She hops into a chair in front of her makeup mirror and plays a rough cut of the video for her latest single, "Alejandro," on mute on her MacBook Pro.
Considering her penchant for attention-grabbing outfits, the scene she keeps replaying is relatively sedate. "See, there's no phone on my head — or a phone booth," she says. Then she backs up the video and pauses it. "I'm not even wearing any makeup here. It's just me, and people will see that what's underneath everything is still me."
She pauses and savors the image a little longer: "And I can still be fierce."
Of course, a few scenes later in the video, she's dancing with assault rifles thrusting out of her breasts.
"OK, so there's still a little Lady Gaga there," she confesses with a smile.
The former Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is on a mission: to prove that Lady Gaga is art and that her art is not a mask. It is her life.
And if she were any less strong-willed, her life would be spinning out of control right now: Her grandfather is in the hospital, her father recently had heart surgery, and she was just told by doctors that she is at risk of developing lupus, an autoimmune disease that killed her aunt before Gaga was born.
Add to this the pressures of her sudden rise to cultural dominance, her relentless work ethic, her seemingly endless world tour and the fact that she has already completed demos for her next album, and you might imagine a star on the verge of collapse. But that's not the way Gaga sees it.
"We're supposed to be tired," she says, before singing a few of the new songs she wrote on the road. "I don't know who told everyone otherwise, but you make a record and you tour. That's how you build a career. I told my manager today, 'I can't wait to take all my platinum records off the walls and make room for more.'"
Though Gaga's savvy and ambition are clear, there is also something naive and trusting about her in person. When her road manager tells her not to share her new music with a journalist, even if it's off the record, she dismisses the warning. "He's going to write about other stuff," she says. "I just want him to know who I am."
And who is she? Some say Lady Gaga came into being the day that she and her former producer and boyfriend, Rob Fusari, came up with the nickame, based on the Queen song "Radio Ga Ga." But if you follow her story and music carefully, she is more likely a product of heartbreak: first from her father, a moonlighting rock musician who cut her off after she dropped out of college; then from Island Def Jam, which signed her and then dropped her, unimpressed with the Fiona Apple-style piano rock she was recording at the time; and finally, and perhaps most devastatingly for her, from a passionate and tempestuous relationship with a heavy-metal drummer, the only boyfriend she says she ever truly loved, just before she became famous.
After her breakup, she promised herself that she would never love again and would make him rue the day he doubted her. And this may be the origin of her transformation from Stefani to Gaga. As anyone who has seen her tour — which at this point would be roughly 1.4 million people — knows, it is not just a stage spectacle like a Madonna or Kiss show. It is a highly personal piece of performance art dressed up as a pop spectacle. As she puts it over and over in the show, she is a "free bitch," and the audience should be too: free not just of society's pressures to conform but also of letting the men in their lives control or define them. She sees her audience as a collection of mini versions of her socially and romantically rejected self, telling them at one point, "Let's raise a glass to mend all the broken hearts of my fucked-up friends." Her success is the ultimate misfit's revenge.
The following night in Birmingham, Lady Gaga is backstage again, preparing for her show. This time, she is listening to Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run on vinyl, wearing in tribute a blue bandanna around her head and an unbuttoned black studded vest with a black bra underneath. When she uses words like "fierce" or describes her sexual conquests of beautiful men, one sees why the hermaphrodite rumors about her have been so persistent: She seems, at times, like a gay man trapped in a woman's body. She sits on the couch, lowers the volume and considers the idea that Lady Gaga was born of heartbreak.
I have a theory about you.
Go ahead. Should I lay down?
You might need to.
We don't have enough couches to lay me down.
Have you ever been to therapy?
No. I've, like, spoken to spiritual guides and things. I'm terrified of therapy because I don't want it to mess with my creativity.
So the question is: Do you think if you'd never gotten your heart broken by that guy you were dating in the East Village five years ago, you wouldn't have become as successful as you did afterward?
No, I wouldn't. No, I wouldn't have been as successful without him.
So here's the thought . . .
You made me cry [wipes tears from her eyes].
Do you think that all that love you directed toward men now goes toward your fans instead?
Well, I've really never loved anyone like I loved him. Or like I love him. That relationship really shaped me. It made me into a fighter. But I wouldn't say that my love for my fans is equated to my attention for men. But I will say that love comes in many different forms. And I sort of resolved that if you can't have the guy of your dreams, there are other ways to give love. So I guess in some ways you're kind of right.
Did he contact you at all after you got famous?
I don't want to talk about him.
I'm sorry. I want to, but he's too precious to talk about.
I'm surprised. I thought that you'd be over it by now.
Oh, I love my friends and my past, and it's made me who I am. I didn't just, like, wake up one day and forget how I got here. In fact, I'll always have one high heel in New York City. I live in Hollywood, but you can't make me love Hollywood. I'll never love Hollywood.
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