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.
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."
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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."
Gaga is in complete control of her music's industrial complex. She writes and coproduces all of her tracks; serves as dramaturge, choreographer, and star of her performances; and conducts a core group of coconspirators dubbed the Haus of Gaga—a nod to both Paris Is Burning and Walter Gropius—among them, stylist Nicola Formichetti; Anna Trevelyan, Formichetti's assistant; and most important, Matthew Williams, aka Matty Dada, Gaga's right-hand man. "They don't do anything but live and breathe their art," she says. The Haus of Gaga ensures there are no loose ends to Gaga, just a lot of her. Every appearance and every utterance is a tightly choreographed performance. "I'm a method actress," she says proudly. "I studied Stanislavski for six years."
If every second is a scene, every outfit is worth a dissertation. At a recent press conference in Malta, Gaga wore a deconstructed bondage mask/hijab by the Danish design duo Vilsbol de Arce, as bewildering a display as Dylan in his Cate Blanchett years. In a now famous appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, she wore an orbiting headpiece by London designer Nasir Mazhar. During another appearance in Tokyo in July, Gaga channeled Harajuku 'cosplay' (costume role-playing) culture, dressing up as a Hello Kitty ingenue, simultaneously embodying and parroting the Japanese national obsession. She's the Michelle Obama of pop; her fashion is the constitution for a new utopia. "I believe in living a glamorous life and I believe in a glamorous lifestyle," says Gaga. "What that means is not money or fame or prestige. It's a sense of vanity and glamour and subculture that is rooted in a sense of self. I am completely 100,000% devoted to a life of glamour." Rule number two of Gagaland: Thou shalt be glamorous.
A life of glamour is an ethos to which every gay—from the 17-year-old Dominican tranny voguing in his bedroom to the tanorexic middle-aged Miami circuit queen—can relate. It's one reason we love Gaga. Another, of course, is that Gaga loves us back. Gayness is in Gaga's DNA. A little brunette lighting bolt of energy born in Manhattan to Joseph and Cynthia Germanotta—Catholics with a healthy appreciation for the arts and the good sense to recognize a star when they bore one—Gaga began playing piano at 4 and composing at 13 under the tutelage of several gay mentors. "I had a few gay piano teachers. I was in acting class and ballet from a very young age, and I remember being around a lot of gay boys in dance class. I feel intrinsically inclined toward a more gay lifestyle." She did Ellen before Leno, performed in gay clubs before straight ones, and plugs the gays constantly in interviews, even those with straight publications. Despite a lesbian subtext to "Poker Face"—the song is about, among other things, a woman lusting after a woman while dating a man—Gaga says, "I myself am not a gay woman—I am a free-spirited woman: I have had boyfriends, and I have hooked up with women, but it's never been like 'I discovered gayness when I was dot dot dot.'"
Her devotion to gay culture is unparalleled by any other artist operating at her level of visibility or success. "When I started in the mainstream it was the gays that lifted me up," she says. "I committed myself to them and they committed themselves to me, and because of the gay community I'm where I am today." Earlier this year, in her acceptance speech for her MuchMusic award for best international video, Lady Gaga thanked "God and the gays." Before agreeing to tour with Kanye West this fall, Gaga told the rapper, "I just want to be clear before we decide to do this together: I'm gay. My music is gay. My show is gay. And I love that it's gay. And I love my gay fans and they're all going to be coming to our show. And it's going to remain gay." That's another clause in the Gagaland constitution: Gay culture shall gush undiluted into the rapids of society. It shall not be co-opted, fancified, dolled up, or Uncle Tommed. "I very much want to inject gay culture into the mainstream," she says, "It's not an underground tool for me. It's my whole life. So I always sort of joke the real motivation is to just turn the world gay."
If glamour and vanity and music are the sparks that animate Gaga, she relies on a vast reference library to give herself a body. She regularly plunders her predecessors, finding time in her whirlwind schedule to make stops at museums. The '80s synthesizers of The Fame are just part of Lady Gaga; she herself is synthesis. She's been compared to and compares herself to Christina Aguilera (who thought she was a tranny), Madonna, Debbie Harry, David Bowie, and Grace Jones, but her reading list is more Patti Smith (Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet is one of Gaga's favorite books) and her frank sex talk is straight out of blueswoman Bessie Smith's 1920s catalog. "I need a little hot dog on my roll" isn't so different from "I'm bluffin' with my muffin."
