LILONGWE, Malawi — Wealthy, famous, fabulous at 50 _ but not a mother of four. Pop star extraordinaire Madonna lost a bid Friday to adopt a second child from Malawi, rejected by a judge who said she would not bend the country's strict residency rules even for a wealthy celebrity.
The decision came as a surprise since Malawi's child welfare minister came out Thursday in support of the singer's application to adopt 3-year-old Chifundo "Mercy" James.
And it was a rare setback for the material girl who has projected an image of being able to attain whatever she sets her sights on, be it personal or professional.
Madonna was not present in the courtroom for the ruling, and there was no immediate comment from her spokeswoman in New York. The pop star's lawyer filed notice he would appeal, but no hearing date was set.
In a lengthy ruling, Judge Esme Chombo sided with critics who have said exceptions should not be made for pop superstar, who has set up a major development project for this impoverished, AIDS-stricken southern African country.
Noting that Madonna had last visited Malawi in 2008, the judge said the pop star "jetted into the country during the weekend just days prior to the hearing of this application."
"In my opinion, this would completely remove (Madonna) from the definition of `resident,'" the judge said.
Malawi requires prospective parents to live in the country for 18 to 24 months while child welfare authorities assess their suitability _ a rule that was bent when Madonna was allowed to take her now 3-year-old son David to London in 2006 before his adoption was finalized two years later. Madonna has two other children, Lourdes, 12, and Rocco, 8.
Chombo said other foreigners have adopted in Malawi, but Madonna's was the only case in which residency was waived, and she indicated concern that doing so again could set a precedent that might jeopardize children.
"It is necessary that we look beyond the petitioner ... and consider the consequences of opening the doors too wide," the judge said. "By removing the very safeguard that is supposed to protect our children, the courts ... could actually facilitate trafficking of children by some unscrupulous individuals."
The judge also made clear she was not questioning Madonna's intentions, and even praised the "noble" work the singer's charity has done to feed, educate and provide medical care for some of Malawi's more than 1 million orphans, half of whom have lost parents to AIDS.
It is "my prayer" that Mercy would benefit from such programs, Chombo said.
She noted the girl was receiving "suitable" care in an orphanage and contrasted that with David's situation in 2006, when the boy was about to be returned to his father, who had been struggling to care for him.
After Friday's ruling, journalists saw Madonna, chic in black and looking relaxed and at times even cheerful, as she toured an area where she is building a school near Malawi's capital, Lilongwe. Wherever she went, she was surrounded by media and curious villagers.
Madonna first traveled to Malawi in 2006 while filming a documentary on its devastating poverty and AIDS crisis, and later decided to adopt there.
In an interview with The Associated Press last year, Madonna spoke of being drawn to the people of Malawi, particularly the children.
"I saw that people with so little had so much appreciation for life and so much joy. It gave me a real sense of appreciation for what I have and ... it put things in perspective for me," she said.
"We have so much and we can often get caught up in our little stupid problems. (In Malawi) the kids have nothing to play with."
Madonna also noted the difficulties in adopting from Malawi, saying: "They are still trying to finesse the laws."
Chombo acknowledged the country's rules for foreigners were vague: The 18-to-24-month residency requirement has been assumed to apply to them, though legislation has been proposed to shorten the period to a year for non-citizens.
The 2006 waiver that allowed Madonna to take David out of the country was issued by a different judge, and the singer has since divorced her husband, Guy Ritchie. Chombo is known to be conservative, according to lawyers who said she might have frowned on the pop star's sexy image and the liaisons that have made her the subject of tabloid gossip. The lawyers spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing a judge likely to hear their cases.
Ritchie called Madonna "a great mum" and said he was "saddened" her adoption application was denied. "She is motivated only by being a caring parent who seeks to share some of the advantages and opportunities that her life has given her," he said, according to a statement in The Daily Telegraph of London.
Celebrity watchers agreed.
"Madonna usually gets what she wants, doesn't she?" said Us Weekly magazine senior editor Ian Drew. "She's Madonna, the one and only. She's a deity to people in many ways, in a pop culture sense. People do feel ... there's nothing Madonna can't have."
But Drew said that may have led to unfair criticism about the adoption.
"She's invested so much in Malawi and had really identified this girl as being someone she really wanted to take under her wing," he said. "It's probably devastating to her, but she'll definitely use all of her legal juice to get it reversed somehow if she can."
Critics had accused Madonna of using her fame and money to fast-track the adoption, but the singer said she followed standard procedures.
Mavuto Bamusi, an official with Malawi's Human Rights Consultative Committee, called Friday's ruling "a defining moment for child protection."
"We sympathize with children like Mercy who find themselves in orphanhood," Bamusi said. "But the Malawi authorities should take this as a moment of reflection. The laws of Malawi should now be strengthened so that no celebrity, no family that is trying to adopt should be seen as taking advantage of our weak laws."
In court papers made public Friday, Madonna said Mercy's grandmother was unable to care for her. The grandmother had initially opposed the adoption but later changed her mind, according to local media reports.
The girl's mother died at age 14, not long after Mercy was born on Jan. 22, 2006; there was no mention of the father in the affidavit. The mother's brother was listed as having consented to the adoption.
Malawi's child welfare minister, Anna Kachikho, had endorsed Madonna's adoption bid, telling the AP on Thursday: "If people like Madonna adopt even one such orphan, it's one mouth less we have to feed."
Associated Press Music Writer Nekesa Mumbi Moody in New York contributed to this report.