At 28, the biggest pop phenomenon on the planet is finally ready to go back to her roots, stripping back her spectacular image to reveal a passionate, young woman, trying to make sense of the extraordinary events of the last decade. Christine Lennon meets the [...]
In Los Angeles, at the end of one of the city’s famously winding canyon roads, sits a Rococo-style house perched high on the hillside. Outside, the home is protected like a fortress with two black SUVs manned by ominous-looking security guards. Past the guards and up the steps are the imposing front doors, which have cut-glass panels that distort everything seen through it. Inside, the marble floors, gold tassels, yards of metallic silk, and a miniature copy of the Sistine Chapel ceiling mural appear fractured and repeated as if they’re being viewed through a kaleidoscope. Once the doors open, the only thing that dazzles more than the strident baroque decor, or glitters more than the view of the city below is the home’s current occupant: Lady Gaga.
Though the house Is only a temporary rental, Gaga, which Is how her friends and family refer to her (sometimes, in emails and texts, it is shortened further to LG), emerges from the kitchen in true Lady of the House fashion. She is clothed entirely in white and silver: A white felt hat with a wide brim, a waist-skimming white wig with heavy fringe, a leotard-style top with sheer sleeves under a silver beaded Haus of Gaga corset and a silver Versace flapper mini-skirt, white fishnet stockings, custom silver metallic gladiator platform boots that reach her knees, and a pile of rhinestone necklaces and bracelets. She has a glass of red wine in hand, which seems like a bold choice given the upholstery and her platinum outfit.
“Welcome!” she says, as she stretches out her arms for a hug. Her manager, Bobby, asks if I would like a glass as well. I notice, once we are up close, that her face is entirely free of makeup and looks impossibly young in person; it is sometimes easy to forget that this global phenomenon is only 28. I’m so happy you’re here,” she adds.
Getting here hadn't been easy. I'd been on standby, waiting for our interview, for nine hours. Being the force that is Gaga is quite a commitment. She had legal matters to attend to that day. Her editor would be arriving at the house soon to work on the latest video. The interview, I supposed, was not a priority.
Once I made it inside Gaga's world, however, once she sat down, took off the hat, unzipped her boots and folded her legs underneath her tiny frame on the couch, it became clear that I was wrong. She wanted to talk – and our conversation was as surprising and honest as the photos on these pages, which were taken the week before by her friends, Dutch photography partners Inez and Vinoodh.
"We've known each other for a while now," she says of the couple. "We had a fantastic time doing this shoot. You know what I thought was really nice about it was, as much as I love fashion and as much as they love fashion, it was really more about my artistry. It seemed to capture me and my nature, with the instruments in the recording studio. And it was very interesting how Iinstantly nstantly I settled in to that space. It was easy for me to take those pictures, in a way."
The idea was to capture Gaga at her most undone – to shown pared-down version of the performer, which also channeled the powerful and glamorous female singer-songwriters of the '70s, such as Linda Ronstadt and Stevie Nicks. Gaga recently paid a tribute to one of her heroes, the prolific songwriter Carole King at a charity gala for MusiCares, performing a moving rendition of You've Got a Friend. But to Gaga, the experience on set wasn't as much an opportunity to see herself with new eyes, but rather a poignant reminder of where she started.
"That's really where I began, in that singer-songwriter mode," she says. "Throughout the day on set, I was laughing as my hair used to be cut this way. I used to wear outfits like this! It brought me full circle, returning to my old style. They said, 'We want to show you in a new way' and I thought, 'But this is the old way.'" In one of the photographs, Gaga wears her grandmother's robe, a piece she often wears when composing, and one of the few articles of clothing in her 3,000 garment wardrobe (which is stored in a rented warehouse in LA) that is in permanent rotation.
Anyone familiar with Gaga's story knows that she was something of a prodigy. Stefani Germanotta, her given name, started writing songs when she was 13 years old. By the time she was 14, and a student at the Convent of the Sacred Heart school in Manhattan, her mother was taking her downtown to perform at clubs. None of this information is as eyebrow-raising as Gaga's early music tastes, which leaned heavily to classic rock.
"I was a huge fan of The Beatles, Yoko Ono, Stevie Nicks and Led Zeppelin," she says. "I used to emulate that style, wear my mom's old clothing, go to vintage shops, and I still had that look when I went to college [at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University] and more my little hippie outfits. Then when I was 19 on the Lower East Side, I started experimenting more with glam rock. So this shoot really spans my style from 17 to almost 20. After that, I started to have a little more fun with futurism."
(While she's talking, she reaches down to scratch at the fishnet stocking behind her knee. Later, she'll dig a little beneath the wig with her fingernails. It occurs to me that being Gaga, specifically, and "futurism" in general, must get uncomfortable.)
The rest, as they say, is history. Gaga's efforts to make it big in the music business were Herculean and well-documented. Her first music venture, the SGBand, was formed with some of her art-school classmates and earned a small, loyal following in New York. One of her former producers who compared her vocal style and stage presence to Freddie Mercury of Queen would sing the band's hit Radio Ga Ga to her for fun. The Gaga part stuck, and a persona was born. She performed in a gritty neo-burlesque act with her long-time friend, DJ Colleen Martin, also known as Lady Starlight, during which she set fire to hairspray torches and danced in a bikini to heavy metal songs. No one doubted her skill as a vocalist and songwriter, but her aggressive on-stage persona and unique vision were polarizing. She was signed and dropped.
Eventually, her breakout record, The Fame, was released in August of 2008, and she toured aggressively around Europe. Her single Poker Rice won Best Dance Recording at the Grammys the following year. In late 2009, she released The Fame Monster, and Gaga's rabid following, her "Little Monsters", picked up steam.
