For a young woman who's dressed like an alien empress, Lady Gaga is acting strangely human. She's curled up with her ex-model boyfriend, Speedy, on a tour-van seat, looking as cozy as anyone in a sparkly, curve-clutching cat suit with spiked, winglike shoulders could possibly get. "He thinks I'm pretty," Gaga purrs, batting huge false eyelashes as she rests her platinum-blond head on Speedy's shoulder, nearly poking his eye out with a shoulder spike.
As the van cruises along California's 405 freeway, heading from an Irvine amphitheater to a Burbank soundstage, fireworks bloom in the distant sky over Disneyland. Gaga, who's been munching handfuls of kettle corn and sipping from a can of Diet Coke, turns pensive. "What am I doing right now?" she asks, sounding sleepy and uncharacteristically vulnerable. "Who am I?"
With theatrical timing, an interloper chirps an answer from the back seat: "You're the new princess of pop!"
The voice belongs to the gossip blogger Perez Hilton, an early and fervent Gaga supporter. He's been hanging around all day in his leopard-print Adidas T-shirt, offering compliments and toothy smiles. Gaga laughs, shocked at the near-scripted perfection of the moment. "You are," Hilton drawls, flashing the teeth.
Less than an hour ago, in front of 15,000 shrieking teens at the radio concert Wango Tango, Gaga sang a set that included both "Just Dance" and "Poker Face" — the synthed-up, Eighties-flavored dance-pop hits that, along with her art-damaged, Euro-futuristic fashion sense, have made her the defining pop star of 2009: She reigns over a self-created, plasticized aesthetic universe with Madonna-esque assurance — and offsets her oddness with shamelessly ingratiating pop hooks. With its refrain of "Just dance/Gonna be OK" (the narrator is so wasted at the club that she's lost her keys and phone), Gaga's first hit could be heard as a keep-on-pushing anthem or an endorsement of total denial — either way, perfect recession fodder. "Poker Face," in its way, has more layers — it's about Gaga wanting to sleep with a woman while she's dating a guy (hence the line "I'm bluffin' with my muffin"). The two hits have led to a platinum album — an increasingly rare feat — and nearly 10 million digital singles sold, per Nielsen SoundScan.
A few days earlier, the 23-year-old singer played a concert in New York that felt like a coronation: Madonna (with daughter Lourdes in tow) and Cyndi Lauper both turned up. And on tonight's new episode of Saturday Night Live, Justin Timberlake gives his own endorsement, singing loving, dead-on parody versions of both singles. (A week later, Rivers Cuomo will sing part of "Poker Face" at a Weezer show.)
In the face of tween pop's relentless cuteness assault, Gaga — who worships Andy Warhol and Grace Jones, and thanks David Bowie and Madonna for inspiration in her liner notes — is a pop star for misfits and outcasts. She would rather look interesting than pretty. "I don't feel that I look like the other perfect little pop singers," says Gaga, who has a still-unreleased song called "Ugly Sexy." "I think I look new. I think I'm changing what people think is sexy."
In the van, Gaga laughs as she watches for the first time a video for "Butterface," a vicious "Poker Face" parody (sample lyric: "You were thinking that I'm a 10/But my body's like a Barbie/And my face is like a Ken"). In truth, Gaga's attractive, slightly off-kilter features — ethnic nose, prominent front teeth — seem almost infinitely mutable: One day she looks like Debbie Harry, the next, Donatella Versace. But up close, she's always softer, prettier and younger-looking than her ultrastylized photos might suggest.
Gaga is fully Gaga at all times. Onstage or off, she's dressed in her future-shock style, often in clothes she designs with her 23-year-old creative director, Matthew Williams, whom she calls Matty Dada — he's part of the team she has dubbed Haus of Gaga, which she envisions as a modern-day version of Warhol's Factory. She was born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, but no one has called her that in years. (Her first producer, Rob Fusari, inspired the nickname — he was struck by some Freddie Mercury-like harmonies she recorded, and started singing Queen's "Radio Ga Ga" to her as a running joke. One day, she texted him her new name, and she never answered to "Stef" again.)
