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Lady Gaga, New York Doll

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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."

This is a story from the June 11th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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