NEW YORK - Sure, Madonna may have scandalized the Vatican and shocked nearly every parent in America at some point during her long and provocative career full of shrewd image transformations.
But as the Material Girl hits the half-century mark this weekend, she may be stepping into a role that even she, with all her marketing savvy, might not have dreamed up: poster child for the 50-and-fabulous set.
Who cares about those recent tabloid headlines linking her to the Yankees' A-Rod, or that tell-all book by her brother? Many women of a certain age look at Madonna and see a wonderfully fit, stylish, vigorous woman who's made a fortune based on smarts, talent and ambition - no "Blond Ambition" puns, please - and just keeps on going. Her latest world tour, "Sticky & Sweet," kicks off in Wales a week after her Aug. 16 birthday.
Talk about your New 50.
"I just think she's awesome," says Dale Lieberman, a 55-year-old mother of two grown daughters who works at a Marleton, N.J., dress shop and seemingly shares little with Madonna, save their age demographic. Yet Lieberman thinks Madonna is a great example of what 50 can be like these days.
"Here's a woman that's successful, takes care of herself, looks amazing - and she took the steps to get there. It doesn't happen unless you take charge. She's a great role model for many, many women."
And if Madonna has any qualms about reaching this milestone - she isn't speaking publicly about it - Lieberman wants to reassure her: It'll be just fine. In fact, better than fine.
"When I was in my 30s, 50 just seemed so ancient to me," says Lieberman. Now, she says, her kids are both out in the world. She exercises regularly for the first time in her life. She's weeded out the unsatisfying relationships in favor of the truly genuine ones, enjoys nature, and loves to travel with her husband (they're planning a trip to the Amazon next.) "Sometimes it's scary how happy and fulfilled I feel," says Lieberman.
That's good news not just for Madonna, but for all the others reaching 50 in 2008 - and some famous names pop up. Michael Jackson and Prince are two of the most discussed. But there's also Ellen DeGeneres, Sharon Stone, Christiane Amanpour. Alec Baldwin, Viggo Mortensen. Andie MacDowell, Jamie Lee Curtis, original "Sex and the City" columnist Candace Bushnell. Michelle Pfeiffer, Annette Bening, Prince Albert of Monaco. And, linking them together as in one of those "Six-Degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon" trivia games: Kevin Bacon.
Madonna's milestone should inspire men as well as women, says David Zinczenko, editor in chief of Men's Health magazine. "I was in high school when she hit it big," says Zinczenko, who's in his late 30s. "Now that her first young fans are in their 30s, we look at Madonna as sort of a harbinger of the future for us. And the future looks pretty good."
What it tells us, Zinczenko adds, "is that aging is not the inevitability that we might have assumed by watching our fathers, now in their 50s and 60s. Madonna is proof that exercising and eating right at an early age pays off."
Of course, some could rightly point out that it's easier to stay fit when you can afford private trainers and servants. Or possibly a little nip and tuck? Madonna's face appears on the current cover of New York magazine as an example of the latest hot looks in plastic surgery, though she hasn't said whether she's gone under the knife or needle.
More power to her, says Lesley Jane Seymour, editor of More, a magazine for women over 40.
"So she's had some work - I'll take it," says Seymour. "I want to know who her doctor is! It's really hard to believe she's 50. She looks 40. And she just keeps going at it, living life and loving life."
To Seymour, Madonna's not only an example to women on how to grow older - she's a reflection of how, as a society, our perceptions of age have changed. Especially 50, which used to be seen as the beginning of a depressing decline, not a new chapter.
It starts with looking different. "Put a picture of a 50-year-old woman today next to one from my mother's generation," says Seymour, who recently passed the mark herself. "We look at least 10 to 15 years younger than they did." She attributes it to exercise, better skin care, sun protection, less smoking, and generally a different standard of health and well-being.
"Also, 50 really is a new beginning for so many women," says Seymour, who notes that life expectancy rates show the average U.S. woman has another 30 years to live past the half-century mark. "Many have accomplished a number of their goals already. Their children are getting older. For the first time they can really think about themselves, and ask: What do I want from life?"
Of course, sometimes they can't get it. Women trying to return to the work force - or to progress within it - often find that advancing age is an obstacle. And in popular culture, age is still something we accept in our male icons much more easily than in our female ones. In movies, a recent exception was the "Sex and the City" film, which appealed to older women because of its portrayal of the late 40s and 50s as a still-sexy time of life.
Joanne Bamberger, a freelance writer and blogger in Washington, D.C., hasn't turned 50 yet - she has two whole months to go. She's ambivalent. But, she quips, "as the cliche goes, I guess it's better than the alternative."
"I just don't feel like what 50 should feel like," says Bamberger, who has an 8-year-old adopted daughter. "I remember my grandmother at 50. Her hair was completely white. My mother, too, was just at a very different place in her life than I am now."
Some days Bamberger asks herself, "How did I get to be this age?" But mostly she appreciates the perspective that being older has given her. She says she feels more settled personally now than in her 30s, when she was struggling with whether to have kids, but less settled professionally, having left a full-time career as a lawyer to write and care for her daughter.
Bamberger has always admired Madonna, especially for her shrewd ability to adapt her image. "She's done a remarkable job of marketing herself, and she's always been able to reinvent herself," says Bamberger.
So how does Madonna feel about the impending birthday? The pop star is not speaking publicly about it, says her longtime publicist, Liz Rosenberg. "I'm sure she's happy to be an inspiration to women and men of any age," Rosenberg wrote in an e-mail. But the birthday, she noted wryly, "is not quite the benchmark for her as it seems to be in the media, who have been talking about her 50th since she turned 40!"