On stage, and on screen, Lady Gaga exudes the kind of outlandish confidence befitting of the woman so intent on taking up David Bowie’s mantle. But behind the million-dollar productions and lavish outfits, the real Stefani Germanotta remains wracked in a constant battle against herself
When Stefani Germanotta burst into the global consciousness as exuberant alter-ego Lady Gaga, the music industry accepted her as the heir apparent to glam rockers such as David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Madonna. Her 2011 career-defining anthem, Born This Way, only further cemented the idea that the songstress was not just an accomplished singer-songwriter, but also a visual performer of the highest calibre.
And off stage, too, Gaga was unerringly living up to her own billing with a variety of iconic red-carpet appearances. But behind these high-profile antics, lay a real-life musician who remains nearly as inscrutable as the character she created to own the limelight. And while the career of Lady Gaga continued to hit new heights, more of Stefani Germanotta began to peek out.
“I grew up feeling very isolated and I've dealt with depression for many years, which is something that runs in my family,” she explains. “When I was dealing with depression, music was my only way out.”
Gaga’s earlier work deals explicitly with the way in which her on-stage alias provided a way for Stefani to succeed in the glaringly cut-throat world of showbusiness. If the New York native’s sensitive nature remained the tell that threatened to expose her inner anxieties, then Gaga was the “Poker Face” she hid behind in full view of the paparazzi’s flashbulbs.
Come 2015, however, and the equilibrium between Gaga and Germanotta was changing. Perhaps the lacklustre reception to her third album Artpop, a characteristically colourful celebration of all things Gaga, provoked a shift. Or maybe the acclaim she received for several outings in which Stefani had taken the fore inspired a new-found sense of confidence.
Albums such as Joanne – which saw Gaga strip back the extroversion – indicated that there was far more to come from Stefani Germanotta, albeit if it still resides within Lady Gaga’s back-catalogue. And that same year that Artpop failed to make headlines, a soul-wrenching rendition of ‘Til It Happens To You’, a song penned for campus rape culture documentary The Hunting Ground and inspired by her own experiences of sexual assault, spread across the internet like wildfire.
“It happened 10 years ago... It stays in your body, in your tissues, physically in you,” she said of the real-life experiences behind the track. “I feel physical pain and there”s a lot of other people who suffer from chronic pain that have been through a traumatic experience.”
Her performance of the Academy Award-nominated song alongside fellow survivors of sexual assault helped Stefani “breakthrough” the invisible barriers she had erected around herself for protection.
“I will never forget it because I’m forever changed, because I don’t have to hide anymore,” she said at the time. “I don’t have to feel ashamed that it happened. I went through this, but I’m stronger now, and I’m not alone, and I’m not disgusting, and I’m not the dirt on the bottom of people’s shoes because I went through this. I’m still the talented, educated woman that I know myself to be.”
It may have taken a while for Stefani to unfurl from within her shell, but there’s no doubting that the performance allowed her to take that step, and was indicative of how she, as Gaga, had been helping her fanbase for years.
“I need to be honest and authentic as possible and try to talk about bullying and helping people who feel alone and different,” Gaga says. “I’ve experienced what it means to feel very alone, and so I feel very close to people who also suffered from that. I’ve always wanted to help people deal with that – that’s my nature. It’s also been important to me to have received a lot of feedback from fans around the world who have written to me or spoken to me about their experiences.
“As an artist, you want to be able to reach out and help people in whatever way you can and say something meaningful. When you become famous, you wonder how you want to use your ability to influence others. I've always felt it was important to be an activist when it comes to issues that are personal and relevant to my own life.”
I don't have to feel ashamed that it happened. I went through this, but I'm stronger now, and I'm not alone, and I'm not the dirt on the bottom of people's shoes because I went through this. I'm still the talented, educated woman that I know myself to be
This aspect of Gaga’s mission has manifested itself as the Born This Way Foundation. The organisation, co-founded by the star and her mother Cynthia in 2011, seeks to raise awareness, fight stigma, and provide support for young people suffering from mental illness. For Gaga, the Foundation provides an opportunity for her to work side-by-side with two things held most dear to her: her fans and her family, with Cynthia now also a registered Youth Mental Health First Aid instructor.
Gaga may have provided solace for those fans negotiating their own personal struggles through the medium of her work, but for the singer herself there is always more to be done. Recently she’s moved into TV and film, where the lines between Germanotta and Gaga become ever more blurred.
Her first foray on screen as the Countess in American Horror Story was the perfect vehicle for Germanotta/Gaga to “express pain and anguish, to bring those emotions to the surface and then get rid of them”. But if the Countess was more in line with Gaga’s extroverted sensuality and courage, then the 2017 documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two was a deep dive into the artist behind the act and the “paranoia, fear, body pain and anxiety” that plagued her in the half decade prior to the film’s release.
And this year, audiences may get a glimpse of a halfway point between Gaga’s TV debut and the raw documentary subject. In A Star Is Born, Stefani appears alongside Bradley Cooper as an aspiring musician struggling with personal anxieties that threaten to prematurely curtail any potential career in the industry.
“People always tell me they like the way I sing,” says a naturally raven-haired Stefani in the trailer. “But they don’t like the way I look.” It’s a sentiment echoed by the star – “Directors have often rejected me in the past for having too big a nose, or for my hair being too brown instead of blonde” – and although she’s now firmly found her footing in Hollywood off the back of her acting endeavours, those same idiosyncrasies remain.
“When I’m on stage, I’m very critical about everything and I’m constantly evaluating every aspect of my performances,” she says. “But when I’m acting I don’t feel the same need to have that creative and artistic control. I love the fact that I don’t have to be in charge. It’s like sex, you don’t always want to be on top! When I finish a scene, I’m not worrying about my performance. I don’t allow myself that luxury when I’m giving a concert… So acting is very freeing in that way, even though it’s also dangerous because you’re often forced to dig into memories and go back to painful places in your own life.
“But I can’t fucking breathe when I’m watching myself. Literally my stomach hurts, I need to hide. But it depends. I like when I can watch it and I like it. And then other times, I’m just going: ‘Why did they use that take? Why didn’t I do it this way?’ I’m constantly thinking about how I can make myself better. I’m never having a glass of champagne, patting myself on the back.”
I miss my family so much. I wish I could be with them all the time because I think underneath all of it, everything I do is for them
It seems A Star is Born may go some way to exorcising the lasting anxieties that have dogged Gaga’s career, in the arena she’s most comfortable in: centre stage. With every new glimpse of Stefani we are privileged too, however, there is a sense that Lady Gaga is no longer a moniker synonymous with hiding insecurities, as she is a vehicle for possibly the most genuine entertainer in showbusiness.
“When I become very emotional, I often feel very confused,” she concludes. “I’m a very sensitive woman and that has nothing to do with being famous or anything else.
“My world is amazing, my life is amazing but when everything stops and it’s very quiet, it’s pretty lonely.
I miss my family so much. I wish I could be with them all the time because I think underneath all of it, everything I do is for them, for my little sister, Natali, for my mum and for my dad. I think they’re the only people in the whole world who really understand me and accept me for who I am. Lots of people scream for me, but they do love me. Love is the hardest thing. I know because it’s something I sacrifice every day.”
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