Lady Gaga: The Power of Makeup
As intergalactic goddess of glam, Lady Gaga knows the awesome force that is makeup. Now she's making her own and sharing her secrets with us earthly mortals.
Lady Gaga’s house, one of them at least, is built into a hill (a Hollywood hill, but I will give you no indication of which one because I was asked by three very nice people not to). Her security guy opens the gate, takes a picture of my ID, and ushers me into a room to wait. I am in a basement. If you are a suburbia-bred American, it’s probably the basement of your youth: parquet floor, a stack of board games in the corner, those plastic Container Store bins with drawers that are stuffed with white things I can only assume are T-shirts from high school concerts and charity 5Ks. There is a dry-erase board on one wall.
But then, on a couch in the middle of the room (white, splattered with multicolored paint), there sits a lone Celine shopping bag, fresh and pristine. You might think for a moment: Is this...the welcome gift that awaits the guests of Lady Gaga? Of course, as a journalist, I did not think that, and if it was a gift I never would have accepted it, but I’m just saying that that’s what someone else might have thought as they sat down to wait for Lady Gaga. But not me. Obviously. (It was not a gift.)
Lady Gaga is, however, very generous. In the first minutes after I ascend the stairs to meet her, she shares her personal space with me, opening her arms for a full-body hug, and then, moments later, gives me her chair. We stand on the threshold of her kitchen for a bit, and she introduces me to the three French bulldogs assembled there — Asia, Gustav, and Koji — before leading me down a short, narrow hallway. On one wall, tucked onto a small shelf, is an Oscar, the Oscar, “Shallow” etched into the base. On the other wall, more Grammys than I can tally while on the move (according to the internet, I would probably get to nine).
The office we enter is not much larger than my own home office in suburban New Jersey. This one, though, has sliding glass doors that open onto a wraparound deck overlooking much of Los Angeles (this is almost impossible to find in New Jersey). It also has a large black glass conference table in the center, with a snow-white leather high-backed chair on one side. “You take the boss chair,” Lady Gaga says as she lowers herself into the smaller black one opposite me.
I probably don’t need to tell you that my superior chair does very little to make me anywhere close to the boss in this room. I have a solid eight inches on LG, as her friends call her, but she commands the space, sitting across from me wearing ballerina posture and a clingy black silk Alexa Chapman slip dress. Thick silver teardrops hang heavy from her earlobes. Her platinum blonde hair is in a deep side part, swooped high. But let’s be clear, very clear: We’re here to talk about what’s on her face.
As soon as my recorder is on and before I utter the first question: “I have the Chained Ballerina Glam Attack on my eyes, with the Legend Glam Attack in the corners. And then I’m wearing the RIP Lip Liner in Drag, and Entranced is the gloss, a clear, multidimensional rainbow chrome gloss that comes with the Rose B*tch collection.” Lady Gaga has entered the beauty game, and her first creations, under the label Haus Laboratories, are being shipped worldwide this month.
Let me take half of that back: Lady Gaga has actually been in the beauty game since she emerged on New York City’s club scene over a decade ago, wearing thick black eyeliner, lash-grazing bangs, and a spangled bra. She jumped into the beauty conversation — and she changed it. For her first VMAs appearance, she wore what can only be described as a vermilion lace head sock, her face completely obscured and a mass of blonde curls sprouting from a hole in the back. Along the way, there was a crystal-encrusted crustacean headpiece, a leotard inspired by circuit boards, a dress fringed with blonde hair. There were wigs (many wigs), David Bowie thunderbolts, rhinestone eyebrows, and gold spiked lashes. She emerged from eggs and draped her body in raw beef. She subverted the sexualized image of a pop star, challenged notions of gender, and made us think about what it means to be authentic (well before that term became the most exhausted of buzzwords).
But now Lady Gaga is in the game of making physical beauty things: lip liners, glosses, a shimmery liquid concoction that dries into a powder and glistens like the dorsal fin of a rainbow fish.
And she wants people from every corner of the planet to buy these things, a lot of them — Amazon is her exclusive retailer. But she’s Lady Gaga, and her ambition runs way deeper than world lip-gloss domination. She also wants this makeup to change your life, like makeup changed hers. “I never felt beautiful, and I still have days that I don’t feel beautiful,” she had told me a few weeks earlier during a phone conversation. “All of the insecurities that I’ve dealt with my whole life from being bullied when I was younger, they come right back up to bite me. Then I put makeup on, and before I know it I feel this superhero within. It gives me those wings to fly.”
When Lady Gaga talks about her products, she talks about them with passion and an understanding of every applicator and shimmer-to-pigment ratio. But she always comes back to emotion. What she said about never feeling beautiful, about insecurity? That was a response to this question: Were any of the formulas inspired by a makeup product that you’ve known and loved but wanted to improve upon?
Her answer started with: “First and foremost, I wanted to create the lip pencil of my dreams. I love lip pencil, but for me there always ends up being something wrong with them. It’s either dragging or it’s bleeding. With this formula, I can line my lips beautifully, but most of the time, I wear it all over my mouth. It feels like a lipstick, and it does not transfer. Every time I put it on, I have this sigh of giant, artistic, creative release that I just — my heart soars.”
Then: superheroes, wings to fly.
And then: “When I became Lady Gaga when I was younger, it was because I discovered makeup. It means so much to me on a deep visceral level — the power of makeup to change how you feel when you’re at your lowest.”
