Growing up Gaga

The self-invented, manufactured, accidental, totally on-purpose New York creation of the world’s biggest pop star.
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    One year ago this month, Lady Gaga arrived for an interview in the dark, oak-paneled lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, a massive Spanish-style place in the tourist district of Hollywood that was supposed to make the area chic but has largely failed. “Just Dance,” the lead single off her first album, The Fame, had reached No. 1 in Australia, Sweden, and Canada in early 2008, but in March 2009, she was still an up-and-coming artist in America: a few thousand MySpace plays, a generic website, and a short tour as the opening act for New Kids on the Block. Gaga had a video, though. “My colleagues at radio in those three countries agreed to support her if I made a video,” says Martin Kierszenbaum, the president of A&R at her label, Interscope. The “Just Dance” video, shot a few miles from the Roosevelt, features Gaga shimmying with a disco ball in her hands while her friends drape themselves on a couch nearby—though most of those people were extras, not real friends. She didn’t know many people on the West Coast. “I don’t like Los Angeles,” she told me. “The people are awful and terribly shallow, and everybody wants to be famous but nobody wants to play the game. I’m from New York. I will kill to get what I need.”

    Before the meeting, I assumed that someone with a stage name like “Lady” (her given name is Stefani Joanne Germanotta) was going to be a bit standoffish—that’s the strategy employed by most nervous young musicians on the occasion of their first real interview, in any case. But I never thought she was going to actually be Lady Gaga. These days, very few artists play the media like Bob Dylan, or stay in character as Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh did in his early career. In the age of VH1’s Behind the Music, tabloid culture, and reality television, musicians are aware that they should show themselves to journalists in as much mundane detail as they can muster. “But Lady Gaga is my name,” she said, amazed that I would have thought otherwise. “If you know me, and you call me Stefani, you don’t really know me at all.”

    Gaga eased into a brown leather couch with as much grace as possible given her outfit, a stiff white jumpsuit with a jacket cut from a Martin Margiela pattern, the enormous shoulder pads stuffed underneath the fabric extending toward her ears. At five-two and 100 pounds, with her hair styled into a mod blonde bob, she looked flush from a strict diet of starvation: “Pop stars should not eat,” she pronounced. She was young, skinny, and blonde, but she had a prominent Italian nose, the kind of nose that rarely survives on a starlet. (This was during Gaga’s “hair-bow” phase—that would be pre-hair-hat and pre-hair-telephone—and when I asked about the bow’s whereabouts, she rested her head on a pillow of her hands and said, “She’s sleeping.”) In the hallway near her table, families of tourists took pictures of one another with cameras, unaware of her presence, and she recoiled dramatically at every flash. “Oh, cameras,” she said, shielding her eyes. “I cannot bear the cameras.”

    As we began the conversation, Gaga spoke carefully in a very odd accent—some combination of Madonna as Madge and a robot, an affect enhanced by the fact that she refused to remove her lightly tinted sunglasses over the course of two hours. “What I’ve discovered,” said robo-Gaga, with a photo-ready tilt of her head, “is that in art, as in music, there’s a lot of truth—and then there’s a lie. The artist is essentially creating his work to make this lie a truth, but he slides it in amongst all the others. The tiny little lie is the moment I live for, my moment. It’s the moment that the audience falls in love.”

    Gaga was very taken with her new “bubble dress” at this point, and we talked about its unreality, the beauty of the imaginary. Everyone wanted that dress, but it wasn’t a dress at all—it was a bunch of plastic balls. “On my tour,” she declared, “I’m going to be in my bubble dress on a piano made of bubbles, singing about love and art and the future. I should like to make one person believe in that moment, and it would be worth every salt of a No. 1 record.” She dropped the accent for a moment now—the real girl, unartificed, was right underneath—and leaned in. “I can have hit records all day, but who fucking cares?” she explained. “A year from now, I could go away, and people might say, ‘Gosh, what ever happened to that girl who never wore pants?’ But how wonderfully memorable 30 years from now, when they say, ‘Do you remember Gaga and her bubbles?’ Because, for a minute, everybody in that room will forget every sad, painful thing in their lives, and they’ll just live in my bubble world.”

