Hair scraped back and showing a smattering of greys, she beams, her naturally radiant face creasing with happy laughter lines. Indeed, never mind Botox-free, her complexion appears entirely make-up free.
This, astonishingly, is Paula Ciccone, sister of Madonna.
A year younger than her famous sibling, it’s hard to conceive that this smiling, thoroughly normal-looking 60-something is even vaguely connected to the global superstar, never mind one of her closest relatives.
While her famous sister continues to revel in controversy — most recently her appearance at the recent Grammy awards, where, at 64, her face seemed virtually ironed of all imperfections and character, not to mention the reported emergence of her sixth and latest toyboy, a 29-year-old chiselled boxer who has been training one of her six children — Paula is leading an entirely contrasting life.
A rare picture of the family shows (left to right) Paula, Madonna, Jennifer and Melanie with their father Silvio Ciccone in 2021
The Queen of Pop, Madonna, is rarely sighted in public with her seven siblings
Head winemaker at the family’s vineyard in Michigan, she is more commonly to be found in fleeces and jeans than corsets or leather. Intensely private — it’s unclear if she has a partner — Paula, who shared a childhood bedroom with Madonna, is at heart a bashful introvert.
‘[Paula is] an intrinsically shy person but she’s forced herself to be less shy because of all the responsibilities she has,’ says Michael Schafer, a sommelier, certified wine and spirits expert and member of the board of the Michigan Wine Collaborative.
Both women, along with their five other siblings, are currently mourning the loss of their troubled older brother, Anthony Ciccone, who died last Sunday.
And as they come together to grieve, it’s nothing short of fascinating to note how Paula, and the two other Ciccone sisters, Melanie and Jennifer, live such different and quiet lives to Madonna.
Forget twerking with younger men or sharing excruciating, flesh-baring social media posts, they are more likely to be found quilt-making, exploring their love of art, or spending time in the beautiful Michigan countryside.
They all avoid the limelight and their love-lives are far from the public circus Madonna is involved in, after ditching yet another model boyfriend for 6ft 4in, 240 lb heavyweight fighter Josh Popper. Indeed, Melanie is the picture of marital bliss with a husband of 35 years.
It’s the family vineyard which offers the sisters most peace and solace, particularly Paula. Perched atop a hill on the picturesque Leelanau Peninsula, with panoramic views overlooking Michigan’s West Grand Traverse Bay, the Ciccone Vineyard and Winery is where she is most often found.
Established by their father Silvio ‘Tony’ Ciccone and his second wife Joan in 1995, it is set across 13 acres and has grown from a family-owned concern into a thriving business, winning awards and operating a popular tasting room. In 2004, when the business was ailing, Madonna stepped in with around £754,000.
It also has a highly regarded sideline as a wedding destination, with couples swapping vows in the vineyard’s quaint 100-year-old barn during the summer months.
Much of this is down to Paula. There’s no doubt the two sisters do have something in common, in that they both have a keen business sense and strong work ethic.
‘Paula is a pioneering female winemaker who’s modernised the winery and brought it into the 21st century,’ says Michael Shafer. ‘She’s a talented businesswoman.’
Paula was born in 1959 in Bay City, Michigan. The two girls already had older brothers Anthony and Martin. Christopher and Melanie came along soon after.
Their father Tony, an engineer, was of Italian descent and their mother Madonna — the pop star was named after her — was French-Canadian.
Paula Ciccone is the younger sister of Madonna and works as a winemaker in Michigan, US
Paula Ciccone, younger sister to Madonna, is sighted on 18 October 1985 in New York City
Tragedy struck in 1963 when the children’s mother died at just 30 of breast cancer. Madonna, who was only five at the time, has said she would be a completely different person if her mother had not died so young.
‘Some of my lack of inhibition comes from my mother’s death. For example, mothers teach you manners. And I absolutely did not learn any of those rules,’ she said.
In 1966, Tony married the family’s housekeeper Joan Gustafson and they had two children, Jennifer and Mario.
The children adjusted with difficulty. Madonna, particularly unhappy about her father’s remarriage, rebelled, straining their relationship for many years.
When Madonna dropped out of college in 1978 to go to New York, Paula followed a few years later, staying with her big sister as she attempted to carve out her own showbusiness career.
With short platinum hair, Paula tried out modelling, and took part in an Oprah interview in 1986. She seemed to be uncomfortable with comparisons to her sister, commenting ‘fame changes family’.
While Madonna became an international superstar, Paula had behind-the-scenes jobs in special effects and set costume in film. Both careers fizzled out, however, and Paula moved back to Michigan where she became an artist and then took on a corporate job.
In 2011, Paula was made redundant and spent the summer at the family winery. ‘When I first got here, I just did the website. Then I inventoried all the rows of vineyards for each wine and tagged all of the posts. Once I was done with that, it was “What should I do next?”,’ she said.
‘I didn’t come up here to be the winemaker, but I thought what the heck, I’ll try it. My father started giving me responsibilities in the cellar, involving me more . . . I started keeping a notebook of all the different procedures.’
