Inside the epic ambition of the biggest pop star in the world
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.
Do you think with that guy it was obsession or love?
Love. But, you know, I don't really know very much about love. I suppose if I knew everything about love, I wouldn't be good at making music, would I?
I don't know. Some artists make their best music when they're in love.
I'm terrified of babies, though.
I think, creatively as a woman, you change once you give birth. I'm totally not ready for that.
Did you ever have any resolution with your father after he cut you off during your wild days?
It's just recently that I've been healed in a way, because my father had this heart surgery that he was supposed to have since I was a kid. The fear of losing the man of my dreams, such as my dad — there's fucking Freud for you — was terrifying. So the biggest fear of my life passed.
Do you ever feel like you're fulfilling your dad's unrealized rock-star ambitions?
Yeah, sure I do. I love my daddy. My daddy's everything. I hope I can find a man that will treat me as good as my dad.
You usually fall for dirty musician types, and your dad's a musician. So . . .
That's an interesting word to choose.
"Loopy" is my dad's nickname for me. Loops! My dad is so funny. He called me the other day and he's like, "I'm drunk, and I'm fucking really depressed because my dad is sick. This sucks." And I said, "You know, Dad, this is just part of life, and I'm sorry, but I'm here for you." And he said, "You're right, Loops, it's part of life." My whole life, my dad was trying to hide from me that he was a real dude, and now I'm old enough, we're the best of friends, because he's just given up on trying to be the father.
He probably thought, "I tried to change her, but I can't." So he just had to accept that you're going to be who you're going to be.
Well, did you just sum up every relationship I've ever had, or what?
They say that most workaholics are that way because it's an addiction and a way to avoid other things.
In so many ways, my music also heals me. So is it heroin, and I need the fix to feel better? Or is it that music is healing? I guess that's the big question. When you work as hard as I do, or you resign your life to something like music or art or writing, you have to commit yourself to this struggle and commit yourself to the pain. And I commit myself to my heartbreak wholeheartedly. It's something that I will never let go. But that heartbreak, in a way, is my feature. It's a representation of the process of my work. As artists, we are eternally heartbroken.
I didn't mean to get so deep so early . . .
I'm deeper than you thought [laughs]. And we didn't talk about my favorite wacky outfit.
So do you think workaholism is a way of avoiding intimacy and the vulnerability that comes with that?
Well, sex is certainly not, like, a priority at the moment.
Sex is different than intimacy.
I guess I view sex and intimacy as the same. But I'm at a different place in my life now than I was two years ago. So I guess I'm a woman now.
In what way do you mean?
I don't know when or why you realize that you've become a woman, but I'm a woman. I think different. I feel different. And I care less and less about what people think as the hours go by. I feel very strong.
Is there anyone you're able to open up with and show your vulnerabilities to?
Well, there are very few people I can do that with. I do it with my fans. I mean, last night onstage I told them about my grandpa being sick. But there's some things I keep sacred for myself. As someone who has written two albums about it, I have the right to choose whether or not I want to be a celebrity, and I don't want to be one. And I feel that I'm relatively clever enough to control that people pay attention more to my music and to my clothing than they do to my personal life. Trust me, I'd much rather people write about what I wear and what I'm singing and what I do in my videos than about who I'm fucking. I mean, that, for me, is the kiss of death.
Do you feel like you're sacrificing certain parts of yourself and your life for your art and career?
It's kind of good for me, though, isn't it? Because what if we want to date? We're not gonna tell anybody. And we're gonna lie profusely that we're not together. And if you're like, "Why don't you want people to know?" then I know you're with me for the wrong reasons, so I'm like, "Fuck off."
Of course, the more you try to hide things —
I guess what I'm trying to say is, this is showbiz for me. It might not be showbiz for the rest of you, but for me, this is showbiz. If I were to ever, God forbid, get hurt onstage and my fans were screaming outside of the hospital, waiting for me to come out, I'd come out as Gaga. I wouldn't come out in sweatpants because I busted my leg or whatever.
And that's what Michael [Jackson] did. Michael got burned, and he lifted that glittered glove so damn high so his fans could see him, because he was in the art of show business. That's what we do. Some people don't. They want to relate in a different way. I don't want people to see I'm a human being. I don't even drink water onstage in front of anybody, because I want them to focus on the fantasy of the music and be transported from where they are to somewhere else. People can't do that if you're just on Earth. We need to go to heaven.
Are you finding that the songs you're writing for your new album all have a certain theme?
