Shady lady: The truth about pop's Lady Gaga

She’s loud, brash, trashy and sexually ambiguous, but this shameless self-publicist claims to be traditional at heart

Lady Gaga is only 70 minutes late, which I suppose (sigh) is quite good by pop-star standards. This gives me ample time to case the pavements round the May Fair hotel for the packs of paparazzi who are supposed to follow her everywhere she goes — but there are disappointingly none.

Her young English PR, Adrian, tells me that she is busy putting on her make-up, to which I respond rather forcefully that she really need not bother because I won’t notice whether she’s wearing 10 layers of slap or none. But according to Adrian, she won’t ever leave her room without full make-up. He takes me up to the penthouse suite where the interview will take place. All very Kelly Hoppen, black-and-gold upholstery, lacquer tables, buddhas, white orchids, bamboo, the usual. “Have a look at the bathroom!” Adrian says excitedly. It has a freestanding granite tub exactly like a sarcophagus. “And the master bedroom!” Circular white bed, ginormous flatscreen, more white orchids. Yes, the decor is impressive, but the waiting is long.Lady Gaga

Eventually she appears, a frail little body tottering along on absurdly high platform heels, in fishnet tights, a rather skewwhiff Marilyn Monroe wig, and a short, black silk wrap, which keeps falling open to reveal her somewhat undernourished breasts. I preferred the photos of her at Glastonbury with flames shooting out of her bra. Her skin is pale, almost milk-white, but she has thick black hairs on her arms and a hodgepodge of tattoos (a ban-the-bomb sign, some lines of poetry), which spoils the porcelain effect. But she is very polite. She takes her sunglasses off as soon as we start talking, revealing lovely, big hazel eyes, and — best of all — produces two ashtrays, some cigs and a lighter, and tells me that, though she doesn’t smoke on performance days, she can today.

If you google Lady Gaga the first thing you see is a related search asking “Is Lady Gaga a hermaphrodite?” Naturally this question has been weighing on my mind and I have spent an unseemly amount of time studying close-ups of her crotch on YouTube. Jonathan Ross raised the question when she came on his show and received the immortal reply “I do have a really big donkey dick,” which certainly shut him up. Her early career seems to have been dogged by rumours that she was a man in drag, and Christina Aguilera said dismissively: “I don’t know if it is a man or a woman.” But why should she be a man, or even a hermaphrodite? She does have a deep voice but she is quite clearly a woman. The whole hermaphrodite story has the feel of a rather desperate publicity ploy.

One of the problems with — and for — Lady Gaga is that the music industry and publicity machine don’t quite know what to make of her. She writes these catchy, feel-good electro-pop tunes that go down a storm in clubs, but then talks a load of impenetrable art bollocks in interviews. Her heroes are the utterly predictable Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Madonna, Grace Jones, and of course she claims to be a “performance artist” rather than a singer. Don’t they all? She complains that just because she is blonde, people treat her like an airhead, but she has to dye her hair, she explains, because otherwise she gets mistaken for Amy Winehouse, and I can see that — yes — with her long face and big schnozz there is a distinct resemblance.

She is a 23-year-old New York singer-songwriter, née Stefani Joanne Germanotta, daughter of an Italian-American internet entrepreneur. She went to the same Convent of the Sacred Heart school in Manhattan as Paris and Nicky Hilton (though she didn’t know them), and says she got “an incredible education”. She started at the Tisch School of the Arts at 17 but dropped out after a year when her singing career took off. She began singing at open-mic nights from when she was 14 — her mother accompanied her — and was contracted to write songs for Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls by the time she was 20. Eventually she was signed by Interscope and released her first album, The Fame, in 2007. It has sold 4m copies worldwide and spawned two No 1 singles — Just Dance and Poker Face.

Now it is being re-released with eight new tracks (including a duet with Beyoncé) as a two-disc set called The Fame Monster. She is currently on a tour called the Monster Ball, and coming to the UK in February and March, playing the O2 Arena on February 26 and 27. Whether or not she will prove to be “the next Madonna”, as frequently promised, she is more than happy with the idea: “I love and appreciate Madonna comparisons. I know her and I think she’s wonderful. And I love pop music done the right way.” Her ambitions are actually limitless: “I don’t wanna be one song. I wanna be the next 25 years of pop music.”

She is here in London to work on the visuals for her new show with the photographer Nick Knight and is wildly excited. “I love Nick Knight’s work, I’m such a fan — he’s like God. I was in America, shooting another video, and the whole Haus of Gaga [her retinue] was, like, sitting round talking about video, and I was saying I hate just hiring these hack photographers — it’s meaningless. So they said, ‘Who do you want?’

