The two of them worked on rock songs for four months, but the reaction among their colleagues was negative; they also tried the singer-songwriter route, like Michelle Branch or Avril Lavigne, but those didn’t gel either. “With those kinds of records, people are looking at the source of that music, who it’s coming from,” says Starland. “Those artists are usually classically beautiful, very steady, and more tranquil, in a way.” Stefani agreed that her name was not going to fly: Fusari liked to sing Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” when she arrived at the studio, and she says that she came up with Lady Gaga off that joke. (Success indeed has many authors: Fusari says that he made it up inadvertently in a text message; Starland says it was the product of brainstorming.)
Then, one day, Fusari read an article in the New York Times about folk-pop artist Nelly Furtado, whose career had stalled since her 2000 hit “I’m Like a Bird”: Timbaland, the hot producer of the moment, had remade her as a slinky dance artist. “We weren’t going to get past A&R with a female rock record, and dance is so much easier,” says Fusari. Gaga freaked out—you don’t believe in me, she told him—but, from that day onward, they started working with a drum machine. They also began an affair, which made their artistic collaboration tumultuous. When Fusari didn’t like her hooks, she would get teary-eyed and rant about feeling worthless. But he was rough on her, too. Gaga wasn’t into fashion at this point: She liked leggings and sweatshirts, maybe with a shoulder out. “A couple times, she came to the studio in sweatpants, and I said, ‘Really, Stef?’ ” says Fusari. “ ‘What if I had Clive Davis in here today? I should call the session right now. Prince doesn’t pick up ice cream at the 7-Eleven looking like Chris Rock. You’re an artist now. You can’t turn this on and off.’ ”
The problem was that she didn’t know how to turn it on: Though she wanted to be a star, she didn’t have a clear idea of what a star was, or where the main currents in pop culture were flowing. It was at this point that she began her serious study. Gaga picked up a biography of Prince, started shopping at American Apparel, and became entranced by aughties New Age bible The Secret, according to friends. As a Catholic-school girl, she interpreted Fusari’s remarks as a signal to cut her skirts shorter and make them tighter, until one day they totally disappeared: All that was left were undies, sometimes with tights underneath.
Starland was still part of the picture: She lived near Gaga’s parents’ house, and Gaga would come over, crunching Doritos on the couch while watching Sex and the City. But when she tried to formalize her role in Gaga’s life with a lawyer, she ran aground. “I got a call from my lawyer, who said that Stefani was going to give me a very generous Christmas gift,” she says. One evening, she went over to the Germanottas’ duplex, where Gaga’s family, including her sister and grandmother, were celebrating, alongside a new little dog that Gaga liked to put booties on for fun. In the living room, Gaga presented her with an enormous Chanel box, revealing a black quilted purse with a gold chain. This might be a Mean Girls moment, where Gaga sticks it to an early collaborator, but in her naïve way, Gaga thought she was giving Starland something of great worth: the kind of purse she wanted so badly when she was young.
Bursting with confidence, Gaga was ready to be transformed. The dance-music scene that she’d fallen into turned out to be a perfect fit for her highly sexualized Catholic-school energy—she was a performer, rather than purely a singer. But the business into which she was launching herself was more difficult than ever. There are only four major labels these days; EMI is teetering on the edge, and if it misses its debt payments in June, Citigroup will own a record label. By 2006, labels were asking artists for a “360 deal”: Instead of financing an artist’s recording and then owning the masters, they wanted to share in the rights that traditionally belonged to the artist, like merchandise, live revenue, and endorsement fees. They were wary of any artist without a proven Internet following—the bet was on MySpace stars like Paramore or Panic at the Disco!—and there was Gaga, trying to go through the front door.
But she had a good track. “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” a song about her friends from NYU asking their dads for money, drew prospective managers to a showcase downtown—everyone had to see her live because otherwise they didn’t get it. She was also invited to Island Def Jam, near Times Square. L. A. Reid walked into the room while she was playing piano and started drumming to the beat on a table. “L.A. told me I was a star,” says Gaga. She signed a deal with Island Def Jam for $850,000, according to a member of her camp, but after she produced the tracks, the line went dead. Three dinners were scheduled with Reid, but he canceled on each. Finally, Gaga got a call from her A&R rep at Island Def Jam: He had played a track in a meeting, and after a couple minutes Reid made a slitting motion across his throat. (Island Def Jam did not respond to requests for comment). She was off the label.