Lady Gaga is wearing a red dress with a 16-foot-long train. Her nipples, which would otherwise be visible through the dress's lace fabric, are X-ed over with black bandage tape. Her massive halo of white-blond hair is arranged (with the hel of extensions) into an extraordinary amplification of a 1930s bob.
She is performing on the stage of a gilt-encrusted 1849 former synagogue in Manhattan's Lower East Side, the onetime Jewish immigrant tenement neighborhood. This evening, it's serving as the setting for a private concert on Gossip Girl. To reestablish her high school status in college, Blair (Leighton Meester) has managed to nab Gaga as the performer. A year ago, this might have been an almost plausible plotline, since Lady G studied at Tisch School of Arts at New York University for a year in 2003. But by the time you read this, the likelihood of Lady Gaga playing a college mixes, after her first single, "Bad Romance." from last fall's The Fame Monster, became the No.1 iTunes download in two days, is about as slim as peace in the Middle East in our time.
Ra-ra-ah-ah-ah/ Roma Ro-ma-ma/Gaga: She mouths the beguiling hook of her latest hit, her head arched to the synagogue's ceiling, painted blue and dotted with clouds. Wan, milky spots of daylight penetrate high up through yellowed chicken wire glass windows; other than that, the cavelike dark is broken only by Gaga, bathed in that magical, singular aura of the spotlight. As she moves on stage in her "slightly fucked-up," as she describes it, signature stumble dance among three male backup dancers artfully juggling her train, she looks like a luminescent, deranged angel trying to dislodge Lucifer's voice calling in her ear--an angel beneath an artificial blue sky, very, very far from anything that might be called a state of nature.
A gaggle of lucky extras have been let in to watch her from their holding pen outside. "Oh my God, she's amazing!" says one young man from South Carolina, wearing a fedora.
"I love her soooo much!" says his female friend, another hopeful also from the South.
"Can you believe she's only 23?" he asks.
The second-to-last scenelet of this elaborately choreographed number requires that Lady Gaga step onto a pedestal, not easy with a train and megaplatforms. Her dancers pull her long skirt, rotating her on the life-size lazy susan, and it wraps around her feet until it looks like blood-red seafoam. She strikes a demure pose invoking Venus (Botticelli's and photographer David LaChapelle's, she later tells me).
It's an apt reference. Just as the goddess of love arose from the ocean a fully formed dewy beauty, married off by Jupiter to cheer up Vulcan, the depressed patron of ironwork and blacksmiths, so has Lady Gaga, our value-added new pop star, seemed to arrive from nowhere, not exactly dewy, but, to use one of her favorite words, shiny, to give a depressed, industrialized globe supercatchy, highly danceable songs plus a more-than-we-bargained-for arsenal of outrageous costumes; fixating, idea-laden videos; claims to performance art; and gay rights activism.
Lady Gaga is a phenomenon, a fame-nomenon. Her debut album, The Fame, came out on Interscope in 2008. The 14 songs are, with the exception of the ballad "Brown Eyes," beat-driven dance music. Their electroclash, '80s synth influences and looping drum machines are sounds you were more likely to hear on the European charts than on the hip-hop- and R&B-driven U.S. counterparts. But in Europe, those kinds if songs tend to be one-shot deals, whereas The Fame follows the '70 album-oriented rock model: It's a carefully composed whole; each song in its own tight event. So tight that single after single, "Just Dance," "Poker Face," "LoveGame," and "Paparazzi"-- all became international hits, producing more No.1 Billboard Pop Songs chart singles than any other album in history. And unlike many other young stars, Gaga is not just a cute singer with nice pipes at the front of a slick, hyperproduced packaging machine. She writes her own songs, plays her own keyboard, and--this is harder than it sounds--doesn't lip-synch her live concerts. The Fame has sold nearly 5 million copies worldwide; its new rerelease, The Fame Monster is on the verge of hitting stores as this article goes to press, and if the megareception for "Bad Romance," one of the CD's eight original bonus tracks, including the hilarious "Telephone," featuring Beyonce, about trying to escape cell phone calls, is any indication, it's going to be a monster. By bringing dance music to the mainstream pop scene, gaga "has changed the landscape of music on American radio," says media blogger and happily obsessed Gagalyte Perez Hilton. "When she released 'Just Dance' in April 2008, that kind of music wasn't played on the radio. Now it's everywhere." Hilton's was one of the first media vehicles to support her, by posting that single's video and later making accusations that Christina Aguilera was copying Gaga.
More than that, Hilton continues, "She made pop music exciting again, in a way that I, as an intent observer of pop culture, haven't experienced since Madonna. Exciting and dangerous. She plays by her own rules." What Hilton is referring to are the singer's nonstop feats of theater. Lady Gaga, christened Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta in 1986, collaborates with a creative team called Haus of Gaga, a group of stylists, fashion designers, producers, and her choreographer, Laurieann Gibson, to remix art, fashion, modern dace, and musical references into her scandalous live shows and videos.
Some of the highlights include her performance at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards (she won Best New Artist), for which she wore a dress that exploded fake blood, and the scenes in her videos in which she rises from a wheelchair to walk after removing her leg braces ("Paparazzi") and smokes in bed next to a skeleton ("Bad Romance"). Not to mention her always outlandish hairdos--extensions woven into a brown elephant atop her head, or a gold unicorn horn--or the sparkler cone bustier in which she ended her appearance on the MuchMusic Video Awards in Toronto.
Gaga often plays with gender roles, aping transvestites and toying with multiple boys, or wears extreme makeup and accessories (a poodle purse made of fake blond hair) to undercut the "I'm hot" message that her very revealing ensembles send. It's this quality of half showbiz, half art biz that has pushed her impact to the fashion realm (her "Bad Romance" video features Alexander McQueen designs) and the highbrown art world. Miuccia Prada made her dress for a recent performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; conceptual artist Damien Hirst of formaldehydeshark fame designed her piano. It's also why she has the literati debating questions such as: Just how smart is Lady Gaga? Her music fun candy, but her message is deeper. Or is it? Does she really do it all herself? Is she the next Madonna, the next Kylie Minogue, or the next David Bowie, whom she claims to aspire to be? Is she really only 23> Is she actually a hermaphrodite?
Clearly, with the whole globe delighting in her music, or at least scratching their heads and pausing, Lady Gaga has het the triple-cherry culture-jam jackpot. But, of course, she didn't spring from the ocean, fully formed. She's been working her ass (which, despite comments from herself and others about curves, is, these days, anyway, tiny) off for this since she was four years old and learning piano by ear.
One thing you need to know about Lady Gaga to understand her is that she grew up in Manhattan. Children brought up on that skyscraper-barnacled, 1.6-million-scurrying-people-populated, 13-mile-long island are different from you and me. For developing selves in those man-made steel-and-concrete canyons, a compression happens, of neurosis, of vision, of ambition, of cultural and carnal knowledge, of fashion information. There is often a concomitant value confusion that leads to a premature world-weariness. (Love? Money? Fame? Art? The right boots? It;s all so much closer to them but just as far as it is for anyone else. Crazy-making.)
Lady Gaga wants to meet me for Sunday breakfast at the Westside Restaurant on the 69th and Broadway to show me where she grew up. She lived with her first-generation Italian-American parents, and then a sister, younger by six years, in an apartment on the Upper West Side, a few blocks from here. She went to the all-girls Catholic school Convent of the Sacred Heart. She and her friends, when they weren't studying--the school is notoriously rigorous--hung out here. Westside Restaurant is a traditional Greek diner (New York institutions called Greek not because they serve much Mediterranean food--they serve primarily the same classic American food as truck-stop diners--but because they are owned by Greek immigrants). The place is teeming with old ladies, joggers, and dads with their kids, and they don't take reservations, so I have to order to keep my table. By the time I see the telltale chauffeured black Escalade SUV outside, I've already finished my food.
"Sorry, it's so impolite," I say to Lady Gaga, who has arrived in a relatively subdued and entirely of-the-moment outfit: men's vintage YSL overcoat, beneath which is an incredibly good vintage Thierry Mugler score, an early-'90s black peak-shouldered and lapelled coatdress, worn with gray suede YSL narrow-wedge-heeled platforms. Her only outre Gaga-isms are her wolf-spider false eyelashes, top and bottom, and perhaps her new puppy, a Shiba Inu, in a carrying case that must be hurriedly hidden under the table. She elicits barely a glance from the diners.
"Please, I'm Italian; I'm glad you ate," she replies, then leans over, scopes my almost-bare plate, and guesses, accurately, "Two poached eggs, hash browns, and whole-wheat toast."
Her early CV includes several waitressing gigs, and her easy camaraderie with the staff, who recognize her as a regular as well as a famous face, is not that of a star being faux down-to-earth, but someone who not all that long ago did her time at restaurant jobs. "I was really good at it. I always wore heels to work!" she says. "I told everybody stories, and for customers on dates, I kept it romantic. It's kind of like performing."
Lady Gaga has always wanted to be an entertainer. The enviornment her Catholic father and Methodist mother created was, she says, "traditional yet psychologically progressive." Her father is an entrepreneur who now runs a business selling Wi-Fi to hotels. Her mom also worked, in telecommunications. They were wealthy enough to afford Sacred Heart (alums include Caroline Kennedy and Nicky Hilton), but by New York standards, they were comfortable, not rich. Although she's always had and expressive, free spirit ("I'm left-handed!" she says), she was a focused student and a self-professed music geek, performing in school plays and practicing piano for two hours a day, with much parental encouragement.
