The Lady Is a Vamp


By Editors

Pop's newest—and gayest—superstar pulls back the curtain to reveal all is allusion in the art and artifice of fame.

Things weren't going well for young Stefani Germanotta, an 18-year-old from the Upper West Side, at the Bitter End. It was Friday night at the famed Greenwich Village club and the chattering NYU kids in the audience -- there because the place didn't card -- outnumbered the handful of misfit East Village friends who had come to see her play. 'See the lonely girl,' she sang in her agile and slightly husky voice, letting her fingers fly up and down the keyboard of the beat-up house piano like the child prodigy she once was, 'out on the weekend, trying to make it pay.' Set up on the piano's soundboard, Germanotta's own portable disco ball spun tiny shards of light and her laptop spat out beats, but no one was listening.

(Click here to see the full '50s B horror movie'themed Lady Gaga photo slideshow.)

She thought of her hustle to book the show, calling the club and posing as her own manager. She thought of the cramped, piss-smelling dressing room she'd have to go back to and how, if she failed here, the Bitter End would be her bitter end. Fuck this, thought Germanotta. I've got to do something. So Germanotta shrugged her shirt from her slender shoulder and pulled it over her head. She tugged off her skirt. The little Italian firecracker sat on stage in the Village in her fishnets and her underwear and sang. The audience was gape-mouthed and agog, unsure whether this was part of the act or not. They gawked and, almost unwittingly, began to nod their heads to the music. They were hooked. Later, Germanotta would identify that moment as a turning point. 'I felt a spontaneity and nerve in myself that I think had been in a coffin for a very long time.' By the time her set ended, Stefani Germanotta had disappeared and Lady Gaga was born. 'At that moment,' she says, 'I rose up from the dead.'

Five short years later Lady Gaga -- whose name was inspired by the Queen song 'Radio Ga Ga' and bestowed upon her by producer Rob Fusari because her theatrical vocals reminded him of Freddie Mercury -- has become an international pop sensation. But even that description is too modest. Tiffany was an international pop sensation. Neneh Cherry was an international pop sensation. Though she has released only one album, 2008's The Fame, Gaga is much more. Her style is imperious, her defense is impregnable -- in short, she's ferocious. At 23, Gaga has become only the third artist in history to score three number 1 hits from a debut album on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 chart, and her fans, pledging allegiance to Gagaland, are a nation unto themselves. Her music, catchier than a cold in February, is compulsively hummable and burrows so deeply into the psyche, you'll catch yourself staring into your fridge at 3 o' clock in the morning murmuring, 'muh muh muh mah' and not know how long you've been standing there. In the dying light of the CD era, and at a time when pop music has been run off the charts by hip-hop and mopey emo, The Fame has sold more than 3 million hard copies -- plus another 20 million track downloads -- worldwide. But even the fame of The Fame fades next to Gaga herself, whose wild, shocking outfits have spurred an interest in avant-garde fashion unseen, perhaps, since King Louis XIV.

The influence of Gaga is pandemic. In Belgium, The Fame went gold; in America it went platinum; in New Zealand it went double platinum. Try to remember a night out at any gay bar anywhere when 'Pokerface,' 'Just Dance,' or 'LoveGame' wasn't played at least once. Statistically speaking, if you have ears, you've probably heard Gaga's music. If you have eyes, you've seen her. If you have a mind, you haven't forgotten her. That's the first rule of Gagaland: Be life-changing, historical, and memorable. 'Those are,' she says, 'the three things that are important to me.'

Lady Gaga the lady is as far-ranging as her music. She's everywhere and always en route. One night at close to 12:30 she calls from somewhere in Europe -- even she doesn't know where exactly -- and, after a few minutes, apologizes for having to hang up because her tour bus is about to enter a border crossing. She jets from London to Paris to Tokyo so quickly you think there must be more than one of her. There isn't. And that's probably a good thing too, for the world can only handle one Gaga at a time. To behold Lady Gaga is to withstand a sensory onslaught. 'My whole life is a performance,' she proclaims, 'I have to up the ante every day.'