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“I Shocked People in the 80s”—Lady Madonna on Celebrating Her 50th Anniversary in Entertainment

Her talents transcend time and have left an indelible mark on the Lebanese and Arab cultural scene. The iconic artist Lady Madonna celebrates her 50th anniversary in entertainment with a candid look at her remarkable journey.

Dress, Jean Louis Sabaji; headpiece, Vishnu. Photo: Nima Benati

Glamorous as ever with her iconic blonde hair, the queen of performing arts Lady Madonna emerges from her room in her Beirut apartment adorned with her signature feather boas and bows. Beautiful, vivacious, and radiant, now at 62 (and not shy to admit it), she proudly exclaims, “No botox at all, au naturel!”

Known for her spontaneity, humility, and daring personality, Lady Madonna is an icon. At home in Beirut, she reflects on the moment she knew she would be a star. The year was 1971 and at age 11, she was receiving a medal of merit presented to her by then-president Suleiman Frangieh, after her major role in the play Al-Tarshan Neighbourhood written specifically for her. “From that moment, I was assured – I was destined to be an artist and I must fulfill my legacy,” she recalls.

Madonna Antoine Arnita was born in Beirut in a creative and artistic household. “I was raised in a home full of love with an elegant and beautiful mother, a loving dad, a sister, and two brothers. My uncle Salvador Arnita was an internationally acclaimed composer and director of the music department of the American University of Beirut; meanwhile, my uncle Fernando Salvador was a celebrated and awarded painter, singer, and actor. I was surrounded with quality music and my family encouraged me to embrace it,” she adds.

Cape, Azzi & Osta; earrings, stylist’s own. Photo: Nima Benati

At Madonna’s home, “music was loud” and “every morning we would wake up to Fairuz’s songs blaring from dad’s radio and we would go to bed to Fairuz’s tunes. Since childhood, my ear has been nourished with fine musical art,” she shares. Her family encouraged her to join the National Conservatory of Oriental music from the age of seven. “I studied for five years with the greatest Lebanese musicians and composers, such as Zaki Nassif and Toufic El Barcha,” she recalls. Madonna’s inspiration came from Lebanese folklore, having grown up watching plays and performances by icons Sabah and Fairuz. “I was inspired a lot by Sabah’s glamour and her on-stage traditional costumes. I used to watch her plays at the Phoenicia hotel as a child, and I had the privilege to meet her backstage several times,” she adds.

The young Madonna continued her musical studies until the age of 11 when she earned her first role in the aforementioned play written for her at the Al Joudeh Academy in her hometown Jal El Dib. “I sang one of Sabah’s songs in the play, but the lyrics were changed. It was a great success and thousands of people came to see it during the four days it was on show.” From then on, Madonna established ties with the nation’s famed composers, the Rahbani brothers Assi and Mansour, founders of modern Lebanese music. “I continued performing in plays until the age of 15. I joined the yearly festival at Bqennaya village, where they would recreate famous Rahbani plays from Lebanon’s golden years (60s and early 70s). Assi and Mansour collaborated with us by sending us the musical notes and even the original costumes worn by Lebanese icons Fairuz and Sabah,” she shares. The success of these plays was so huge that about 4 000 spectators would flock to them. Madonna adds, “I felt the stage was home. I was self-assured that it was the place I belonged to.”

Dress, Nicolas Jebran; earrings, stylist’s own. Photo: Nima Benati

Despite her dreams, Madonna fell in love early on at 15. She decided to marry, and after having one daughter at the age of 16, she divorced the following year. “We were very young, and we did not know anything about marriage,” she says. “My husband was very respectful and we decided to separate. I continued living for my artistic dream with my mother’s support taking care of my daughter Maude.” This artistic dream was brewing at a time when war was raging in Lebanon. “In the 1980s I was preparing a play with Ziad Rahbani (Assi’s son), with dancers and musicians from Germany and Switzerland. The war stopped the project, but it did not stop us from continuing locally,” she says. “Despite all, during that period, there was space for artists and there were opportunities for creatives. It was a time before the big boom,” she adds.

Through appearances on television and songs broadcasted on radio, Madonna quickly rose to fame. “The press played a pivotal role in my success, due to the volume of articles that were being published about me. There were a lot of competitors and singers but there were no other performing artists on the scene,” she remembers. Madonna intrigued with her originality, risqué looks, and especially with her multiple talents in singing in different languages and performing various styles of dance. “I shocked people in the 80s. I was presenting new work that was never seen before, I was a true avant-gardist,” beams Madonna.

