Madonna's 'Like a Virgin' stylist recalls scandalous 1984 VMAs performance: 'They tried to destroy her that day'

Thirty-five years ago, a rising pop singer named Madonna Louise Ciccone opened the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Older generations may vividly recall the exact moment when they first saw Elvis twitch his pelvis on TV or when the Beatles first performed on Ed Sullivan, but for children of the ’80s, Madonna’s racy, underwear-flashing, floor-rolling “Like a Virgin” performance was their defining televised music moment.

No one had ever seen anything like it at the time — and Madonna’s stylist Maripol, who was responsible for the star’s Like a Virgin-era peekaboo bridal gown look, was there to see it in person.

Maripol tells Yahoo Entertainment she was worried that the scandalous performance might be an act of career suicide for her young client. “I was right there. I saw it happening. I saw what [MTV] did, and I can tell you that they tried to destroy her that day,” she says. “They went under her skirt with the camera; they were trying to intimidate her.”

Madonna at the first MTV Video Music Awards, in 1984. (Photo: David McGough/DMI)
Madonna at the first MTV Video Music Awards, in 1984. (Photo: David McGough/DMI)

But of course, the stunt instead catapulted the singer to superstar status.

“Madonna had to break through; I knew she was going to make it big, because I could see how ambitious she was, in a very genuine and sweet way. The wedding outfit did help. I knew that [VMAs] day that she had made it,” adds Maripol. “Every journalist was rushing, running, going, ‘Oh my God, who is this girl with the white outfit rolling and crawling on the floor, with crosses in her ears and her name is Madonna? And she’s singing about being like a virgin?’ They were shocked, yes.”

 Madonna performing on the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall. (Photo: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)
Madonna performing on the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall. (Photo: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Maripol reveals that the 1984 VMAs telecast could have been much more Goth, and shocking in an entirely different way, had she not intervened during the cover shoot for Madonna’s breakthrough sophomore album, Like a Virgin. “The art director had this idea, which was to have the black Sabbath-type virgin. You know, like black lipstick, black this, black that,” Maripol chuckles. “And I kept saying to her, ‘We should go for the real thing. Come on!’”

Eventually Madonna heeded Maripol’s advice and donned a white wedding dress, and an MTV icon was born. It remains such a signature look that the pop queen referenced it in her controversial, wedding-themed performance with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 VMAs, and donned another bridal gown for her “Medellín” music video that premiered via MTV this year.

Madonna's 'Like a Virgin' album art, 1984. (Photo: Sire Records)
Madonna's 'Like a Virgin' album art, 1984. (Photo: Sire Records)

Maripol stepped in again when she thought the stage costumes for 1984’s Virgin Tour were, well, a little too Prince-ly. “There was a designer, a really nice English girl, Marlene Stewart. And Marlene designed everything [for the tour] very Purple Rain. And I went to Madonna and she showed me everything and I said, ‘Madonna, you’re Madonna. Why don’t you keep a bit of what you have?’ And she listened to me.”

Madonna had been listening to visionary stylist Maripol — a French-expat artist, jewelry designer, photographer, film producer, and NYC girl-about-(down)town — long before her self-titled debut album came out a year before the first annual VMAs. “Whatever, yes — I did create a legend,” Maripol chuckles.

Recalling the night that started it all, at New York hip-hop club the Roxy almost four decades ago, she says, “There was a lot of mix of culture coming from England, with people like Bow Wow Wow, and then there was Fab Five Freddy, [who later hosted] Yo! MTV Raps, which was also the beginning of this whole movement. Fab Five Freddy asked me if I could find cute girls, and I turned around and saw Madonna and asked her if she would want to go onstage. I asked her if she had a nice bra on, and she thought I was out of my mind! I asked her to actually take her top off. And the rest is history.”

So, was that the unofficial beginning of the underwear-as-outerwear trend? “No, that was the beginning of the fact that I’m French! I was less puritan than anyone else, and I was always taking my clothes off, unfortunately,” Maripol laughs. “After that, Madonna actually made an appointment to come see me in my loft, because she wanted me to create her look. … I was the art director of Fiorucci, and I thought that she was the perfect person to carry around my style. And it was perfect for her as well.”