    ***

    One year later, the transformation is complete: With six No. 1 hits in the last year, Lady Gaga is the biggest pop star in the world. By definition, a pop star is manufactured—rock stars weren’t, at least not until well into the seventies, and that may be part of why rock became pop—and in some ways she has benefited from a very traditional star-making model, one of the last purviews of corporate music labels. But success can have a thousand authors. Several different people have claimed credit for discovering Gaga, 24, shaping her, naming her, making her who she is: Rob Fusari, who co-wrote and produced her early songs, sued her two weeks ago for $30 million, claiming among other grievances that he had a contract for 15 percent of her merchandising. And Gaga, of course, takes the credit herself. “I went through a great deal of creative and artistic revelation, learning, and marination to become who I am,” she explains. “Tiny little lie? I wanted to become the artist I am today, and it took years.”

    All of them are partly right. But in another sense, she was an accident, a phenomenon that happened in New York in the first decade of a new century.

    And what a happening. At a time when you wouldn’t recognize the faces of the people who make most of the music we listen to (who are those guys in Vampire Weekend, again?), Gaga is visually iconic; in an age of Twitter, the remoteness she has cultivated since her first moment in the spotlight has made her an even bigger star. She completely turns the page on the last decade’s era of bimbodom, taking back the limelight from women who made their careers by admitting that they had nothing to say, like Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson. She also closes a strange era in female pop stardom, with rising talents unable to push through to superstardom (Katy Perry, Rihanna), American Idol contestants (Kelly Clarkson), older stars (Gwen, Fergie), tween stars (Miley and posse), and hugely popular musicians who aren’t pop in their hearts, like Taylor Swift (country crossover) and Beyoncé (urban crossover). She’s riveting in any language, with lyrics that compose their own Esperanto—she’s effortlessly global.

    Gaga’s presence also introduces the formerly unthinkable idea that Madonna, another voracious Italian girl, may really, truly, finally be on her way out. Her new look is an appropriation of Madonna’s circa “The Girlie Show” and “Blonde Ambition” (the darkened brows, the platinum-blonde hair, the red lips), and her music-video director, Jonas Åkerlund, is a major latter-day collaborator of Madonna’s. But the two are very different: Madonna hasn’t had a sense of humor about herself since the nineties, where Gaga is all fun and play. At her core, she’s a young art-school student, full of optimism and kindness, childlike wonder at the bubble world. Though she may not be bisexual herself—of the many friends of hers interviewed for this article, not one of them recalls her ever having a girlfriend or being sexually interested in any woman offstage—her politics are inclusive, and she wants to promote images of as many sexual combinations as are possible on this Earth. Gaga says she’s a girl who likes boys who look like girls, but she’s also a girl who likes to look like a boy herself—or, rather, a drag queen, a boy pretending to be a girl. There’s little that gives her more pleasure than the persistent rumor that she is a hermaphrodite, an Internet rumor based on scrutinizing a grainy video. That’s not Madonna. Madonna wouldn’t pretend she has a penis.

    But that’s the genius of Gaga: her willingness to be a mutant, a cartoon. She’s got an awesome sense of humor, beaming tiny surreal moments across the world for our pleasure every day—like the gigantic bow made of hair she popped on her head last year. “One day, I said to my creative team, ‘Gaultier did bows, let’s do it in a new way,’ ” she says. “We were going back and forth with ideas, and then I said”—snaps finger—“hair-bow.” She giggles. “We all fucking died, we died. It never cost a penny, and it looked so brilliant. It’s just one of those things. I’m very arrogant about it.” Her videos are global epiphenomena, like the Tarantino-flavored “Telephone,” with its lesbian prison themes and Beyoncé guest appearance. “Gaga doesn’t care so much about the technical part, but she’s involved in every creative aspect,” says Åkerlund. “We just allow ourselves to be very stupid with each other, and then you get ideas like sunglasses made of cigarettes.”

    Gaga also throws in our face something we’ve known all along but numbly decided to ignore: American celebrities have become very, very boring. (The fact that she has done this at the same time that much of the actual music she makes herself is somewhat boring is another feat.) One of her essential points is that celebrity should be the province of weirdos, like Grace Jones circa Jean-Paul Goude and her pet idol, eighties opera–meets–New Wave cult figure Klaus Nomi, who died of AIDS at 39. To Gaga, our video-game-playing, social-networking, cell-phone-obsessed culture has made all of us smaller, more normal, less interesting—and, except for odd lightning strikes like the Jersey Shore cast and Conan O’Brien’s anointment of one Twitter fan—famous to no one, after all. “Kudos on MySpace? What is that?” she says, spitting out the words. “That’s not emblematic about what I’m talking about. I’m talking about creating a genuine, memorable space for yourself in the world.”

