In an age dominated by manufactured pop acts that are little more than co-branded, mass-marketed spinoffs from The Disney Channel, American Idol
, So You Think You Can Dance
, and Making The Band
, it can seem that musicians who actually worked their way up to stardom the old-fashioned way have become a thing of the past. But Lady Gaga is living testament to the fact that it is still possible, if you have talent and work hard enough, to rise from playing no-name gigs in New York dives to becoming one of the biggest names in pop music.
To the rest of the world, it might seem as if Lady Gaga just woke up one morning, put on a diamond-encrusted bustier, and thought to herself, "I think I'll take over the music industry today." But in reality her fame is the result of years of working tirelessly, getting rejected, getting back up, and trying again. As she told her official website: 'I was always an entertainer. I was a ham as a little girl and I'm a ham today,' says Lady Gaga, 23, who made a name for herself on the Lower East Side club scene with the infectious dance-pop party song 'Beautiful Dirty Rich,' and wild, theatrical, and often tongue-in-cheek 'shock art' performances where Gaga—who designs and makes many of her stage outfits—would strip down to her hand-crafted hot pants and bikini top, light cans of hairspray on fire, and strike a pose as a disco ball lowered from the ceiling to the orchestral sounds of A Clockwork Orange. 'I did this the way you are supposed to. I played every club in New York City and I bombed in every club and then killed it in every club and I found myself as an artist. I learned how to survive as an artist, get real, and how to fail and then figure out who I was as singer and performer. And, I worked hard.'
Born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta to parents of Italian heritage, the singer got her stage name when producer and co-writer Rob Fusari compared her vocal style to Freddie Mercury, the legendary lead singer of Queen. Fusari nicknamed her Gaga after Queen's hit "Radio Gaga"
; the name stuck.
Gaga attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart School (the same Manhattan private school attended by Paris and Nicky Hilton) but saw herself as belonging to a completely different world than those ritzy, popular girls. To begin with (as you might guess from her wild stage outfits), Gaga's fashion sense has always been a bit left of normal and she often got picked on in high school for her eccentric style. The same fashion aesthetic that made life tough in conformity-dominated high school has since made Gaga an icon. From luxury high-end items to scraps picked up at thrift stores and unforgettable self-designed pieces, she has made a name for herself in the fashion industry as a provocative entrepreneur. As Gaga explained to Ellen DeGeneres: "I didn't fit in in high school and I felt like a freak. So I like to create this atmosphere for my fans where they feel like they have a freak in me to hang out with and they don't feel alone. The whole point of what I do—The Monster Ball, the music, the performance aspect of it—I want to create a space for my fans where they can feel free and they can celebrate. This is really who I am, and it took a long time to be okay with that… Maybe in high school you, Ellen, you feel discriminated against [Ellen is a lesbian]. Like you don't fit in and you want to be like everyone else, but not really, and in the inside you want to be like Boy George—well, I did anyway. So I want my fans to know that it's okay. Sometimes in life you don't always feel like a winner, but that doesn't mean you're not a winner, you want to be like yourself. I want my fans to know it's okay."
Later on the same show, Ellen congratulated Gaga for being the rare pop star who actually sings rather than lip-synching when she performs live. "Aren't we supposed to sing?" Gaga laughed. "Isn't that part of the gig or something?"
Another thing to remember is that Lady Gaga (unlike
most of those other pop acts) actually writes all of her own material, both words and music, a fact she often stresses in interviews because this is so rare in mainstream pop music: "I'd just like to stress," she told iProng Magazine, "that I wrote, obviously, the whole album and that I have a really heavy hand in all of the creative content and the videos and the films and the TV, and I just really care about what I do."
Gaga also directs her own shows, picks the outfits, designs the sets, and has complete creative control. She does have a group of artists in New York to help her with clothing and set design—she calls them the "Haus of Gaga"—but she has the ultimate say in everything.
Discovered after spending most of 2007 performing in Lower East Side music halls with fellow avante-garde artist Lady Starlight (their burlesque '70s-inspired act was called "Lady Gaga and the Starlight Revue") the two were asked to appear at Lollapalooza and got rave reviews. Gaga began writing for artists signed to R&B artist Akon's label, Konvict, as well as for Britney Spears, Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, and other pop stars. "I was like the weird girl," Gaga told The Independent
, "who dressed like a zoo animal, the trash glamour in a roomful of urban hip-hop cats…They'd be, like, 'Gaga, what do you think of this lyric?' and I'd twist it all up and all of a sudden it was edgy."
