I’m one of the 1.6m Madonna superfans who saw her in Copacabana – it was heaven

Madonna had already proved herself to be the world’s greatest show-woman, but at the weekend, a formidable rival collaborated with her to create one of the most defining moments in pop culture history: Rio de Janeiro.

The city, already a legendary showstopper, comes into its own when hosting epic events: carnival, Rock in Rio, football matches, or mega-beach gigs like Rod Stewart in 1994 and the Rolling Stones in 2006.

On Saturday night, Copacabana Beach hosted the closing gig of Madonna’s Celebration World Tour, a greatest hits show marking four decades of a prolific career. It was one of the biggest standalone concerts for any artist in history, with 1.6 million fans present. It was free to attend, and I could not resist.

Madonna was only half the show; the rest of the spectacle was provided by Rio. Copacabana beach was the “the world’s biggest dancefloor” and its people the most energetic performers, many dressed as the star herself. But the show started days before Madonna set foot on stage.

From the moment I disembarked from the plane into Rio’s international airport, I heard her songs and saw variations of her iconic conical corset. It set the tone for the Madonna-mania outside.

Unofficial Madonna merchandise for sale before the concert (Photo: Wagner Meier/Getty Images)
Unofficial Madonna merchandise for sale before the concert (Photo: Wagner Meier/Getty)

Brazilians – and party-loving Rio residents – provided a contagiously energetic welcome. I’d been advised to get cabs everywhere for safety – and the minute I opened my taxi door outside the tropical, boutique Santa Teresa Hotel RJ-MGallery, I heard a nearby pub pumping out more vintage Madonna.

I couldn’t resist. Excited Brazilian fans were belting out early-noughties era songs as a widescreen projector played her videos. The pub, like every other shop and street stall I saw, was selling unofficial merchandise; sometimes creative, sometimes tacky: T-shirts, fans, cups, bandannas. I bought it all, before setting off to sip strong, sugary caipirinhas in a late-night street bar with my new friends. The singing continued.

Venues across the city were playing Madonna (Photo: Gary Nunn)
Venues across the city were playing Madonna (Photo: Gary Nunn)

On day one I headed to Ipanema Beach – the other main draw on the city’s coastline – feeling safe enough to take public transport. It costs £1 to travel from Saint Teresa’s nearest subway stop, Gloria, almost directly to the beachfront; you simply tap in with your debit card.

I was warned countless times to keep an eye on my phone. What was I wasn’t prepared for was for my old flip-flops to be stolen on the beach, making for an uncomfortable barefoot trip back.

Ipanema Beach isn’t somewhere to kick back and relax. It’s somewhere to party, dance and drink more caipirinhas. They’ll be served to your towel, along with souvenirs, sunglasses, food and anything else you could possibly want, but not really need.

A vendor carries caipirinhas to beachgoers on Ipanema Beach (Photo: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A vendor carries caipirinhas to beachgoers on Ipanema Beach (Photo: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg via Getty)

Beachgoers partied to Madonna songs. Billboards thanked her. Bars, restaurants and cafes had her posters on the walls and music on their speakers. It was an atmosphere unlike anything I’d experienced before.

Over breakfast the next day, the hotel – “a calm haven of serenity” – was gloriously interrupted by a travelling samba street band: stilt walkers and drum bangers swigging Brazilian beer at 10.45am. A small monkey clambered for a better view in a tree overlooking the hillside view. It was the only music I heard all weekend that was not Madonna.

On Friday night, the night before the show, I met five superfans who – like me – had travelled from the UK to see the megastar, to them, as iconic as Christ the Redeemer himself. They suggested we meet at the grandiose beachfront Copacabana Palace hotel where Madonna was staying. Outside, hundreds chanted her name, wearing her T-shirt and waving adoring signs.

Madonna was staying at Copacabana Palace (Photo: Gary Nunn)
Madonna was staying at Copacabana Palace hotel (Photo: Gary Nunn)

Alessandro Storer, 39, from London, pointed at a bridge on the beach. “She’ll walk over that from rehearsals soon,” he said as a pianist started a mid-tempo version of Like A Prayer. Storer had come for this “once in a lifetime” opportunity. “This is Rio on steroids,” he told me. “There’s a real sense from Brazilians that they’re making history. I saw a bus of drag queens dressed as her yesterday.”

He persuaded friend Stephen Bell, 45, also from London, to accompany him. They had booked their table for drinks at a bar close to the beach six months in advance. “The hot, sunny weather has surprised me – it’s not even summer,” he told me. “I’m mixed-race – I love the heat. I want to come back Asap.”

Fans outside the hotel (Photo: Gary Nunn)
Fans outside the hotel (Photo: Gary Nunn)

Marco Bertarini, 54, another Londoner, had seen every Madonna tour since 1987’s Who’s That Girl? Today, he’d got a tattoo behind his ear of a crown, symbolising his queen. The buzz had surprised and moved him. “I didn’t like Rio the first time I came, but I’ve realised maybe it was the people I was with,” he said. “The friendly welcome has made me fall in love with the city.”

Claudio Alberto, 49, also travelled over from London. “I’ve never experienced anything like this,” he said. “We’ve been coming back here, outside the Copacabana Palace, to see all the people camped out daily. It’s madness. It reminds me of the 90s.”

Across the road, gay bar Pink Flamingos had transformed into a Madonna grotto, with giant posters of every album on every wall and her Superbowl performance playing on loop. Punters were dressed as her.

A view of the crowd ahead of Madonna's performance at Copacabana beach performance (Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation)
A view of the crowd ahead of Madonna’s performance at Copacabana beach (Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation)

As concert time drew closer, I headed to the beach. Because the concert was taking place on the sand, it was an entirely different experience to the leg I saw at London’s O2 last year, where the buzz largely stopped for other big-city interruptions. Rather than sitting in fixed arena seats, everyone was dancing. I was barefoot, which added to the liberated beach party feel; Brazilians swayed their hips to a samba version of Music.

An emotional Brazilian stranger, seeing me well up at Madonna’s tribute to those we lost to Aids, hugged me tightly; our tears spoke for us.

Music may make people come together – 1.6 million of us – but Rio made us hug strangers, dance and cry together when we heard it, carried to our ears on the tropical breeze.

“Look around you,” Madonna commanded mid-set. “The sea. The warm beach, surrounded by love. Jesus behind us. This is f***ing heaven.”

No disagreements here.

Travel essentials

Staying there

The boutique Santa Teresa Hotel RJ-MGallery is located on a historic coffee farm, and has incorporated elements from its former use in intricate and elegant ways throughout the venue. It includes a spa, pool, a verdant, manicured garden and a hillside view which includes Christ the Redeemer. santateresahotelrio.com

The writer stayed as a guest of the Santa Teresa Hotel.