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Jenny Valentish for The Daily Telegraph reminisces about Desperately Seeking Susan and her fascination with its breakout star.


I WAS 10 years old when Desperately Seeking Susan was released.

Madonna was 27.

Every week in the lead-up to its release, I’d pore over photos of her in Smash Hits magazine alongside the lyrics to Material Girl or Like a Virgin, drinking in her gap teeth, feathered brows and spidery eyelashes.

Madonna, as bravado-fuelled Susan, would have snuck in to see the movie if she were under-age, but it didn’t occur to me to act out.

Which was sort of a catch 22.

While my classmates and I choreographed dances to her lyrics, we didn’t yet fully understand the Madonna sass.

We were daring enough to try the side ponytail and rah-rah skirts of the ’80s, but not the full mesh get-up of New York’s gay clubs.

It wasn’t until my mid-teens that I finally watched Mads in the movie that launched a million mini-hers.

Her character matched her music, which I had on vinyl: audacious.

I might have officially been into obscure industrial 12-inches by then – I was 16 – but I would mime along to Get Into the Groove in front of the mirror, without shame.

Just goes to show you never know what’s going on behind closed doors in suburbia.

Madonna poses on the set of Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985. Picture: Mondadori Portfol
I’d corral my platinum locks into a jade-green hair rag, going for Madonna’s look on The Virgin Tour.
Fools at school had got the wrong idea when I bleached my hair Express Yourself blonde.
They called me “Wendy Jenny” in the corridors; a reference to Transvision Vamp’s Wendy James, who might have stolen a few moves and crucifixes from Madonna, but who seemed sad and hollow beneath it all. I wore black mesh over black bras and got propositioned by men in slow-moving cars.


Madonna wanted to look the way Ronnie Spector sounded: “Sexy, hungry, totally trashy.”

That’s what she told SPIN magazine in 1985, months after Desperately Seeking Susan grossed $US28 million at the box office.

A rude scream of saxophone heralds her first big-screen scene in this caper about mistaken identity.

Susan lies on the floor of suite 1313 taking Polaroids of herself, before rifling through a sleeping man’s wallet.

It’s a performance built on cheek and nerve.

While the part wasn’t written for Madonna, it’s almost impossible to see where reality ends and fiction starts.

Director Susan Seidelman had cut her teeth on an edgier movie, Smithereens, three years earlier.

Again, I didn’t discover Smithereens ’til my teens, but then I loved the central character, the provocative and opportunistic Wren – a girl setting her sights on any scenester who could accelerate her burgeoning music career (culminating with punk icon Richard Hell).

Madonna and Rosanna Arquette in Desperately Seeking Susan.

Madonna and Rosanna Arquette in Desperately Seeking Susan.

Madonna in her memorable role in Desperately Seeking Susan.

Madonna in her memorable role in Desperately Seeking Susan.

I wore baseball boots with seamed stockings and ripped T-shirt dresses for years in her honour.

Had Madonna identified with Smithereens?

As the story goes, when Desperately Seeking Susan was being cast, she dropped to her knees in Seidelman’s office and begged for the part.

Despite having only made her first stabs at the charts with Borderline and the inane Lucky Star (saved only by the video clip, in which Madonna flaunts her bellybutton like a kid with a new toy), she beat names such as Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kelly McGillis and Melanie Griffith to the role.

Like Wren, Susan is a hustler, a rebel without a cause – an unusual role for a woman.

Other movies depict women in gaggles, yet Madonna is a drifter who smokes, eats only junk food and matches men’s shirts with white lacy stockings.

She rejects accepted notions of femininity.

To create Susan, Madonna dressed just as she did for the clubs of downtown, mixing up the go-go boots of Nancy Sinatra with the pointy bras of Brigitte Bardot and the beauty mark of Marilyn Monroe (which disappeared around the time of Erotica).

Two years earlier, Cyndi Lauper had rocked fishnets, granny jewellery and a 1950s twist on the cover of She’s So Unusual, and the two New York artists were in a battle for the canary crown.

Whether they both took direction from Debbie Harry is a matter for debate, but Madonna’s love of Catholic imagery marked her apart.

She bought her crucifixes in Spanish bodegas, where rosaries came in different colours.

These she wore over nylon bustiers she got from mundane lingerie stores, then customised with lace or tulle.

Despite her punk ethos, Madonna-as-Susan’s make-up was immaculately executed with a heavy eye and bold red lips – and so, like her, I ignored the modern convention that it should be one or the other.

The finished look nodded to rockabilly, with its Ray-Bans and Capri pants, but also jumbled pulp-fiction femme fatales, a touch of hip-hop and an Italian- American tough sexiness into the mix.

Most of Susan’s outfits came from Madonna’s real-life wardrobe, with the notable exception of the Illuminati-style jacket designed by Santo Loquasto, which last year sold at auction for $US252,000.

For two years leading up to Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna had been styled by designer Maripol, who goaded her to dance in her bra and adorned her with rubber bracelets – and that BOY TOY belt.

Madonna shows off her Desperately Seeking Susan attitude.

Madonna shows off her Desperately Seeking Susan attitude.

Upon the release of the film, Maripol turned her creations into merchandise for fans.

Madonna’s screen presence was electric, but apparently the studio was nervous about the possibility of her star waning and tried to hurry along production.

Yet as time will attest, it’s her scenes that remain as Polaroids in the memory – much more so than the subplot around bored housewife Roberta (Rosanna Arquette).

Oh Roberta, no wonder you yearned to become Susan.


Madonna is lounging by the hotel pool in bra and boxers.


She doesn’t care about getting Cheez Doodle dust on her white lace gloves as she struts down Fifth Avenue.


She’s drying her underarms with a hand dryer in the Port Authority toilets.

So iconic is this scene that of the three Madonna dolls sold after the film’s release, one has a hairdryer and an arm that lifts up.

Towards the end of production, Madonna’s second album, Like a Virgin, dropped.

The video to the titular track saw the star writhing in a wedding dress in Venice.

Game over, Arquette.

I was asked to provide photographs of myself as a young Madonna clone to accompany this article, but I found way more of me nowadays.

In my twenties, I forsook Susan in favour of a rockabilly uniform.

Now I’m 40 and she’s back again (let’s not read too much into that).

In the past few months I’ve worn cross earrings, rags in my hair, pink rubber bangles, a thin studded belt, a slouch top over exposed bra strap, and black lace gloves (they’re not very hygienic, BTW) – but not all at once.

This is key.

Over the decades, many starlets have followed suit: Danni, Kylie, Miley, MIA, Gaga, Lily Allen and Taylor Momsen.

Perhaps X Factor NZ judge Natalia Kills, who has been songwriting with Madonna and whose fugitive brows are strongly reminiscent of hers, was trying to channel the icon when she delivered the acid-tongued attack on a contestant that got her kicked off the show.

Madonna would have had no such fall from grace – it was unfathomable enough when she fell from the stage in February at the Brits after a high-maintenance wardrobe malfunction.

Maybe she should remember that Virgin Tour 30 years ago, when she joyously pounded her tambourine, not caring that her lace crop top had ridden up atop her bra, or that the waistband of her lilac stockings was visible above her low-slung miniskirt.

Sure-footed and crazy.

* The article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph