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Growing Up Gaga

Gaga was devastated. “She couldn’t even talk when she told me because she was crying so hard,” says Fusari. Unlike most struggling musicians, she chose to decline part of her advance so that she could walk with her masters (two of her six hits are on this original record). This was the first moment Gaga had experienced real hardship—the first moment in her life she really thought she might fail. “I went back to my apartment on the Lower East Side, and I was so depressed,” she says. “That’s when I started the real devotion to my music and art.”

In contrast to Madonna, who gravitated to the forward edge of downtown and took herself with the utmost seriousness, Gaga, following her own instinct, headed toward a scene that was inclusive and fun but not particularly hip. In 2007, hipsters were listening to creative folk-rock bands out of Brooklyn like Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective; Gaga went for hard rock and downtown art trash. She fell desperately in love with Luc Carl, a 29-year-old drummer and manager of the rock bar St. Jerome’s on Rivington Street. That’s where she met Lady Starlight, an L.E.S. fixture in her thirties—M.A.C makeup artist, D.J., performance artist—who still plays shows for $60 but has a vast knowledge of rock music and style history. Starlight had gone through many incarnations, from mod meets Cabaret to Angela Bowie to leather-studded member of Judas Priest, which is what she was rocking at that moment.

“Starlight and I bonded instantly over her love of heavy metal and my love of boys that listen to heavy metal,” says Gaga. “In those days, I’d wake up at noon in my apartment with my boyfriend and his loud Nikki Sixx hair, jeans on the floor, his stinky sneakers. He’d have his T-shirt on, no boxers. Then he would go do the books at St. Jerome’s. I’d spin vinyl of David Bowie and New York Dolls in my kitchen, then write music with Lady Starlight. Eventually, I’d hear a honk outside my window: his old green Camino with a black hood. I’d run down the stairs yelling, ‘Baby, baby, rev the engine,’ and we’d drive over the Brooklyn Bridge, dress up, meet friends, play more music.” She leans forward. “The Lower East Side has an arrogance, a stench. We walk and talk and live and breathe who we are with such an incredible stench that eventually the stench becomes a reality. Our vanity is a positive thing. It’s made me the woman I am today.”

“I’m out of here. I’m going to get a new nose, I’m moving to L.A., and I’m going to be huge.”

Gaga started performing her songs with Starlight at small venues, and go-go dancing under a red lightbulb at Pianos—she’d wear a bikini and Luc Carl’s fingerless black gloves, too big for her small hands. Dancing, diet pills, and one real meal a day was the way she finally lost weight, according to a friend. “I was naked on a bar with money hanging out of my tits and ass,” she says. (Gaga has been very open about having taken cocaine during this period, but none of her friends from this time recalls any drug use; they say that she told them she only used cocaine when she was alone.) She and Starlight began opening for the glam-rockers Semi Precious Weapons; they looked like hair-metal groupies, running around the stage spraying Aqua Net on fire. “Gaga and I used to go shopping together, too,” says Justin Tranter, lead singer of SPW. “Any sex store where 99 percent of the store was made up of DVDs and sex toys and 1 percent was actual clothing was our favorite place to shop. Her mom came to my loft once to pick up one Lucite pump that she left at the show the night before.”

Gaga was enjoying herself, and, as usual, she spread her positive energy around. “She tried to make everyone feel good,” says Brendan Sullivan, a.k.a. DJ VH1, who worked with her on some early shows. “I’d go to her apartment with my unpublished novel, and she would tell me that I was the most brilliant writer of my generation, the poet laureate of the Lower East Side. No one else was doing that for me.” She wasn’t talking much to Fusari—the romance was over—but he caught a show with Starlight and was appalled. “It was Rocky Horror meets eighties band, and I didn’t get it at all,” he says. “I told Stefani that I could get her another D.J., but she was like, ‘I’m good.’ ”

But Fusari inserted himself back into the picture, in the spring of 2007, when he heard that his friend Vincent Herbert, a “hustler with a capital H,” had landed a deal with Interscope to sign new artists. Within a couple days, Herbert had them on a plane to Los Angeles to meet Jimmy Iovine, the head of Interscope. Gaga came to the meeting in short shorts, go-go boots, and a cutoff T-shirt, but Iovine didn’t show up; they flew back to New York, then were summoned back two weeks later. Iovine, an executive from Brooklyn who made his name on gangster rap with Dr. Dre and later rode the wave of nineties soft metal, is known for his good ears, and after listening to a few tracks in his office, he stood up and said, “Let’s try this.”