From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
This is Lola," Madonna announces as Lourdes Maria Ciccone Leon bounds into the sitting room of her mother's four-story mansion, a reported $15,000-a-month rented home in Kensington, London, where the singer is currently recording her 13th album. "No," the wide-eyed 3-year-old declares. "I'm an alien." Madonna scoops up Lourdes (whom she always calls by her nickname, Lola) for a kiss and a hug and joyfully enters her world of make-believe. When Lourdes tells Madonna she's wearing "alien gloves" with magic powers, Mom uses them to turn her daughter first into a princess, then a frog, then back into a princess. Madonna now wants her little girl to return the favor: "Can you turn me into something?" she asks.

By most accounts she already has. Lourdes, whose father is Madonna's ex-lover Carlos Leon, has transformed Madonna into her most fulfilling role yet—adoring single mother—after 17 years of restless shape-shifting across the pop-culture landscape. At 41, her body—in a clingy, black Chloé T-shirt and teal-blue Maharishi cargo pants—is supple and taut from Ashtanga yoga, and she radiates serene contentment. "She's so much calmer, so much more centered than she used to be," says talk show host Rosie O'Donnell, a friend of Madonna's since the two starred in the 1992 comedy A League of Their Own. And while Lourdes is one reason for Madonna's joyful reinvention, the other may be the singer's boyfriend, British director Guy Ritchie. According to O'Donnell, the bonds with Lourdes and Ritchie are hardly unrelated. "Madonna fell in love with her daughter, and that taught her how to fall in love for real," she says. "When you're ready, it comes to you. She's definitely ready. I've never seen her happier. Lola has helped her to become more grounded, to leave the star part behind."

Perhaps, but Madonna still gets equal billing in her new film The Next Best Thing, a comedy costarring her real-life close friend Rupert Everett. The movie's soundtrack includes her remake of Don McLean's "American Pie," currently a Top 40 hit on Billboard's Hot 100. Meanwhile her 1999 single "Beautiful Stranger," which she cowrote for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, won for best song written for motion picture, television or other visual medium at last month's Grammy Awards. Not surprisingly, Madonna is no beautiful stranger to A-list shindigs. Fashion magazine W ranks her a heady No. 3 among America's most coveted party guests—behind Bill and Melinda Gates and Prince William.

But there's only so much vintage champagne and air kissing a material girl can take. "I've changed and I've grown up," says Madonna. "Having a child has made me a lot more sensitive, more responsible, a lot more aware of my actions and my words. I'm probably a better girlfriend...I was much more selfish and self-involved before." Nor, she claims, does she now feel the need to shock: "I've gone through all my sexual rebellion and don't need to do it anymore. I worked it out of my system, it's pretty safe to say."

Still, The Next Best Thing will undoubtedly push buttons. Onscreen she plays a yoga instructor eager for a partner and a baby. After the instructor and her gay friend (Everett) tumble tipsily into bed one lovelorn night, she winds up pregnant. Assuming he's the dad, they raise a son together until she falls for a straight man (played by Benjamin Bratt), with whom she wants to raise the child. "The movie," says Madonna, "resonates with me because I do have a child and my daughter has an incredible relationship with her father—and I can't imagine either of us not having access to her."

Guy Ritchie, 31, has not yet assumed second-daddy status in Lourdes's life, but he has won her mom's heart. Ritchie, who met Madonna in England at a luncheon given by Sting's wife, Trudie Styler, two years ago, directed the 1999 indie film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and his next film, Snatch'd, with Brad Pitt, is a jewel-heist thriller, due later this year. Asked if she is in love, Madonna pauses, then nods: "Yes. It's excellent. It's a serious relationship. I have an enormous amount of respect for him as a person, his work, his talent. He's very bright." Their romance sparked, faded, then resumed after her return to London last fall. It has been, she says, a slow dance. "It was not right away," she says. "I like that. I'm into long courtships now."

When pressed about possible nuptials, Madonna, who divorced Sean Penn in 1989 after four often stormy years, bristles. "I don't know about that," she says. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. If we get to it. Can't go there."

Going to her beau's house, a mere 10 minutes from her home, is less arduous. The son of a successful advertising executive, John, and a homemaker mother, Ritchie grew up in an affluent part of West London. Dyslexic, he struggled with classwork and poor grades until he was finally expelled, at age 15, from the Stanbridge Earl school. "Education was lost on me," he told Britain's Sunday Times in 1999. "I may as well have been sent out in a field to milk cows for 10 years."