    ***

    The story of Gaga is a story of being young in New York City. Stefani Germanotta grew up in a duplex on the Upper West Side, on one of the eclectic blocks between Columbus and Amsterdam in the West Seventies that are a mix of prewar brownstones, tenements, and modern condos. Her father ran a company that installed Wi-Fi in hotels, and her mother worked for a time as a V.P. at Verizon. They sent Gaga and her younger sister, Natali, 18, to Sacred Heart, a small Catholic girls’ school up the street from the Guggenheim. “Sacred Heart may have been prestigious, but there were lots of different kinds of girls,” says Gaga. “Some had extreme wealth, others were on welfare and scholarship, and some were in the middle, which was my family. All our money went into education and the house.” Her classmates say that her family was tight-knit. “When John Kerry was running for president, Stefani supported him and her father didn’t, so she joked about that,” says Daniela Abatelli, Sacred Heart ’05. Gaga was one of the only students with a job after school, as a waitress at a diner on the Upper West Side. With her early paychecks, she bought a Gucci purse. “I was so excited because all the girls at Sacred Heart always had their fancy purses, and I always had whatever,” she says. “My mom and dad were not buying me a $600 purse.”

    Because her parents told her that they had sacrificed for her education, Gaga took school seriously from a young age. One of her favorite childhood memories is playing a piano concert at Sacred Heart at 8. “There was a line of twenty girls sitting in a row in our pretty dresses, and we each got up to play,” she says happily. “I did a really good job. I was quite good.” At 11, she began attending a full day of acting classes on Saturdays. “I remember the first time that I drank out of an imaginary coffee cup,” she says, closing her eyes. “That’s the very first thing they teach you. I can feel the rain, too, when it’s not raining.” Her lids pop open. “I don’t know if this is too much for your magazine, but I can actually mentally give myself an orgasm.” She hisses a little, like one of the deviant vampires in True Blood. “You know, sense memory is quite powerful.”

    By eighth grade, she had also realized that acting was a way to meet boys and began auditioning for plays with Sacred Heart’s brother school, Regis High School, on 84th Street, near Park Avenue. She always landed the lead: Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, Philia in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Jealous older girls stuck in the chorus began calling her “the Germ.” “They always talked behind her back, like, ‘Gross, she’s the Germ! She’s dirty!’ ” says a classmate. Gaga has often mentioned that she was an outcast in high school, but other than adolescent shenanigans like these, her friends from this Pudding-like crowd do not share this recollection. “She was always popular,” says Julia Lindenthal, Marymount ’04. “I don’t remember her experiencing any social problems or awkwardness.”

    At the time, she had a certain incipient Gaganess: She could be a little overdramatic, spoiled, brassy, but she was also a nice girl (not to say a good girl), recalled by many as kind and generous—a theater chick who was starting to express her own feelings through songwriting. A fan of Pink Floyd and the Beatles, she started a classic-rock cover band and began entering open-mike nights at the Songwriters Hall of Fame on the Upper West Side. She even cut a demo of her love ballads, and her parents gave out copies as favors at her large Sweet 16 party, at the Columbus Club. “Everyone was playing her demo, like, ‘Whoa, she’s going to be a star,’ ” says Justin Rodriguez, Regis ’03. “She was by far the most talented person in high school, but she’d do so many random acts of kindness, like saying, ‘Your singing has gotten so much better, you’re working hard and I’ve noticed.’ She wasn’t a diva at all.”

    Like many private-school girls, by 15, Gaga had a fake Delaware I.D. purchased on Macdougal Street. She also started dating a 26-year-old Greek waiter from the restaurant. “That’s part of why I needed a job after school, too,” she says. “My dad wouldn’t give me money to go out on the weekends because he knew I was going downtown and being bad.” Soon, she had her first tattoo: a G clef on her lower back. (“Before I made my first big music video, I decided to turn that tattoo into a huge side piece,” she says. “I just couldn’t face the world with a tramp stamp.”) She was still a good girl at school, even if she got in trouble with the teachers once in a while: not for short kilts but inappropriate shirts. “I was fifteen to twenty pounds heavier than I am now,” says Gaga. “I would wear shirts that were low-cut, and the teachers would tell me I couldn’t wear them, and I’d point to another girl who was wearing the same thing. ‘Well, it looks different on her.’ It wasn’t fair.” She shimmies her shoulders a bit. “At that time, my breasts were much bigger, and firm, and delicious.” (Another high-school nickname: Big Boobs McGee.)

