Saturday evening, May 14 2011
It takes quite a bit to excite the staff of The Lanesborough Hotel, one of London’s more self-consciously luxurious five-star residences. Princes, sultans, presidents, oligarchs and film stars have been coming here ever since the grand but oddly anonymous building on the corner of Hyde Park Corner and Knightsbridge arose from the ruins of Belgravia’s old St George’s Hospital some 20 years ago.
I arrive there by taxi one Saturday night and find myself bundled through a tunnel of polite but harassed doormen into a lobby that, for all the discretion and professional sangfroid of the front-of-house staff, fails to suppress a crackle of excitement that fizzes around the interior like electricity. This, I imagine, must have been how the Goring Hotel felt when Kate Middleton came to stay the night before she was transformed into a royal duchess.
I approach the desk, cough politely and murmur, as if it were the kind of remark I might drop into the ears of a concierge every day, “Hello. I’m here to see Lady Gaga.”
As I am sure you know, it is a matter of pride among Hollywood stars that they check into hotels under elaborate and often preposterous aliases. Only those in the know are therefore able to call their rooms or ask to be shown up to see them. Lady Gaga’s people had alerted me to no such code system, and somehow I instinctively knew that the lady was simply too big and too … well … too Gaga, to bother with such nonsense.
Either side of me, as I had hurried through, many in the huge gathering outside the hotel had raised their voices in screams of excitement and their right hands into a kind of frozen claw, a gesture that I had inexpertly attempted to return. The crowd must have guessed why I had come to The Lanesborough and it was only polite for me to acknowledge this by returning their salute. This upraised claw is the worldwide identifier of Gaga fans, or Little Monsters, as they style themselves. I am not embarrassed to call myself – grotesquely over-aged and oversized as I may be – some kind of Little Monster too.
I do not write newspaper profile pieces for a living and Lady Gaga is currently the only person about whom I would do such a thing. With the exception that is, of Steve Jobs, whom I interviewed last year for Time magazine. I am not claiming that Lady Gaga and Steve Jobs are the most important figures in the world and that everyone else can go hang, it is just that … well, some people light your fire in a very special way and I am past the age of caring how good or bad that might look in the eyes of the world.
I had already been introduced to Gaga by a mutual friend on the roof terrace of the newly opened West Hollywood Soho House in April 2010. She had lifted the veil she was wearing that evening and I had kissed her on each cheek. In that stylish private members’ club whose dining tables were peopled by what looked like an exaggerated magazine photo mock-up of every Hollywood A-lister you had ever heard of, this 24-year-old girl had caused a stunned silence to fall as she had entered.
This had been around the time that “Bad Romance” played on every radio station and was blaring from every hair salon in the world. (“Rah-rah, ah-ah-ah, Roma-Roma-ma-ma, Gaga ooh-la-la … I want your ugly, I want your disease…” That one.) For sheer ear-worm tuneful, addictive, toe-tappy tunefulness it was a number impossible to ignore, although for me it was the acoustic versions of her songs “Paparazzi” and “Poker Face” that had convinced me that here was a musician worth paying attention to. The real thing.
All these memories were buzzing about inside my head as I found myself escorted up the lift and through a series of darkly panelled corridors and into the suite in which the interview was to take place. The photographer, Shamil, had been there with his assistant for some time, setting up their lamps and trying out angles: before long a convoy of waiters arrived with an awe-inspiringly grand selection of tea-trays and cake-stands.
“Ho, ho,” I thought to myself. “Someone has had the idea that it would be amusing for the ‘quintessentially English’ Mr Fry to be seen ‘taking afternoon tea’ with a broad from the Bowery. Oh well, one plays these games and the scones did look rather delicious. I readied my iPhone for recording, sat on the sofa and consulted the notebook in which I had jotted down my questions.
