(Editors Note: These pictures are available for publication only until June 10, 2010.) Lady Gaga performes during her "Monster of Ball" tour at the O2 arena on May 10, 2010 in Hamburg, Germany. (Getty Images)more pics »
Lady Gaga has only been on the music scene for a couple of years, but she's already challenging the way people think about about stardom. You no longer have to be a blonde bombshell with hookups in Hollywood to make it big, as long as you're fearless and willing to sweat for it. And just as Lady Gaga is changing the rules for pop, the music industry is changing the rules for Lady Gaga.
At this year's Grammy Awards, country group The Zac Brown Band took home the prize for Best New Artist, beating out Keri Hilson and MGMT. But one obvious name was missing from the list of nominees: Lady Gaga, the eccentric, futuristic, outrageous pop star who's redefined music performance for the latest generation. Given her meteoric rise to fame in 2009, the idea that she wouldn't be considered the Best New Artist of the year pointed to a flaw in the system.
And apparently music industry bigwigs thought so, too. Gaga was excluded because "Just Dance" had been nominated for a prize in 2008, making her ineligible for the Best New Artist award.
But it was recently announced that the rules for the category have been changed: An artist can now be considered as long as they haven't yet released a full album, just so a mistake like that one can't happen again.
One need only watch any of Gaga's live performances or the music videos to "Paparazzi" and "Bad Romance" to realize that Gaga is in a class of her own. While her catchy dance tunes have her grouped with the likes of Katy Perry and Britney Spears, there's very little bubblegum here.
Even Madonna, who's Gaga's idol and has preceded her as the Shocking, Sexually Explicit and Occasionally Blasphemous Pop Star, is no match for Gaga's vocals and bizarre creativity. Lady Gaga is in the business of performance art, and she'll be the first to tell you so.
Unlike most her contemporaries, Gaga is classically trained. The Manhattan native (real name Stefani Germanotta) learned to play the piano when she was four, started writing piano music when she was 13 and began performing it a year later. She attended a private Catholic school called Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City, where she signed up for all the school musicals and always got the lead role. She also studied hard and earned good grades, she says, because her parents sacrificed a lot to send her to that school.
She was accepted early to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied music and art. "I went through a great deal of creative and artistic revelation, learning, and marination to become who I am," she told New York Magazine. "Once you learn how to think about art, you can teach yourself."
She dropped out of Tisch mid-way through her sophomore year, telling her parents she wanted to be a rock star. Her dad agreed to pay her rent for a year as long as she consented to go back to school if she couldn't make it work in showbiz. So she left home, found a cheap apartment and "ate sh*t until somebody would listen."
Working for It
Gaga started the Stefani Germanotta Band with some of her NYU friends, which performed mellow ballads unrecognizable from the pop music she's making today. One night the group performed on the same bill as Wendy Starland, a singer-songwriter who worked with Rob Fusari, a producer who'd collaborated with Destiny's Child and Will Smith. He'd told Starland he was looking for a good female singer -- one with charisma -- and she knew she'd found something special with Gaga.
She told Gaga after the show, "I’m about to change your life."
Gaga met Fusari soon after. His take: "I thought she was a female John Lennon, to be totally honest. She was the oddest talent."
Fusari tried to make Gaga into a sultry singer-songwriter, a calm and beautiful type like Norah Jones, but it just wasn't happening. So they came up with the name "Lady Gaga," inspired by the Queen song "Radio Ga Ga," and they put a pop beat behind her vocals.
Livin' La Vida Gaga
Lady Gaga morphed from just a name to an alter-ego, a separate identity. From the way she talks about it, Gaga is a persona that trumps and outshines Stefani Germanotta. She said, "If you know me, and you call me Stefani, you don’t really know me at all."
It was also around this time that she learned what it meant to be a star. When she entered the studio wearing sweatpants one day, Fusari -- with whom she was in a romantic relationship at the time -- said, "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.’"
In other words, there's a reason you always see Lady Gaga wearing latex bodysuits, lobster hats and muppet costumes instead of sweatpants.
The pop scene needed a Lady Gaga, but no one knew it quite yet. Record producer L.A. Reid heard her play the piano and helped her sign a deal with Island Def Jam for $850,000, but she was booted off after just a few months.