Maripol’s involvement in Madonna’s early career opened many doors for the singer. For instance, there was the night that Madonna, at the time still a total unknown, performed at Fiorucci’s 15th anniversary soiree — a booking that Maripol, the art director for the trendsetting Italian boutique in the late ’70s and early ’80s, had to fight for.

“I had a big budget, and I kept saying to my boss, ‘I want this singer.’ Everybody was like, ‘No, no, who is that, who is Madonna? We want the girl who played in Flashdance, Jennifer Beals.’ And I’m like, ‘Jennifer Beals? She is not a singer!’ Finally, I won. I had a big rubber cake with 15 candles and Madonna to jump out of it, and Madonna jumped out that day. The club was packed, and she got the manager of Michael Jackson [Ron Weisner] to come, and I think he signed her right there on the spot.”

Maripol and Madonna’s first official fashion collaboration, the Madonna album cover --featuring the singer clasping her unforgettable face between rubber-bracelet-stacked hands on the front, wrapping a thick dog-chain necklace around her throat on the back — comprised some of the most striking pop imagery of the ’80s. (Fun fact: Grace Jones was the first pop singer to wear Maripol’s jelly bracelets, on her ankles.) And after the VMAs, it seemed every girl in the America wanted to be Madonna (or a “Madonnabe”), bedecking themselves with oversized lace hair bows, crucifixes, and, much to their parents’ chagrin, “Boy Toy” belts and visible bras.

But Maripol came to have mixed feelings about the trends she’d helped create. One time, when judging an MTV-documented Madonna lookalike contest in 1985 with none other than Andy Warhol at Macy’s (amusingly, the department store that would carry Madonna’s own Material Girl fashion line decades later), Maripol was especially conflicted. “I saw those young girls, and it was sad. They wanted to mimic Madonna, and they were so young. It was all about the fun and stuff but … oh my God,” she sighs.

Perhaps Maripol had reservations over the fact that she never really got full credit for her pop-culture influence; when mall shops ripped off and mass-produced her designs, she ended up broke. “If only I would have been smart, if only you could copyright the look — which I don’t even know if it existed back then — I would have been a multimillionaire, for sure,” she says. “I did go bankrupt because everybody copied me, every single industry. But genuinely, it doesn’t matter. I swear I don’t care. I became a freelance stylist to survive, and then I had a kid. I bankrupted in 1988 and had a kid in 1990. I’m very happy; I have a beautiful son now.”

Eventually the chameleonic Madonna changed her style, many times over, and while Maripol was involved with some of Madonna’s later looks — the sleek bustier outfit in the Marilyn Monroe-esque “Papa Don’t Preach” video and the rubber dress from the “Express Yourself” video’s milk-lapping scene were both Maripol creations — eventually Madonna moved on to other stylists and designers. But Maripol, despite some ups and downs, still has a bustling career, and says she harbors no resentment toward Madonna. In fact, in many ways she’s relieved to not have grapple with the intense fame that Madonna has experienced ever since that fateful performance at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards.

“I’m very happy for [Madonna]. And you know what? In a way, I got the freedom to walk around in the street, and she doesn’t have that,” Maripol muses. “And I think it’s very difficult for her to not be able to have that freedom. Once you lose that freedom, does that make you more happy in life? I’ve always kept good relation with her and I really wish her the immense best — and I will get my claim of fame eventually.”

Incidentally, Madonna has repeatedly claimed that her sexy 1984 MTV Video Music Awards antics were the result of her losing her shoe midway through the performance and then rolling on the floor to cover her gaffe. Original VJ Mark Goodman, who interviewed Madonna four months before her wild VMAs debut, tells Yahoo Entertainment with a chuckle that he thinks that story “sounds like a load of crap! … She was young, she was new, but she was completely self-possessed. She was always completely clear on what she was doing.”

Months after the VMAs, when Goodman and the now incredibly famous Madonna met again, he said to her, “Remember, I interviewed you before you were ‘Madonna.’” To that, the pop star replied, “Mark, I was always ‘Madonna.’”

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