To the date, she's won five Grammys, and at over 41 million followers, is the fourth most-followed person on Twitter (after Katy Perry Justin Bieber and Barack Obama). Outspoken Gaga admirers in the music establishment include Elton John, Beyoncé and Debbie Harry, who describes her as a "multi-talented artist who is dedicated to her audience".
Her Born This Way foundation, which is run by her mother, Cynthia Germanotta and counts the MacArthur Foundation, Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and The California Endowment as partners, has stated that its mission is to help "build a safer, kinder, braver world", and it provides counseling to young people in crisis. Mental healthcare is her foundation's priority. "This is the message that I want to leave on the earth," she says. "None of it is worth it if we're not spreading compassion. If one person is sick, we're all sick. We shouldn't be isolated and just concerned for ourselves. I am you. You are me. We are one another."
Despite her many accomplishments and impressive philanthropic ambition, she has earned just as much attention for outrageous fashion choices, elaborate costumes, larger-than-life presence at any given event and sensational public appearances as she has for her catchy songs. Who can forget the dress made of meat that Gaga wore to MTV's Video Music Awards in 2010?
Which is why it's so surprising to see her here, in these images, without the artifice. She says that while she was once reluctant to expose the blank "canvas" that she is, prior to the transformation into Gaga, now she is unafraid. When you see the "before" picture, it is hard to imagine the kind of energy and commitment that is required to make over this petite and pretty young woman. But she insists that part is the most effortless moment in her day.
"I want to show the joy I get when I wake up and say 'Today is a new day.' I get to be or choose or make or create whatever it is I am feeling in that moment – and it can never be wrong because it comes from within. What I'm saying is that looking artificial can be honest, being glamorous can come from a place of authenticity and a place of love," she says, explaining that she uses face-lift tape to alter her features. "My energy comes from excitement. I get to start it again every morning. I get to decide how I choose to express my messages, and my music. In that moment, when I have my wig cap on and I'm taping my face, it's a sort of meditation for me. Every day, it starts the same way. It's like a mantra. I wash my face. I pin my hair back and put on a wig cap and I ask, 'How am I going to form my eyes today with this tape? How will I pull back my neck with tape?' Or maybe I won't pull it back at all. In this photograph, will I hold my mouth like this, or like this? When I sing this song, do I want to come across this way, or this way? When I write this music with my producers, how vvill I inspire them to create this with me? I have always felt that my life is an art form in itself. When I'm putting myself together, this vision that I create every day is coming from a place of true need, of true heart. I have to. I must. I'm not thinking to myself, 'I should do it this way, because I think people will like it, or, 'This will be what will help this moment be successful.'"
One reason why Gaga may be eager to reveal herself at her most vulnerable is because she's had a challenging year. Much has been made of her split from her former manager, Troy Carter, due to "creative differences", and Gaga has spoken publicly of betrayal. Her latest album, ArtPop, was released last year to mixed reviews. The world tour starts in May, and that's the platform where she and the music truly shine, but in the meantime, she seems focused on re-building. Don't be surprised if all of this strife makes its may into a new batch of songs. She is constantly translating her experiences into material, trying to capture the ideas as they come to her "like gifts from God", at night in bed in that moment between sleeping and waking, as she's busying herself around the house humming a new tune or sitting at the piano.
"If you watched me from September to December of last year, you saw me in the most manic performance of my life," she says. "I was changing my outfits, my looks, my wigs, every day, sometimes multiple times a day. That's when I know my soul is restless. It comes out in a very physical way. If I'm able to hold on to one look for a longer period of time, it means I've settled into a new idea. If I haven't, I'm just searching for the next thing, 'What's next? What's next?'"
"My fans know that I will sit at the piano and start to cry and share with them a story or a moment that's occurring in my life," she continues. "Then you never have to be afraid that people are going to discover things about you personally. It's like, 'Why lie?'"
Gaga's personal life, at least, seems very much on track. She's been in a relationship with Taylor Kinney, an American television actor who stars in the NBC drama Chicago Fire, for over two years. She hints at their future, the possibility of children, at sharing as much love with the people in her life as she can, and fulfilling their dreams for a family life. She remains incredibly close to her parents and her sister, Natali, who is about to graduate from the prestigious Parsons School for Design in New York and start a career in fashion. "I have a fierce love for my sister, who is so talented," she says. "I wouldn't say it if it wasn't true. When she shows me her drawings, I think 'f***!' want to sit in her apartment with her and smoke cigarettes and sew all day."
She also has a close friendship with Donatella Versace and her daughter, Allegra, with whom she collaborates on the Versace ad campaigns. She appreciates Donatella's kindness, and her willingness to put herself and her creative vision out into the world with seemingly little regard for critics. "In her recent collection, every gown was like she was flipping two middle fingers, with long nails covered in diamonds, down the runway. It was so unapologetically Donatella, so undeniably beautiful and sexy and her," says Gaga with clear admiration.
It occurs to me that in order for Gaga's "we are one" theory to prove true, the rest of us will have to start treating her as less of a spectacle, and more of a person; her global fame is an obstacle to that, most of the time. Tellingly, however, although Gaga has built a loyal community of friends and supporters around her, it is the conversations with strangers she finds most fulfilling – like many a star before her, using a disguise to enable these fleeting moments of normality.
"Right now, I'm very enamored by interactions with 'regular' people, because it's the thing I had to sacrifice," she says. "In those brief moments when I put on a hat and something that I hope no one recognizes me in, I can see the trees and feel the air and walk around. These are the moments when I can talk to people... and I just feel this surge of happiness. They can engage with me in a completely human moment and not know how much it means to me that they're not treating me differently."
Here is the real Gaga, at last: woman, artist and, on occasion, just another face in the crowd.
Lady Gaga's ARTPOP Ball global tour starts on May 4, 2014; ladygaga.com