I said, ‘Well, Nick Knight is God.’ And they all go, ‘Yes, Nick Knight is God. Why don’t we just give God a call?’ So we called him and he was up for it — he knew my work and liked it, or I hope he liked it. I don’t know much about the enigma of Nick Knight, but I know I love his work.”

“What are visuals?” I ask casually, and then regret it as she spends the next half-hour showing me designs for sets and costumes on her manager’s computer. Every time she hits the wrong button, we revert to a screensaver of the manager’s dog. Gaga insists on explaining the concept of her show, which is on the wildly original theme of evolution. “It’s part pop show, part performance art, part fashion installation. It came about because as an artist, as a writer, as a woman, I feel I’ve evolved so much.”

So far so predictable, but then she goes on: “My evolution is from the beginning of time, so I start as a cell [she shows me a costume like a geodesic dome], and then I become a vertebrate, and then I become a full animal, and there’s the birth of the economy, and trade and war, and then it’s the Apocalypse. Because we as a society are taught politically and religiously that the Apocalypse is coming, it’s on its way. But what I’m saying with my show is, ‘We’re there right now: this is the Apocalypse.’ The fact that we’re surrounded by cement and we’ve already killed everything means the Apocalypse has happened.

So the idea for me is to give a sense of repose and solace to my fans, that we’re here, we did it already, and now it’s about accepting where we are and looking more joyfully into the future. And then the Apocalypse is over and the stage becomes very minimal and all that’s left is me with a piano, in the middle of the destruction.”

Hope that’s clear. I’m not absolutely sure I followed the plot, but I enjoyed the costumes — especially one that seemed simultaneously to convey both Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf. She says she would have liked the set to be even more ambitious, but everyone kept reminding her that they only had 80 men to erect it. “Like, I tell everybody about my dreams, and they say, ‘Gaga, we love it, but how the f*** are we going to build it?’ ” Moreover, the whole show has been put together at speed, because she was meant to be touring with Kanye West, but that tour was cancelled so she had to organise her own show very quickly — her band and dancers are currently rehearsing in New York, while she commutes between them and Nick Knight.

“I have resigned myself to this ridiculous schedule,” she says grandly, “because I feel that it is my destiny to provide for my fans.”

Her life, she says in every interview, is dedicated to her fans. She is married to her work, she has no time for any personal distractions. She will take Christmas Day off — and spend it with her parents — but otherwise she works nonstop. When I ask where she lives, she says flatly: “The May Fair hotel.” But she must have a home somewhere? “My home is onstage.” Where does she keep her things? “I have storage.” Not even an apartment? “No. I don’t care about those things. I tell my fans this little poem I wrote:

For every minute of the day,

The truth is that I’m dead,

Until I’m here onstage with you —

Then I’m alive instead.”

That’s kind of sad, surely? Can’t she ever do normal things? Walk in the park, go to galleries? No, she says, because of paparazzi, though it’s better in New York than here. “I find that when I don’t think about it, it goes better. When I’m worried about not having a normal evening, it’s not normal, but if I allow myself to just go out with some friends and have a drink, it’s okay. I had a great Hallowe’en in New York because I was with lots of friends and nobody noticed me.”

She has no time to meet, or even think about, boyfriends. She had one a few years ago, a heavy-metal drummer, but she has not had one since he left her. “I don’t know enough men and I’m quite isolated. I have basically no friends in the music industry. I’ve stayed away from that life. I don’t go out with celebs, I don’t go to many award shows. I’m sort of in a purgatory right now, and that’s what the album’s about. But to be honest I’m not obsessed with that portion of my life just yet. I’m 23, I’ve got time…”

A line on Poker Face — “I’m bluffin with my muffin”— has been interpreted to mean she is bisexual, but she says she’s never been in love with a girl. And she hopes she’ll marry eventually: ‘I’m a very traditional person in that my mother and father never got divorced and I had a lovely family growing up, so I believe that is in the cards for me for sure, but at this moment my destiny is to be a storyteller.”

She says the habit of working hard comes from her parents. “They both came from lower-class families, so we’ve worked for everything — my mother worked eight to eight out of the house, in telecommunications, and so did my father. I had jobs when I was 16, I had tons of jobs when I dropped out of school, I come from this hustling background so for me it was just normal to do it this way.” Did they talk about money much at home? “No. The one time we talk about money is when my dad’s screaming at me on the phone to save, whereas I want to spend everything on my show. Because I don’t really care about money. I don’t care about having a big fancy car, or going to fancy parties. But this album is about being in the midst of the hustle, grinding for the dreams, and now that the dream is on my finger, I’m a bit more relaxed.”