At one point in our conversation, I ask if she ever experiences stress somatically. In a perfect New Yawk accent,, she sings, "Psychosomatic symptoms, difficult to endure..."--a lovely rendition of "Adelaide's Lament" from Guys and Dolls as only a twentysomething with a history of Broadway-leading-lady yearning could.
She does, in fact, have bodily reactions. "I get all the symptoms of a pregnant woman," she says, explaining that it's as though she's always about to give birth. "I get headaches, I get tired, I get blurred vision sometimes during a really intense session with the Haus."
It took a while to find this fertile ground, though. She was accepted at 17 to the elite Tisch, but dropped out after a year to try to make it as an artist. Her father helped her with a couple months' rent for a Lower East Side walk-up while she got a job but then made her fend for herself. She floundered around in musical genres for awhile; she played in a hard-rock band, and there are YouTube clips of her doing a Fiona Apple-esque girl-and-her-keyboard number at the local club the Bitter End. Then she started hanging out with artists, and her persona began to gel. She met producer Rob Fusari (of Destiny's Child "Bootylicious" fame). who gave her her name: she reminded him of the Queen song "Radio Ga Ga." (The fact that Gaga saw the potential in this odd moniker, with its dual meaning of baby talk and adoration, and then actually brought it into a world of Taylors and Christinas, speaks to her confidence in her own indiosyncratic vision.) She played with a performance-art DJ named Lady Starlight and added burlesque elements to her stage show that included lighting her G-string on fire. At the 2007 Lollapalooza, she was hired as a side act and played her keyboard in a bikini.
She had a period of what she considers addictive cocaine use, but she stopped with help from her family. A deal between Gaga and Def Jame ended after six months, it seems because they didn't understand each other. Then Vincent Herbert, a producer who has worked with Stevie Wonder and Destiny's Child and whose Streamline label is distributed through Interscope, saw a video of Gaga performing "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich." He flew her to L.A., and in 24 hours, she was signed. The Fame was born.
At Interscope, she also wrote material for other artists, including the Pussycat Dolls, New Kids on the Block, and a song for Britney Spears that made it onto the European iTunes version of Circus.
"When Vincent Herbert walked her into my office,' recalls Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine, "she still had brown hair. She played me a couple songs. Herbert said she wrote them and played the piano. I said, 'I know this girl!' I mean, I didn't know her, but I knew Jewish or Italian girls from Manhattan who wrote songs. She's like carole King and Cynthia Weil; she's as much a Brill Building songwriter as a pop icon. She's great live, great singer, a great songwriter, and a hard worker."
but, as Iovine points out, even with a well-produced, heavily promoted record, Lady Gaga still had to hustle. "Radio stations didn't want to play 'Just Dance.' The style of the beat wasn't what they were playing at the time. but she did a lot otftours, club promotion, we promoted her videos." As soon as New York's influential Z100 played her, it all came together. Hilton describes how only months before, he'd wanted her to play his Fourth of July party at Prive in Las Vegas, and the club almost refused because they'd never heard of her.
One of the most fascinating things about Lady Gaga is the way in which she's determined to mastermind or outwit the media forces that seem to eat young talent for breakfast and spit them out after lunch. Calling the album The Fame is a ballsy move, one that delivered in meta-spades, since what presupposed her fame accomplished it. A theme she revisits in her videos and songs is herself as somehow destroyed and resurrected. "I feel that if I can show my demise artistically to the public, i can somehow cure my own legend. I can show you so you're not looking for it. I'm dying for you on domestic television--here's what it looks like, so no one has to wonder." Of course we still will.
A salient memory at Sacred Heart for Lady Gaga was the day she was told to change her shirt. She and one of her best friends were wearing an approved white crewneck, but Gaga's chest was bigger. A teacher told her it was inappropriate. "We're wearing the same shirt! she says. "I was so angry. Why didn't she get in trouble but I did? Because I walk around with my shoulders back and head held high? If I was to slouch, would that be more appropriate?"
She uses her sexuality, she says, as part of her art and believes other women “should not be like me but be whoever they want to be. My album covers aren’t sexual at all, which was an issue at my record label. I fought for months, and I cried at meetings. They didn’t think the photos were commercial enough. ‘We can’t see your whole face, we can’t see your whole body, it’s too dark, it’s not pretty,’ ” she says. “But you know, I can be whoever the fuck I want to be. That’s what artists do. We choose what you see and we tell a story. And the last thing a young woman needs is another picture of a sexy pop star writhing in the sand, covered in grease, touching herself.”
The cover of The Fame shows her face in close-up, with a bleached blond bob and black ski-style sunglasses, but she looks like a beautiful starlet behind them. Her skin is glowing, and her lips are shiny in nude, Jennifer Lopez– esque lipstick. It’s hard to believe that this is what passes as noncommercial in female selfrepresentation for record-label executives. But there it is.
Let’s keep in mind that when Saturday Night Live was given the opportunity to write something funny for both Gaga and Madonna, two of the smartest and wittiest popular musicians around, what they came up with was an unfunny, demeaning had it not been so stupid, skit in which they catfight with each other in bustiers. This is the same media environment that, in all seriousness, took up the rumor that Lady Gaga was a hermaphrodite, ostensibly because of some puffy underwear under a minidress, but surely because she’s someone who uses transvestite idioms; speaks about her bisexuality; offered up her VMA award to “the gays”; and announced at the National Equality March in DC that she wouldn’t rest until there was no homophobia in the music industry. (“Well, I do have a really big donkey dick,” she told British TV host Jonathan Ross in response to a question about the tabloid speculation, while fellow guest Hugh Jackman cracked up in the background. “My beautiful vagina is very offended,” became her refreshing stock reply.)
When I ask about her attraction to women and try to get her to tell me which female performers would be her dream conquests, she says, “That’s difficult for me to answer. It trivializes being bisexual.” She’ll only mention her current nonsexual idol, Yoko Ono, who thrilled Gaga by sending her an appreciative message after hearing her perform “Imagine” before the rally.
Whatever claims to alternative sexual leanings Lady Gaga might make (her song “So Happy I Could Die” is about masturbating while thinking about a woman), her vision for her own romantic future is pretty straight right now. She’s currently single and says, “I’m married to my dad.” A few days before we meet, her father, Joe Germanotta, had successful heart surgery. He’s only 52, and his fairly sudden coronary problems have rocked her to the core. “I just wanted to have him walk me down the aisle and hold my babies,” she told me over the phone from the hospital the day after his operation.
Have babies? Given away by her father? The same Lady Gaga who said of a rumor about a boyfriend getting jealous when she necked with Swedish boy triplets in a video, “Then they shouldn’t be my boyfriend.”
“Of course, yeah. I mean, not tomorrow! But in eight to 10 years, I want to have babies for my Dad to hold, grandkids. And I want to have a husband who loves and supports me, just the way anyone else does,” she says. Though she adds, “I would never leave my career for a man right now, and I would never follow a man around.” When Gaga is in town from L.A., where (she oft laments) she’s had to relocate for work, she stays at the family apartment. Perhaps not coincidental for this self-professed daddy’s girl, Gaga’s righthand man in the Haus, and her best guy friend, Matthew Williams, is called Dada.
Lady Gaga’s father does sound lovingly supportive. But one anecdote seems telling. Gaga didn’t take a shower for days while she and her mom and sister took turns beside his hospital bed. In recovery he looked at her and said, “Hey, kid, you know, you got a reputation to uphold. Why don’t you go home, take a shower, brush your hair, and put some makeup on? I know it’ll make you feel better.” I wonder if maybe she wanted permission to be ungroomed while she processed this tumultuous episode. But she reads it as a sign of selfless love. “I went home and put some lipstick on, came back. And he said, ‘There she is, there’s my girl.’ ”
While undoubtedly she’s right, his consistency and her parents’ strong marriage, about which she says, “I’m just mesmerized,” is one great version of love, one that has given her the discipline and courage to develop the Gaga event. But it’s probably also part of her private struggle, as it always is for daughters brought up to think for themselves, who still want their father’s approval and love. “Marilyn, Judy, Sylvia,” she calls out in “Dance in the Dark.”
Lady Gaga's Art of the Matter
Sustaining one’s reign as the queen of shock and awe is no easy feat—especially when the mad genius you have to keep topping is yourself. Nojan Aminosharei gets an all-access pass to Planet Gaga and finds a lady on the verge…of a breakthrough
At Joanne, a family-run trattoria snugly tucked a few steps below street level on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the deliverymen passing through with small crates of fresh flowers do not bat an eye when the restaurant owner’s daughter rushes over to point them toward the back garden. Even though the daughter is wearing what she half-jokingly calls her “gardening outfit”: a scanty, all-black assemblage of McQueen bra top, vintage Alaïa high-waisted shorts, and almost-sensible pointy-toe pumps.