    After the World Trade Center was attacked, Gaga cried for days and wore black, in mourning. “As she came down the aisle to get Communion at the special Mass for 9/11, her steps were in this serious cadence,” says a friend. “She used to wear a lot of makeup, but she didn’t have any on. I remember thinking, Wow, she is so over-the-top.” Gaga also had an odd habit of refusing to let cast members in plays call her by her real name backstage. “If you tried to say ‘Hey, Stefani’ to her, she’d put on the voice of her character, and say, ‘No, I’m Ginger!’ ” says a friend. “It was so bizarre, because we were kids.”

    After high school, Gaga moved to an NYU dorm on 11th Street and enrolled in Tisch, but quickly felt that she was further along creatively than some of her classmates. “Once you learn how to think about art, you can teach yourself,” she says. By the second semester of her sophomore year, she told her parents that she wasn’t going back to school—she was going to be a rock star. Her father reportedly agreed to pay her rent for a year on the condition that she reenroll if she was unsuccessful. “I left my entire family, got the cheapest apartment I could find, and ate shit until somebody would listen,” she says.

    Gaga moved into an apartment on the Lower East Side, with a futon for a couch and a Yoko Ono record hung over her bed. In high school, she had blonde highlights and let her curls run wild, but now she dyed her hair black and began to straighten it. She started the Stefani Germanotta Band with some friends from NYU, recording an EP of her Fiona Apple–type ballads at a studio underneath a liquor store in New Jersey. “Stefani had a following of about fifteen to twenty people at each show,” says the guitarist, Calvin Pia. Says her manager at the time, Frankie Fredericks, “We’d kick it, jam, get drunk. She said she wanted to have a record deal by the time she was 21.”

    ***

    It was a lofty goal. What was missing, almost entirely, was any idea of how to get there. Like Madonna, she had a powerful sexual charisma. But whereas Madonna had seemed to calculate every step, every coupling, every stylistic turn in her quest for stardom, Gaga’s story is partly one of youthful drift, waiting for lightning to strike, for the brilliant accident to happen. Gaga, though, had something Madonna didn’t have: a truly great voice.

    Gaga’s year off from school was set to end in March 2006—her father had set a cutoff date of her birthday. A week before, the Stefani Germanotta Band performed at the Cutting Room on the same bill as Wendy Starland, a young singer-songwriter in the mold of Peter Gabriel. Starland had been working on tracks with Rob Fusari, a 38-year-old producer in Parsippany, New Jersey, who was known for his success with R&B hits for Destiny’s Child and Will Smith. He mentioned to Starland that he was interested in locating a female singer to front a band like the Strokes—she didn’t have to be good-looking, or even a great singer, but she had to have something about her you couldn’t take your eyes off. “Stefani’s confidence filled the room,” says Starland. “Her presence is enormous. And fearless. I listened for the pitch, the tone, and timbre of her voice. Was she able to have a huge dynamic range? Was she able to get soft and then belt? And I felt that she was able to do all that while giving out this very powerful energy.”

    Gaga erupted in giggles when Starland ran up to her after the performance and told her, “I’m about to change your life.” They rushed outside the club together, and Starland called Fusari on her cell phone. “Rob said, ‘Why are you waking me up?’ I said I found the girl. ‘What? It’s really one in a million. What’s her name?’ Stefani Germanotta. ‘Um, you gotta be kidding me. What does she look like?’ Don’t worry about that. ‘Does she have any good songs?’ No. ‘How is her band?’ Awful.” Starland laughs. “I wasn’t pitching a product. I was pitching the girl.”