At 33, Lady Gaga has reached the highest peaks of fame, wealth, and cultural currency. She is speaking to me now literally perched on top of Los Angeles. But she knows low. She has spoken very openly about being bullied in high school, being sexually assaulted by a music producer at 19, and struggling with the physical pain of fibromyalgia over the past couple of years. And then there’s the unrelenting, sometimes crushing pace.
“When I was doing the Joanne tour [two years ago], I’d been touring since I was 22 years old. I’d just done the Super Bowl show, Coachella, A Star Is Born. I really started to break down,” says Lady Gaga. “I would do the show, then I would get on an airplane, go to another country or state, get off, drive 40 minutes to the hotel, go to sleep, wake up, do another show. I was dizzy.” Makeup was often the only thing that could put a stop to this emotional vertigo, that could put Stefani Germanotta in a mental place where she could walk onto a stage and be Lady Gaga for tens of thousands of people.
“Sarah [Tanno, Lady Gaga’s makeup artist] would pick me up off the floor, sit me in a chair, dry my tears, and say, ‘I’m going to put on your face now,’ ” she recalls. “If I cried while she was putting on my makeup, I would apologize, and she would say, ‘It’s okay. I’ve got you.’” Lady Gaga is crying at this point. And apologizing to me.
“Sarah would do my makeup, Freddie [Aspiras] would do my hair, and they would hold me and say, ‘Look at yourself. There’s Lady Gaga. You can do this. Now go do it.’ And I would go out there, and the second that spotlight hits me, bam, I’m in the zone,” she says. “But I can’t do that without them. That is the power of glam for me. Not everybody has a Sarah, but I’m very lucky that I do. And I want this line to be for the person at home who needs that pick-me-up. If they use it, or don’t use it, they can at least look at it and go, ‘That’s what helps Lady Gaga shine on her bad days. And I want to shine today.’”
More tears come. I feel as though I am watching a very beautiful actor perform a one-woman show for a one-woman audience. And I guess I am. Suddenly someone appears from off-stage (the deck) and slides a box of tissues across the table to her. “Oh, thank you. You heard me crying? Why do I cry when I talk about makeup all the time?”
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that this is my second conversation with Lady Gaga, both about makeup, both tearful at times. Mostly on her part. But I did get watery in our first interview when she told the story that every beauty editor has heard many times: about being a little girl watching her mother put on makeup in the morning. But in Lady Gaga’s telling, it went beyond cliché: “She would look so, so beautiful, and so strong. She just had such a bravery about her, and it was so inspiring to me. I grew up with this understanding that you can be brave in many different ways, and one of those ways is makeup.” But the water didn’t come until: “I really hope that when I have maybe a little girl one day, or a little boy, and they see Mommy put her makeup on, that they have the same experience that I did.”
When Lady Gaga was promoting A Star Is Born last year, she and Bradley Cooper told the same story about the day she did her screen test, which was also about makeup as a source of power. He came to her home, and as she descended the stairs he said, “Take it off,” presenting a makeup wipe. The goal was to put her in a more vulnerable state. I ask Lady Gaga if she too sees these pigments as a kind of armor. “Does makeup make you feel more in control? Do you hope this line will bring other people that feeling?”
The answer: a hard no. “I don’t want people to have a feeling of control actually at all,” she says. “I want people to feel completely liberated by this line, to do whatever they want with it. Whether they wear a ton of it, buy it — or don’t. I just want them to love the message. It’s like just being excited that there’s a party going on down the street where everybody’s invited.”
The Lady Gaga experience has always been one of celebration and inclusion. Her 2011 anthem of self-acceptance, “Born This Way,” became the name of her foundation, run by her mother, with a mission to “create a kinder and braver world...and support the wellness of young people.” She was a steadfast advocate for legalizing same-sex marriage. That meat dress? It was a protest against “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” (“I went to that awards show with service people who were discharged from the military because they were coming out or were found out,” says Gaga. “I wore meat as a representation of the fact that we’re all the same.”) And she wants Haus Laboratories to be a continuation of her championing of the LGBTQ+ community, especially youth.
“I would like all gender identities to know very clearly that they are included, and never exploited, ever,” she says. “I want that little boy at home that might like to be called a girl to say, ‘Mommy, I want to wear Dynasty. It’s a Glam Attack.’ And then Mommy goes, ‘Oh, my son wants to be called a girl, and he wants the Glam Attack.’ And then she goes and she gets it for him. And he uses it. And then there’s a bond. It’s kind of like when kids used to come to my shows with their parents, and they’d lean over and they’d say, ‘Mommy and Daddy, I’m gay.’ Or ‘I’m not a boy; I’m a girl’. Or ‘I’m not a girl; I’m a boy.’ I have heard those stories so many times, over and over, for all of the years that I have been in this business. And I want the same thing that I’ve had in my concerts to happen with this company. If I’m not changing people’s lives, what are we doing here?”
There is no philanthropic tie-in to Haus Laboratories at the moment, but it’s hard to believe there won’t be down the line. As I finished this story, the country was reeling from yet another spate of mass shootings, and Lady Gaga had just pledged to bankroll every unfunded project in 162 classrooms in El Paso, Dayton, and Gilroy: “I want to channel my confusion, frustration, and fury into hope,” she said in a Facebook post. “Hope that we are there for each other and for ourselves.”
Creating art, and meaningful change, out of frustration or pain, bullying or rejection, has transformative power. If makeup was there to lift Lady Gaga up off the floor in her darkest moments, and to give her wings, there’s a joyful symmetry in that. Because that’s what she has always done for so many of us. With this line, she’s putting us all in the boss chair.