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WHICH MADONNA IS THE REAL ONE?

It's past midnight. Forrest Sawyer is asking the news junkies who are still awake to watch "Nightline": "Has Madonna finally gone too far?"

On the big screen, the same screen where secretaries of state and terrorists get to say whether they have gone too far, comes a Madonna I've never seen. Conservative black jacket with a collar up to her chin. Power shoulder pads. Gold buttons. Proper little gold earrings. Sleek hair pulled back. Right hand grasping the appropriately serious prop: a pen.

Except for the slim band of dark roots beneath the platinum, except for the voice -- early "Working Girl" -- she might pass for the CEO of some Wall Street firm. Or she might pass for someone trying to pass for the CEO. That is the thing about Madonna. Look for her identity and you find another image to add to the Rolodex of Madonnas.

"Nightline" was doing what MTV had refused to do, showing her video, "Justify My Love." And Madonna had come dressed to justify her video by saying: It was 1) artistic and 2) better than the other horrors that grace MTV without such fuss. "Why is it okay," she said, "for 10-year-olds to see someone's body being ripped to shreds?"

Madonna the executive is speaking about Madonna the artist, Madonna of the satellite feed is talking about Madonna of the hotel bed. There are other variations on the theme of Madonna, more incarnations in the life of Madonna, more colors to the chameleon.

The woman has revamped her image every two years like an engine: Material Girl to Blonde Ambition. And still she has icon status among those who see her as the the sexually assertive woman.

When Madonna first brought her underwear and ambition to the stage, it was said that the multiple Madonna appealed to adolescent girls because they try on identities like lipstick. Years later, she still appeals to young women who try to be all things to all people: sexy but dressed for success, maternal but independent.

But what bothers me in all this is a belief that she offers the wrong answers to the questions, or the crisis, of identity. Especially female identity.

If the work of growing up is finding a center, integrating the parts, Madonna spotlights the fragments and calls them a whole. If the business of adulthood is finding yourself, she creates as many selves as there are rooms in her video hotel. If we must evolve as grownups, she switches instead, like a quick-change artist between acts. And if there is a search among Americans for authenticity, Madonna offers costumes and calls them the real thing.

Multi-Madonna is the survivor of a rough childhood, of religious guilt and a bad marriage. She has purposely become a female with the nerve to be "bad" and the will to be powerful.

But the fight against being "pigeonholed" can also be an excuse for confusion. The star of this show after all makes little attempt to reconcile the contradictions of her life and psyche. She insists instead that all the fragments of a self be accepted.

In the end, watching the Madonnas pass before us over the years, is a bit like watching the three faces of Eve. . .as a role model. That's not an answer for women trying to integrate their lives.

Has Madonna gone too far? Not in a video for adults. But in real life, she has a way to go.

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