    When Fusari first met Gaga, he didn’t see the private-school thing and thought she looked like “a Guidette, totally Jersey Shore.” Then she jumped on his piano. “She didn’t have that kind of undersinging character voice of Julian Casablancas, so I dropped the Strokes thing right away,” says Fusari. “I thought she was a female John Lennon, to be totally honest. She was the oddest talent.” Gaga began taking the bus from Port Authority to meet him at his New Jersey studio at 10 a.m., writing grungy songs with Zeppelin or Nirvana riffs on the piano and singing her quirky Jefferson Airplane lyrics over them. “I’m a hippie at heart, and Rob and I got tattoos one day,” she says. “I wanted a tattoo of a peace sign, in memory of John and Yoko. I love that they traveled the world and said ‘Give peace a chance,’ and when asked to elaborate, they replied, ‘No, just give peace a chance.’ They thought the simplicity of that phrasing would change the world. It’s so beautiful.”

    The two of them worked on rock songs for four months, but the reaction among their colleagues was negative; they also tried the singer-songwriter route, like Michelle Branch or Avril Lavigne, but those didn’t gel either. “With those kinds of records, people are looking at the source of that music, who it’s coming from,” says Starland. “Those artists are usually classically beautiful, very steady, and more tranquil, in a way.” Stefani agreed that her name was not going to fly: Fusari liked to sing Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” when she arrived at the studio, and she says that she came up with Lady Gaga off that joke. (Success indeed has many authors: Fusari says that he made it up inadvertently in a text message; Starland says it was the product of brainstorming.)

    Then, one day, Fusari read an article in the New York Times about folk-pop artist Nelly Furtado, whose career had stalled since her 2000 hit “I’m Like a Bird”: Timbaland, the hot producer of the moment, had remade her as a slinky dance artist. “We weren’t going to get past A&R with a female rock record, and dance is so much easier,” says Fusari. Gaga freaked out—you don’t believe in me, she told him—but, from that day onward, they started working with a drum machine. They also began an affair, which made their artistic collaboration tumultuous. When Fusari didn’t like her hooks, she would get teary-eyed and rant about feeling worthless. But he was rough on her, too. Gaga wasn’t into fashion at this point: She liked leggings and sweatshirts, maybe with a shoulder out. “A couple times, she came to the studio in sweatpants, and I said, ‘Really, Stef?’ ” says Fusari. “ ‘What if I had Clive Davis in here today? I should call the session right now. Prince doesn’t pick up ice cream at the 7-Eleven looking like Chris Rock. You’re an artist now. You can’t turn this on and off.’ ”

    The problem was that she didn’t know how to turn it on: Though she wanted to be a star, she didn’t have a clear idea of what a star was, or where the main currents in pop culture were flowing. It was at this point that she began her serious study. Gaga picked up a biography of Prince, started shopping at American Apparel, and became entranced by aughties New Age bible The Secret, according to friends. As a Catholic-school girl, she interpreted Fusari’s remarks as a signal to cut her skirts shorter and make them tighter, until one day they totally disappeared: All that was left were undies, sometimes with tights underneath.

    Starland was still part of the picture: She lived near Gaga’s parents’ house, and Gaga would come over, crunching Doritos on the couch while watching Sex and the City. But when she tried to formalize her role in Gaga’s life with a lawyer, she ran aground. “I got a call from my lawyer, who said that Stefani was going to give me a very generous Christmas gift,” she says. One evening, she went over to the Germanottas’ duplex, where Gaga’s family, including her sister and grandmother, were celebrating, alongside a new little dog that Gaga liked to put booties on for fun. In the living room, Gaga presented her with an enormous Chanel box, revealing a black quilted purse with a gold chain. This might be a Mean Girls moment, where Gaga sticks it to an early collaborator, but in her naïve way, Gaga thought she was giving Starland something of great worth: the kind of purse she wanted so badly when she was young.

    ***

    Bursting with confidence, Gaga was ready to be transformed. The dance-music scene that she’d fallen into turned out to be a perfect fit for her highly sexualized Catholic-school energy—she was a performer, rather than purely a singer. But the business into which she was launching herself was more difficult than ever. There are only four major labels these days; EMI is teetering on the edge, and if it misses its debt payments in June, Citigroup will own a record label. By 2006, labels were asking artists for a “360 deal”: Instead of financing an artist’s recording and then owning the masters, they wanted to share in the rights that traditionally belonged to the artist, like merchandise, live revenue, and endorsement fees. They were wary of any artist without a proven Internet following—the bet was on MySpace stars like Paramore or Panic at the Disco!—and there was Gaga, trying to go through the front door.