Improbable as it sounds, when she’s in the small domestic bubble of her father Joe’s little Italian joint, the woman who
has lived since 2006 as Lady Gaga remains Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, a slip of a 27-year-old who still calls her
father Daddy. She grew up two blocks from where the restaurant now stands, in an old-fashioned Italian household, saving
“those crappy McDonald’s Happy Meal toys” and learning to play the piano at age four. It is by now a well-known behindthe-
music tale: Her parents worked long days—her mother in telecommunications at Verizon, her father installing WiFi
in hotels —to send their two daughters (Gaga’s younger sister, Natali, is now a fashion student at Parsons) to the Convent
of the Sacred Heart, a private girls’ school on the Upper East Side. After a brief stint at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she dropped out to chase stardom downtown. Et voilà: Lower East Side club kid turns into the Second Coming of Madonna, and
then something more—pop music’s outcast queen.
Gaga has sold 24 million records worldwide; her last tour—
despite being cut short in February for her hip surgery—raked
in $168 million, netting its star an estimated $80 million and
putting her atop this year’s Forbes “Under 30” list. (A fact that
appears to shock even the queen of shock. At one point in our
interview, she jokes, “I never imagined in my whole life that
I’d be as rich as I am—holy shit.”) Which is why it is somewhat
surreal to watch Stefani fuss over some mossy new shrubbery,
or to playfully bait her mother, Cynthia, who pops outside in a
dark top, wide-leg trousers, and a straw panama hat. “Mom, I
told you to be casual today!,” she protests.
“I’m casual! This is my dirty-hair hat,” says Cynthia,
smoothing a long, silky blond bob.
“You look like you’re going to the Hamptons!” The two curl
into each other laughing. The scene is almost Hallmarkian.
“Mom,” Stefani says, “I’m teasing.”
We find Joe perched back at the bar, a burly man in a black
tee and jeans, the strong and silent type—until you get him talking
about his daughter. His restaurant has become a mecca for
Gaga’s so-called little monsters, and Joe keeps bags of the letters
they send to her there. Not to mention the gifts: a box of
crafts from a high school class; a customized guitar; a fan-made
leather jacket (an item that has a shot at being put into rotation;
Gaga has been known to don the wares sent by her art school–
Gaga points to her dad. “I’ll be in Chile, or anywhere in the
world, at any time of day—he doesn’t know, or care!—and a fan
will be here and bring me something sweet or beautiful, and
he always calls me. And he’ll say, ‘Will you talk to them for
me?’ For me! He always says for me! I’ll say, ‘Oh, Daddy, I have
to go onstage. There’s 80,000 people waiting. He’ll say, ‘Oh, no,
just say hello, please….’ ”
She made a point never to keep fans waiting for any of the
98 shows she performed on tour before a labral tear in her hip
eventually forced her to cancel the last 22. It wasn’t until she
underwent surgery that doctors discovered she’d actually been
performing with a broken hip. Until then, she tells me, her
stance had been, “Everything hurts—all the time—when you’re
on tour. I’m not sure exactly what area it is of my fucking body
that you want me to point out is hurting the most. But I have
26 songs to sing.”
I ask when she finally realized she was going to have to cancel.
For a moment, she looks as if she might slap me. “What, am
I going to call in and say, ‘Sorry, my hip hurts. Can you go please
tell those 15,000 people who are lined up outside to go home?’ ”
Since the surgery, Gaga has experienced a first in her career
as a global superstar: time away from the spotlight. For the past
three years, she wielded an exquisite (and exhausting) control
over the media and her monster nation, constantly one-upping
her own stunts—what tops a steak-tartare frock? Arriving at the
Grammys in a giant egg!—all while rolling out a steady stream
of self-acceptance anthems backed by dance beats that translate
from Johannesburg to Jakarta. But Gaga didn’t spend the
forced hiatus taking a break: She put it to use, embracing the
freedom to go “back to the core,” and prepare to prove herself
all over again—this time not just as a pop star, but, crucially,
as a pop artist. “I went to look back to myself being 19, with
all my Warhol books, and all my Yoko Ono and John Lennon
CDs, my Rolling Stones CDs, and my Bowie shit, and I said,
What would she want me to do right now? Well, she’d want you
to call Jeff Koons and Robert Wilson and Marina Abramović
and Inez and Vinoodh,” she says, reeling off the list of art- and
fashion-world luminaries like a rock god talking about getting
the band back together. “And that’s what I did.” Artpop, the
album she’ll release on November 11, involves collaborations
with all of the above: videos, performances, mobile apps, and
top-secret red-carpet dresses developed, she claims, “with the
help of military engineers.” It is, she promises, a chance to do
what she has always dreamed of: to make a true, honest-to-
God artistic statement.
No pressure, I say.
“What are you talking about, pressure?” she tells me. “I’m
great under pressure. I’m a warrior. I’m Rocky, round 12.”
We leave the restaurant for a short walk downtown to her
live/work HQ—officially called the Haus of Gaga. With us is
the Haus fashion director, 29-year-old Brandon Maxwell, once
the assistant to Gaga’s former stylist Nicola Formichetti (who
recently left the gig to take the helm at Diesel, reportedly saying
with mock exasperation that Gaga changes “12 times a
day; it’s insane”). Later, Maxwell says of Gaga’s outfit changes:
“She has a fashion show before she gets in the car to go to a
fashion shoot.” Not that it always involves fashion, per se. “Her
naked,” he says, “is still a look.”
Gaga is not naked, but she is still essentially in her
underwear—except for the wool ribbon-tweed Thom Browne
coat slung over one shoulder (despite the 91-degree heat). She’s
slipped on her shades; once we turn a corner down Central
Park West, she sparks up a joint. Something in her bearing says, So long, Stefani. Mother Monster—in all her blithe, ballsy
At Joanne, Gaga joked that she was printing T-shirts “that
say we’re sick of being treated like art students. ‘i am no longer
an art student. i am an artist.’ ” But on the sidewalk, she doubles
down on the hubris, issuing a proclamation that sounds
like something you might hear projected from an animatronic
Gaga head suspended above her stage: “As an artist,” she says
slowly and firmly, “as a student of Warhol, I’m now the manifestation
of his dreams.”
Even though Gaga attracts strangely little attention from
the blinkered New Yorkers at Columbus Circle, once she’s out
in public, she is recognizably onstage and in control. The difference
between this high-priestess act and that of the girl who
was hugging her mom half an hour ago is jarring. And even
my own reaction to it has been engineered: Inviting a journalist
to her parents’ restaurant, after all, is no coincidence, nor
is her abrupt about-face after we leave it. “I am—Stefani is—a
perpetually tortured artist. Of course! That’s why I changed
my name. I can’t be her in public,” says Gaga, holding back
laughter. “She would be a mess!”
Stefani, for instance, might not have had the chutzpah to apprentice
herself to Jeff Koons. The artist was first introduced
to Gaga by Miuccia Prada at the 2010 Metropolitan Museum
of Art Costume Institute Gala. He calls her “a listener”; the
two joke about their common tendency “to stare at things for
decades.” Gaga has had him over to the Haus for a lobster
dinner (yes, she cooked). They’ve hung out at Koons’ farm in
Pennsylvania and in his Manhattan studio, where, she says,
“he’s making a sculpture of me, and it’s going to be my album
cover.” The night before our interview, she had dinner at his
home. (Gaga says: “I’m still trying to figure out if we drugged
him and mind controlled him into doing this.”) She tells me
she has “asked him—what?—500 questions and just stared at
him while he talked, as I scribbled in my notebook, hanging
on his every word.” She adds, “Every time I’m around him,
She feels just as humbled by Marina Abramović, who is training
her “in the art of performance” (as is playwright and director
Robert Wilson). The collision—or is it collusion?—of art and
pop is nothing new. Japanese pop-art star Takashi Murakami
and rapper-producer Pharrell created a $2 million sculpture together
that was exhibited at 2009’s Art Basel Miami Beach. In
July of this year, Jay-Z filmed a marathon six-hour performance
of his single “Picasso Baby” in front of star-struck onlookers
at Chelsea’s Pace Gallery, a stunt modeled after Abramović’s
style of performance art and done with the artist’s blessing.
(Abramović popped in on the show too.) For Gaga, this is no
casual flirtation. It’s how she plans to lure her fan base to higher
cultural ground—and set up camp there. “You hide something
that’s culturally interesting in something else, like a pop song.
And then you blast it to the world, and suddenly they discover
something new. That’s what I’ve always been doing,” she says.
“Now we’re doing it on a higher level.” In more ways than one,
apparently. Later, she’ll tell me of Artpop: “I was less drunk and
more high on this record…if that makes sense.”
At a towering old New York luxury building on Central Park
South, we take a back elevator up to a duplex apartment overlooking
the park, and the Warhol boast she made earlier starts
to make sense: This is her Factory, the inner sanctum where
days and nights are spent dreaming up new ways to showcase
pop’s premier provocateur. I’m told I’m the first journalist to
set foot inside.
Here, in a room wallpapered in oversize florals, members
of her tight-knit team have assembled (on a Sunday) for one of
their regular Haus meetings. Makeup artist Tara Savelo sits in
front of a canvas, painting. Hairstylist Frederic Aspiras fiddles
with a set of white wigs woven with wires and LCD tubes for an
upcoming video shoot. Gaga’s every fashion moment is carefully
conceptualized—even if its execution sometimes amounts
to haute arts and crafts. “There are a million times before a
show where she’s there on the ground, gluing something, painting
something,” Maxwell says. The night before one concert in
Korea, “we stayed up seven hours gluing more crystals onto an
outfit because she needed more crystals.”