Backstage at the radio show, Gaga strolled around wearing a geometrically patterned vintage Gareth Pugh jacket over a leotard that barely covered her robust but toned bottom. But the price of her no-pants look is eternal vigilance: At all times, her ex-Marine bodyguard and three backup dancers took turns standing behind her — they were guarding her ass against paparazzi. Earlier in the week, she caused a ruckus in a Queens Stop & Shop after showing up in a transparent bodysuit (with only a bra and G-string underneath) to shop for tortelloni. "Why don't you have a fuckin' meet-and-greet in the frozen-foods aisle?" Speedy suggested. She then cooked a meal for Speedy's parents, rear end presumably still showing.
Now, ass firmly encased in cat suit, she's heading to her second gig of the night: a six-song taped performance for Walmart.com that will end sometime after 2 a.m. The next night will bring another radio concert; the day after that, a performance on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show and a photo shoot where her pal Marilyn Manson will turn up; the following day, a taping of Dancing With the Stars and a flight back to New York. There, she'll shoot a M.A.C Cosmetics campaign with Lauper, return to L.A. for another photo shoot, then jet off to New Zealand and Australia for a tour. "Welcome to my life," Gaga says. "They can't say I didn't work for it."
But this life — art, music, fashion, celebrity cameos — is all she ever wanted, even before she dropped out of New York University after her freshman year to pursue music full time. "I don't have the same priorities as other people," she continues softly, glancing warily at Speedy, who's not listening, distracted by his cellphone. She doesn't necessarily want him to hear this part. "I just don't. I like doing this all the time. It's my passion. When I'm not doing a show, I'm writing a song, or I'm on the phone with Dada yapping about a hemline. The truth is, the psychotic woman that I truly am comes out when I'm not working. When I'm not working, I go crazy."
As we reach Burbank, Gaga closes her eyes for a minute. "I'm rebooting," she says. "Activate Lady Gaga program."
Before she had an audience, it was just Gaga and her mirror. And for a while, it got weird. Four years ago, she was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, after leaving school and her parents' financial support. In her shitty little apartment, she would order a bag of cocaine from a delivery service, get high, and work on her hair and makeup for hours. She'd get it perfect, and then come down from the coke and do it all over again. "It was quite sick," Gaga says with a barely concealed note of pride. "I suppose that's where the vanity of the album came from. It was just like this very special moment that I had with myself where I could feel confident and feel like a star. Sometimes I look back on it and I miss it in a way."
Around that time, she met the guy she still calls the love of her life — a charismatic heavy-metal drummer named Luke. Almost all of the songs on her debut, The Fame, were inspired by him — from the exuberant "Boys Boys Boys" to the sweet, early-Britney-like new single "Paparazzi," which turns out to be about love as an escape from her own narcissism and desire for fame: Gaga was so infatuated with her man that she was ready to be his fan, to turn the camera around and photograph him.
They had a rough breakup. "I was his Sandy and he was my Danny, and I just broke," she explains. Gaga sees love differently now. "Speedy means a lot to me," she says of her current boyfriend, "but my music's not going to wake up tomorrow morning and tell me it doesn't love me anymore. So I'm content with my solitude. I'm OK with being alone. I choose to have someone in my life when I can."
Gaga considers herself bisexual, but her attraction to women is purely physical — she's never been in love with a woman. And she's been highly disappointed by her boyfriends' reaction to this aspect of her sexuality. "The fact that I'm into women, they're all intimidated by it," she says. "It makes them uncomfortable. They're like, 'I don't need to have a threesome, I'm happy with just you.'" She shakes her head in disbelief.
If she's ever interested, there's one man in Lady Gaga's life who's up for pretty much anything she might want: His name is Marilyn Manson, and he's newly single. The two stars met not long ago when they recorded remixes of each other's upcoming singles, and they hit it off. But when Manson shows up at Gaga's photo shoot late one Monday night — toting a glass of absinthe, an assistant filming him with a Flip camcorder — he makes it hilariously clear that he'd like to get to know her a lot better. "I want to be that guy," he says in Gaga's dressing room, as she screens her sleekly imaginative new "Paparazzi" video, which has her making out with a studly model. "I want to be balls deep."