Gaga may sing about sex a lot, but she does it with a hyperbole and na'vet' bordering on ironic. Unlike her provocative predecessors, most notably Madonna, Lady Gaga seems less interested in sex than in talking about talking about sex. Lady Gaga doesn't care whether you think she's sexy. She just wants you to think. Her body is a small, highly bosomed, well-proportioned, deadly delivery system programmed to explode the way you look at music, sex, fashion, fame, and everything that came before. She'll take, as she did at the MuchMusic Awards, the missile cone bra, last seen during Madonna's Blonde Ambition tour, and rig it to shoot fire from her breasts. Madonna and the other pop matriarchs should take cover. Lady Gaga may nod their way, but she won't bow. "Lady Gaga is more like a collection of quotes than a singular performer," Los Angeles Times music critic Ann Powers recently wrote. "Every move she makes, every crazy ensemble she wears, can easily be traced. She's a human mash-up, a sample bank, recycled and reused." As Gaga herself puts it: "You're only as great as your best references," and in the epic eight-minute clip for "Paparazzi," she proves it by riffing on film noir, Cindy Sherman, cyborgs, Macbeth, Lindsay Lohan, and horror films of the '50s. Of the video she notes, "There's an art to fame. Even in the most humiliating and defaming moment of your life, you're still ready for the camera."
Mining those bleaker moments is nothing new for Gaga, and the darkness that pervades The Fame isn't incidental. Gaga has always been drawn to the macabre and the monstrous. Before she became besties with Kanye she was friends with Marilyn Manson. Lately, she says, "I've become really fascinated with fantasy and monster movies and the na'vet' of the '50s. Somehow I feel, socially, after a war or after something really bad happens there's a rebirth of na'vet', so that's where my obsession comes from. That's when the fame monster is born."
The monster lives and demands to be fed. Gaga cannibalizes herself to feed it, exposing more and more of herself. She finds immunity in confession, detailing her shocking drug antics and sexual peccadilloes with an avidity that outstrips the paparazzi. "Everyone knows what my breasts look like, who I'm sleeping with, what my real hair looks like, and when I'm wearing wigs'all the information is out there," she says, not without pride. "But somehow there's an ambiguity that hovers." That ambiguity is the constant desire to peek behind the curtain to glimpse the real Gaga. Too bad the curtain doesn't exist. As Powers put it, "the split between 'real' and 'fake' seems to have closed. This isn't because the quest for authenticity has been abandoned. It's because, for artists like Gaga, fake has become what feels most real."
Though Lady Gaga is rarely caught in the same outfit twice, the disco ball runs like a leitmotif through her wardrobe. She wore a homemade disco ball bra in the video for "Just Dance" and a dress made from dissected disco balls at the Glastonbury Festival in England in June. On stage, the angular mirrored dress refracted the fervent faces of her fans, happily bouncing up and down. Each one sees in Gaga a reflection of him or herself, picking from her array of looks and melodies and messages those that appeal to them. Gay, straight, misfit, mall rat, teen, tween, or twink, look at Gaga and you'll see yourself.
Lady Gaga made The Fame and The Fame made Lady Gaga famous. In return, she's become fame's greatest apostle. "What I want to deliver, as a message about fame, is that anyone can have it. My fame lives in my friendships, in my convictions about the power of art and love—you could have 500 pairs of shoes that cost 10 cents and still be famous." In a culture where kids close their eyes and dream of being a contestant on Big Brother, Gaga's fame free-for-all is an irresistible message for those yearning for a fame monster of their own. And when it comes accompanied by more hooks than a fisherman's tackle box, it's a message few can resist. Is it true? Lady Gaga's poker face is notoriously hard to read, but "This isn't the Lady Gaga newscast," she says. "Nobody gives a shit what is really going on—everyone wants me to tell them a story. Art is a lie, and every day I kill to make it true."
Words: Joshua David Stein & Noah Michelson
Photography: Ellen Von Unwerth
Styling: Nicola Formichetti