By Hillary Busis
Updated October 05, 2013 at 04:30 PM EDT
Credit: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Before she was the Material Girl or Her Madgesty, the best-selling female artist of all time was just Madonna Louise Ciccone, a dancer from Bay City, Michigan who dreamed of making it big in New York City.

Madonna’s early days in the Big Apple weren’t easy. As she writes in a cover story for the November issue of Harper’s Bazaar, the city “did not welcome me with open arms.” In fact, the years between her 1978 flight from Michigan and her first record deal in 1982 were downright brutal: “The first year, I was held up at gunpoint,” the singer recalls. “Raped on the roof of a building I was dragged up to with a knife in my back, and had my apartment broken into three times. I don’t know why; I had nothing of value after they took my radio the first time.”

This is not the first time Madonna has discussed the assault. As The Hollywood Reporter points out, the subject came up in an interview with a British music magazine in 1995: “I have been raped and it is not an experience I would ever glamorize,” the star told New Musical Express. “Although it was devastating at the time, I know that it made me a much stronger person in retrospect. It forced me to be a survivor… much more street smart and savvy.”

The Harper‘s essay also covers Madonna’s difficult high school years — “being a rebel and not conforming doesn’t make you very popular” — and her tough transition to life in late ’70s/early ’80s New York, a harsh, unforgiving place filled with “the smell of piss and vomit everywhere, especially in the entryway of my third-floor walkup.”

Sometimes, Madonna writes, she “wondered if it was all worth it.” When those thoughts struck, “I would pull myself together and look at a postcard of Frida Kahlo taped to my wall, and the sight of her mustache consoled me. Because she was an artist who didn’t care what people thought. I admired her. She was daring. People gave her a hard time. Life gave her a hard time. If she could do it, then so could I.”

Find the full 2,100-word essay — in which Madonna also details her spiritual development and life as a mother — at Harper’s Bazaar.