Gaga laughs it off, leaning on his shoulder. Manson points to a wire hanger on a nearby shelf. "You're going to need these for the abortion later." Another laugh. "I'll give you a cervical exam," he offers minutes afterward.
In between horrifying pickup lines, Manson makes the case for Gaga as an artist: "I was most impressed by her paparazzi photos. I thought that it looked the way that rock stars should look, as exciting as something that Warhol or Dalí would do. And I don't consider her to be similar to her contemporaries — the other girls that do pop music — simply because she knows exactly what she's doing. She's very smart, she's not selling out, she's a great musician, she's a great singer, and she's laughing when she's doing it, the same way that I am."
Gaga grew up in comfort on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, studying classical piano and working with Christina Aguilera's voice coach. Her dad, a former bar-band musician, raised her on Bruce Springsteen records, and she sang in a classic-rock cover band during her freshman year of high school at the Catholic, ultra-upscale Convent of the Sacred Heart. "I met some good-looking guys with guitars, and I wanted to have sex with really hot older men — they were seniors," she says.
At NYU, she sang in a glammy band, while starting to write and play piano-heavy solo songs that — depending on whom you ask — sounded like Tori Amos, the Beatles, Elton John, Queen or Otis Redding. "That was my favorite, the incredibly theatrical and emotional stuff where you could really hear her voice," says a key early collaborator, New York scenester Lady Starlight. These very different tracks won Gaga a first, short-lived record deal with Island Def Jam — and that side still comes out in the solo piano segments of her live shows.
But Gaga was starting to find her own music dull. "I was like, 'If it wasn't me, I wouldn't listen to this. I would be bored at this show,'" she says. "It was like a baby becoming a toddler — at a certain point, I smelled my own shit and I didn't like it." A Prince-inspired tune called "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich" was a breakthrough. With its hip-hop break beat and hypnotic spoken chant, it cracked open new, danceable possibilities. "I always loved pop music," says Gaga, who defines the genre loosely. She rattles off her favorite "pop" songs of all time: Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," the Beatles' "Oh! Darling," Wilson Phillips' "Hold On," AC/DC's "T.N.T." and David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel."
Even after hearing "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich," Def Jam execs dropped Gaga. "They didn't get it," she says. "Some people still don't get me." After a dispiriting few months, she began working with RedOne, a synthesizer-loving Moroccan-Swedish producer, and found a new record deal with Interscope. In a single week, she and RedOne wrote and recorded her album's first three singles: "Just Dance," "Poker Face" and "LoveGame." "I just felt so free," she recalls, "and there was nothing in my way."
Gaga, a misfit in the Gossip Girl world of her high school, had found her true self. "I've always been Gaga," she says. "It's just that all the years of schooling and being in a Catholic environment and living in a place where we were kind of told what was the right way to be, I suppressed all those eccentricities about myself so I could fit in. Once I was free, I was able to be myself. I pulled her out of me, and I found that all of the things about myself that I so desperately tried to suppress for so many years were the very things that all my art and music friends thought were so lovely about me, so I embraced them."
Manson's namesake, Marilyn Monroe, is singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" on a photo-studio sound system, and Lady Gaga and a youthful-looking Cyndi Lauper are straddling giant pink lipstick tubes as flashbulbs pop. "It's like a penis!" Gaga says, playing the ingénue. They're wearing near-matching Jetsons-style red dresses, and Lauper keeps giving her younger counterpart little tips in her thick New York accent: "Put your leg out like that, it's more flattering. Arch your back! Stick your butt out and puff your chest."
"She's such a doll," Lauper says of Gaga afterward.
In the next room looms an imposing, middle-aged Italian-American guy in jeans and an untucked white button-down shirt — he's Joseph Germanotta, Lady Gaga's dad and a successful Internet entrepreneur. He offers a firm handshake and some steely-eyed, Jersey-accented, impossible-to-heed advice on this article: "Keep it clean," he says, poking me hard in the chest bone. Then he pulls up his sleeve to reveal a new tattoo — it's Lady Gaga's lightning-bolt symbol, the one that can be seen on her face in the "Just Dance" video.