Every Gaga album brings a new aesthetic. Her next iteration
is still a closely guarded secret—but expect a much cleaner
slate. “I’m sort of raging and refusing to wear eyeliner and
eyelashes anymore,” she says. “I love wearing makeup. But it
became something I had to do every day to keep up with my
iconography. I want to erase that whole idea and have an entirely
new one. So every morning, after we do our makeup, I
just end up going into the bathroom and taking it off.”
Slowly the group migrates to the faux-snakeskin-wallpapered
living room for the main event: an Artpop listening session. The
album was assembled over almost two years, “the way that they
made old, old records,” with Gaga personally writing more
than 100 songs before winnowing them down. “I listened to
each over and over,” she says. “And then I made them perfect.
And I’m still making them perfect. And I’ll make them perfect
every single day until they pry it out of my bleeding fingers.”
The Hausmates sit cross-legged on the floor in what appears to
be breathless anticipation while I join Gaga, her finger hovering
over an iPod, on a pale, Pepto-pink couch.
She presses Play.
The room vibrates with the operatic “Applause,” a dance
floor–rattling barn burner designed, she tells me, to sound like
an adrenaline rush. “Give me that thing that I want/ Give me
that thing that I love,” sings Gaga the voice, while Gaga the
woman sways around the room, all eyes on her. “I have something
I think no other artist has,” she tells me. “I really, truly
believe that there’s a certain kind of applause…when fans clap
for you to keep you going.” On tour, she swears the fans in
the concert pit, close enough to register the pain on her face,
mouthed to her, Are you okay? “They knew, I’m telling you,”
she says. “Those kids, when they put their hands up and make
’em touch, they give me that thing that I need.”
Gaga has always been fueled by a kind of creative fury—at
conventionalism, at discrimination against the outsiders, particularly
gay teens, whom she champions. As she plays track
after track, those emotions begin to surface. During “Swine”—
a fierce dub-step cut with the lyric “You’re just a pig inside a human
body”—she’s so in the moment that she furiously throws
a wine glass at a wall and dances between the shards while
the Haus laughs and cheers her on. These days, it’s clear she’s
raging, at least in part, at critics who question the authenticity
of the early struggles—bullied in school; teenage depression;
years of pounding the pavement in search of success—that make
her believers feel so symbiotically connected to her. “Everyone
is so cynical—that I can’t even purely love my fans, or share
an honest story about my past, without someone asking me if
I really, truly struggled,” she says. “Do you know much dirt I
ate? Do you know the men I had to crawl through, the people
that disrespected my body, my mind, my heart?” On tour, the
fans “were the only thing that kept me going, because I told
them to keep going. And when those kids can’t keep going, and they don’t make it, and I sit with their parents
and they say, ‘Gaga, he loved you. I wish he
hadn’t hung himself from his bedpost,’ then you
will know the truth about why I care about what
I do.” Suddenly, Lady Gaga is sitting on her pink
couch, crying. Wiping away tears, she talks about
the community she’s built with her fans, including
the Born This Way Foundation she started
with her mother two years ago. “I didn’t have a
place like that to go to,” she says, surveying the
room. “And Freddy didn’t and Tara didn’t and
Brandon didn’t and Sonja and Lacee and Lane
and Kimmi.” One by one, she goes around the
circle, listing their very private and personal
struggles, as though they were emotional badges
they’ve collected together. When she gets to her
hairstylist, she says, “Freddy lost his dad,” and
without missing a beat, he chimes in, “And I’m
gay!” Much-needed laughter. “We support each
other. In our own different ways, we’re broken.
And we stick together…. We all believe in this
so much.” If Born This Way was Gaga’s personal
it-gets-better missive to her fans, Artpop, with all
its confidence, its audacity, says something more.
That, after years of fighting, “It’s better,” she says,
almost spitting out the words. “It’s not all the way
better, but it’s better.”
The mood needs a lift, and Gaga takes requests.
“Play me a song about a boy,” I tell her,
and suddenly the room erupts into giddy chatter.
Gaga is reportedly dating actor Taylor Kinney,
a square-jawed heartthrob on NBC’s firefighter
drama, Chicago Fire, who by all appearances is
about as far from a “little monster” as a man can
be. But the most she’s ceded on that subject all
day has been to tell me she spent much of her
post-op recovery in Chicago (where Kinney’s
show films), staying with “a…friend.” Now she
lets a track called “Gypsy” do the talking. It’s a
catchy, emotive ballad, the kind you close down
the bar to, about finding a lover who accepts your
transient lifestyle: “Pack your bags/ and we can
chase the sunset.”
If there is an unabashed love letter on Artpop,
it’s “Donatella,” after Lady Versace, a close
friend. Gaga jokes that the song is deep, or
rather, “fashion deep,” holding out her hand
and dramatically peering at a sliver of space
between thumb and index finger—“this deep,”
she says, giggling. “I am so fab/ Check it out,”
the track begins, “I’m blond/ I’m skinny/ I’m
rich/ And I’m a little bit of a bitch.” In an
e-mail, the designer says she first heard the song
when Gaga threw her an intimate birthday party
at Joanne in May. “The best present she could
give me,” she writes. “I loved it and couldn’t stop
dancing. I made her play it again and again. The
song is insane, over the top, loud, full of energy—
everything that I like.”
It’s hard to resist Gaga’s charms when she’s
holding court. She talks about the app she’s developing
to accompany Artpop. Fans can use
tracks from the album as the basis for live music
creation, or create sculptures with the swipe of a
finger, which can then be ordered online. But she
doesn’t talk business for long. Her team, ready
with binders full of new projects, prompts her to
cut the listening session and get to work. “One
more,” she says, playing another track. Then it’s
“one more” again, as she continues her onewoman
dance party. Work will have to wait. “I’m exhausted just talking about it.”
LADY GAGA IS BORN AGAIN
The world's most famous pop musician disappears into a role that's a fun-house mirror version of her own rise.
I feel like I’m still a fetus,” says Lady Gaga, looking impeccably glamorous in a wide-belted black Alaïa dress, stabby heels, extravagant lashes, and dark brows, her platinum hair framing her face in soft waves. What she looks like (no doubt deliberately) is a midcentury Italian film star—Monica Vitti in some long-lost Antonioni picture, or a tiny, blond Sophia Loren. What she means is that she feels like she’s just getting started as an artist—that she’s only accomplished a fraction of what she still plans to do—but I have a hard time wrapping my head around this notion, considering the decade she’s just had.
Ten years ago, with the release of her first album, The Fame, Lady Gaga went from struggling burlesque performer and New York club kid to global pop phenomenon in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Since then, she’s put out five studio albums, one soundtrack album, and 18 singles; performed at the Super Bowl; and won six Grammys and a Golden Globe, among other things. She’s won fashion awards and collaborated with famous artists and sung duets with Tony Bennett. Two years ago, while filming a Netflix documentary about her life, Gaga: Five Foot Two, she landed the leading role in a major Hollywood movie. She would play the Janet Gaynor/Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand role in A Star Is Born, opposite Bradley Cooper. All of which is to say that if anyone inhabits a parallel universe where the bar for achievement is set so impossibly high that Lady Gaga ranks as artistically prenatal, it’s probably just Lady Gaga.
A few days after our meeting, A Star Is Born premieres at the Venice Film Festival. Lady Gaga is there in a Valentino gown adorned with billowy pink ostrich feathers. Halfway through the screening, a fluke lightning accident momentarily interrupts the film, which nonetheless goes on to get an eight-minute standing ovation and mostly rapturous reviews. In 2016, while accepting the Golden Globe award for her role in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Hotel, Lady Gaga said that she’d wanted to be an actress before she wanted to be a singer, but that music had worked out first. Now that acting has worked out as well, it’s unclear what more she could do. Mars colony, maybe. Flying cars. Universal health care.
Lady Gaga has a commanding presence. She sits like an Olympic gymnast nailing a landing. Chatting with her in the kitchen of her otherworldly, six-acre Mediterranean-style estate, which features an eight-horse stable, a dressage rink, a bowling alley, a saltwater pool, and a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, I have the feeling that I may have temporarily crossed over into this other, extra dimension. The woman comes across as a sweetheart, but the artist is a machine. In person, she’s warm but guarded, friendly but cautious, passionate but preternaturally poised. Her house is cozy and filled with people—assistants; her manager; her mom, Cynthia, visiting from New York. (“Don’t we look alike?” Lady Gaga asks after introducing me. They really do.) The house is more traditional than you’d expect, more befitting a Stefani Germanotta (her given name) made insanely good than the pop performance artist who once wore a dress made out of meat to the MTV Video Music Awards. I mean, the French provincial sofas are draped in quilts. The fireplace is flanked by a big TV and an old Italian movie poster of A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland, a gift from Gaga’s boyfriend, CAA agent Christian Carino. It’s all slightly disorienting. We could be in a Nancy Meyers movie. Or a Star Trek episode.
A decade into her career, Lady Gaga is being born again, as a movie star, and she truly is a revelation. This might just be the most remarkable thing about A Star Is Born—that, beyond the fact that she’s unrecognizable, she feels new. Among the most notable things about her character, Ally, is how stripped down she looks, how vulnerable. Gaga has shown glimpses of this before. We’ve seen it in her hilarious Saturday Night Live sketches, her album Joanne, and her documentary, in which she appears in sweatpants.
