Gaga was worried that the label didn’t think she was pretty enough to be a performer—she was recording tracks with RedOne, a Moroccan-Swedish producer, but they set her up as a songwriter for the Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears (Spears was running around Los Angeles with a shaved head, so this wasn’t a plum assignment). Herbert even spent his own money to send her to Lollapalooza over the summer, and he started to think that her look was wrong—someone in the audience shouted out “Amy Winehouse,” and that made him nervous. “I told her that she needed to dye her hair blonde, and she did it right away,” says Herbert. “God bless that girl, she really does listen.”
On vacation in the Cayman Islands with Luc Carl, Gaga picked a fight, and he told her that he wasn’t sure she was going to make it. “One day, you’re not going to go into a deli without hearing me,” she spat back. Back in New York, she sat down at a table at Beauty Bar with Sullivan, despondent. “I’m getting a nose job,” she said. “I’m going to get a new nose, and I’m moving to L.A., and I’m going to be huge.” He pleaded with her to be reasonable; like a true city kid, Gaga doesn’t even know how to drive. “Whatever,” she said. “I have the money. I just want to start fresh.”
Sullivan told her about Warhol’s Before and After I painting of two noses, before and after rhinoplasty, with a word that looks like RAPED at the top. She went up to the Met one afternoon and stood in front of it. She bought books about Warhol, which helped her make sense of her journey while providing a new vocabulary to talk about her creations. “Andy’s books became her bible,” says Darian Darling, a friend. “She would highlight them with a pen.”
For Warhol, stardom was its own art form, empty imagistic vividness one of the most important forces. The person behind the mask could be as seemingly sweet and ordinary as Stefani Germanotta—and still be huge. Before Warhol, however unusual, she’d been in the general category of rock chick. He freed her to invent herself, like so many before her, expand herself, make herself a spectacle. While writing a club song called “Just Dance” with RedOne, Gaga tried to broaden her surface, remaking her style as a blonde space-age queen, a fabulous chick from the Factory era. The music was global-dance-party music—faster beats, synth sounds, with an ethos that made sense to her hippie heart. “Gaga and I believe that the world needs this music, that it is a way to unite,” says RedOne. It wasn’t the kind of music America was listening to at the moment, but she could be broken overseas and America might follow.
Suddenly, the clouds parted. One of Interscope’s big artists, Akon, an R&B singer from Senegal with a massive global following, heard the track and lost his mind about it. Iovine pushed the button. She started working seriously with a choreographer: “I heard that this was the new Madonna, so I was like, ‘Okay, let’s hit it, pumpkin,’ ” says Laurie Ann Gibson. She recorded at the home studio of Kierszenbaum, the company’s A&R head, as well. “I liked that she was talking about Prince’s arrangements, styling, and presentation,” he says. “Interest in Prince ebbs and flows, and two years ago, it was very, very maverick. Artists were saying ‘Here’s my record and album cover,’ not talking about putting screens on the stage.” She began wearing her crazy disco outfits everywhere. “She was never out of uniform, if you will,” says Kierszenbaum. She also took a personal plunge: The day that she shot the video for “Just Dance” was the same day that she finally left Carl. Her heart may have been broken, but this was her new life. (Friends say that she has not been in love since, and the ritualistic killing of male lovers in her last three videos is related to this breakup.)
The newly liberated Gaga didn’t feel like she needed to express her sexuality in a typically feminine way, either, and she became obsessed with androgyny, with the look of Liza Minnelli. She loved the free expression of drag queens—she wanted to wear the same clothes as those guys, cover herself with glitter, wear a wig. Though she wasn’t from gay club culture, management began sending her to small clubs around the country. She even performed at a party at the Madison nightclub in the West Twenties hosted by Kenny Kenny, for $150. “When I went backstage to say hello, she said, ‘Don’t look at me! I don’t have my makeup on yet.’ ” He laughs. “I was like, ‘Uh, okay.’ I’ve seen Amanda Lepore without her makeup.”