He wasn't always so down with the Gaga program, especially when his daughter first began singing half-naked in New York dives about six months after leaving college. "I was performing in a leopard G-string and a black tank top," she says. "He thought I was crazy. It wasn't 'She's inappropriate' or 'She's a bad girl' or 'She's a slut.' He thought I was nuts, that I was doing drugs and had lost my mind and had no concept of reality anymore. For my father, it was an issue of sanity."
He stopped talking to her for a while, and Gaga found that almost unbearable. "As successful as people may perceive me to be, if my father called me right now and said, 'What the fuck were you thinking doing this?' and was mad about something, it would break my heart. If somebody walks up to me and said, 'You're a nasty cunt and I hate your music and you're talentless,' it means nothing to me. Nothing. But if my father says it, it means a lot." Eventually, he came around — the record deals didn't hurt. "He loves me for what I am. When I grabbed a guy's ass today on set, he laughed. He loves it. He thinks I'm wonderful, and thank God. If he didn't, I would be a different Lady Gaga."
Her mother, Cynthia, an attractive blonde in a stylish electric-blue jacket and a Gaga lightning-bolt necklace, never stopped talking to her daughter — who credits her mom for a lot of her ass-baring chutzpah: "She'd tell me, 'Little baby girl, you can be whatever you want, and you are beautiful and you are talented and you could rule the world.'"
It's shortly past midnight at the Burbank soundstage, and Lady Gaga is sitting at a Lucite piano of her own design, filled with plastic and silver balls. She's wearing her cat suit and an awe-inspiringly odd metal hat — its many rings oscillate of their own accord, mimicking planets in orbit. She kicks into her showstopper — a wow-she-can-really-play Bette Midler-meets-Elton John take on "Poker Face" that often finds her hitting piano notes with one of her high heels — before stopping abruptly a few husky notes in. She asks for a glass of water and then retreats to her dressing room: She's worried that her voice is going.
She later admits that she nearly broke down and cried in the dressing room. Gaga can't abide even the prospect of failure — it terrifies her. "I had this disappointment in myself. That was a hard moment for me. Because as resilient as I believe that I am and as much as you can tell me all day, 'I don't think you have a breaking point, I think you're fearless and you can do it,' the physical body, at a certain point, just starts to clock out."
A few minutes later, though, Gaga emerges, brown eyes blazing with determination beneath her insane hat. She makes it through a throaty "Poker Face," and then kicks into her uptempo songs, backed by her dancers. As the beats reverberate, she sings and hits her dance moves with savage commitment, as if scourging weakness from her body. She's treating this rather tawdry, audience-free little Walmart gig like it's the Grammys, and her ferocity would be silly if it wasn't almost scary.
"All that ever holds somebody back, I think, is fear," she says later. "For a minute, I had fear. I went into the room and shot my fear in the face — then I came out and I did the rest of the show."
By her standards, Lady Gaga is dressed way down tonight, in full Debbie Harry mode — black leather jacket, white tee (with two X's of nipple-concealing electrical tape in front in lieu of a bra), zip-up leather tights, Sid Vicious-style spiky bracelets and a policewoman's cap that she keeps taking on and off. She's all but unrecognizable, which doesn't stop fan after fan from approaching. It's a rare moment of semi-leisure, which she's using for an interview over red wine in the bar of her hotel in New York's Meatpacking District. "This is probably the first date I've had in a really long time," she coos, after we clink glasses. "I'm getting wet."
If all goes according to plan, Gaga won't have much time to relax for the foreseeable future. "I feel like I have so much to do," she says. "The whole world sees the number-one records and the rise in sales and recognition, but my true legacy will be the test of time, and whether I can sustain a space in pop culture and really make stuff that will have a genuine impact."
She wants to make "museum-worthy" art out of pop — an ambition probably better left unstated. But more important, she wants to inspire her fast-growing fan base — which now ranges from downtown drag queens to suburban eight-year-olds — to find their true selves, to shoot their fear in the face. "I operate from a place of delusion — that's what The Fame's all about. I used to walk down the street like I was a fucking star," she says, her voice rising. "I want people to walk around delusional about how great they can be — and then to fight so hard for it every day that the lie becomes the truth."