    But she had a good track. “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” a song about her friends from NYU asking their dads for money, drew prospective managers to a showcase downtown—everyone had to see her live because otherwise they didn’t get it. She was also invited to Island Def Jam, near Times Square. L. A. Reid walked into the room while she was playing piano and started drumming to the beat on a table. “L.A. told me I was a star,” says Gaga. She signed a deal with Island Def Jam for $850,000, according to a member of her camp, but after she produced the tracks, the line went dead. Three dinners were scheduled with Reid, but he canceled on each. Finally, Gaga got a call from her A&R rep at Island Def Jam: He had played a track in a meeting, and after a couple minutes Reid made a slitting motion across his throat. (Island Def Jam did not respond to requests for comment). She was off the label.

    Gaga was devastated. “She couldn’t even talk when she told me because she was crying so hard,” says Fusari. Unlike most struggling musicians, she chose to decline part of her advance so that she could walk with her masters (two of her six hits are on this original record). This was the first moment Gaga had experienced real hardship—the first moment in her life she really thought she might fail. “I went back to my apartment on the Lower East Side, and I was so depressed,” she says. “That’s when I started the real devotion to my music and art.”

    ***

    In contrast to Madonna, who gravitated to the forward edge of downtown and took herself with the utmost seriousness, Gaga, following her own instinct, headed toward a scene that was inclusive and fun but not particularly hip. In 2007, hipsters were listening to creative folk-rock bands out of Brooklyn like Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective; Gaga went for hard rock and downtown art trash. She fell desperately in love with Luc Carl, a 29-year-old drummer and manager of the rock bar St. Jerome’s on Rivington Street. That’s where she met Lady Starlight, an L.E.S. fixture in her thirties—M.A.C makeup artist, D.J., performance artist—who still plays shows for $60 but has a vast knowledge of rock music and style history. Starlight had gone through many incarnations, from mod meets Cabaret to Angela Bowie to leather-studded member of Judas Priest, which is what she was rocking at that moment.

    “Starlight and I bonded instantly over her love of heavy metal and my love of boys that listen to heavy metal,” says Gaga. “In those days, I’d wake up at noon in my apartment with my boyfriend and his loud Nikki Sixx hair, jeans on the floor, his stinky sneakers. He’d have his T-shirt on, no boxers. Then he would go do the books at St. Jerome’s. I’d spin vinyl of David Bowie and New York Dolls in my kitchen, then write music with Lady Starlight. Eventually, I’d hear a honk outside my window: his old green Camino with a black hood. I’d run down the stairs yelling, ‘Baby, baby, rev the engine,’ and we’d drive over the Brooklyn Bridge, dress up, meet friends, play more music.” She leans forward. “The Lower East Side has an arrogance, a stench. We walk and talk and live and breathe who we are with such an incredible stench that eventually the stench becomes a reality. Our vanity is a positive thing. It’s made me the woman I am today.”

    Gaga started performing her songs with Starlight at small venues, and go-go dancing under a red lightbulb at Pianos—she’d wear a bikini and Luc Carl’s fingerless black gloves, too big for her small hands. Dancing, diet pills, and one real meal a day was the way she finally lost weight, according to a friend. “I was naked on a bar with money hanging out of my tits and ass,” she says. (Gaga has been very open about having taken cocaine during this period, but none of her friends from this time recalls any drug use; they say that she told them she only used cocaine when she was alone.) She and Starlight began opening for the glam-rockers Semi Precious Weapons; they looked like hair-metal groupies, running around the stage spraying Aqua Net on fire. “Gaga and I used to go shopping together, too,” says Justin Tranter, lead singer of SPW. “Any sex store where 99 percent of the store was made up of DVDs and sex toys and 1 percent was actual clothing was our favorite place to shop. Her mom came to my loft once to pick up one Lucite pump that she left at the show the night before.”