The main elements of the Lady Gaga story are too well known for me to have much need of repeating them here. Even if you are an FT reader whose only real interest in the pink pages lies in lists of share indices, oil and gold price movements and the excitements of the Baltic Exchange, it is surely certain that you will be familiar with the girl from the Lower East Side who in a few short years transformed herself from Stefani Germanotta into one of the world’s best-known musical performers. You will, if nothing else, have seen or heard of the meat dress, the towering Alexander McQueen shoes and the astonishing hats that make Philip Treacy’s creation for Princess Beatrice look like something Ena Sharples might wear at the Rovers Return.
The jokes, then, are easy. Gaga dresses outrageously, at such an extreme edge of fashion as to be ridiculous. It’s a publicity gimmick. It’s pretention. It’s silly. It’s a postmodern Emperor’s New Clothes. We’re imbeciles and pretentious gibbons to be taken in.
You get a strong sense of the character and behaviour of a great star by smelling the mood of those around them. The assistants who popped in from time to time to apologise for the late-running of the afternoon (she was busy doing back-to-back TV interviews in another suite) all seemed relaxed, cheerful and unforced in their manner. They certainly didn’t have the cowed look of crushed hirelings fresh from a verbal bitch-slapping who were attempting to prepare me for sulky moods and obstreperous huffiness.
Then, just as I was wondering whether or not my teapot ought to be replenished with hot water, there she was, in the room.
I cannot claim that the overtly Wagnerian headpiece she wore had been chosen in my honour, but it certainly put me at my ease, as did the easygoing, “Hello again!” and proffering of a soft cheek.
She sat in a chair, threw her legs casually over the arm of the sofa on which I was sitting and the interview got under way, Shamil gratefully clicking away as we chatted.
“You know what?” she said after a while, “why don’t we get on with our talk and then we can do more pictures later?” Nervously, Shamil and assistant backed out. I could sense the photographer’s fear that maybe Lady Gaga would forget this promise and that he would find himself with far too few pictures and be roundly ticked off by the paper’s picture editor as a result.
Now that we were alone, I thought it best to begin with a rumour that I had heard from the hotel staff earlier.
“I gather that last night you sent out some drinks to all the fans gathered outside?”
“Well actually, I sent them hot chocolate yesterday, and macaroons, and then today I had press all day and I felt a bit bad because I wouldn’t have much of a chance to go down and say hello. But I did manage to go down and brought them some fresh cookies and flowers.”
Any popular musician, like any film star or any footballer for that matter, can tell you that “it’s all about the fans” but there is something very different about Lady Gaga and her relationship with the Little Monsters. Once again, of course, a determined detractor could interpret such an action in one of two ways. They could damn her for such self-conscious publicity-seeking saintliness or, if she were to do nothing, for being an aloof ice-queen safely locked in the fastness of a luxury palace while her fans froze through the night below.
“Are your fans different here in England?” I ask. “Or is there a commonality around the world?”
“Yes, there is. Little Monsters are a community. It’s kind of nice that wherever I go they create a little home for me.”
“You seem quite happy to be a self-conscious spokesman for the dispossessed, the marginal, the freakish, the outsider, the one who doesn’t fit in, the one who feels outside the tribe, if you like…”
“It could be anybody…”
“Yes…” I venture, “I suppose we’re all outsiders really. It’s just that some of us are better at hiding it.”
“Some of us can wear the mask. And this new album [Born This Way] is about being able to be reborn, over and over again throughout your life.”
“Oh?” This surprised me. “I thought the meaning of the title track was that ‘I was born this way – gay, straight, bi, lesbian, transgender, whatever,’ and that you were affirming that…”
“No, in fact, sexuality is just one very small part of it … it’s so interesting to see how people latch on to words. You say the word ‘gay’ in a song and suddenly all the other words float away. I’m happy people did focus on that word, though, it’s an important word to liberate. But the album is about rebirth in every sense. It’s about being reborn again and again until you find the identity inside yourself that defines you best for who you are and that makes you most feel like a champion of life.”
Camille Paglia, the American writer, in a recent article for The Sunday Times, saw nothing but fraudulence and a manufactured, calculating falsity behind such claims, and I was delighted to discover that Lady Gaga had not read or even heard about Paglia’s latest charmless (and physically insulting) broadside, which is almost a masterclass in how to miss the point and come over as resentful and more out of touch with reality than even the remotest star.