Whereas at school she felt like a freak. She had jet-black hair when all the other girls were blonde, and “I was kind of darker, theatre-obsessed, always doing music, whereas other girls were kind of having a nice time and enjoying their high-school years. But I was in the grind already, and never really fitted in. I’d see, say, a photo of Boy George and go, ‘I feel like that.’” She had a weird habit, in the evenings, of locking herself in the bathroom with a book of film-star photos and trying to copy their look. When her mother came home she would say: “I did Judy [Garland] today, Mom.” Or Marilyn. And her mother would say: “You look great, but now you should wash your face.”

Her parents never stifled her. When, at four, she started playing her grandmother’s piano, they sent her to piano lessons. When she announced, aged 14, that she wanted to perform in clubs, her mother accompanied her. “She’d say to the manager, ‘Listen, I know she’s too young to be in here, and I’m too old to be in here, but she’s incredibly talented and she’s a singer-songwriter and can she sign up on your open-mic list?’ And we just sat and waited round for them to call my name.” At the beginning she was more of a folk singer — “I was vomiting out emotions, but I didn’t want music to be therapy” — so then she got into pop, and, like Madonna, first made a name for herself in New York’s gay clubs.

When she left school, she got quite heavily into drugs. She says she’s glad she did all that so young, “Because now I’m done with it. But at the time it was like self-discovery and a way for me to feel good about myself. But I don’t want my fans to think that way, I want them to listen to my music. That’s kind of what the Monster Ball is all about — for those who feel like a freak inside, come to my show. I know just how you feel because I used to feel it even more, and I want them to come dressed up and wearing whatever they really want to wear, and coming with their boyfriends and girlfriends and making out and hugging and screaming and crying and it’s like this exorcism. It’s almost like replacement for all the things I did wrong — I just want to give to my fans the music that will be the escape for them.”

Last month she took a rare week off because her father was having heart surgery. “I didn’t want to work, I didn’t care about anything except my father. It was an aortic-valve transplant, but it was really late in the game. He was supposed to have surgery years ago and then he just didn’t, and he was resigned that he wasn’t going to have it, he kept saying, ‘But I feel fine.’ But then all of a sudden he didn’t feel so good and I dropped everything I was doing and went home and just stood over him and said, ‘You. Do. It. Now.’”

She says the theme of death pervades her new album because she’s been worrying about her father for so long. “I wrote this song, Speechless, about the phone calls he would make when I was on the road, and I never knew what to say because I was so sad, and so angry, because I thought he was resigned to dying. So the song is about the things we never say. And is it harder to say these hurtful things, or is it better to say them with the possibility that it could change a life?

It’s very loving in one sense, but in another sense it’s quite ruthless. I think my favourite lines on the whole album are —

And I know that it’s complicated

But I’m a loser in love

So baby, raise a glass to mend

All the broken hearts

Of all my wrecked-up friends.

“So I’m writing about my dad, but not only from my perspective, from the perspective of my mother, and women and men all over the world whose hearts are broken for whatever reason. For me, the whole album lives in that lyric.”

Is she a Daddy’s girl? “Right now I am.” Perhaps that’s why she finds it hard to form relationships — because no man can compete?

“Oh, now you’re trying to analyse me!” she laughs, and shakes her head.

Her closest friends, possibly her only friends, are the seven or so creative assistants who make up the Haus of Gaga. “They’re all young kids who dropped out of school, and most of them were with me from the beginning. Everyone around me knew what I wanted to do, but nobody thought it would become as big as it has become, or as big as they tell me it’s become.

I think we all wondered about the commercial success, based on what I am really trying to do. And for the record company it was a stressful beginning because the music was so pop and I think they didn’t quite see the medicine — the music is the sugar and they couldn’t see the medicine inside it.”

They thought she was just a simple airhead pop singer? “Exactly. Right. But I guess it’s because at this point we don’t expect much of blonde pop singers. And when I came out it was, ‘Oh, she’s attention-seeking!’ Or, ‘She’s trying too hard’, or ‘She wants to be noticed’, whereas the very nature of performance art is that it wants to be noticed, so everyone’s kind of missing the point. But now I actually feel that I’m in a space where they’re not missing the point, because I’ve never let up and I’ve never sold out. There is never a moment that you see me that I’m not working towards something creatively. For me, it’s very simple: I’m not going to allow you to portray me in a way that is your idea of what you think I am. I know who I am and — praise the Lord! — I’m a real artist. Why is this a bad thing? But now I have a lot of fans and they’re spreading the book of Gaga around the world.”


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