‘She wanted the world to know who she was, and it does’

For a generation of women, Madonna symbolised sex, glamour and,above all, power on her own terms. As she turns 40 next week, we ask some who were touched by her: is the Material Girl still on top?

Lynne Truss
Sportswriter and columnist
I don’t know why I admire Madonna so much. I don’t normally admire narcissism or self-justification. The decline of feminism into girl power makes me angry. But Madonna’s toughness is inspiring, that’s all. At a time when I was fleetingly interested in physical fitness, I remember gawping secretly at pictures of Madonna’s gluts and lats and abs and dabs, and then having to go off and have a quiet lie down. Baby Spice, I feel, will never have quite the same impact.

Camille Paglia
Writer and feminist
I don’t think Madonna is handling her 40th birthday very well. It is producing a kind of identity crisis for her, because she is a sex symbol and because 40 used to be considered over-the-hill. She seems to be having trouble switching her persona, yet at one time she was like a chameleon. She used to change her image with dizzying speed.
She looks depressed to me. It reminds me of when Barbra Streisand went very soggy in a mid-life period when she had that terrible Afro curly hair-do. I am hoping that Madonna can get through this bad chapter. I had high hopes of her, I thought she would be a little stronger.
After all there is no doubt she was a very important icon. I think historically people will see the enormous impact that Madonna has had around the world. In Japan, the image of Madonna has been enormously energising for women.
She has really changed the direction of feminism, too. In the 1980s it had sunk into a kind of Stalinism and was very repressive. Madonna came through all this and she knocked down many of the feminist taboos about fashion and beauty. Partly through her rapport with gays and with drag queens, she helped to bring back glamour. We had had enough of all that stuff from film stars like Meryl Streep, dragging themselves to the Oscars without dressing up – as if they were saying, ‘I am too good for all that’.
I do think Madonna stayed one stop too long on the sex train, though. Her book Sex was misconceived. We had seen all that sado-masochism before. Maybe that is why she is going through some kind of destabilising period now. She is such an isolated person. She does not seem to keep many friends for long. But, from my age of 51, I can’t understand why she is handling 40 so badly. I didn’t handle my 50th very well, but I thought 40 was fabulous.

Liz Brewer
Fashion editor
I know a lot of women, both young and old, whose attitudes to sex changed markedly through watching Madonna. She represents a great liberating force in modern society.
She is a truly brilliant performer who made a real mark within my generation, and others. Like all of us, she is searching for the meaning of everything, although her way of going about it is a little more explosive and energetic than most people’s. But she gets away with it and continues to sell records. Her new maternal and spiritual guise is a natural progression of that search.
She experiments with her look, her opinions, her awareness, as a lot of women do. The difference is that she translates it into a phenomenon. I think we are still to find out what her greatest contribution will be to the 20th century. It’s a continuing saga.

Leslie Ash
Actress, presenter
I first came across Madonna when I co-presented the Tube with Jools Holland in the 1980s. I didn’t meet her, but she was performing as part of a live link-up to Manchester. I saw her and I thought – that is exactly what I do in front of the mirror with a hairbrush. At the time I didn’t think she could sing. She got away with it because she was doing an energetic dance routine. But over the years she’s got better and better and proved to have a fantastic voice.
I love her mood and the emotion in her songs. I think things have affected her deeply in her life and found expression in her work. I think her daughter is part of a quest to anchor herself in the midst of fame. Stars are often unapproachable and protected, with the result that they can experience deep loneliness. A way to deal with that is to embrace either family or the spiritual, both of which Madonna appears to be doing now.

Mavis Nicholson
I can’t see why it should be a problem at all for Madonna to continue to be sexual at 40. I have always liked her because she has seemed so courageous. A little bit devilish, too, always thinking ‘I’ll push it as far as I can’. I wish I had done that more myself when I was younger.
I have always been more interested in her than in other pop stars and singers because she seems to make more of an effort. She appears to be trying to get to the truth about things, although not always seriously. She can be quite humorous, I think, and sometimes even quite gentle.
Madonna is brazen and brave and I don’t think she is as arbitrary about the things she does as some people think. Although it may be that I have fallen for her. Maybe I am a little bewitched by her, as so many have been. I do think she has managed to be both powerful and attractive to men.

Jeanette Winterson
It is fashionable to dismiss success. Madonna has succeeded spectacularly and on her own terms. She wanted the world to know who she was, and the world does. Good for her.
For my generation she is a cultural icon, and for me personally she is one of those bolts of lightening that offer pleasure and danger. She’s a thrill, a charge, and also a warning. A high-voltage life attracts high-voltage risk and the people on the ground are often only too pleased to watch a firework display consume itself.
I wish Madonna a happy birthday and many more years of glory.

Faith Brown
I have always admired Madonna and her gift for taking control and ringing the changes. That’s why she will always be on top. I went to see In Bed with Madonna with my nephew, which was a little embarrassing; if I had to make one criticism it would be that she went a little over the top with the raunchy aspect of her work.
The most defining aspect to Madonna is her determination. That is one of the things I respect most about her. It’s all about the dynamism, the raw essence and the drive. That is what is inspiring. But I don’t think she is necessarily a good role model.

Lowri Turner
Fashion journalist, TV presenter
When Madonna first arrived on the scene I found her very refreshing. Here was a woman with forthright views who also paraded her sexuality. She was definitely the original Spice Girl. But something happened around the time of her Sex book where she ceased to be a role model for a lot of women, including myself. It suddenly became difficult to define which market she was playing to.
She also became less appealing with the escalation of her fame. Where she had once been refreshing she was now megalomaniac. She became less accessible and retreated into her fabulous mansion. She ceased to connect with people’s lives. She once represented optimism for my generation; now I think she acts as a cautionary tale about the lonely pursuit of success.
I think her current obsession with downshifting is partly to do with fashion. It is not an isolated, spiritual decision. I do feel that you have to take everything she does with a pinch of salt. She’s very clever at working out what is going to be chic, and tapping into it.
I do still like the fact that she puts the wind up men, though. A lot of her coverage is written by men, or to a male agenda, and they are definitely still threatened by her, even now.

Kim Wilde
Madonna has always had an outrageous amount of energy about her. I think she has paid a high price for it, though, and has probably suffered privately by putting that much direct energy into her career.
Now, approaching 40, she is frantically looking for answers in spiritual terms. I do think this is a genuine quest, but she is definitely reflecting part of a wider social mood geared toward self-knowledge, downshifting and taking care of one’s spirit.
I don’t think she is necessarily a trend-setter. Rather she has a talent for epitomising movements and shifts on a broader scale at any particular moment. She acts as a mirror for society.
It is wonderful that she’s had a child. She’s softer and prettier now than she’s ever been, and there’s a definite sense of joy in her at this stage of her life which I’ve never seen before. I just hope that having reached this watershed she slows down a bit and doesn’t miss her daughter growing up.