I was annoyed with myself for having brought up Paglia’s article in the first place, but greatly cheered by the clear evidence that Gaga would never read it. I moved on therefore to Lady Gaga’s latest album, advance tracks of which I had been authorised to hear. A number called “Hair” wittily summons up the scenario of the mother who won’t let the daughter go out “like that” – an issue teenagers and their parents have fought over for years.
“At just 25,” I say, “you’re close enough in age for it not to appear patronising to be taking the side of the teenager against the parent, but perhaps in 10 years’ time you might have a child of your own. Do you think that will alter your perspective, or are you happy to wait and see?”
“I don’t know, I suppose I’ll wait and see. And perhaps it is patronising to some people, some people don’t feel the need to be liberated. And that’s OK. It’s just that I have a message and will fight to the death for it.”
That message, “Find out who you are and be it,” clearly means a great deal to her. Like any simple aphorism it can be made to sound naive or profound according to one’s point of view. I think I’m old enough to know when I’m being fobbed off, bullshitted, lied to or deceived. There was in Lady Gaga’s eyes and voice enough to tell me that whatever else she is, she is no fraud. The “messages” in her songs and albums, the calls to freedom and self-actualisation, the addresses she has made to the American military on the subject of their fatuous and hypocritical “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the support she has shown for the dispossessed and marginalised in society may cause many to roll their eyes and make the obvious cynical observation that being a friend to the friendless is damned good business. Just look at the figures. Number one after number one, record-breaking releases of singles and albums, record-breaking YouTube visits, record-breaking numbers of Twitter followers. Oh, sure, this is one smart cookie. There’s money to be had in self-publicity and the championing of the lonely ones out there.
Well, of course, all that can be said. But against such arid cynicism it should be pointed out that Lady Gaga did herself few financial favours during her last major world tour, The Monster Ball, which she began in 2009 to promote her album The Fame Monster. One of the most successful promotional tours ever, it quite literally bankrupted her. Her habit of redesigning, reformatting and revising it from the ground up, all of which experiments and changes she paid for out of her own pocket, certainly made the tour one of the most extraordinarily varied and unpredictable in history, but also one of the least profitable. Or so I had read and so legend insists to this day. I ask her if the stories are true.
“It’s honestly true that money means nothing to me. The only big things I’ve purchased are my dad’s heart valve and a Rolls-Royce for my parents, for their anniversary. And that was only because my dad had a Lady Gaga licence plate on our old car and it was making me crazy because he was getting followed everywhere, so I bought him a new car. Other than that I put everything in the show, and I actually went bankrupt after the first extension of The Monster Ball. And it was funny because I didn’t know! And I remember I called everybody and said, “Why is everyone saying I have no money? This is ridiculous, I have five number one singles – and they said, ‘Well, you’re $3m in debt.’”
The sheer quality and popularity of the work, then being picked up by Live Nation for extended stadium shows and by HBO for a TV special, allowed the money to flow back in but I don’t suppose one could ever guarantee that such a state of affairs will never occur again.
The detractors call her an extreme reinvention of Madonna – same Italian New York background, similar personality reinventions, a similar sense of extreme and often shocking fashion accoutrements, the same propensity to appropriate and distort, to the point of blasphemy, the language and iconography of the Roman Catholic church in which they were both brought up. They can point to other influences: Freddie Mercury (it was from the Queen song “Radio Gaga” that she took her name), David Bowie, Debbie Harry – there are plenty of tributaries that have flowed into River Gaga and she is the first to acknowledge her debt to them all and, yes, most certainly to Madonna. The only thing that annoys her about that question, she confides, is that people seem to think she is annoyed by being asked it.