    Gaga was enjoying herself, and, as usual, she spread her positive energy around. “She tried to make everyone feel good,” says Brendan Sullivan, a.k.a. DJ VH1, who worked with her on some early shows. “I’d go to her apartment with my unpublished novel, and she would tell me that I was the most brilliant writer of my generation, the poet laureate of the Lower East Side. No one else was doing that for me.” She wasn’t talking much to Fusari—the romance was over—but he caught a show with Starlight and was appalled. “It was Rocky Horror meets eighties band, and I didn’t get it at all,” he says. “I told Stefani that I could get her another D.J., but she was like, ‘I’m good.’ ”

    But Fusari inserted himself back into the picture, in the spring of 2007, when he heard that his friend Vincent Herbert, a “hustler with a capital H,” had landed a deal with Interscope to sign new artists. Within a couple days, Herbert had them on a plane to Los Angeles to meet Jimmy Iovine, the head of Interscope. Gaga came to the meeting in short shorts, go-go boots, and a cutoff T-shirt, but Iovine didn’t show up; they flew back to New York, then were summoned back two weeks later. Iovine, an executive from Brooklyn who made his name on gangster rap with Dr. Dre and later rode the wave of nineties soft metal, is known for his good ears, and after listening to a few tracks in his office, he stood up and said, “Let’s try this.”

    Gaga was worried that the label didn’t think she was pretty enough to be a performer—she was recording tracks with RedOne, a Moroccan-Swedish producer, but they set her up as a songwriter for the Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears (Spears was running around Los Angeles with a shaved head, so this wasn’t a plum assignment). Herbert even spent his own money to send her to Lollapalooza over the summer, and he started to think that her look was wrong—someone in the audience shouted out “Amy Winehouse,” and that made him nervous. “I told her that she needed to dye her hair blonde, and she did it right away,” says Herbert. “God bless that girl, she really does listen.”

    On vacation in the Cayman Islands with Luc Carl, Gaga picked a fight, and he told her that he wasn’t sure she was going to make it. “One day, you’re not going to go into a deli without hearing me,” she spat back. Back in New York, she sat down at a table at Beauty Bar with Sullivan, despondent. “I’m getting a nose job,” she said. “I’m going to get a new nose, and I’m moving to L.A., and I’m going to be huge.” He pleaded with her to be reasonable; like a true city kid, Gaga doesn’t even know how to drive. “Whatever,” she said. “I have the money. I just want to start fresh.”

    Sullivan told her about Warhol’s Before and After I painting of two noses, before and after rhinoplasty, with a word that looks like RAPED at the top. She went up to the Met one afternoon and stood in front of it. She bought books about Warhol, which helped her make sense of her journey while providing a new vocabulary to talk about her creations. “Andy’s books became her bible,” says Darian Darling, a friend. “She would highlight them with a pen.”

    ***

    For Warhol, stardom was its own art form, empty imagistic vividness one of the most important forces. The person behind the mask could be as seemingly sweet and ordinary as Stefani Germanotta—and still be huge. Before Warhol, however unusual, she’d been in the general category of rock chick. He freed her to invent herself, like so many before her, expand herself, make herself a spectacle. While writing a club song called “Just Dance” with RedOne, Gaga tried to broaden her surface, remaking her style as a blonde space-age queen, a fabulous chick from the Factory era. The music was global-dance-party music—faster beats, synth sounds, with an ethos that made sense to her hippie heart. “Gaga and I believe that the world needs this music, that it is a way to unite,” says RedOne. It wasn’t the kind of music America was listening to at the moment, but she could be broken overseas and America might follow.

    Suddenly, the clouds parted. One of Interscope’s big artists, Akon, an R&B singer from Senegal with a massive global following, heard the track and lost his mind about it. Iovine pushed the button. She started working seriously with a choreographer: “I heard that this was the new Madonna, so I was like, ‘Okay, let’s hit it, pumpkin,’ ” says Laurie Ann Gibson. She recorded at the home studio of Kierszenbaum, the company’s A&R head, as well. “I liked that she was talking about Prince’s arrangements, styling, and presentation,” he says. “Interest in Prince ebbs and flows, and two years ago, it was very, very maverick. Artists were saying ‘Here’s my record and album cover,’ not talking about putting screens on the stage.” She began wearing her crazy disco outfits everywhere. “She was never out of uniform, if you will,” says Kierszenbaum. She also took a personal plunge: The day that she shot the video for “Just Dance” was the same day that she finally left Carl. Her heart may have been broken, but this was her new life. (Friends say that she has not been in love since, and the ritualistic killing of male lovers in her last three videos is related to this breakup.)

