As if dancing in a gondola without falling overboard weren't impressive enough, the Material Girl managed to stare down the king of the...

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As if dancing in a gondola without falling overboard weren’t impressive enough, the Material Girl managed to stare down the king of the jungle, too. It happened in Venice, Italy, during the video shoot for Madonna’s 1984 smash “Like a Virgin.”

“Midway through one take, the lion began stalking Madonna,” recalls video director Mary Lambert.

The tense scene wasn’t in the script. While crew members scrambled to safety, Madonna stood her ground as the big cat — on loan from a circus — padded slowly toward her.

“She was really fearless,” Lambert says. “The lion backed off and everything was OK.”

It was all in a day’s work for Madonna, no stranger to bold moves. With more than 200 million albums sold worldwide, this irrepressible artist is not only the most popular female singer of her generation, but a pop-culture phenomenon on multiple fronts.

Tonight at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, she’ll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with the Tacoma band the Ventures, Leonard Cohen, the Dave Clark Five and John Mellencamp.

Madonna, who turns 50 in August, is no museum relic, however. Last fall, she inked an unprecedented recording-and-touring deal with megapromoter Live Nation, worth $120 million. Last month, her movie “Filth and Wisdom” premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival. And her buzzed-about new album, “Hard Candy,” comes out April 29.

Madonna declined to be interviewed for this story, although past and present associates shed light on various sides of her complex personality, multifaceted as a mirrored disco ball.

Shape-shifting musical chameleon. Ultra-glamorous star of stage and screen. Trendsetting fashionista. Author of the infamous “SEX” coffee-table book and, er, a series of children’s titles. Kabbalah devotee.

She’s all of the above, and then some.

Born Madonna Louise Ciccone in Bay City, Mich., she reportedly began turning heads at a young age when she danced in a bikini during a school talent show. Her showbiz dreams led her to Manhattan in 1978.

Her break came when DJ Mark Kamins slipped a demo tape of her song “Everybody” to Sire Records head Seymour Stein, who launched the careers of the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Pretenders.

Her self-titled 1983 debut generated the hit singles “Holiday,” “Borderline” and “Lucky Star,” although her de facto coming-out party was the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards.

Madonna stole the show with her performance of “Like a Virgin.” A beaming Nile Rodgers, who produced the “Like a Virgin” album, sat next to a baffled Cher in the audience at Radio City Music Hall, as Madonna writhed onstage in a bustier and “BOY TOY” belt buckle.

When they weren’t in the studio, Madonna and Rodgers often went out for a night on the town. “Every time I’d walk into a restaurant or a club with her, you’d hear, ‘Who’s that girl?,’ over and over again,” Rodgers says.

Once just about everyone on the planet knew who that girl was, the question became: “What’ll she do next?”

The video for Madonna’s gospel-tinged 1989 hit “Like a Prayer,” also directed by Lambert, was rife with controversial imagery, including burning crosses.

“I think Madonna enjoys controversy,” Lambert says.

Madonna had another landmark moment at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, where she kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera onstage, symbolically passing the torch (or was it the tongue?) to a new generation.

Or was Madonna sucking the life force out of her young competition?

“She created the template for the postmodern female pop star,” says Lucy O’Brien, author of “Madonna: Like an Icon,” a biography published last year.

“She feels she can still compete with artists who are half her age, too. She’s not fazed by that. … She’s just indefatigable.”

Working 12-, 14- or 16-hour days was the norm for the “Filth and Wisdom” cast, according to Eugene Hutz. He plays a cross-dressing dominatrix in the film, an offbeat comedy. It marks Madonna’s directorial debut.

“Her style was very gonzo beatnik for the most part, but then suddenly she would get incredibly scrupulous and specific,” says Hutz, leader of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, which play the Showbox Sodo tonight.

There is talk of releasing the movie soon via iTunes, he says.

“Filth and Wisdom” is about “pursuing your vision,” Hutz says. “And Madonna certainly has done that.”

Her upcoming album promises to venture deeper into uncharted creative territory, via hip-hop-savvy, club-thumping songs. Contributors to the project include Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, who is set to induct Madonna into the Rock Hall. (For unspecified reasons, she won’t perform at the ceremony.)

Despite the pop bent of her music, Madonna belongs in the Rock Hall, says Stein, president emeritus of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation’s board of directors. Madonna has “a true rock ‘n’ roll spirit,” Stein says.

“She takes chances,” he says. “She doesn’t care about the odds.”