Dress, cape, Georges Chakra; earrings, stylist’s own. Photo: Nima Benati

The artist’s work and creative appearances called for constant new outfits and stage costumes. In 1980, she began performing at the famed Night Fever club in Beirut that was frequented by the Beirut high society, visiting Arab royals, and fashionistas. “Night Fever was a status symbol. I had to work on my looks so I started collaborating with upcoming local designers like Elie Saab, Fouad Sarkis, and Robert Abi Nader,” she says. “At the time, Elie Saab was just starting and working from home, but I knew he was a star from the beginning. His outfits caught everyone’s attention. They were meticulously made and he was very fussy, even with the smallest details. I was the first star to promote his designs,” she states. “I was the first to wear feathers and furs on stage, embroidered swimsuits with puffer jackets, knee-high boots, and mini skirts,” continues Madonna. “My daring shows and art landed me on the cover of Al Shabaka magazine for the first time, after my performances at Night Fever and my title Lady Madonna was given to me by editor-in-chief George Al-Khoury.”

Madonna’s fame extended beyond Lebanon’s borders and she became a mega star in Egypt. She was contracted by the Sheraton Hotel in Cairo for a few years. “The legend Sabah visited me in Cairo once and came to watch my show. I was the first to perform on stage with the traditional Lebanese Tantour headdress after Sabah in the 60s. I promoted Lebanese culture especially through the songs Sherwel Jdoudna and Dalouna,” she says.

As Lebanon slowly emerged from the war, the private Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI) network launched in 1985. The TV station partnered with Simon Asmar, a Lebanese television director and producer, and the creator of the famed Studio al-Fan (the Arab world’s first star-maker talent show in the country). This is when Asmar recognized Madonna’s talent and gave her a platform to push her stardom even further. “Our collaboration gave birth to a style that was never seen before in Lebanon. I danced barefoot with a cane on stage, blending Oriental and Western styles. I introduced electro pop to the Lebanese scene. I was a woman who embodied the lyrics and tunes through artistic tableaus in different ways,” Madonna affirms. Her Broadway style and unique routines earned her eight theatrical performances, four feature films and video clips, and a bouquet of songs. “I love acting but I found myself on stage. I drew strength from live performances and fed off my audience’s energy and interaction.”

Cape, earrings, Nicolas Jebran. Photo: Nima Benati

During the 1990s, Lebanon experienced a cultural renaissance, with a surge in artistic expression, music, and fashion; all the while, Madonna was rising like a phoenix, garnering accolades and titles. In 1991 she was crowned the Most Beautiful Star in her country, and Lebanon and the Arab World’s First Performing Artist. The 90s took Lady Madonna on international concert tours starting with America, where she gained the title Madonna of the Arab world, and another tour in Sydney, Australia, where she was awarded the Sydney Key Award.

In 2007, Lady Madonna made a comeback with a duet named What a Generation. It was a hit, proving her lasting star power “The secret to my longevity is honesty, faith, confidence, and the determination to present quality work. I was true to myself and I was honest to my audience through my work,” she comments.

However, her most memorable experience in her career was her participation in Lebanon’s edition of Dancing with the Stars in 2017, about which she says, “Producer Janane Mallat had given me the best experience of my life by having me on the show. At 57, I was challenged to compete with stars in their 20s, and I took on the challenge and proved successful. The show gave me an opportunity to introduce Madonna to the new generation.”

Reminiscing on her 50 years, Madonna sits back and inhales deeply; her eyes shine with nostalgia. “À la Madonna,” she says. The feathers around her décolleté sway from her breath as if to welcome the words from her lips. It is magic just like she always was, is, and will be.

“I showed the true image of a Lebanese woman. Fine, cultured, educated, and what sets her apart – her ultra-femininity and elegance. In my 50 years, I left an irremovable imprint; a signature style in the history of performing arts throughout the years and for generations to come that will always be recognized as, ‘À la Madonna.’”

Originally published in the October 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

Style: Amine Jreissati
Hair: Georges Mendelek
Makeup: Jo Abou Jaoude
Style assistants: Jana Bassam, Yasmina Karam
Digital operator: Massimo Fusardi
Producer: Sam Allison
Local production: Sarah Hassoun
Production designer: Hanady Medlej
Production assistant: Aref Dia
Special thanks: Amal Hair Extension

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