At one point late in his memoir, Life With My Sister Madonna, Christopher Ciccone professes to be stunned to find his older sibling treating him in a cold, disrespectful fashion. I was reminded of the scene in Casablanca where Claude Rains’ endearingly corrupt officer claims to be shocked, yes shocked, to discover that there’s gambling going on at Rick’s Place, just as a croupier discreetly slips him his winnings for the evening.
In Life With My Sister Madonna (co-written with Wendy Leigh), the titular shrew never treats Christopher with anything but cold disregard and complete lack of respect. At least she’s consistent. As a child in Michigan, she was cold and controlling. Hell, as a fetus, she was probably cold and controlling. As she rocketed to superstardom, Madonna apparently grew even colder and more controlling, until Christopher couldn’t take it anymore, and their decades-long collaboration ended in bitterness, acrimony, and one party writing an incredibly bitchy, petty, mean-spirited book about the other.
Life consequently belongs to a strange subgenre of tell-all books by bitter hangers-on, a field that includes tomes of dubious worth by ex-bodyguards with a bone to pick (Big Nazz’s Shady Bizzness), litigious mothers (Debbie Mathers’ My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem), resentful flunkies (Bruce Williams’ Rollin’ With Dre), ex-wives (Angela Bowie’s Backstage Passes) and revenge-minded ghostwriters (Mark Curry’s Dancing With The Devil).
These books tend to have the same general theme: Superstar X became rich and famous, thanks largely to the author’s invaluable, fatally under-recognized contributions. Yet when it came time to reward the author financially and professionally, Superstar X gave them first the old heave-ho, then the cold shoulder, and finally the boot. My response to pretty much all these books has been threefold:
- You probably have a legitimate beef and should have been treated better.
- That said, boo fucking hoo. Nobody cares that Dr. Dre didn’t give you a bear hug and a $1,000 bonus every time you did something nice for him.
- At least Superstar X accomplished something with his or her life instead of complaining about all the money they should have been paid.
That was pretty much my response to Life With My Sister Madonna. Christopher lays out the case against his sister in a prosecutorial fashion: She’s unfunny, can’t act, sweats like a pig, is unbecomingly hirsute, squeezes pennies so tightly that she has drawers full of copper wire in her various estates, is cold and unpleasant, and is, on the whole, the worst human being in the world.
But Christopher saves his most vitriolic attack on Madonna for choosing to film a scene in Truth Or Dare at the gravestone of their beloved mother. To the author, this was an unforgivable sin. Time and again, Christopher uses his treasured memories of his mother as a weapon against his sister. He implores readers to imagine just what his deeply religious, saintly mother—who died while he and his sister were still young—would think of Madonna’s shameless exhibitionism and raunchy concerts. The implication, of course, is that she’d be horrified at Madonna’s debauchery, but would feel proud her gay son wrote a book that prominently features him snorting cocaine with various super-celebrities.
In Life With My Sister Madonna Christopher takes it upon himself to debunk Madonna’s finely wrought mythology, presenting her not as a scruffy street urchin who moved to New York with but a dollar and a dream, but as the pampered, indulged product of a solidly middle-class Midwestern family who moved to the big city and may or may not have immediately set about sleeping with powerful DJs who could help her professionally. Being a respectful brother, Christopher merely implies that his sister slept her way to the top.
One thing is clear, however: Madonna invited her brother to live with her in New York so he could pursue his dreams of becoming a dancer. Then, when he risked everything for a dream and showed up at her front door, suitcase in hand, she coldly told him to kick rocks, make like a tree and leave, get 23-skidoo, and not let the door hit his ass on the way out. Also, she curtly withdrew the offer to come to New York and live with her.
This established the dominant pattern of their relationship: Madonna would do something nice for Christopher, then immediately undercut her generosity by making him feel like the worst kind of human garbage. So Madonna made Christopher her backup dancer, then underpaid him and let him go as soon as the opportunity presented itself. She made him her dresser, then had him towel off her naked sweaty breasts and called him every name in the book, from “rat soup-eating, pepper gut, insecure, no business-having motherfucker” to “Late for supper.”
Yet our intrepid hero carried on, nobly absorbing the verbal abuse and disrespect of his famous sister for the sake of riding her coattails. Even as he adopted a pose of mindless sycophancy for her benefit, he squirreled away bitchy insults and barbed comments for later usage. Here’s Christopher on some of his sister’s hilarious shenanigans:
By prior arrangements with the producers [of Late Night With David Letterman] in the middle of Dave’s interview with Sandra [Bernhard], Madonna suddenly materializes on the set, challenging Dave, “Let’s talk about me and Sandra.”
Letterman asks how she and Sandra spend their time and whether he could hang out with them.
“If you get a sex change,” Madonna cracks.
I can tell she thinks she’s being funny.
It gets worse.
Sandra tells Letterman that she and Madonna hang out at the Cubby Hole, a notorious lesbian bar in the Village.
“I think it’s time to fess up, get real,” says Madonna. “She doesn’t give a damn about me… She loves Sean. She’s using me to get to Sean.”
That ridiculous statement aside, she is clearly working to give the impression that she and Sandra are having a gay affair. I believe that isn’t true. I feel Madonna is just working the PR factor.