Akon, already impressed with her writing, also took notice of Gaga's singing ability and persuaded executives at Interscope to sign her in a joint deal with his other venture, Kon Live Distribution. She spent the year working tirelessly on her debut album, The Fame
, with producer RedOne; its release in 2008 unleashed full-blown Gagamania into the world.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Lady Gaga is that the persona she has created for herself is so all-encompassing that it seems to have completely taken her over her life. The woman born as Stefani Germanotta lives, breathes, thinks, and acts as Lady Gaga every day. As far as we can tell, she is
her alter ego. But she does not see this new identity as a chore; rather as a free expression of the inner artist/true self that she had to suppress for many years.
But Gaga is her reality now. As she told The Independent
, "In my show I announce, 'People say Lady Gaga is a lie, and they are right. I am a lie. And every day I kill to make it true.' It's the dream of my vision, it's the lie that I tell, whether it's an umbrella or it's a hat or it's the way that I shape my lipstick. And then eventually it becomes a reality. My hair bow was a lie and now it's true."
And even though all of Gaga's work seems to be fixated on fame, it's not the kind of fame that we think of when we picture shallow celebrities doing whatever they can to extend their fifteen minutes. For Lady Gaga, she always felt famous, long before anyone knew who she was; "fame" to her is the idea of changing the world: "The kind of fame that I write about is a very special kind of fame," she told iProng, "that I think is really positive and can affect people's lives in a really, really amazing way. And I think that that other kind of fame that you're talking about is much more egocentric and has to do with making sure that people are recognizing me for my work. If anything I really love it when I see that my music and my fashion is affecting pop culture. That makes me feel famous."
Ever heard that quote, "With great power comes great responsibility?" Well, with great fame comes great power, great responsibility, and
great scrutiny. With the paparazzi following every minute, trying to generate good stories for a crazed fan base, it's not hard to see how rumors get started. It seems to be the price of super-fame that you are doomed to at least one ridiculous rumor about your life. Why would we want to think Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are just good friends from being on set together when we can imagine a steamy real-life romance? You get the idea. From alien abductions, to secret cults, to gay rumors, to adulterous affairs, the tabloids have pretty much covered it all in celebrity scandals, and Lady Gaga has not escaped this.
A few years back, the gossip magazines announced that Jamie Lee Curtis was anatomically a woman but genetically male. What?? And now we have rumors swirling (based on a weirdly shaped lower portion of a certain outfit she was wearing) that Lady Gaga is a hermaphrodite or pre-op transgendered person. She hardly addresses this crazy assertion in interviews, mainly because journalists are too scared to bring it up, but we can say with certainty that it is not true, and that Gaga is fully a woman. Just because she is bisexual and celebrates all forms of gender expression and sexuality, this does not mean that she has a, um, male part. Rather, she finds androgyny sexy and tries to incorporate it into her act whenever possible. Always pushing the boundaries, that one.
When one interviewer compared her to a female version of Freddie Mercury (who was gay) she replied: "Yeah I think so. I think it's part of me and what I do, there's like an androgyny to my stage show. I'm super-feminine and sexy, but then again I sort of carry myself like a dude. You know, the music is a reflection of who I am, and I grew up as a theater kid and studying musical theater and auditioning in New York. I was a dancer, I was a singer, I was an actress. So doing theatrical pop music was a way for me to blend all of those worlds together. And Freddie Mercury was an inspiration for me when I was at a record label and they'd say "you're too theater" and I'd be at an audition for a musical and they'd say "you're too pop," you know? I was able to bring both worlds together."
Phew, now we can put all those silly transgender rumors to rest.
At any rate, this woman has the world going ga-ga for a reason: her infectious beats and catchy lyrics, her "shock art" stage performances, her willingness to embrace the bizarre and the misfits, her devotion to her fans, and her self-confidence all combine to form an intoxicating cocktail of pop music perfection; it's no accident that she's won a huge following. And with her work ethic and love for what she does, we don't think she'll be going away for a long time. "I'm living my dream right now," Gaga says. "I'm on the road, I'm making music, I'm making art, I'm performing at arenas and in nightclubs and people know my lyrics, they know my fashion and they know what I'm trying to say and it's affecting them. This is great. This exactly what I've always wanted."