“The character of Ally is informed by my life experience,” Lady Gaga says. “But I also wanted to make sure that she was not me. It was a cadence of both.” Ally is talented but insecure. She writes but won’t perform her own songs. She’s been dissuaded from pursuing her dreams by an industry that doesn’t believe in her, that tells her she looks wrong for the part. She reluctantly allows Jackson Maine (played by Cooper) to draw her into his world, to involve her in his music, until she meets the manager who begins her transformation into a commercial pop star.
For all Lady Gaga’s talents as a singer, songwriter, and actress, it’s her metatalent for fame—a condition she single-mindedly pursued, investigated, interrogated, and named an album, an EP, and a fragrance after—that catapulted her into global stardom. It’s on this theme, one on which the movie largely hinges, where Gaga and her fictional counterpart, Ally, diverge the most: Once Gaga made the decision to become a performer, she didn’t let anything stop her. Early in her career, she understood that Stefani Germanotta, the classically trained Catholic schoolgirl, was talented enough to be successful, but that only Lady Gaga could erupt on the global scene, fully formed.
Ally’s character, by contrast, is like a window into a Sliding Doors–like look at how things might have gone. “When I watched the film for the first time,” Gaga says, “I said, Oh my gosh, I thought she was really sad at the end of the movie, but I didn’t realize how sad she really was at the beginning. She’s really kind of a depressed girl. She works as a catering girl. She has her friend Ramon, who is very important to her. She takes care of her dad at home and takes care of all the drivers who come and have breakfast in the morning. But she’s truly given up on herself as a musician."
This latest version of A Star Is Born is the fourth iteration of the classic melodrama about the effects of fame and addiction on a relationship. Cooper’s Jackson Maine is an alcoholic rock superstar on the wane who falls in love with a singer-songwriter he happens to meet at a drag club, where he’s stopped for a drink after a concert because he can’t face going home.
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper first met years ago on the set of Saturday Night Live, but it wasn’t until she performed at Sean Parker’s 2016 cancer benefit that they connected. Lady Gaga’s reps had alerted her that the actor would be in attendance, and that he planned to direct A Star Is Born and was looking to cast the female lead. Lady Gaga knew she wanted it. She sang “La Vie en Rose,” which ended up in the movie as the first song Jackson watches Ally perform—the song that makes him fall in love with her. “I was completely blown away,” Cooper says of that night. “I called her agent and said, ‘Can I meet with her?’ And then, the next day, she said yes, and I drove up to her house, and then that was it.” Gaga says the connection was instantaneous. “Before I knew it, I was making him pasta, feeding him, and we were talking and laughing. Then he wanted to hear us sing together, and asked if I would sing a song called ‘Midnight Special’ with him. I printed out the sheet music, and I brought it out to the piano, and I was so nervous. And so I’m sight-reading the music at the piano, and we start to sing, and I hear Bradley’s voice, and I just stopped playing, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, Bradley, you can sing.’ It’s incredible,” she says.
Once she was cast, Cooper and screenwriters Eric Roth and Will Fetters worked on the script while Gaga worked on the soundtrack. “I wrote it for her, to play it. I asked her so many questions, and wanted to mine so much of the things that she told me. That completely formed the creation of Ally,” Cooper says. “We really were very vulnerable [together]. I had a lot of belief in her magic. It’s one thing to have a sense of it, and then watch it, before your eyes, every day, shooting.”
In order to portray an unknown singer, Gaga drew from her insecurity as an actress. “I will never forget the first scene we did together in this Mexican restaurant. Bradley got some tacos and brought them to the table. Then he said something to me, but it wasn’t what was in the script, and I didn’t know what to do, so I just said my line. Then he said something else, and I didn’t know what to do because I thought I was just supposed to be saying what was on the page. So I just said another line—the next line. Seeing that I wasn’t going off-script, he said, ‘Are you okay?,’ and I just started to cry.” Through this, she learned to focus more on the story than the lines. So when it came to the concert scenes, where their experience was reversed, she tried the same technique. “When we sang ‘Shallow’ together at the concert, after he runs over and starts to pull me on the stage, I didn’t think, ‘I haven’t made it yet as a singer.’ All I had to do was go, ‘I haven’t made it yet as an actress.’”
When Gaga was 14, she was shopping at a boutique on the West Side—singing, as one does—and a sales guy approached her and offered to give her the phone number of his uncle, a vocal coach. Don Lawrence, whom she calls the aortic valve to her career, made time in his schedule to work with her. “Later, I remember we were talking one day—we used to talk a little bit during our lessons, because we liked each other so much—and I said, ‘I just don’t know how I’m gonna make it,’” she says. “I was taking meetings with entertainment attorneys and knocking on people’s doors, trying to get them to listen to demos that I made on a four-track Tascam cassette player, and he said to me, ‘There can be a hundred people in the room, and 99 of them won’t believe in you, but all you need is one.’
After high school, Gaga enrolled in Collaborative Arts Project 21 through NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts but dropped out after a year—“when I decided to really say, ‘Sorry, Mom and Dad,’ and be a starving artist on the Lower East Side,” she says. She worked three jobs, including one as a go-go dancer. She used to call clubs and pretend to be her own manager. She would haul her piano from gig to gig. Once, while performing at a jazz bar where a crowd of frat boys wouldn’t be quiet, she stripped down to her underwear to get their attention. The moment was a turning point—it made her understand something about commanding attention. “I already knew that she was this authentic, open, raw, real artist who could sing and write songs and be this quadruple threat,” says Heather Parry, who produced the Netflix documentary and executive-produced the film. “But the thing that I was most impressed with was that she’s a very strong businesswoman. In anything she does, you’re like, She’s such a boss.”
A Star Is Born, of course, is an evergreen, regenerative parable on the price of fame—which may be a bit of a chestnut, but it works. The best stories about the human experience are the ones in which ordinary people are made to withstand extraordinary forces—alcoholism, physical and emotional trauma, global stardom, the merciless machinery of capitalism. Lady Gaga is an artist. She feels things profoundly. She’s grappled with the inherited trauma of the death of her father’s sister at 19; with the emotional trauma of having been bullied in school and later sexually assaulted; with the physical trauma of a hip injury and surgery that left her with chronic generalized pain. But pain is the ballast against which sublimity takes shape.
In one of the most moving scenes of her documentary, Gaga is getting ready to perform at the Super Bowl, but she’s feeling melancholic. “I’m so excited to do it,” she says, “but I can’t help but realize that when I sold 10 million records, I lost Matt [Williams, her ex-boyfriend and ex-stylist]. I sold 30 million and lost Luc [Carl, her ex-boyfriend]. I did a movie and lose Taylor [Kinney, her ex-fiancé]. It’s like a turnover,” she says. “This is the third time I’ve had my heart broken like this.”
At the start of A Star Is Born, it’s a scene about Jackson, not Ally, that gets at the heart of the experience. “For me, in music and in acting, I’m always pulling from my past experiences, family dynamics, relationships, pain, happiness, joy, the roller coaster ride of my life—how that has kind of created this beautiful disco ball that’s somehow refracted and fractured,” she says. “The opening moment, where you see him pop some pills, down some booze, hop onstage, and just electrify the audience until the last bass note hits, and the limousine door shuts as the cameras are flashing, and it goes to total silence—this is how I feel as a performer. That’s what it feels like when you go onstage, and there are 20,000 people screaming, and you’re singing, and dancing, and performing, and then the show is over, and there is no sound. It’s emotional.”
“Success tests relationships,” she continues. “It tests families. It tests your dynamic with your friends. There is a price to stardom.” But, she adds, “I can’t make music or act without using and accessing the pain that I have in my heart. I mean, what better place to put it? Otherwise, it’s of no good use.
In Lady Gaga's Haus, All Are Welcome
Once again, Lady Gaga has proven she is the queen of her own castle, now adding Haus Laboratories, her makeup line, to groundbreaking accomplishments in music and film. In a recent meeting of the first-name-only-required greats, Gaga spoke to Oprah, the original multifaceted female mogul and an early champion of emotional well-being, about her exponential career path and her battles with mental health issues.
The two women consider it a personal quest to lift the stigma and shame that can surround mental illness, and the role that each has played in opening up the global dialogue is undeniable: Oprah teamed up with Prince Harry earlier this year to create a documentary series exploring the issue (out in 2020), and Gaga was invited to meet with Prince William in London to discuss mental health initiatives they could work on together, but was unable to attend as she needed to be with her doctors. Here, Gaga opens up to her hero about her personal growth from both pain and kindness.
Oprah: I first interviewed you almost 10 years ago in 2010 on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and I could see then and feel, energetically, you blossoming into yourself. You were at this moment where you were wide open to your own self-discovery and self-expression. How have you become more of yourself in the past 10 years?
Lady Gaga: I think as my career has grown and changed and I’ve done different things, I’ve become very mindful of my position in the world and my responsibility to humanity and to those who follow me. And I consider myself to be a kindness punk. I look back at everything I’ve done, and I look at what I’m doing now, and punks, you know, have a sort of reputation for being rebellious, right? So for me, I really view my career, and even what I’m doing now, as a rebellion against all the things in the world that I see to be unkind. Kindness heals the world. Kindness heals people. It’s what brings us together—it’s what keeps us healthy.