“I genuinely love her so much. I think she is so amazing. She could never be replicated and, yes, I’m Italian, I’m from New York, and not for nothing, it’s not my fault that I kind of look like her, right? So, look, if anything, it’s more annoying to me that people would insinuate that I don’t like to be compared to her … She’s wonderful and inspiring and liberating, and she’s certainly inspired my album, as did David Bowie, as did Prince, as did Michael Jackson, as did Grace Jones, and I would never take that away.”
I may be no expert in pop music but I do know enough to be sure that The Rolling Stones were accused of copying the rhythm and blues of their predecessors, as were The Beatles, The Kinks, The Who and Led Zeppelin and all the way up.
Gaga now tells me something that astonishes me and gives a strong indication of her remarkable perfectionism.
Two evenings before she had appeared on BBC TV’s The Graham Norton Show. Norton is certainly the leading talk show host in Britain, but for a star of Gaga’s stature one cannot imagine that featuring on it can have been that big a deal. She puts me right on this straightaway.
“After The Graham Norton Show I went to Annabel’s and I performed…” (I was lucky enough to be there myself: it was a magnificent acoustic show, one Nat King Cole song and three of her own and it was all over, but never in the long, louche history of Annabel’s can there have been many evenings to match it) “…and then yesterday I watched the Graham Norton performance when it aired. And I watched it over and over and over and over and over. And I looked at all the parts that I liked and all the parts that I didn’t like … and I said, ‘OK, maybe this part, if your breath control was different, and here, maybe you should try this step…’ I study everything that I do to become better all the time at my craft. The beauty for me about being an artist is that the dream will never die, because I’m not obsessed with material things and don’t care about the money and don’t care about the attention of the public, but only the love of my fans, so for me it’s about how much more devoted, how much better an artist can I become.”
I gulped back my own feelings of inadequacy. I almost never watch myself back on anything. And I suppose it shows.
Whether you call Gaga a pop star or a performance artist is irrelevant; she has created her own category and she works at every element of the discipline that contributes to her persona. The music and lyric writing, the dancing, the costuming, the whole schmear. With her famous team, “Haus of Gaga”, she plans every detail of every video, every album, every tour and the timing of every record release.
I ask if this is why she has in fact created Gaga, so that she can have a grandiose alter ego to absorb all the attention, criticism, adulation and insanity while the quiet, steady, industrious Stefani Germanotta gets on anonymously with the professional nuts and bolts in the background. I couldn’t be more wrong.
“I actually don’t identify myself as two separate people and I don’t view Lady Gaga, me, as the protector of Stefani … I do see myself to be in an endless transformative state in the way that those performers you’ve mentioned were. I just am committed wholeheartedly to theatre with no intermission.”
We talk about masks and Oscar Wilde and the nature of performance and the need of artists to pursue their vocations. She quotes to me the line of Rilke that she had famously tattooed on to her left arm: “In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?” It’s quite a big tattoo…’ she confesses.
I counter with another quote about writing from Thomas Mann: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” She gets the point of it straightaway.
I don’t know what I expected from this global phenomenon, but it wasn’t the endearing mixture of warmth, wit, intelligence and larky self-knowledge that I found. There were comments she made about her work that I have no doubt she has come out with before – goodness knows, in my own small way I’ve had to do the publicity treadmill and I know how wearing it can be and how the same lines can easily be trotted out. But I was, silly old fool that I am, flattered by the attention she paid to each question and by the cheerful energy, after a long day, that she continued to exhibit.
And it didn’t end there. “Let’s call the photographer back in,” she said, and then proceeded to art-direct the shoot like a professional production designer.
She took a rose from a vase on the table and said gravely to Shamil: “Start shooting after the count of three, OK?”
She sat down on the sofa next to me, tore the petals from the rose, cast them up in the air above us and called out “Three!”
And there we were, Lady Gaga and me, rose petals floating down in front of us.
Who knows what the future will bring to a star who has risen so high, so fast and who burns so brightly in the world? What it can bring those without song-writing ability, self-awareness, good friends and sound judgment we know all too well. This bright star appears well armed in all those attributes and more, so this Little Monster, for one, is confident that the world will be gaga about Gaga for many years to come.
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