Studiously, she improved her knowledge of wine-making with classes at Michigan State University. When Paula’s father passed the baton to her, handing her control of the wine-making process, she began making wine in her own innovative style, and picking up awards.
Gone are the glamorous clothes and high maintenance lifestyle Paula once had as a model. Recently, she cut the ribbon on the winery’s new outdoor seating area, putting aside her dislike of public speaking to thank those involved.
‘I don’t think Paula ever thought she would end up running the family vineyard, but she’s done a great job with it and it’s clearly where she loves to be,’ says Schafer.
There have been bumps in her relationship with Madonna — in 2000, there was bad feeling when Madonna apparently refused to pay for Paula to travel to her second wedding in Scotland to Guy Ritchie. But she has been pictured with other family members at various Madonna tours through the years and the two sisters remain close.
‘It’s difficult having a famous sibling and constantly having to contend with someone who is regarded as being better known and more successful than you,’ says Gary Johnson, a teacher for 53 years and curator of the Michigan Rock And Roll Legends Hall of Fame.
He has visited the vineyard several times and describes it as a ‘beautiful, peaceful place.’
‘The two sisters are very different characters but, just as Madonna is a successful businesswoman, so Paula has found her passion and become successful.’
Madonna, 64, is pictured with boxing coach and former NFL prospect Josh Popper, 29
Josh Popper posts a body shot on Instagram. The coach is said to be dating the Queen of Pop
Melanie Ciccone’s passion, meanwhile, is to be found in her family. Happily married for more than three decades to the singer and songwriter Joe Henry — no toyboys to be found here — the couple have two children.
Like many 60-somethings, they are embracing a quieter life, recently moving to Maine after 30 years in Los Angeles. Here, they enjoy an idyllic existence, coming home to log fires after walks on beaches and in forests. A blissful retirement, it seems, beckons.
Down-to-earth Melanie is said to be Madonna’s closest sister and was the trusted sibling who held her hand when she gave birth to daughter Lourdes.
Often pictured hugging — ‘No one knows better than her what it’s like to survive our toxic and broken family from Michigan,’ the singer once said in tribute to Melanie — Madonna still calls her by her childhood nickname ‘Smells’.
Born in 1962, Melanie studied Spanish literature and language at Michigan State University and was a publicist for Brian Eno’s Opal Records. Her husband is an old friend of Madonna’s who met his future sister-in-law in 1975 when they were pupils at Rochester Adams High School in Michigan and members of the school’s Thespian Society.
‘[Madonna] was whip-smart and short on patience and, to tell the truth, she scared me more than a little but along with her sister Paula, her presence . . . opened a door through which I would pass and find my life utterly and for ever changed,’ Joe wrote in a 2015 birthday tribute to the pop princess.
The pair have collaborated musically on some of Madonna’s hits, but it’s the introduction to Melanie that Joe is most grateful for. ‘There is no other and never has been another,’ he said on the couple’s 35th wedding anniversary. ‘My marriage has been not only the light upon my path but the path itself. Lucky me.’
After devotedly raising her children and working in music, Melanie has built a second career as a fabric artist. Her talent at quilt making and love of textiles is said to have been inspired by her grandmothers and she has shown her works at the trendy alternative Roswell Space Gallery in Los Angeles.
What she calls ‘the simple materials of everyday life’ make up her creations.
One called Un-dress, featuring recycled plastic, bird netting, silk sari rags, thread and measuring tape, is priced at $5,500. Another called Kind Of Blue, made from fisherman’s rope, printed coffee bags, tulle, butcher paper and thread, is priced at $1,900.
It’s all rather spiritual, and delicate. One admiring review called Melanie’s embroidered works on tea-stained squares of linen ‘quiet little heartaches,’ while the 61-year-old says her work makes her feel purposeful and ‘connected to a deeper sense of herself’.
Joe Henry and Melanie Ciccone, Madonna’s sister, are pictured together in November 2016
Madonna and her brother Chris Ciccone are pictured together on 27 March 1995
Jennifer Ciccone is pictured with her stepmother, Joan
Art, and a love of children, again marks the life of the youngest Ciccone sister, Jennifer, who was born in 1967 and closely resembles her blonde mother, Joan.
Choosing a life away from the limelight, she first embarked on a career as an art teacher in Michigan elementary schools, with children aged five to 11. She married at the family vineyard in 2011, and today works there, and is regarded as an essential member of the management team, along with Paula and her 54-year-old brother Mario who manages the vineyard.
It has been claimed Jennifer wasn’t invited to Madonna’s two weddings and Madonna wasn’t invited to hers.
Yet fences have presumably been mended, since Jennifer has been pictured with other family members at various Madonna concerts over the years. Bespectacled and middle-aged, she too beams in pictures with all the happiness of a life well spent.
Indeed, looking at all the sisters’ faces — last seen side-by-side two years ago posing happily with their father Tony for his 90th birthday celebrations — it’s almost impossible not to wonder if they show what Madonna would look like if she, perhaps, had taken a more conventional path.