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Growing Up Gaga

The self-invented, manufactured, accidental, totally on-purpose New York creation of the world’s biggest pop star.

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O ne year ago this month, Lady Gaga arrived for an interview in the dark, oak-paneled lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, a massive Spanish-style place in the tourist district of Hollywood that was supposed to make the area chic but has largely failed. “Just Dance,” the lead single off her first album, The Fame, had reached No. 1 in Australia, Sweden, and Canada in early 2008, but in March 2009, she was still an up-and-coming artist in America: a few thousand MySpace plays, a generic website, and a short tour as the opening act for New Kids on the Block. Gaga had a video, though. “My colleagues at radio in those three countries agreed to support her if I made a video,” says Martin Kierszenbaum, the president of A&R at her label, Interscope. The “Just Dance” video, shot a few miles from the Roosevelt, features Gaga shimmying with a disco ball in her hands while her friends drape themselves on a couch nearby—though most of those people were extras, not real friends. She didn’t know many people on the West Coast. “I don’t like Los Angeles,” she told me. “The people are awful and terribly shallow, and everybody wants to be famous but nobody wants to play the game. I’m from New York. I will kill to get what I need.”

Before the meeting, I assumed that someone with a stage name like “Lady” (her given name is Stefani Joanne Germanotta) was going to be a bit standoffish—that’s the strategy employed by most nervous young musicians on the occasion of their first real interview, in any case. But I never thought she was going to actually be Lady Gaga. These days, very few artists play the media like Bob Dylan, or stay in character as Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh did in his early career. In the age of VH1’s Behind the Music, tabloid culture, and reality television, musicians are aware that they should show themselves to journalists in as much mundane detail as they can muster. “But Lady Gaga is my name,” she said, amazed that I would have thought otherwise. “If you know me, and you call me Stefani, you don’t really know me at all.”

Gaga eased into a brown leather couch with as much grace as possible given her outfit, a stiff white jumpsuit with a jacket cut from a Martin Margiela pattern, the enormous shoulder pads stuffed underneath the fabric extending toward her ears. At five-two and 100 pounds, with her hair styled into a mod blonde bob, she looked flush from a strict diet of starvation: “Pop stars should not eat,” she pronounced. She was young, skinny, and blonde, but she had a prominent Italian nose, the kind of nose that rarely survives on a starlet. (This was during Gaga’s “hair-bow” phase—that would be pre-hair-hat and pre-hair-telephone—and when I asked about the bow’s whereabouts, she rested her head on a pillow of her hands and said, “She’s sleeping.”) In the hallway near her table, families of tourists took pictures of one another with cameras, unaware of her presence, and she recoiled dramatically at every flash. “Oh, cameras,” she said, shielding her eyes. “I cannot bear the cameras.”

As we began the conversation, Gaga spoke carefully in a very odd accent—some combination of Madonna as Madge and a robot, an affect enhanced by the fact that she refused to remove her lightly tinted sunglasses over the course of two hours. “What I’ve discovered,” said robo-Gaga, with a photo-ready tilt of her head, “is that in art, as in music, there’s a lot of truth—and then there’s a lie. The artist is essentially creating his work to make this lie a truth, but he slides it in amongst all the others. The tiny little lie is the moment I live for, my moment. It’s the moment that the audience falls in love.”

Gaga was very taken with her new “bubble dress” at this point, and we talked about its unreality, the beauty of the imaginary. Everyone wanted that dress, but it wasn’t a dress at all—it was a bunch of plastic balls. “On my tour,” she declared, “I’m going to be in my bubble dress on a piano made of bubbles, singing about love and art and the future. I should like to make one person believe in that moment, and it would be worth every salt of a No. 1 record.” She dropped the accent for a moment now—the real girl, unartificed, was right underneath—and leaned in. “I can have hit records all day, but who fucking cares?” she explained. “A year from now, I could go away, and people might say, ‘Gosh, what ever happened to that girl who never wore pants?’ But how wonderfully memorable 30 years from now, when they say, ‘Do you remember Gaga and her bubbles?’ Because, for a minute, everybody in that room will forget every sad, painful thing in their lives, and they’ll just live in my bubble world.”


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