna’s close friends, she may not have realised at all that she was living her own version of the Monroe myth. One of her ex-boyfriends – of course anonymously – even stated that:

Madonna’s living out the Monroe myth even more than she suspects. Sex is Madonna’s calling card. She knows she’s a sex symbol, and she uses it in a self-conscious way to the point where it’s become her only way of communicating. It’s becoming the only way she can feel comfortable and know she’s wanted.

It didn’t take long for more similarities to emerge. In late summer of 1985 another controversy came about – taking advantage on Madonna’s unbelievable popularity, Playboy published nude pictures she has posed for a few years back as a struggling unknown model. In reaction to the photos Madonna nonchalantly threw “So what?” and explained that in her early New York years, she often had to pose nude for emerging photographers to make ends meet.

Sounds familiar? March 1952: A Marilyn Monroe calendar is released, with her nude photos taken 3 years earlier. Her film studio tries to cover up the scandal, but eventually the actress admits posing topless, explaining she had to do it to support herself financially as a beginning actress. The photos later appeared in the first issue of Playboy.

Madonna doesn’t deny these comparisons, quite contrary – on November 9, 1985, performs in a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live, channelling Marilyn and parodying her alleged romance with Kennedy – which in fact was one of the reasons behind her death.

Her next makeover made her look like Monroe’s twin – short blond curls, red lips, strong black eyeliner. And although that could as well be a reference to many other Hollywood actresses, most fans interpreted it as a clear homage to Monroe. For some, she was her new, updated version, for others – just a bad copy, but for all it was obvious that Madonna’s doing it deliberately. Her love for Marilyn and the desire to be her are legendary, so much so that National Enquirer ran a story about Madonna believing she was a reincarnation of Marilyn. Madonna calls that the best lie she's ever read about herself.

She wouldn’t avoid this subject in interviews, always stressing that although Marilyn is one of her inspirations, she perceives herself as her stronger, feminist version. Even former Monroe collaborators agreed with that. Arnold Newman, who used to be the film star’s photographer and a close friend, told Vanity Fair: “This gal has control over her own destiny that Marilyn never did. She reminds me more of Streisand in her determination”. Kevin Dornan added: “She’s consciously trying to evoke her idols, but she’s enough of a star to fit each style and make it her own. She goes about it very methodically”. That’s true – although she has worn outfits closely resembling Monroe’s wardrobe, Madonna’s ever-changing image is so realised that in the whole masquerade her personality always comes to the fore.

Never-ending comparisons and tales about the massive Marilyn poster above Madonna’s bed eventually prompted her to a more radical opinion, which she expressed in the September 1987 issue of Rolling Stone:

At first, I enjoyed the comparisons between me and her. I saw it all as a compliment: she was very sexy – and she had blond hair... Then it started to annoy me, because nobody wants to be continuously compared to someone else. You want people to see that you have a statement of your own to make. But yes, I do feel something for Marilyn Monroe. A sympathy. I think she really didn’t know what she was getting herself into and simply made herself vulnerable, and I feel a bond with that – but I’m determined never to let it get me down. Marilyn Monroe was a victim, and I’m not. That’s why there’s no comparison.

Life, however, was writing its own story. In 1988, Madonna had a brief affair with John F. Kennedy Jr. Although she was still married to Sean Penn, the idea of recreating Monroe’s relationship with a president was too tempting. The press was delighted, although the couple wouldn’t let anyone snap a picture of them together, and both refused to confirm their status. As you would expect, Kennedy’s mother, Jackie, didn’t appreciate the fact that once again a blonde sex-bomb enters their life and was against this relationship, what reportedly prompted it to end. Unexpectedly, Madonna’s brother Christopher gave his two cents on the subject. In a radio interview for Howard Stern, Ciccone revealed that his sister wasn’t at all impressed by the young Kennedy’s bedroom activity. Apparently, John – who was called the sexiest man alive by the People magazine in 1988 – left a lot to be desired, as far as his sexual performance is concerned. Speaking softly – he’s helpless in bed. What’s more, in his book Life with My Sister Madonna, Christopher clearly denies that the singer was ever obsessed with Marilyn Monroe and modelled her career on hers – what he thinks is one of the components of her success. He adds: “She has never been remotely self-destructive, which is probably why Madonna has been a star for a quarter of a century and – unlike Elvis and other superstars – didn’t die young either”.

After a short break between 1988 and 1990, Madonna’s fascination by Monroe returned stronger than ever in the 1991 documentary Truth or Dare, whose visuals were heavily influenced by the legendary movie star. Steven Meisel, Madonna’s regular photographer at the time, captured her in similar poses and stylisations. The culmination of that period was the epic photo shoot Madonna as Marilyn, which recreated Monroe’s iconic photos with the highest precision.