Oprah: When you look back on the past 10 years, at what moment do you feel that you were most able to express that kindness heals all things?
Lady Gaga: I think it really started with my relationship with my fans. Looking out into the audience and seeing so many people who were like me, people who felt different, who didn’t feel seen or understood. And then also seeing a lot of kids who felt afraid to be open about who they were, it became sort of an existential experience for me, where I thought about what it means to be an individual—I wanted to fight for those individuals. I actually said this the other day on social media. I said, “I didn’t do this for fame, I did it for impact.” And that’s the truth. I recognized very early on that my impact was to help liberate people through kindness. I mean, I think it’s the most powerful thing in the world, particularly in the space of mental illness.
Oprah: Have you known that since you were at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and dropped out after a year, and then pretended to be your own manager and hauled your keyboard from gig to gig—you knew it then, right?
Lady Gaga: Well, that was a bit cunning. I don’t know that that was completely kind. But I learned from my mom, Oprah. When I would come home from school, if I was bullied, she would always say, “Kill them with kindness.” And maybe “kill them” is an aggressive way of saying it, but, you know, she meant it in the kindest of ways. What she meant was, “Don’t fight fire with fire; fight fire with water.”
Oprah: I want to say I think the thing that you have done the most with, and the best, in a way that now the whole world is sort of coming to understand—we see it all through social media—was starting the Born This Way Foundation. You were making a statement to people that however you are is how you’re supposed to be. I want to know what advice you have for people who are still afraid to be themselves, who are living a false life.
Lady Gaga: I think I would say that, truthfully, it’s not false. If you are not yet out in the open about who you are, I would have compassion for yourself that you’re not ready yet, and take steps every day.
Oprah: That really is kind.
Lady Gaga: You know, it’s very easy to say to someone, “Be brave,” but it’s not so easy to practice. I mean, if you feel shame for who you are, and you don’t feel supported by people around you, you’re afraid. Shame is powerful. But give yourself time. Allow yourself to take little bites every day. That’s what I would say: Take little bites of bravery. I wouldn’t say it’s a false life. I would say that’s a reality, and that reality can change. That’s actually also why I made Haus Laboratories, truthfully.
Oprah: Let’s talk about this. What made you feel ready to become a beauty entrepreneur?
Lady Gaga: I wanted to do it because (a), I had the time—I wanted to put everything into it, which I do with everything that I do. I don’t just put a company together, hire a staff, and have them do it. I said this the other night at our launch: “My fingerprints are all over this. It’s a crime scene.” And (b), I felt that I had the platform and had built the foundation around what I stand for, so that when this company came out, it would be a rebellion in a kind way against the status quo of beauty as it is today, which is in many ways on social media, a competition. It’s a beauty pageant in a lot of ways. This company exists in an influential space in culture where we say, “Our Haus. Your Rules.” And everyone is welcome—all gender identities.
Oprah: So that’s the mission of the line, to be inclusive of all gender identities?
Lady Gaga: All gender identities, all racial identities, everyone, every age. This is for everyone.
Oprah: Aren’t you constantly amazed at the power beauty has to uplift people? I just remember being in a hospital where women were getting their fistulas mended in Ethiopia and we were handing out lipsticks, and they were literally trying to crawl out of bed to get to them.
Lady Gaga: It’s very powerful, and I felt so just not beautiful when I was young, and when I left college, my parents were not very pleased with me at the time. I said I wanted to be a musician. I worked three jobs, paid my own rent, and went to the drugstore to buy makeup. I experimented with color, and I looked at myself in the mirror, and I literally made myself. I invented Lady Gaga. And it made me feel strong, it made me feel powerful. I’ve suffered from depression since I was a little girl, but oh my goodness, the superhero that flew out of me, it was like Clark Kent and Superman—it gave me wings to fly. And that’s also why I refused to change. As my career progressed, even before I was famous, when people would say, “Oh, the makeup, there’s too much makeup. It’s over the top, blah, blah, blah,” I would be like, “This is my life force. This is what helps me fly.”
Oprah: I’m wondering, Do you still feel pressure to constantly outdo yourself? Is it a shackle on you in any way?
Lady Gaga: Not anymore. I used to, though. Oprah, I’ve got to level with you 100 percent: I used to try to wrap my brain as heavy as I could around what I could do to.... Instead of being shocking (I used to say “shock art” or “performance art”), I would use the word “bemuse,” which is basically putting the audience in a state of confusion where they can’t look away. I used to just go, “What am I going to do next to get people’s attention?”
Oprah: After the meat dress, did you feel that way: “Where do I go from here?”
Lady Gaga: Well, the meat dress, quite frankly, I didn’t think it was going to be as shocking to everyone as it was. But that’s just me. I have a sort of eccentric brain, so for me, I was like, Of course this makes sense. I’m showing up to make a statement about “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” I went to the event with soldiers who were discharged from the army because they were out, or they were found out, and to me, if you’re willing to give up your life for your country, does it matter what your sexual orientation is or what your gender identity is? For me, it was like, “Flesh is flesh,” so that was the intention of the meat dress. For me, that wasn’t shocking; it was shocking to the world. And I have to say, it was quite recently—after doing A Star Is Born, and working with Bradley Cooper, and my experience even with winning an Oscar—I sort of just went to myself, “You have a much greater mission on this earth than to freak the hell out of people. Your mission is to give people a form of love through your art that lifts them up.”
Oprah: I have to ask you one question about Bradley. I was sitting in Bradley’s kitchen the other day, and he was taking care of his daughter, and we ordered takeout, and it was just wonderful to see him lean into the dad thing.
Lady Gaga: He’s a beautiful father.
Oprah: Isn’t he a beautiful father? He’s all the way in. We were talking about all the rumors about you guys last year. He said if they had been true, he never would have been able to look you in the eye sitting at that piano.
Lady Gaga: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Oprah: He said his Catholic guilt would have never let him be able to look you in the eye at that piano. How did you feel about all of that at the time? You handled it so well.
Lady Gaga: Quite frankly, I think the press is very silly. I mean, we made a love story. For me, as a performer and as an actress, of course we wanted people to believe that we were in love. And we wanted people to feel that love at the Oscars. We wanted it to go right through the lens of that camera and to every television that it was being watched on. And we worked hard on it, we worked for days. We mapped the whole thing out—it was orchestrated as a performance.
Oprah: You were orchestrating it as a performance to evoke exactly what it did.
Lady Gaga: It did. In truth, when we talked about it, we went, “Well, I guess we did a good job!”
Oprah: So well received. You put so much energy into that film, and then it became one of the biggest movies of the year. What was it like when it was all over? How did you say goodbye to the character of Ally and the whole experience?
Lady Gaga: Well, actually, the character of Ally stayed with me for a long time. I had to relive a lot of my career doing that role. I don’t know how you feel when you’ve acted, but for me, I don’t view it as filming a movie. I film it as living the character, and it’s a moment in my life, so I relived it all again, and it took a long time for it to go away. When I won the Oscar for “Shallow,” I looked at it, and a reporter asked me, “When you look at that Oscar, what do you see?” And I said, “I see a lot of pain.” And I wasn’t lying in that moment. I was raped when I was 19 years-old, repeatedly. I have been traumatized in a variety of ways by my career over the years from many different things, but I survived, and I’ve kept going. And when I looked at that Oscar, I saw pain. I don’t know that anyone understood it when I said it in the room, but I understood it.
Oprah: The pain that you had taken to get there. Because when you’re raped, particularly repeatedly and at that age, you would have PTSD for years about that.
Lady Gaga: I have PTSD. I have chronic pain. Neuropathic pain trauma response is a weekly part of my life. I’m on medication; I have several doctors. This is how I survive. But you know what, Oprah? I kept going, and that kid out there or even that adult out there who’s been through so much, I want them to know that they can keep going, and they can survive, and they can win their Oscar. I would also beckon to anyone to try, when they feel ready, to ask for help. And I would beckon to others that if they see someone suffering, to approach them and say, “Hey, I see you. I see that you’re suffering, and I’m here. Tell me your story.”
Oprah: Which is the greatest gift I think we can give each other. I mean, that’s why I think Avatar and James Cameron is one of the wizards of our generation: because of that message, “I see you.” There is nothing more powerful than that.
Lady Gaga: There really isn’t. I’ve actually not opened up very much about this, but I think it’s an important thing for people to know and hear: I was a cutter for a long time, and the only way that I was able to stop cutting and self-harming myself was to realize that what I was doing was trying to show people that I was in pain instead of telling them and asking for help. When I realized that telling someone, “Hey, I am having an urge to hurt myself,” that defused it. I then had someone next to me saying, “You don’t have to show me. Just tell me: What are you feeling right now?” And then I could just tell my story. I say that with a lot of humility and strength; I’m very grateful that I don’t do it anymore, and I wish to not glamorize it. One thing that I would suggest to people who struggle with trauma response or self-harm issues or suicidal ideation is actually ice. If you put your hands in a bowl of ice-cold water, it shocks the nervous system, and it brings you back to reality.
Oprah: Have you also used DBT therapy?
Lady Gaga: I actually have a teacher; I take dialectical behavioral therapy. I think that DBT is a wonderful, wonderful way to deal with mental health issues.
Oprah: I ask because I’ve had so many girls at my school [the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa] struggle with this.
Lady Gaga: It’s a really strong way of learning how to live, and it’s a guide to understanding your emotions.