That might have been a step up from some of his early jobs, according to Ritchie's own accounts. When he was about 18, wanderlust set in, and Ritchie was off to Africa and then Greece, where he dug sewers for a time before returning to England. He was a messenger at his father's ad agency and, with little training, he began making music videos ("Eurotrash techno-rave bands," he has said) and short films. "Guy works almost as hard as Madonna does," says Everett. "That's a good thing for her, definitely a change in her life, because he is not a boy toy. He has got a serious career going, so he's dealing with all his own stuff."

Madonna's love affair with London preceded Ritchie by three years. In 1995, while working on the Evita movie and soundtrack, she began visiting the city regularly and became an Anglophile. She has not only acquired a slight British accent—peppered with such affectations as "True, that"—but last November she reportedly dropped nearly $6 million on a Chelsea townhouse she never lived in. "I wanted to put a big wall in front of my house," explains Madonna, "so I wasn't so accessible and viewable by the public. Then I found out that I wasn't allowed. I said no way can I live here." (She sold it 12 weeks later for a reported $750,000 profit, adding to her estimated $200 million fortune.) For now, renting a tony pied-à-terre will do. She has enrolled Lourdes in a nearby half-day French school because her own late mother, Madonna Fortin Ciccone, was half-French Canadian. "I love it when Lola says, 'Bonjour, Maman,' " Madonna boasts. The star has also cultivated, she says, "an eclectic infrastructure of friends—writers, painters, poets, art dealers and jewelry designers" she entertains at home.

Among her closest friends on either side of the Atlantic is Carlos Leon, 33, who travels to London and, Los Angeles (where Madonna also has a home) to see. Lourdes. The couple broke up within a year of Lola's Oct. 14, 1996 birth, but Madonna remains fiercely loyal to him. "A lot of people have implied that I used Carlos as a sperm donor," says Madonna. "But I had had a relationship with him for two years, and we had discussed having children. Then it didn't work out, but it was my intention for it to work out. This was a child born out of love. I had a baby with somebody I loved and still love, actually." (Leon declined to comment.) Rosie O'Donnell agrees. "It was a real relationship," she says. "Madonna was very much in love. They made a valiant effort to stay together. They just grew apart. She knows what's best for her and Lola, and so does Carlos. It was a group decision."

Leon, a fitness trainer when he met Madonna jogging through New York's Central Park in 1994, is now an aspiring actor living in Manhattan, where he grew up. He has appeared on Nash Bridges and had small parts in several movies, including The Big Lebowski and the 1999 straight-to-video Wish-master 2: Evil Never Dies. "There was no nepotism, no attitude," says Wish-master 2 director Jack Sholder. "He got the job on his own. He had a gentleness to him and was very easy to like."

That could describe Leon's attributes as a father, according to Madonna. When she is staying in her duplex apartment near Central Park, "Carlos," she says, "sees Lola at least three or four times a week, taking her out, doing things. They talk on the phone every night." When Madonna flew to New York recently, Carlos stayed with Lourdes in London. In New York he takes his daughter to the park, to kid flicks like Mulan or to visit her Cuban-American grandparents Armando and Maria, both 54, in their Manhattan apartment. Carlos's brother Armando Jr., a doorman, often brings over his two children Anthony, 4, and Allesandra, 2, when Lourdes visits. "My son adores Lola," says Armando Sr., a supervisor in a check-cashing business. "You can imagine it's not the same as living with your daughter all the time. It's hard. He really wants to be with her."

One Madonna friend describes Leon as a "mushball" who melts around Lola. "He's the pushover, I'm the disciplinarian," confirms Madonna. "I'm okay with that. Carlos feels he can't say no to her." But with her mother, whatever Lola wants, Lola doesn't necessarily get. Though Madonna's art collection includes Picasso, Léger and Frida Kahlo, she sometimes won't spring for a Barbie—doing her best not to spoil her child. "If she doesn't need another dress right now and wants one, the answer is no! She's always asking for more. More dessert. More jelly beans." "Lola is definitely feisty and strong-willed," observes Everett. "The two of them are going to be a fantastic drama unfolding over the next 20 years."

Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone's life has been an unfolding, fantastic drama since Aug. 16, 1958, when she was born in Bay City, Mich., a Detroit suburb about 35 miles from the Motor City. Silvio and Madonna Ciccone had six kids: Martin, Anthony, Madonna, Paula, Christopher and Melanie. Madonna, the oldest sister, lost her mother, then 36, to breast cancer when she was 5, and that has haunted her ever since. Her father, then a Chrysler design engineer, remarried Joan Gustafson, the housekeeper (also mother of Madonna's half-siblings Jennifer and Mario), after his wife died in 1963. Silvio, now 66, was a stickler for the rigid house rules he had established. "I grew up feeling incredibly repressed," Madonna recalls. "I was a really good girl." She earned a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan, but in 1978, at age 20, she dropped out and headed for New York City, where she lived the life of a poor artist. There she danced with Alvin Alley, cut some dance tracks for the disco underground, signed a Sire Records deal and began her assault on global fame with 1984's Like a Virgin. Her infectious array of provocative lyrics and videos made her pop music's poster girl for postfeminist empowerment. "I was a late bloomer," says Madonna, who shocked the world in 1992 with her graphically illustrated Sex book. "My rebellion happened, instead of in my teens, when I was 30. I just wanted to go, 'Don't tell me what to do just 'cause I'm a girl. Don't tell me I can't be sexual and intelligent at the same time.' I'm proud of the way I acted because it set a precedent and gave women the freedom to be expressive. I'm happy to have been a pioneer."

As an actress, though, she wasn't always a trailblazer. Despite her promising 1985 debut in Desperately Seeking Susan, her film career faltered with stinkers such as 1986's Shanghai Surprise, costarring her ex, Penn, 1987's Who's That Girl and 1993's Body of Evidence. "I look back and think, 'Well, I invited it. I made some really stupid choices.' So while I don't deserve to have the s—-kicked out of me, it taught me to be more scrupulous about the choices you make. I'm still fearful and insecure. 'Am I good enough?' That's what fuels me creatively."

Her reputation and faith in films were restored by her performance in Evita, which earned Madonna a Golden Globe. But during filming in London, Budapest and Buenos Aires, Madonna learned she was pregnant. The baby's name, inspired by the French town associated with miracle cures, was a tribute to the star's mother. "She always wanted to go to Lourdes," recalls Madonna. "She never made it. So for sentimental reasons, I named my daughter that."

Raising Lola has soothed a deep scar of abandonment. "I have memories of sitting on my mother's lap," she remembers, "or laying next to her in bed and having her arms around me. I know how much I cherish those memories. I do have moments with Lola when I can almost feel transposed back to those times. I don't so much see my mother mothering me as think, I'm going to be the mother I never had."

Parenting has also brought Madonna closer to her father, who now owns a Michigan vineyard. "It's helped me understand the sacrifices he made, having so many children and not having the privileges I have. He's strict, he can be narrow-minded, but he's a loving father. I have enormous respect for him. It's hard to see that until you have children."

Madonna admits to "strong feelings" about having more children herself. "Obviously sooner rather than later," she says. "I don't think I have an unlimited number of years left."

A second baby would add to the "nannies, housekeepers and assistants" Madonna admits she needs to keep her life on track. Lourdes visited her daily on location during Next Best Thing, shot near her L.A. home, and the two bond in the London recording studio after dinner every evening. With a sibling for Lourdes, says Madonna, "I'm sure I'd be a lot busier. I managed to work through my pregnancy and juggle being a mother and having a life. I'll just be doing more of that."

Looking none the worse for wear, no doubt. "I don't want to sound immodest," says Madonna, "but I don't think that having a child has made me unsexy. There's nothing sexier than a mother. Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer—I mean those women are sexy. If you're sexy, you're sexy, whether you have no children or five." Indeed, she adds, "I'm in better shape than I was at 20. I always want to be young and vital. One always wants to feel attractive." Sure, her daily yoga regimen has much to do with her appearance, but there's something else too. "Being in love, being loved keeps you young," says Madonna. "True, that."

Elizabeth McNeil in New York City, Pete Norman, Caris Davis and Matthew Beard in London and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth McNeil,
  • Pete Norman,
  • Caris Davis,
  • Matthew Beard,
  • Michael Fleeman.