The subject of Madonna’s return to the ‘Monroe look’ came up in an interview for the gay magazine The Advocate in May 1991. When asked whether it’s a mask of vulnerability she puts over her “steel-plated heart” or whether she thinks of her as a role model, Madonna replied:

“It’s not that I think of her as a role model, but she was made into something not human in a way. Her sexuality was something everyone was obsessed with, and that I can relate to. And there were certain things about her vulnerability that I’m curious about and attracted to. But I don’t see myself as Marilyn Monroe. I’m almost playing with her image and turning it around. What I’m saying is not what she was saying.”

Several weeks before, on March 25, 1991, at the 63rd Academy Awards ceremony, Madonna performed in front of Hollywood’s jet set with her Oscar-nominated Dick Tracy song “Sooner or Later”. The show, and the singer herself, was a big tribute to Marilyn Monroe – phenomenal dress was nearly a detail copy of the one Monroe wore to the premiere of How to Marry a Millionaire? in 1953, and the performance sampled from “Specialization”, which Monroe performed in the 1960 film Let's Make Love. “Sooner or Later” got an award and Madonna’s show went down in history.

At the same time, Madonna ensures she’s just playing, experimenting with the iconic Monroe image. Interviewed by Rolling Stone in June 1991, she clarifies:

I identify with her to a certain extent, but then I have to draw the line. I mean, I don’t look at her and go, “Ooh, her life is just like mine.” No way.

It seemed that her fascination was coming to an end, as if the source of inspiration had dried out. But then it echoed in the Sex book where Meisel again captured Madonna in poses that once Monroe was photographed in. The shocking photo shoot presented a pioneering approach to erotica as told by a mainstream pop star and it’s hard to point at any more references that the two pictures seen below. Probably because Monroe’s innocent nature and subtle charm didn’t quite go with the BDSM overtones which dominated the project. The style which Madonna preferred at the time had more in common with masculinisation of female sexuality than celebration of more traditional models.

After 8 years, in 1993 Madonna is again parodying Monroe in Saturday Night Live. This time around, with a good dose of humor, she’s performing the famous “Happy Birthday” which Monroe had sung for the president Kennedy in 1962, when entire America was buzzing with the gossip of their romance.

And then, for many years Marilyn was absent from Madonna’s artistic life. In the Bedtime Stories era Madonna favored Bette Davis and Jean Harlow, later completely focused on Eva Perón, whom she played in Evita to much success. One of the reasons behind that triumph is that she not only played her, but for several months literally turned into her – not only visually. Madonna went on to reinventing herself well into the 21st century, but none of those metamorphoses seemed to be impacted by Marilyn, until her old fascination surprisingly came back to life in a photoshoot for ELLE in spring 2008. In front of Tom Munro’s camera Madonna once again became Marilyn. It’s not clear if the image was purely Madonna’s idea or the photograph’s suggestion, but after many years of neglect, Madonna once again revisited her primary inspiration.

The following year Madonna releases the greatest hits CD Celebration. A photo collage created by the popular Mr Brainwash is on its front cover, and one can’t help but notice strong resemblance between this artwork and the famous Monroe portrait by Andy Warhol. Is it a coincidence that the old Madonna as Marilyn formula was used to promote such an important album? From the marketing point of view, the choice couldn’t be better as this image has now become one of Madonna’s most recognisable, even though she doesn’t need Monroe to support her own legend anymore. The distinctive hairstyle and make-up are now both Marilyn’s and Madonna’s attributes.

Quite randomly Madonna was referenced at the premiere of the Monroe film My Week with Marilyn in November 2011, when Harvey Weinstein stated that the queen of pop is “the most extraordinary modern celebrity that we have,” adding “Madonna is Marilyn Monroe with women’s emancipation.” He had the opportunity to see it for himself as he worked with her on W.E. and was one of very few people who believed in her directing potential. Fans and media were looking for references to Monroe in the “Give Me All Your Luvin'” music video, but it’s hard to tell who she’s actually referencing here – Monroe or herself. Considering how often she comes back to themes she’s explored in the past – religious imagery and strong sexuality – it’s most likely the latter.

To sum up, Monroe’s huge impact on Madonna’s career is undeniable, beyond such terms as ‘inspiration’, ‘copy’, ‘homage’. Madonna skilfully handles symbols of pop culture when sneaking them into her own art, and balances on the border of inspiration and theft, which she’s often accused of. This, however, only proves the ignorance and lack of knowledge of her critics rather than her own flaws. Madonna’s way of incorporating other artists’ work into her own relies on her ability to present it from a completely different angle, giving it a new quality and adapting it to her needs – always contributing something from herself. On one hand this can show her supposedly low creativity, but on the other, though, it’s a proof of something quite contrary – it takes an intelligent, educated, well-read person to be familiar with such a diverse range of cultural works. You can’t deny the queen of pop her intelligence, the fact is, though, that she’s exploring pop culture noticeably less nowadays.

Are we ever going to witness Madonna as Monroe again? I dare say not, but secretly I’d love to see her pay a tribute to the idol who have impacted her career so much. It seems that trying to hold on to the passing youth and the top of the charts, she has forgotten that her place is there – among legends, not with seasonal novelties of the iTunes era, whom she seems to be so attracted to in recent years.


Translated by Mat Zaremba

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