Oprah: It needs to be a much bigger conversation. I want to know, What did you once believe was insurmountable, and in the end, you realized, the solution was so easy?
Lady Gaga: I once believed that there was no way back from my trauma. I really did. I was in physical, mental, and emotional pain. And medicine works, but you need medicine with the therapy for it to really work, because there’s a part that you have to do yourself.
Oprah: Is this suffering from your fibromyalgia?
Lady Gaga: It is. Although there are many different theories about fibromyalgia—for me, my fibromyalgia and my trauma response kind of go hand in hand. The fibro for me is a lighter pain; the trauma response is much heavier and actually feels the way I felt after I was dropped on a street corner after I’d been raped repeatedly for months. It’s a recurring feeling. So I had a psychotic break at one point, and it was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me. I was brought to the ER to urgent care and they brought in the doctor, a psychiatrist. So I’m just screaming, and I said, “Could somebody bring me a real doctor?” And I didn’t understand what was going on, because my whole body went numb; I fully dissociated. I was screaming, and then he calmed me down and gave me medication for when that happens—olanzapine.
Oprah: I’m familiar with it. I have hundreds of girls, so there’s nothing you can tell me I haven’t been through or experienced.
Lady Gaga: Yeah, so I take methocarbamol, and olanzapine, which is probably the most important—it helped me that day, and that man and all my friends, they saved my life.
Oprah: This is my last question: What do you believe life is asking of us?
Lady Gaga: I believe life is asking of us to accept the challenge. Accept the challenge of kindness. It’s hard in a world the way that we are; we have a very, very grave history. We’re in trouble, and we have been before. But I think life asks us amid these challenges, this hatred, this tragedy, this famine, this war, this cruelty: Can you be kind and can you survive?
We’ve been summoned into her presence and here she is. Beneath a paper-thin Simone Rocha dress, she is stark naked. Racks of clothes are available for this shoot. Thirty pairs of shoes are on offer. Hats, accessories, acres of jewellery. And she’s chosen to wear a lace skirt as a mask, a cropped platinum wig, a veil of transparent green tulle pretending to be a dress, and underneath it…nothing. In about three minutes Lady Gaga will absent-mindedly pull on the tiny white thong that’s laying on the floor by her ankles, but for now not one portion of her frame is left to the imagination.
“This is so funny,” she says with a mischievous smile. “I sent you out a minute ago because I was getting naked and now I have this see-through dress on.” She pops a straw in her mouth and sucks dark-green liquid from a plastic beaker.
“Your drink,” I say. “It matches your dress!” I’m all over the place. The last time I saw every inch of a 25-year-old girl was when I was 25. But she didn’t have supernatural body confidence and nine tattoos. “What’s this one?” I prod her left thigh.
“That’s my unicorn. Everyone needs one funny tattoo. And that’s my Dad,” she says of a little heart on her left shoulder with ‘DAD’ inside it, which looks like it’s been scrawled in biro. There’s a white rose, a treble clef, a bunch of daisies, another heart saying ‘Tokyo Love’, a tiny swan, a peace sign on her wrist and that huge quote from German philosopher Rilke on the inside of her left arm. “The gist of this paragraph is…” and she translates it, looking straight ahead: “In the deepest hour of the night, if you were asked if you would have to die if you were forbidden to write, look deep into your heart for the answer spreads its roots, and ask yourself – “Muss ich schreiben?” – must I write?”
I’m not really listening to be honest. I’m miles away. You don’t realise how pretty she is when she’s on stage. For her Monster Ball tour in 2010, she was dressed like a giant candle with tassels. The like a big blowsy meringue with spooky electronic wings. Then like a cross between Darth Vader and Barbara Streisand with ripped fishnets and a helmet. Then covered in blood. It was outrageous theatre for 20,000 fabulously overdressed party animals, most of whom looked like they’d crawled from the wreckage of an A Nightmare On Elm Street-themed hen night. Their ringleader was brash and sexy and full of dark and twisted fantasy, but I never once thought she was pretty.
She is aware of the effect she is having on me now, the lone heterosexual man in the room. I ask, lamely, about her skincare secrets. “Orgasms, lots of orgasms.” She swills her pressed vegetable juice and holds it aloft. “Orgasms and spinach! No, what I mean is hard work and sweat.” Does she mean any of it? And if so, which – the sex and spinach bit, or the hard work bit? Is Gaga a manipulative minx trying to unsettle a male reporter of a certain age? Is she just ‘on’ all the time, one of those stars that wilts like a flower out of water if they aren’t the centre of attention? Or is this just pure, unadulterated truth?
How did she get here? Why this? Why now? Why her? How did the biggest pop phenomenon on the planet come to be Manhattan’s 25-year-old Stefani Germanotta, a compulsive exhibitionist with little to recommend her but a genius for piano, starring parts in high-school musicals, a college thesis on Damien Hirst and a forgettable role in MTV prank show, Boiling Points?
But that’s all she needed to bust into the galaxy of epic pop-theatre she now dominates. She’s a brilliant singer and a shrewd and commercial songwriter, but self-belief and a forensic understanding of fashion are what propelled her into orbit. I’ve interviewed some of her musical heroes – Queen, Sting, Elton John, Michael Jackson, three of The Beatles and David Bowie (“who could stand still and shift the whole earth,” she says) – and I’ve seen all the other great bells-and-whistles tours including Prince, Madonna and Beyoncé, but none of them – I tell her this – can outrank Lady Gaga in terms of mind-bending spectacle.
A lot of it is technology, sure – the lights and mechanics of her giant soundstages would be unimaginable in any other era – but there’s another key difference. Bowie, Prince, Madonna, Queen, all of them create a soundtrack you can apply to your own life. But Gaga is something else. Her albums aren’t successive blocks of new music as much as fresh instalments of a movie franchise starring the same girl. You could watch Madonna singing Into the Groove and need no explanation; it’s a song about the emotional rollercoaster of club life, a feeling available to anyone. But Gaga crawling from a crashed subway carriage in the Monster Ball wearing a nun’s cowl, a zombie claw and a transparent sheet with plasters stuck on her nipples, now that – unless you’re enormously lucky – won’t strike any great personal chord. She doesn’t enter your world, you enter hers. “I take my experiences and inject them into the realms of fantasy,” she tells me.
She has an effortless flair for ambiguity, reacting to bizarre global rumours that she wasn’t 100 per cent female by appearing on stage as alter ego Jo Calderone, the chain-smoking male Italian garage-worker who delievers foul-mouthed monologues about the love if his life (Lady Gaga). All of which magically expanded the mystery, a play within a play.
She believes the fans created her themselves; she says they imagined her into existence. But that’s nonsense, of course. The mass audience is responding to the clothes show, the pounding R&B and the soap opera of her media presence, but the hardcore fans – the ‘little monsters, the underdogs of love’ – have dug deep inside her cartoon world to locate some common ground. Nothing precise, merely the unspecified conviction that she, too, was battling those who never believed in her. “Everyone always asks about the woman behind closed doors. “What happens when she takes her wigs off, when she removes her clothes?” But the truth is that I am the same.”
I’m tempted to believe her. When she was five, Lady Gaga says her mother thought she was ‘possessed’ when she played the piano. She would break into song, dance down hallways. “I was always in a show. I was just such an over-the-top crazypants.” If she wasn’t who she was today, she tells me, she’d still be dancing in a bar four blocks away, only to a smaller audience. Attention validates her very existence.
You can see it now, watching the photo shoot. We’re in this bare brick and wood-floored warehouse on New York’s Upper West Side – Gaga, her photographer, a film crew, a wind-machine operative and two creative directors checking each image as it pops up on the screens. It’s a complete performance from start to finish, all 5ft 1in of her wobbling on the stage on her perilous Noritaka Tatehana heels, her accent East Coast with a twist of Valley Girl. At one point she shows us her ‘sex bruise’ (Sex Bruise would make a good song title, she thinks.) When I ask who supplied it, she shrugs; “I got bitten on the ass.”
She dances under the lights to the sledgehammer pop beats of Born This Way, her new album, and then to the Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell, Blondie, Garbage and Fleetwood Mac. Turns back, looks forward, hair in motion, eyes to camera, checks the image monitor beside her. “It’s quite good.” Another shot. “It’s good.” Quick hit on a cigarette. Another. “We love it, we look good! That pic is everything – there’s your cover!” She’s right, it is our cover.
There’s none of that constant reassurance that some stars need. She knows instinctively if something works (the green Simone Rocha dress is “like a sexy green watermelon”). And she pulls no punches – one outfit is flatly rejected as it “doesn’t make my fashion-pussy wet.” Asked at the end if she’ll try black, she delivers a perfectly-worded monologue: “These are great, great photographs. I love the story we told. It’s very painterly, isn’t it? We did the spring colours. But black would break up the story. I like to wear young designers and give them a commercial platform, but I’m not just a hanger.”
She sweeps back into the dressing room, raising the front of the dress and flashing the video camera as she passes, and settles down by the mirror. I say I told my taxi driver I was meeting her and – when he’d stopped banging the steering wheel and shouting “Legend!” – he said she’d had a tough childhood. Why do people get that impression?