Even when brokenhearted and struggling, Gaga showed some of her signature artistic integrity: She turned down part of her advance so she could keep her songs. Two of her biggest hits from her debut album The Fame came from the original tracks she recorded with Island Def Jam, according to New York Magazine.
From there she met DJ and performer Lady Starlight, of whom she said: "Starlight and I bonded instantly over her love of heavy metal and my love of boys that listen to heavy metal."
It was 2007, and Gaga was dating drummer and band manager Luc Carl, who she's reportedly rekindled her relationship with. She and Starlight performed together in the Lower East Side, with Gaga dancing onstage in little more than a bikini.
Fusari helped Gaga get meetings with record exec Vincent Herbert and Jimmy Iovine, who's worked with Dr. Dre. Herbert signed her to Streamline Records, an imprint of Interscope, but she was writing songs for the Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears instead of performing them herself.
It was after she wrote "Just Dance" that everything came together. Akon heard the song and loved it, so Gaga started working with a choreographer and shot a music video for the song. He's admitted that signing her to his label (Streamline) could've allowed him to retire at this point, given her success.
She dyed her hair blonde after being mistaken for Amy Winehouse and walked around town looking more like a drag queen from space than a pop star, cultivating an androgynous image that's followed her throughout her career.
Recently, it was even rumored that Gaga was masquerading as male model Jo Calderone, when her stylist posted pictures on his blog of "Jo" with his prominent Italian nose oh-so-similar to Gaga's. She hasn't commented, and she probably won't.
Similarly, when a photo was published of the singer with a suspicious-looking bulge below her waist, rumors started circulating on the Internet that she was a hermaphrodite. When asked to confirm or deny the claims, she said only (via The Hollywood Gossip), "My beautiful vagina is very offended. I'm not offended; my vagina is offended."
Later stage costumes were so revealing as quickly and easily to debunk that myth without a word.
Sexuality is one subject Gaga has embraced personally, publicly and politically. She's spoken openly of her love of men and sex, and she announced early on that she's bisexual, although friends from her past can't remember her ever dating a woman. And since the gay community comprised some of her biggest supporters early on, she's made gay rights her own cause, even delivering a speech at the National Equality March in October 2009.
"Are you listening?" she yelled at President Obama (via WashingtonPost.com). "We will continue to push your administration to bring your promise to a reality. I will never turn my back on my friends. Today is not a one-off performance."
Now that Gaga is a true powerhouse, audiences and budgets at her shows have grown tremendously. This week Forbes listed her at #7 on their list of the Top Earning Musicians of 2010, with estimated earnings of $62 million. She's sold over 15 million albums. But extravagance is part of being Lady Gaga. She's spent almost every dime she makes on sets for her stage performances and special effects for tours.
She said last year, "I’ve gone bankrupt about four times now. My manager wants to shoot me. Every dollar I earn goes on the show. Now we’re finally getting to a place where it’s not bankruptcy. Then again, with another tour coming up soon I’ll probably be homeless again."
Doubtful: It was recently rumored she's eyeing a $26 million house in the Hamptons.
Looking the Part
And how about fashion? Showing she had the courage to wear glorified lingerie and plastic-looking leotards early on in her career was a smart move, because now all the designers want a piece of her. She performs in avant garde, often pants-less pieces from fashion house archives, like her famous dress made entirely from bubbles and those Alexander McQueen armadillo heels.
Her entourage, also known as the "Haus of Gaga," is a part of all of these artistic decisions. It includes her manager, stylist, collaborators, and a few other chosen ones -- and they're indispensable to the singer. She said (via MTV.com), "It's a real bond and relationship, and that's what I think music and art is about. They are my heart and soul."
But, she admits, "No one gets it."
Such is the essence of Gaga, in a nutshell. Being misunderstood is all an intentional part of her mysterious, fantastical alter ego who's making art mainstream. Some have even labeled her an icon, but Gaga's not the kind of star who's interested in being an icon unless it means something real.
She's said, "People use that word so carelessly. I mean, don’t just freakin’ hand it to me on a plate because I dress cool. Make me earn it."
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