Throughout Life, we get Christopher’s thoughts on his sister’s infamous Sex book (“I dislike the book—which is published on October 16, 1992—intensely”), Truth Or Dare (a “travesty of reality”), The Next Best Thing (“The movie is awful”), the “Drowned World” tour (“angry, violent and not fun to watch”) and Guy Ritchie (“a man who seems so insecure in his masculinity that he thrives on homophobia”).
Christopher’s opportunities to be judgmental about his sister’s life and career expand dramatically as he rises up the ranks of the Madonna organization, eventually becoming his sister’s stage-show director, music-video decorator, art consultant, and interior decorator.
But Madonna is a vengeful god; she giveth, but more importantly, she taketh away. When Christopher first spies a Manhattan apartment Madonna paid another decorator to decorate, his response is apoplectic:
When I see the results, it is as if someone sticks a knife in my gut and twists it. He has taken my timeless classic design for the New York apartment and made it déclassé.
He has changed the living room lighting, installed a chandelier that is far too big for the room, replaced the furniture I bought with oversized pillows that don’t suit the apartment. He has painted both the walls and ceiling of the media room a bright Kelly green and, in my opinion, has destroyed the feel of the place completely. I am relieved that he hasn’t touched the blue bedroom I had custom-made for Madonna. But it hurts that she hasn’t hired me. I tell myself not to be angry with her. It is after all her home, and she can change whatever she wants. I suppress my anguish.
Dude, if I was in Christopher Ciccone’s position, I wouldn’t have been able to suppress my anguish. If I had walked into that apartment and seen a wall and a ceiling painted an unbecoming shade of green, I would have screamed a howl of boundless rage and beat my fists against the offending wall until it crumbled under the sheer force of my righteous anger.
But Christopher is much more patient than I. So when Madonna betrays him, he seeks comfort and solace in the arms of a series of supermodels and mega-celebrities he hopes can fill the Madonna-sized hole in his heart and soul. This ushers in the section of the book devoted to recording in a meticulous fashion every celebrity the author has befriended, a veritable who’s who of people you’d imagine would be eager to party or do blow with Madonna’s brother: Dolly Parton, Courtney Love, Farrah Fawcett, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Demi Moore, and much, much more. Here’s Chrissy (Madonna’s needling nickname for her baby bro) on his hunt for a surrogate sibling who’s super-fun, super-cool, and super-duper famous. Oh, and doesn’t like him solely because he’s Madonna’s brother:
Perhaps because of my feeling of alienation from Madonna, I hang out more with Gwyneth Paltrow. In a way, without perhaps realizing it at the time, ever since Madonna’s role in my life lessened, and our relationship started to downward spiral, I have established a Daddy Chair of my own—except that, in my case, it’s called The Sister Chair. Kate, Naomi, and Demi have all been candidates, but I feel that Gwyneth fits my Sister Chair better than any of them.
As Madonna’s relationship with her adoring baby brother enters its final agonizing death throes, he finds something to complain about in every facet of Madonna’s existence. For example, Madonna started writing children’s books not long ago. Nothing objectionable about that, right? Not in Christopher’s eyes. Here’s his unbiased take on why Madonna’s children’s books are worse than Hitler:
In September 2003, Madonna publishes her first children’s book, the forty-eight page English Roses. It is released in one hundred countries and thirty languages but I am not impressed. Her experience with children, other than her own, is minimal, as is her understanding of people except on a business or practical level. Moreover, the plots of this and all her subsequent children’s books are written more for adults and are not particularly child-friendly.
The beginning of the end comes when, in a fit of long-suppressed rage, Christopher sends her the following email,
[Y]ou have never in the entire time I have worked for you since 1985 paid me even close to what i was worth… I gave up my fucking life to help make you the evil queen you are today… 15 years listening to your bitching, egotistical rantings, mediocre talent, and a lack of taste that would stun the ages… every ounce of talent you have, you have sucked dry from me and the people around you… I certainly have never worked for you for the money… now you accuse me of lying and cheating you… you’ve got some fucking nerve… as usual… you have lost all sense of reality… I guess I always thought that one day you’d see my worth and behave accordingly… but you never did… a little fucking respect was all I ever wanted from you and you couldn’t even manage that.
After hitting “send,” Christopher not surprisingly wound up exiled both from Madonna’s inner circles and from Kabbalah classes. Christopher despises Guy Ritchie, whom he depicts as a vicious homophobe because his rowdy pals made jokes about “poofters” during their wedding toasts. Ritchie comes off badly, but he doesn’t seem homophobic so much as immature and macho, a typical lad with too much testosterone and not enough tact.
The Madonna/Ritchie marriage, the pop icon’s decision to work with outside decorators, her penny-pinching, and Christopher’s unfortunate penchant for firing off nasty emails collectively serve to destroy their partnership and end their friendship. Oh, and also Christopher was doing a fuckton of cocaine, and Madonna, like the horrible bitch she is, was concerned about her brother’s spiraling drug habit. What kind of monster tells her brother that she won’t continue to work with him unless he seeks help for a problem with hard drugs? God, I’m getting angry just thinking about it.
Yet the more Christopher tries to depict his sister as history’s greatest monster, the more sympathy I felt for her. It isn’t easy being a one-woman empire, and while she comes off as cold, distant, ruthlessly ambitious, and calculating, those are necessary characteristics for superstardom. Madonna has left a huge mark on pop culture. Her brother, on the other hand, has contributed only an undistinguished addition to the sad literature of estranged hangers-on railing impotently and insufferably against the superstars who did them wrong.