    The newly liberated Gaga didn’t feel like she needed to express her sexuality in a typically feminine way, either, and she became obsessed with androgyny, with the look of Liza Minnelli. She loved the free expression of drag queens—she wanted to wear the same clothes as those guys, cover herself with glitter, wear a wig. Though she wasn’t from gay club culture, management began sending her to small clubs around the country. She even performed at a party at the Madison nightclub in the West Twenties hosted by Kenny Kenny, for $150. “When I went backstage to say hello, she said, ‘Don’t look at me! I don’t have my makeup on yet.’ ” He laughs. “I was like, ‘Uh, okay.’ I’ve seen Amanda Lepore without her makeup.”

    Now, Gaga thought of herself not only as a superstar—she channeled Andy himself. She adopted his round black glasses and his wigs and spouted his wisdom. “It’s as if I’ve been shouting at everyone, and now I’m whispering and everybody’s leaning in to hear me,” she says. “I’ve had to shout for so long because I was only given five minutes, but now I’ve got fifteen. Andy said you only needed fifteen minutes.” She even started her own Factory, or the “Haus of Gaga,” as she likes to call her entourage. There’s Åkerlund; Gibson; her manager, Troy Carter; and the core team of stylist Nicola Formichetti and her primary collaborator Matt Williams, an art-school graduate whom she calls “Dada” (they have dated on and off during the past couple years). In May 2009, after she released “Paparazzi,” a seven-minute video—thrown off the top of her mansion by her boyfriend, she’s reborn as the robot from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—she became the haute-fashion world’s pet. “Gaga had some archival pieces from Thierry Mugler, but after ‘Paparazzi,’ everything changed,” says a former member of the Haus. “It happened in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, every fashion designer in the world was e-mailing her images.”

    Like Warhol at the Factory, when Gaga likes someone, he works; when she’s done with him creatively, the door is closed. When Fusari sued her for $30 million in mid-March, over recording and merchandise fees, she immediately responded through her lawyers, saying that he acted as an unlicensed employment agent in his introduction to Herbert. “I developed an artist to grow with that artist,” says Fusari, his voice pained. She’s changed her cell number, and most of her old friends can’t reach her anymore. “You know, she used to send texts out in New York inviting everyone on the Lower East Side to her shows, and not too many people would come,” says Sullivan. “And after the vocal coach, dieting, exercising, and all the rest, now everyone wants to go. She has gotten annoyed by that: ‘Why didn’t they come before?’ ” He pauses. “You know, once she blew up, and everyone wanted a piece of her, we stopped calling her Gaga. We started calling her Stef again.”

    ***

    This summer, Gaga will come to the United States with her arena tour, one of the only pop stars who can fill a venue that large today. She spent a lot to get here—her tour has been losing about $3 million, according to music-industry sources, because she refuses to compromise on any aspect of the stage show. “I spent my entire publishing advance on my first tour,” she told me. “I’ve had grand pianos that are more expensive than, like, a year’s worth of rent.” But profits are on their way soon. “Gaga’s camp knows the exact date this summer that she will turn it around and get way into the black,” says a source. With her 360 deal, Lady Gaga doesn’t own as much of Lady Gaga as one would think. Essentially, this is a joint venture among Iovine, Universal Music CEO Doug Morris, and Sony/ATV publishing head Marty Bandier. It’s a good formula for the business: Hot looks and hot singles are the new monster albums.

    These days, Gaga doesn’t talk about Warhol much anymore—she’s fully inhabiting the role she created. “She wants to be crazy, to make statements, make art, channel the past, experiment with performance art, try everything,” says David LaChapelle, a collaborator and friend. “In Paris, she took four hours out of four days to visit museums. That’s just not done by a pop star at the beginning of a career—not when you’re in the bubble, when it’s all about you.” She’s still overly dramatic—talking about monsters, or archly trying to presage her fall by covering herself in blood and hanging from a noose at the VMAs. “I feel that if I can show my demise artistically to the public, I can somehow cure my own legend,” she explained recently. She turns down most interview requests, uninterested in combating misperceptions about her work. “Andy said that the critics were right,” she says, with a shrug.

    It’s an unlikely rise, and an unlikely name, and a totally unreal image. But what’s reality? “I believe that everyone can do what I’m doing,” says Gaga, spreading her arms wide. “Everyone can access the parts of themselves that are great. I’m just a girl from New York City who decided to do this, after all. Rule the world! What’s life worth living if you don’t rule it?”

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Originally published in New York, March 2010