It’s surely hard to upstage Madonna, a popstar who has been hell-bent on shocking audiences for decades.
But on the opening night of her Celebration Tour in London this month, there were five performers who did steal the limelight from the 65-year-old icon.
Two dancers delighted fans with their moves, while one musician accompanied Madonna on the piano and another strummed the guitar, bare-chested and wearing a cowboy hat.
This backing group wasn’t, however, a troupe of hired professionals but her children. And, while one associate has rather sourly observed they are ‘more a cult of personality than a family’, there’s no doubting that Madonna’s offspring are at the centre of her life and, like latter-day von Trapps, enjoy performing en famille.
Into the groove: Madonna with (from left) Mercy, David, Rocco and Lourdes, and (front) twins Stella and Estere
Madonna on stage at London’s O2 this month with her son David on guitar
It’s the youngest — 11-year-old twins Estere and Stella — who dance every night on stage. Meanwhile, Mercy, 17, is the pianist and son David, 18, impresses on guitar. And on the opening night her eldest, Lourdes — her daughter with Carlos Leon — came on stage to celebrate her 27th birthday.
It is, however, the four youngest, all adopted from Malawi, who have continued to appear as the tour moved on to Belgium and then Denmark.
Sources say the plan is for them to be present on every one of the 70-plus dates before the tour finishes in April. Only Rocco, her 23-year-old son, has declined to join his mother under the bright lights.
Of the siblings in her showbiz gang, the star is David Banda who, Madonna says, is the child most like her.
He seems to have the talent and, crucially, the drive and ambition that saw his mother flee the obscurity of Bay City, Michigan for New York, then work her way to global cultural domination.
As Madonna told told British Vogue in 2019: ‘What [David] has is focus and determination. I’m pretty sure he got it from me. He’s the one I have the most in common with. I feel he gets me; he has more of my DNA than any of my children so far.’
David also shares his mother’s flamboyance — he was recently seen posing in sparkling horns and a cheerleader outfit after a theatre performance in LA — and lives with her in New York.
He was running dance moves with Madonna on TikTok just a few days before her collapse from a ‘bacterial infection’ in June, which left her in intensive care.
Indeed, the David-Madonna relationship is so tight she moved her entire household to Lisbon from 2017 to 2019 so he could pursue his dream of a contract with Benfica youth football team.
Opening the Madame X tour in 2019, she reflected that Lisbon hadn’t been a total success. ‘I moved to Lisbon to be a soccer mom. I thought it would be adventurous. But found myself alone, without friends, a little bit bored,’ she said.
Happily for all concerned, David now appears destined to follow her into showbusiness. Currently, he has interests in dancing, acting, comedy and playing music.
For Madonna, having her kids on tour has been particularly meaningful. She says the infection that almost killed her has made her understand the importance of her relationships with her children.
Paying tribute to them on Instagram, she said: ‘You can get caught up in the needs of your children and the seemingly endless giving. But when the chips were down, my children showed up for me. It made all the difference.’
On stage in Antwerp this week, the singer reiterated how illness had brought the maternal relationship into focus and paid tribute to her mother, who died when Madonna was just five.
‘Less than four months ago, I was in the hospital and unconscious and people were thinking that I might not make it,’ she said. ‘My mother, God bless her, she must be watching over me. She said, “Girl, it’s not your time to go.” I suddenly had sympathy for my mother, not about the dying part but how lonely she must have felt being in hospital, knowing that she wasn’t going to live.
‘I was given another chance, so I’m very grateful for that.’
But while her mother was just 30 when she died, the singer has done most of her own mothering in her 40s and beyond. She was 38 when Lourdes was born, and 58 when she adopted Stella and Estere.
Her maternal journey began when her on-off relationship with fitness trainer Carlos Leon left her expecting Lourdes in 1996. As a little girl Lourdes — nicknamed Lola — showed talent as a dancer and Madonna sent her to classes from the age of three. ‘My mom really went hard for that, once she saw there was potential,’ Lourdes has said.
Insiders suggest that Madonna was always far harder on her than her younger brother Rocco. Madonna married his father, British film director Guy Ritchie, when Lourdes was four.
Both children had a disciplined life, with television only at weekends and a macrobiotic diet. Time with Madonna was scheduled into her diary weeks in advance, in 15-minute increments. ‘The list of things I wasn’t allowed to do is never-ending,’ Lourdes has said.
She now lives in New York with her long-term boyfriend and is said to be surprisingly domestic. Having tried modelling, choreography and dance, she released her debut single Lock&Key last year.
Rocco has also tussled with Madonna over issues of control. Born prematurely in LA in 2000, he is the only child who has truly struck out on his own. In 2015, he opted to live with his father and his wife, actress Jacqui Ainsley, with whom Ritchie has three children, which sparked a brief custody battle.
Reports suggest that a row over Madonna confiscating Rocco’s mobile was the final straw. He attended sixth form in North London before becoming an artist and remains based in the capital. Now Madonna couldn’t be prouder of him, and visited his gallery on the eve of her first tour date.
David Banda and Madonna perform during The Celebration Tour at The O2 on October 15
David’s adoption — his mother was dead and his father unable to look after him — caused a furore at the time because Madonna didn’t meet the legal requirement of an 18-month residency in the country
On tour, when Madonna sings Mother and Father she is accompanied by David on guitar and images of both their late mothers
Rocco is said to be very close to David Banda, who was born in Malawi in 2005, and adopted by Madonna and Guy Ritchie shortly before they split.
But David’s adoption — his mother was dead and his father unable to look after him — caused a furore at the time because Madonna didn’t meet the legal requirement of an 18-month residency in the country. She later said: ‘Every newspaper said I kidnapped him. I was thinking, “Wait a minute. I’m trying to save somebody’s life. I did everything by the book.” That was a real low point … I would cry myself to sleep.’
On tour, when Madonna sings Mother and Father she is accompanied by David on guitar and images of both their late mothers. On his 18th birthday she wrote: ‘You are growing into a truly remarkable human being! We are all so proud of you! You light up like the brightest star.’
Then there are the girls. Mercy, now 17, was adopted by Madonna in 2009. Madonna describes her as: ‘The kindest, most thoughtful, most magical girl on the planet!’ Twins Stella and Estere were adopted in 2017, aged five.
Madonna told People magazine: ‘It’s like they were always here. It didn’t take long for them to get acclimatised.’
Both of them sing and dance. Estere has been picked out by audiences as a star in the making for her moves. It’s understood that tutors are accompanying the three youngest on tour.
Reflecting on Mother’s Day this year, Madonna wrote: ‘To say that I am proud of my children sounds arrogant or implies ownership. Better to say they are all shining stars, and I’m happy their souls chose me to be their mother.
‘And, dear Mother, wherever you are, I hope you are happy with your grandchildren!! I often imagine you singing and dancing with us in the kitchen!’
There seems little doubt that had Madonna senior lived she would have been delighted with them — and quite possibly invited on stage herself!