After the World Trade Center was attacked, Gaga cried for days and wore black, in mourning. “As she came down the aisle to get Communion at the special Mass for 9/11, her steps were in this serious cadence,” says a friend. “She used to wear a lot of makeup, but she didn’t have any on. I remember thinking, Wow, she is so over-the-top.” Gaga also had an odd habit of refusing to let cast members in plays call her by her real name backstage. “If you tried to say ‘Hey, Stefani’ to her, she’d put on the voice of her character, and say, ‘No, I’m Ginger!’ ” says a friend. “It was so bizarre, because we were kids.”
After high school, Gaga moved to an NYU dorm on 11th Street and enrolled in Tisch, but quickly felt that she was further along creatively than some of her classmates. “Once you learn how to think about art, you can teach yourself,” she says. By the second semester of her sophomore year, she told her parents that she wasn’t going back to school—she was going to be a rock star. Her father reportedly agreed to pay her rent for a year on the condition that she reenroll if she was unsuccessful. “I left my entire family, got the cheapest apartment I could find, and ate shit until somebody would listen,” she says.
Gaga moved into an apartment on the Lower East Side, with a futon for a couch and a Yoko Ono record hung over her bed. In high school, she had blonde highlights and let her curls run wild, but now she dyed her hair black and began to straighten it. She started the Stefani Germanotta Band with some friends from NYU, recording an EP of her Fiona Apple–type ballads at a studio underneath a liquor store in New Jersey. “Stefani had a following of about fifteen to twenty people at each show,” says the guitarist, Calvin Pia. Says her manager at the time, Frankie Fredericks, “We’d kick it, jam, get drunk. She said she wanted to have a record deal by the time she was 21.”
It was a lofty goal. What was missing, almost entirely, was any idea of how to get there. Like Madonna, she had a powerful sexual charisma. But whereas Madonna had seemed to calculate every step, every coupling, every stylistic turn in her quest for stardom, Gaga’s story is partly one of youthful drift, waiting for lightning to strike, for the brilliant accident to happen. Gaga, though, had something Madonna didn’t have: a truly great voice.
Gaga’s year off from school was set to end in March 2006—her father had set a cutoff date of her birthday. A week before, the Stefani Germanotta Band performed at the Cutting Room on the same bill as Wendy Starland, a young singer-songwriter in the mold of Peter Gabriel. Starland had been working on tracks with Rob Fusari, a 38-year-old producer in Parsippany, New Jersey, who was known for his success with R&B hits for Destiny’s Child and Will Smith. He mentioned to Starland that he was interested in locating a female singer to front a band like the Strokes—she didn’t have to be good-looking, or even a great singer, but she had to have something about her you couldn’t take your eyes off. “Stefani’s confidence filled the room,” says Starland. “Her presence is enormous. And fearless. I listened for the pitch, the tone, and timbre of her voice. Was she able to have a huge dynamic range? Was she able to get soft and then belt? And I felt that she was able to do all that while giving out this very powerful energy.”
Gaga erupted in giggles when Starland ran up to her after the performance and told her, “I’m about to change your life.” They rushed outside the club together, and Starland called Fusari on her cell phone. “Rob said, ‘Why are you waking me up?’ I said I found the girl. ‘What? It’s really one in a million. What’s her name?’ Stefani Germanotta. ‘Um, you gotta be kidding me. What does she look like?’ Don’t worry about that. ‘Does she have any good songs?’ No. ‘How is her band?’ Awful.” Starland laughs. “I wasn’t pitching a product. I was pitching the girl.”
When Fusari first met Gaga, he didn’t see the private-school thing and thought she looked like “a Guidette, totally Jersey Shore.” Then she jumped on his piano. “She didn’t have that kind of undersinging character voice of Julian Casablancas, so I dropped the Strokes thing right away,” says Fusari. “I thought she was a female John Lennon, to be totally honest. She was the oddest talent.” Gaga began taking the bus from Port Authority to meet him at his New Jersey studio at 10 a.m., writing grungy songs with Zeppelin or Nirvana riffs on the piano and singing her quirky Jefferson Airplane lyrics over them. “I’m a hippie at heart, and Rob and I got tattoos one day,” she says. “I wanted a tattoo of a peace sign, in memory of John and Yoko. I love that they traveled the world and said ‘Give peace a chance,’ and when asked to elaborate, they replied, ‘No, just give peace a chance.’ They thought the simplicity of that phrasing would change the world. It’s so beautiful.”