Yeah, that's how I work. I always have these concept records. I just sort of spiritually harness onto something, and then everything grows out of this one seed. But I don't want to say too much, because, in truth, it's not going to come out until the top of next year, and I'm going to announce the title of the album at midnight on New Year's. And no one knows that, so you can print that.
I think I'm just gonna get the album title tattooed on me and put out the photo. I've been working on it for months now, and I feel very strongly that it's finished right now. It came so quickly. Some artists take years; I don't. I write music every day. I really want to play you something. Just turn the tape off for one second.
[Tape is turned off, and she sings the title track of the new album.]
That chorus came to me, like, I swear, I didn't even write it. I think God dropped it in my lap. And I swear to you that I'm in a place now writing music where there's this urgency to protect and take care of my fans.
Was any of that written on Ecstasy?
No. I love Ecstasy. But I don't take it very much. Well, I like MDMA. I don't like Ecstasy.
Your fans seem to really like what you stand for, because some people need to be reminded that it's OK to be different.
I love what they stand for. I love who they are. They inspire me to be more confident every day. When I wake up in the morning, I feel just like any other insecure 24-year-old girl. But I say, "Bitch, you're Lady Gaga, you better fucking get up and walk the walk today," because they need that from me. And they inspire me to keep going.
Is it frustrating to have a new album ready yet still be touring playing the old one?
I love writing on the road, because I go out there every night, and while I'm onstage performing the old songs, I literally imagine them singing the lyrics to my new songs. If I can't imagine them singing the lyrics in the audience, why even write the song? What? To fulfill some fucking therapy in my soul?
What about "Speechless"? That sounds therapeutic.
I wrote that song to soothe my spirit, but nobody gives a shit if the chorus isn't good. I don't mean to sound crass, but just that's how I view music. Not everybody gives a shit about your fucking personal life. Music is a lie. It is a lie. Art is a lie. You have to tell a lie that is so wonderful that your fans make it true. That has been my motivation and my inspiration for the longest time, and the new album is a lie that I want to become true so desperately.
Do you feel there's a side of you that forces you to stay strong for the fans, to be an example of having no fears?
Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I break down and cry onstage. I totally wear my heart on my sleeve.
When you talk really brazenly sexually or when you dress showing a lot of skin, there's sort of a form of . . .
No, not rebellion. There's a form of social control. It's like saying, "I'm kind of uncomfortable socially, and I'll make you more uncomfortable, and that way I'll feel more comfortable."
Oh, I see what you're saying. I wish I could say yes, because that's an interesting analysis, but I just feel really comfortable in those moments. I'm quite a schizophrenic person. Let's call a spade a spade, right? But I'm OK with that, and I recognize that. It's really interesting to me, because I put out music videos, and I do performances, and I am 79 percent of the time shocked by how people respond, because I don't really think it's particularly groundbreaking or shocking. I think it's just me and who I am, and I'm a feminist.
It's interesting to speak with you, because you have this intellectual and artistic side, but half of your hits are about clubbing and being drunk . . .
Well, now I have a little bit more of an opportunity to be that, don't I? I don't mean to speak arrogantly about my musical strategy as a pop artist in the Warholian sense, but today you have to almost trick people into listening to something intelligent.
So you're thinking, "I'm going to trick this idea down your throat"?
Or seduce people to be interested in something that is uncomfortable. Why are we still talking about "Don't ask, don't tell"? It's like, what fucking year is it? It makes me crazy! And I have been for three years baking cakes — and now I'm going to bake a cake that has a bitter jelly.
Elaborate on that metaphor a little.
The message of the new music is now more bitter than it was before. Because the sweeter the cake, the more bitter the jelly can be. If I had come out as who I was, no one would be listening. Now people are listening. So I can be inspirational, and I'm in a different place in my life. I'm interested in different things. I've got fame now. So I don't want to write about it anymore.
[Fifteen minutes before her performance that night, Lady Gaga asks if she can continue the interview afterward. As soon as the show ends, she rushes from the stage to the tour bus, covered in stage blood. As the bus lurches out of the backstage parking lot, she hears screaming outside, then yells to the bus driver, "Hold on, will you stop the bus? I'm just going to say hi to my fans."
Her security guards look disapprovingly at her, then relent. She walks to the door of the bus and opens it, and hundreds of fans stampede toward her. The security guards start yelling for the driver to shut the door, and the bus pulls away. She smiles, pleased, as she walks back to continue the interview while her tour manager serves her white wine and chicken fingers, which she dips copiously in ketchup.]
How do you think you developed the resources to be able to handle fame and grow along with it?
