She’s a singer. No, she’s a performance artist. No, an activist. Actually, she’s an icon. But whoever Lady Gaga is on any given day—creator of dance-your-ass-off albums like her latest, Artpop; audacious wearer of parade-float-proportioned gowns; leader of the Born This Way Foundation, which works to end bullying; daughter, sister, and former Catholic-school girl known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta—whoever she is, she’s always fascinating.
She’s also phenomenally successful: five Grammy Awards, 23 million albums sold, more than 40 million Twitter followers, 47 million wigs worn (we’re guessing). In between cranking out genre-bending albums and making the world a better place for the fans known as Little Monsters, Gaga, 27, has been named Forbes magazine’s “most powerful musician” and was crowned MTV News’ Woman of the Year—twice. She also finds time to be godmother to the two children of Elton John, who calls her “a loving and talented girl and great role model.” Artist Jeff Koons agrees. “She’s a leader; we need her,” he says simply. “Pop culture needs her.”
But accolades aside, under all the costumes and makeup lies an enormous conscience. Yes, Gaga aims to outrage, but she is also outraged by how challenging a place the world has become for anyone who grows up feeling different: A staggering one in four kids in the U.S. has been the victim of bullying. In 2011 Gaga joined forces with Harvard University to launch the Born This Way Foundation, an initiative and online community focusing on building young people’s self-confidence by sharing experiences. This year she gave her movement a grassroots edge—and a sleek, rainbow-colored tour bus. “The Born Brave Bus is like a traveling youth shelter,” Gaga explains. “Every day people can go to the bus and meet each other and speak to the counselor and learn about organizations within their community. It’s all about being involved and being a proponent of kindness—and bravery.”
Everything Gaga does is for her fans, “no matter what happens,” she says. So Glamour found the perfect (grown-up) fan to talk to her: Bravo talk show host and exec Andy Cohen. He gets our Woman of the Year’s story, right here.
ANDY COHEN: Where do you get your confidence? Because I think that’s something all the Women of the Year have in common.
LADY GAGA: It depends on what it is we’re talking about. I’m really confident about my music because I love it.
AC: But you’re confident in your presentation. You’ve been wearing that shell bikini and a teeny little miniskirt lately.
LG: Yeah. I’m confident in who I am. I’ve come to a place in my life where I’ve accepted things that are me, as opposed to feeling pressure to explain myself to people around me. That’s just the way I’ve always tried to be. It didn’t change when I became a star.
AC: But do you consider yourself to be beautiful?
LG: Not conventionally beautiful. If there was some sort of mathematical equation for beauty, I don’t know if I would be the algorithm. I’ve always been OK with that. I’m not a supermodel. That’s not what I do. What I do is music. I want my fans to feel the way I do, to know what they have to offer is just as important, more important, than what’s happening on the outside.
AC: I think that’s interesting. Because every time I see a shot of you stripped down without makeup or a costume, I’m struck by your physical beauty. Your layering of costumes—is that because of insecurity? Are you afraid of what’s under all those layers?
LG: I would say that I am. Maybe it’s from the things I experienced in my past, you know? Being beautiful is not so fun when you’re in a business with all men.
LG: Because it can actually get in the way. So in some ways, the outfits—these creations are because I don’t want to face the reality of what people want from a female pop star. Everybody always laughs because I feel so much more comfortable with, like, a giant paper bag on my whole body and paint on my face. Sometimes I try really hard to take it all off. But inevitably what’s underneath is still not a straight edge. And I don’t think it ever will be.
AC: You have battled eating disorders since you were 15.
AC: But you have no problem leaving the house in a G-string. That seems to be two different things—clearly, you’re conflicted about your body image.
LG: Yes. I always have been. And some days are better than others, you know? Some days I feel fantastic.
AC: How’s today?
LG: Today’s good. At the end of the day, I’m a tortured soul. [Laughs.]
Andy Cohen: There’s a great quote from you, about always being in character. You said: “Lady Gaga’s my name. If you know me and you call me Stefani, you don’t really know me at all.” So when all the costumes are gone and the makeup and all that stuff, and you’re home eating a bowl of cereal, are you Gaga? Are you Stefani?
Lady Gaga: I’m both all the time. Gaga and Stefani are my nicknames. I guess when people meet me for the first time and call me Stefani, it bothers me. Because it’s something that’s reserved for only the people who are closest to me. It’s not because I don’t like my given name; it’s that I became somebody else. I became somebody else for a reason, you know. This is part of what my message is—you can become whoever you want to be, to escape your past.
AC: One of the reasons that I so respect you is you’re an advocate for LGBT rights, and you’ve fought so hard to end bullying. You’re at the forefront of that movement and truly invested. Your Born This Way Foundation was started with $1.2 million of your own money.
LG: The foundation is everything that I’ve ever believed in. My ambition was never to rule the world. It was always to change the world. And once I started to become more and more successful, this voice in the back of my mind was telling me to make sure that I staked my claim as a person. The Born This Way Foundation isn’t about money at all. It’s about communities, people coming together. It’s about kids telling their stories to one another, and finding a sense of home by breeding compassion, making it cool to be that kind of person. I truly believe that people can find a happier way, if they are aware of the stories of people around them—people who share similar challenges and similar fears.
AC: If you went away tomorrow, what do you think is the one thing you’ve created that would be your legacy?
LG: I actually think I’ll be remembered for the Born This Way Foundation, more than probably anything. As someone who grew up with tons of gay friends, I wanted to make a real statement about the need for times to change.
AC: And not just for the LGBT community. It’s for everybody.
LG: I agree.
AC: Then there was the mishegoss [Yiddish for craziness] of people comparing “Born This Way” to Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”
LG: I like this word, mishegoss.
AC: Mishegoss, that’s what it was.
LG: Truthfully, all of that stuff is nonsense. It did upset me when I saw a lot of young people fighting on the Internet [about it]. My desire is always to bring people together. I never care personally what people say about me. But is it inspiring a community to split down the center and go to war over who is the queen? The music, and the message—this will always be more important to me than people thinking I’m the best. And any sort of bantering about “am I going to have a career like hers”—who’s to say I’m anything like her at all? Who’s to say that my ambitions are even the same as hers? Who’s to say I’m not an entirely different person? Because I am. You have to understand, I was a waitress five years ago.
AC: Well, those days are gone. President Obama called you “intimidating” after you met. He said you were wearing 16-inch heels. What was your reaction when you heard that?
LG: Oh, I think he was just being funny. He’s actually really funny. It means a lot to me that the President’s able to see through everything, straight to the center of who I am.
AC: Well, one thing you are is vocal.
LG: I’m quite excited to get into an artistic conversation. An artist is the only thing I want to be. I only want my freedom and my creativity. It’s all that I live for. I reject the idea that I have to take all [the costumes and makeup] off to be f--king authentic.
AC: So as a Woman of the Year, who’s your personal hero of 2013?
LG: It would be Emma Carroll [a Gaga fan with cerebral palsy]. Emma’s my own Woman of the Year. Because she can do things now, after her hip surgery, that she didn’t think she’d ever be able to do.
AC: You paid for her surgery, right, after your own?
LG: Yes. Watching her push through her greatest fears lets me know that I can do anything. She’s so inspiring. There’s a glamour to Emma that goes so far beyond makeup and wigs. It’s the glamour of survival.
Andy Cohen is executive vice president, development and talent, at Bravo and host of Watch What Happens Live.