“Well, I did go through quite a lot of different things, as everybody does. I was quite a rebel at home. And I was a child of 9/11 – both my parents lost their jobs and they lost a lot of money through the stock market after 9/11. And I was bullied at school. I was called ‘Rabbit Teeth’ and ‘Big Nose’ and ‘Dyke’. I would stay up all night studying Latin and blow-drying my hair and I would do a full face of makeup before I went to bed so I could wake up and go straight to school. I was so dressed-up for class and it was an all-girls school, so some of the students thought it was a bit ridiculous, I suppose. Maybe my creativity came off a bit strange. But the worst form of bullying is where everyone gets invited to a party except for you. What did you do this weekend? “Well, what did you do? Did you hear about Friday?” It’s cruel, it’s mean, everyone talking about the weekend and you’ve got nothing to say, nothing to contribute, cos you’re left out and excluded.” But some of that bullying is for things you couldn’t help and some is for things you could, I point out. “I guess so, but I never made a separation between what I put on in the morning and who I am. So it was challenging for me to try and understand why people were being so vicious about me being myself.”
When I ask about her low points, she runs through them like a list. She had a ‘tremendous drug problem’ when she was 19 – she’d dropped out of her college music course and taken up cocaine. She was kicked off the Def Jam record label when she was 20 – “a real traumatic day that’ll be the subject of my next video. And I had abusive relationships: I dated men much older than me – I was 15, they were 30 – which I don’t recommend. I was never brave enough to be the person who I am today.”
That all seemed to change in 2007 when she met the DJ Lady Starlight and they formed a cabaret act on the Lower East Side – Gaga playing synth and lighting cans of hairspray, Starlight playing records beneath glitter balls. I ask her if she can remember the moment when she sensed her real artistic self for the first time and she shuts her eyes and paints a fantastically vivid picture. She lived in a studio, she says, with a bathtub, toilet, little kitchen, bed on the floor, make-up everywhere, posters and pictures of John Lennon and Yoko Ono making out. She bought red, green and orange lightbulbs, which she later discovered were, “not such a good idea, as you start to feel really sick and the whole room feels like formaldehyde. Starlight looked at me one day and said, “When you perform, you’re just possessed. You’re more than a songwriter, you’re a performance artist!” So I started go-go dancing. It’s quite exhilarating to dress in your underwear and have men coo over you. It’s liberating, if you’re into that sort of thing. Some people don’t like it.” She adds, as she feels I disapprove. “But for me, I was getting paid to perform so I was very excited. I was getting 400 bucks a night, so I could go to Kinko’s and get the expensive paper and get it laser-printed and make nice flyers, not like the ones everyone else had. And get my demo tapes copied.”
A friend of mine was at the Los Angeles music convention in 2008 where you appeared, I say. Just one shot at making an impact on the industry. And he said you’d made a catsuit…”…a catsuit, I did! I had no money, I put everything I had into this one outfit. And the label called and said, “She has to change her clothes. She always wears the same thing.” And I said, “Don’t you want people to recognise me? And remember me? I’ll be the girl with the very heavy bang and the platinum blonde wig and the black suit with big shoulders and the stick in her hand.” People remembered it.”
I ask her which look has been her favourite and she says it was a dress she wore once on MTV that had a wireless detonator and was programmed to start bleeding, “because clothes have feelings too! I always like my work to, like, just edge on humour. Not funny, but you’re about to laugh. But you don’t. We know it’s right when everybody goes “Why?” When the big question mark hovers over the outfit or the song.” She relishes the creative journey and never wants it to get easier. “I struggled when I was young and I continue to struggle as an artist. As an artist, that’s something I prayed for. I really want to experience something psychotic and outer-body and magical and inconvenient to help breed my creativity, to push my tortured reality to the place of the double-rainbow.
Dresses are being steam-hosed, teetering heels are readied for action and fresh supplies of baked fish and summer berries appear as we watch the dark descending. She’s back in her dressing room taking her top off: “Hey you” – that’s me – “no peeking.” What would you change about your body if you could? “Well, I’m just like any girl so…” she stops and rethinks. “My heart is my favourite bit. And my brain. I always think I’m most beautiful when I’m happy. I’m very happy right now so I feel good. I just have wonderful friends and I’m making great new music and the tour’s starting and I have full creative control.”
What do you want this shoot to look like? “I want to take what the designers did for next season and elevate it in my own way. There’s a tendency to pull things back and make them more pedestrian so it can appeal to everyone. For me, it’s the absolute opposite. How do I make it appeal to fewer people? How can I make it more repelling and interesting and strange? How can I elevate the work in a way that the designer will think, “Wow, I hasn’t thought of that”?”
With the blue Richard Nicoll dress, she tries out a piece of material wrapped tight round her short, pinned-back hair as she’s just seen Patricia Clarkson play a breast-cancer patient in Five wearing a scarf on her chemo-bald head and says she looked brave. She calls the dressed ‘her’ – “let’s put her on!” – because wearing them is like a relationship. “I just need some shoes. Most women would choose these,” she waves a pair of conventional heels, “cos they’re sexy. But these” – clunky brogue uppers with a transparent spike – “are a good explanation of my personality because they look like a man’s shoe trying to have a heel, like a gay man in a closet.”
Do you ever wish you’d been a boy? “How do you know I wasn’t?” I’m the only interviewer who’s ever seen you naked, I say, so I know. “Well, my fans don’t care what I am, that’s what I like about them. They don’t care if I’m a boy or a girl or an in-between or a phoenix or a mermaid or a unicorn. Or if I have hair one day and no hair the next. They don’t care. What I love about ambiguity and irony is that it always leaves big gaping questions.”
What’s the greatest love affair you’ve ever had? “I don’t know yet, I’m still searching. I don’t know which has been the best or worst or in-between. I just know that I don’t ever want it to be over. I love the search and the ambition of love. The fantasy of life is so beautiful.”
It’s a crisp autumn night a week later and we’re outside The Lanesborough in London’s Hyde Park. Things are running late – as they tend to in Gaga World – so I select the weirdest looking fan in the crowd and wander over to talk to her. She has pink hair and a big insect painted on the back of her jacket. She’s called Donna, from southern Ireland. What does Lady Gaga mean to her that makes her want to stand outside this hotel for three days and nights declaring her love? “She makes us brave,” she says, pointing at her gang of friends. “We’ve been the underdogs too. We’ve been discriminated against. She makes you able to reject everything that made you feel you didn’t belong. That’s how it felt at the Monster Ball.” I saw the Monster Ball, I tell her, the night someone threw a Father Christmas on stage and she tore it in half, pierced it’s felt-filled body with a stiletto and sang the next song waving it’s decapitated head. “Oh my god – me!” she shrieks. “That was me! I always take presents – Irish flags, hats, bottles of Jameson. That night it was the Santa Claus!”
Thirty minutes later I’m in a wine cellar with Lady Gaga, it’s candle-lit confines perfectly suiting her gothic attire. She’s perched on a throne-like chair in a see-through turquoise dress and a flesh-coloured body stocking, with long mind-green hair. Huge double cats whiskers are painted behind both eyes, like a space-age Cleopatra.
“So you met Santa Claus Monster!” she laughs. “Well, I just ran into a fan who held out my YSL shoe. It was a YSL shoe with a mirrored heel that broke off in the show and I said, “anyone interested in next season YSL?” and everyone screamed and I threw it. I was signing autographs yesterday and the show popped out of the throng and I said – hand on chest – “You still have my shoe?” And he says, “Yes, that was three years ago and I’ve loved you ever since.”
Do you feel responsible for Little Monsters? “I think about them all the time. They wanted somewhere to go and someone to know, where they could escape from the reality of their own trauma and know we could tell the lie of surrealism over and over until it came true.”
She has an intensely close relationship with her followers. It’s strangely maternal. She talks about Jamey Rodemeyer, the 14-year-old gay American fan who took his own life recently, who was bullied and felt no one was listening. Did you feel you knew him? “Of course I did, I feel like I know all of them.” She suddenly goes quiet and I realise she’s crying. “They’re so sweet,” she sighs. “Sometimes they tell me my schedule. “Can’t wait to see you in France next week!” Even if they know I’m going to bed for the evening they’ll wait outside, so I send them cookies and pizza. I ask why and they say, “We just like to be near you.””
Is there anything you regret? “I don’t regret anything. If I’d known things back then I wouldn’t be where I am now, because so much of who I am is based on a lack of fear. I have no fear. It’s like jumping off buildings completely blindfolded and I don’t know where I’m going to land and I don’t care. You have to trust the art. If you don’t trust the art, it’s not going to trust you to be its fuse. It’s not inanimate. The art has to trust me or it’s not going to invite me to be its messenger.”
I love all these rarefied art concepts, though a lot of what she says is full of contradiction. She calls her childhood ‘a fantasia’ but minutes later, suggests it was all trauma and suffering. She declares herself in total control of her art – which she is – and then implies it’s almost the other way around. I like the mystery of her love life: you never really know if it’s male or female affection that she wants, or both. I love the way she’s the world’s biggest pop star, yet every time we meet she strives to make an impact. Everything she says and does is full of wit, spark and intervention. People at this altitude usually play hard to get.
What’s the greatest misconception about you? “That I would ever be concerned with there being a misconception about me,” she says. “I believe very strongly that there are many people on this earth that really don’t like what I do – or how I sing or what music I make – but me is more important than anything. How do I want to be remembered? I want to be remembered as brave.”