I think it's my family. I think it's the friendships that I've built that are really strong and wonderful. My best girlfriend from high school — and my friends that I made downtown in New York when they really welcomed me into this society of freakish kids that band together. I was actually talking to [performance artist and collaborator] Lady Starlight today, and I just said, "Without you guys, I wouldn't be where I am today, for sure." They gave me a sense of belonging somewhere. It'll make me cry just talking about it, because when you feel so much like you don't fit in anywhere, you'd do anything just to make a fucking friend. And when I met the right people, they really supported me. I'll never forget when she turned to me one day and she said, 'You're a performance artist." I was like, "You think so?" When people believe in you, that's what makes you grow.
I notice that people who grow up in a stable home with parents who they know love them can deal with success better.
Oh, yeah! But I was a bad kid. So I had a lot of home issues when I was in high school especially. I was a fucking nightmare. My mom always laughs at me now, because I get drunk when I'm at home with my parents at a bar down the street. I'm like, "I was such a bad kid, I'm so sorry!" I get so upset. My mom's like, "You made up for it. It's fine."
You have a lot of things in your behavior that are signs of someone who had a traumatic experience in adolescence or childhood. Is that something you would ever discuss publicly?
When Christina Aguilera began talking about the dark issues in her past — growing up around domestic abuse — there was no negative response to it, and it ended up informing her work.
[Hesitates] I feel like I tell this story in my own way, and my fans know who I really am. I don't want to teach them the wrong things. And you also have to be careful about how much you reveal to people that look up to you so much. They know who I am. They know how they can relate to me. I've laid it all on the table. And if they're smart like you, they make that assessment, but I don't want to be a bad example.
A bad example in the sense of being a victim?
Yeah, and I'm not a victim. And my message is positive. My show has a lovely naivete and melancholy to it: a pop melancholy. That's my art. If I told that other story in that way, I don't know if that's the best way I can help the universe.
Because if you did talk about it, then things you did would be misinterpreted and seen through that experience?
Yeah. Maybe if I was writing my own book or something. I guess it's hard to . . . . If I say one thing in our interview right now, it will be all over the world the day after it hits the stands. And it would be twisted and turned. And it's like you have to honor some things. Some things are sacred.
There are some things that are so traumatic, I don't even fully remember them. But I will say wholeheartedly that I had the most wonderful mother and father. I was never abused. I didn't have a bad childhood. All of the things I went through were on my own quest for an artistic journey to fuck myself up like Warhol and Bowie and Mick, and just go for it.
That's interesting that you have this idea that the artist has to expose himself to these dark parts of life.
You do, but all of the trauma I caused to myself [pauses]. Or it was caused by people that I met when being outrageous and irresponsible. What I'm trying to say is that I like to, within moderation, respect that I'm not Mick Jagger or David Bowie, and I don't just have fans that are a certain age. There are, like, nine-year-olds listening to my music, so I guess I try to be respectful of them if at all possible.
You do talk about cocks and pussy all the time, but I know what you mean.
I do, but cock and pussy is not the same as the things that I could talk about.
You seem to have become more religious or spiritual in the last year or so.
I've had a few different experiences. I'm really connected to my Aunt Joanne, and she's not with us anymore. And then there was my father's surgery. And also, my life has changed so much. It's hard not to believe that God hasn't been watching out for me when I've had such obstacles with drugs and rejection and people not believing in me. It's been a long and continuous road, but it's hard to just chalk it all up to myself. I have to believe there's something greater than myself.
Like a higher power?
Yeah, a higher power that's been watching out for me. Sometimes it really freaks me out — or, I should say, it petrifies me — when I think about laying in my apartment [in New York] with bug bites from bedbugs and roaches on the floor and mirrors with cocaine everywhere and no will or interest in doing anything but making music and getting high. So I guess I've come a really long way, and I have my friends to thank for that, and I have God.
So do you think that getting addicted to work replaced drugs in your life?
You just learn to put your energy into something creative and wonderful. I work with Deepak Chopra, and I called him and told him some wacky dream I had about . . . I don't want to say. It's too morbid.
You seem like you have morbid dreams.
I do have morbid dreams. But I put them in the show. A lot of the work I do is an exorcism for the fans but also for myself. The [video] piece in the show where I'm eating the heart, it's a real bovine heart.
What made you do that?
My father was about to have surgery, or maybe he had just had surgery. So Nick Knight, who did all the visuals for the shows, said to me, "It's time for you to let go of this." And he gave me the heart as kind of a way to face my fear.
So you were saying earlier that you had gone to Deepak Chopra with your dream. What happened?
Oh, right. I was freaking out. I was hysterically crying before the show, like, "The devil's trying to take me, Deepak. I'm a good girl!" I don't know if I really believe in stuff like that. I think I was just worried about my dad. And Deepak goes, "You are so very creative, my Gaga. You should make this into a video." And I guess in his own way, he spoke to me about learning to respect and honor my insanity. It's part of who I am.
Do you have any recurring dreams?
[Hesitates] I have this recurring dream sometimes where there's a phantom in my home. And he takes me into a room, and there's a blond girl with ropes tied to all four of her limbs. And she's got my shoes on from the Grammys. Go figure — psycho. And the ropes are pulling her apart.
I never see her get pulled apart, but I just watch her whimper, and then the phantom says to me, "If you want me to stop hurting her and if you want your family to be OK, you will cut your wrist." And I think that he has his own, like, crazy wrist-cutting device. And he has this honey in, like, Tupperware, and it looks like sweet-and-sour sauce with a lot of MSG from New York. Just bizarre. And he wants me to pour the honey into the wound, and then put cream over it and a gauze.
So I looked up the dream, and I couldn't find anything about it anywhere. And my mother goes, "Isn't that an illuminati ritual?" And I was like, "Oh, my God!"
People keep reporting that you're exhausted from pushing it too hard on the road. You've been on tour for . . .
Three years. It'll be four years when we're done. And then I'm going to put out a new album. So, see ya! [Laughs cruelly] We're already designing that show.
Are you worried that you're going to hit a point where there's a backlash?
No one can predict it. But when you look at anyone who gets to a certain point in their career, all of a sudden something random happens, and everybody turns on them, and then of course at some point later, everybody loves them again.
I'm not worried about it. I believe in karma. I'm really good to the people around me. I don't know if you made any observations of our wonderful team, but I love everybody here. My assistant is one of my best friends. I'm not a diva, in any sense of the word.
But apart from that, the media likes to build people up so they can tear them down, then build them up again. Everybody goes through that.
I mean, they've tried everything. But they haven't done it. When they start saying that you have extra appendages, you have to assume that they're unable to destroy you. I've got scratch marks all over my arms, and they say I'm a heroin addict. It's from my costumes. When I pass out onstage, they say that I'm burning out, when I have my own (A) personal health issues and (B) it's fucking hot up there and I'm busting my ass every night. I've heard that Audrey Hepburn used to faint on the set all the time, and nobody thought she was a burnout.
What are your health issues right now?
I don't have lupus. I'm a borderline lupetic person, which means I have it in my system, and they don't know a lot about it. I don't want my fans to worry, so I didn't talk about it. But it's just more making sure that I reduce stress in my life to make sure that I don't develop it.
Did doctors give you a regimen of some sort to follow?
It's in my family, so I don't really listen to doctors very much when it comes to it, because it's so personal. I talk to people that I know that have it, or my father, whose sister died from it. There's nothing to worry about, but I do get very tired sometimes, and I naturally wonder . . .
Of course, you get to be a hypochondriac.
I don't want to be one, so most of the time I'm like, "Fuck it, I'm fine." At a certain point, you're so beyond the point of exhaustion that you don't know: Do I have a health problem that may or may not be real, or am I just really tired?
So what changes did you make in your life once you found out?
I make much more of an effort now to minimize the drama or the stress in my life. I take care of myself. I drink, and still live my life, but I could never let my fans down. That would kill me to have to face that extra obstacle every day to get onstage. It's completely terrifying, so I'm just really focused on mind, body and soul. And also Joanne — I believe that her spirit is inside of me so, you know, my closest friends have told me that it was just her way of peeking in to say hello.
That's an interesting way to think about it.
And I've got her death date on my arm. [Shows passage in German from Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet"]
Next to the Rilke quote?
Yeah. She was a poet and a writer, and I guess I truly believe that she had unfinished work to do and she works through me. She was like, a total saint. So maybe she's living vicariously through a sinner [laughs].
There are all these videos of you on YouTube playing alternative and classic rock. Do you ever want to go back to that and do a Billy Joel kind of thing?
I totally wrote one for this new album. It's so good. And it's very personal. The song is about my sadness in the most real and honest kind of way, and the song is about how whenever I become so unbearably lonely, my father has always been my friend. He would take my calls, and he'd listen to me crying and poetically talk about my sorrow, and he would say, "You know, Loop, you're gonna be OK if your songs are on the radio."
[The tour bus stops at a hotel in Birmingham, where Lady Gaga's assistant boards the bus.]
I'll let you get to Manchester. Thanks for the time.
Use the stuff that's going to make me a legend. I want to be a legend. Is that wrong?