I feel like I’m still a fetus,” says Lady Gaga, looking impeccably glamorous in a wide-belted black Alaïa dress, stabby heels, extravagant lashes, and dark brows, her platinum hair framing her face in soft waves. What she looks like (no doubt deliberately) is a midcentury Italian film star—Monica Vitti in some long-lost Antonioni picture, or a tiny, blond Sophia Loren. What she means is that she feels like she’s just getting started as an artist—that she’s only accomplished a fraction of what she still plans to do—but I have a hard time wrapping my head around this notion, considering the decade she’s just had.
Ten years ago, with the release of her first album, The Fame, Lady Gaga went from struggling burlesque performer and New York club kid to global pop phenomenon in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Since then, she’s put out five studio albums, one soundtrack album, and 18 singles; performed at the Super Bowl; and won six Grammys and a Golden Globe, among other things. She’s won fashion awards and collaborated with famous artists and sung duets with Tony Bennett. Two years ago, while filming a Netflix documentary about her life, Gaga: Five Foot Two, she landed the leading role in a major Hollywood movie. She would play the Janet Gaynor/Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand role in A Star Is Born, opposite Bradley Cooper. All of which is to say that if anyone inhabits a parallel universe where the bar for achievement is set so impossibly high that Lady Gaga ranks as artistically prenatal, it’s probably just Lady Gaga.
A few days after our meeting, A Star Is Born premieres at the Venice Film Festival. Lady Gaga is there in a Valentino gown adorned with billowy pink ostrich feathers. Halfway through the screening, a fluke lightning accident momentarily interrupts the film, which nonetheless goes on to get an eight-minute standing ovation and mostly rapturous reviews. In 2016, while accepting the Golden Globe award for her role in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Hotel, Lady Gaga said that she’d wanted to be an actress before she wanted to be a singer, but that music had worked out first. Now that acting has worked out as well, it’s unclear what more she could do. Mars colony, maybe. Flying cars. Universal health care.
“The character of Ally is informed by my life experience. But I also wanted to make sure that she was not me. It was a cadence of both.”
Lady Gaga has a commanding presence. She sits like an Olympic gymnast nailing a landing. Chatting with her in the kitchen of her otherworldly, six-acre Mediterranean-style estate, which features an eight-horse stable, a dressage rink, a bowling alley, a saltwater pool, and a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, I have the feeling that I may have temporarily crossed over into this other, extra dimension. The woman comes across as a sweetheart, but the artist is a machine. In person, she’s warm but guarded, friendly but cautious, passionate but preternaturally poised. Her house is cozy and filled with people—assistants; her manager; her mom, Cynthia, visiting from New York. (“Don’t we look alike?” Lady Gaga asks after introducing me. They really do.) The house is more traditional than you’d expect, more befitting a Stefani Germanotta (her given name) made insanely good than the pop performance artist who once wore a dress made out of meat to the MTV Video Music Awards. I mean, the French provincial sofas are draped in quilts. The fireplace is flanked by a big TV and an old Italian movie poster of A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland, a gift from Gaga’s boyfriend, CAA agent Christian Carino. It’s all slightly disorienting. We could be in a Nancy Meyers movie. Or a Star Trek episode.
A decade into her career, Lady Gaga is being born again, as a movie star, and she truly is a revelation. This might just be the most remarkable thing about A Star Is Born—that, beyond the fact that she’s unrecognizable, she feels new. Among the most notable things about her character, Ally, is how stripped down she looks, how vulnerable. Gaga has shown glimpses of this before. We’ve seen it in her hilarious Saturday Night Live sketches, her album Joanne, and her documentary, in which she appears in sweatpants.
“The character of Ally is informed by my life experience,” Lady Gaga says. “But I also wanted to make sure that she was not me. It was a cadence of both.” Ally is talented but insecure. She writes but won’t perform her own songs. She’s been dissuaded from pursuing her dreams by an industry that doesn’t believe in her, that tells her she looks wrong for the part. She reluctantly allows Jackson Maine (played by Cooper) to draw her into his world, to involve her in his music, until she meets the manager who begins her transformation into a commercial pop star.
Metallic pleated dress, Givenchy, $9,490.Stainless steel watch, Tudor, $2,200 .Leather pumps, Manolo Blahnik, $695. Hair by Frederic Aspiras for Amika Haircare; makeup by Sarah Tanno for Marc Jacobs Beauty; manicure by Miho Okawara for Miho Nails; produced by Gabe Hill at GE Projects
For all Lady Gaga’s talents as a singer, songwriter, and actress, it’s her metatalent for fame—a condition she single-mindedly pursued, investigated, interrogated, and named an album, an EP, and a fragrance after—that catapulted her into global stardom. It’s on this theme, one on which the movie largely hinges, where Gaga and her fictional counterpart, Ally, diverge the most: Once Gaga made the decision to become a performer, she didn’t let anything stop her. Early in her career, she understood that Stefani Germanotta, the classically trained Catholic schoolgirl, was talented enough to be successful, but that only Lady Gaga could erupt on the global scene, fully formed.
Ally’s character, by contrast, is like a window into a Sliding Doors–like look at how things might have gone. “When I watched the film for the first time,” Gaga says, “I said, Oh my gosh, I thought she was really sad at the end of the movie, but I didn’t realize how sad she really was at the beginning. She’s really kind of a depressed girl. She works as a catering girl. She has her friend Ramon, who is very important to her. She takes care of her dad at home and takes care of all the drivers who come and have breakfast in the morning. But she’s truly given up on herself as a musician."
This latest version of A Star Is Born is the fourth iteration of the classic melodrama about the effects of fame and addiction on a relationship. Cooper’s Jackson Maine is an alcoholic rock superstar on the wane who falls in love with a singer-songwriter he happens to meet at a drag club, where he’s stopped for a drink after a concert because he can’t face going home.
“He said to me, ‘There can be a hundred people in the room, and 99 of them won't believe in you, but all you need is one.
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper first met years ago on the set of Saturday Night Live, but it wasn’t until she performed at Sean Parker’s 2016 cancer benefit that they connected. Lady Gaga’s reps had alerted her that the actor would be in attendance, and that he planned to direct A Star Is Born and was looking to cast the female lead. Lady Gaga knew she wanted it. She sang “La Vie en Rose,” which ended up in the movie as the first song Jackson watches Ally perform—the song that makes him fall in love with her. “I was completely blown away,” Cooper says of that night. “I called her agent and said, ‘Can I meet with her?’ And then, the next day, she said yes, and I drove up to her house, and then that was it.” Gaga says the connection was instantaneous. “Before I knew it, I was making him pasta, feeding him, and we were talking and laughing. Then he wanted to hear us sing together, and asked if I would sing a song called ‘Midnight Special’ with him. I printed out the sheet music, and I brought it out to the piano, and I was so nervous. And so I’m sight-reading the music at the piano, and we start to sing, and I hear Bradley’s voice, and I just stopped playing, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, Bradley, you can sing.’ It’s incredible,” she says.
Once she was cast, Cooper and screenwriters Eric Roth and Will Fetters worked on the script while Gaga worked on the soundtrack. “I wrote it for her, to play it. I asked her so many questions, and wanted to mine so much of the things that she told me. That completely formed the creation of Ally,” Cooper says. “We really were very vulnerable [together]. I had a lot of belief in her magic. It’s one thing to have a sense of it, and then watch it, before your eyes, every day, shooting.”
In order to portray an unknown singer, Gaga drew from her insecurity as an actress. “I will never forget the first scene we did together in this Mexican restaurant. Bradley got some tacos and brought them to the table. Then he said something to me, but it wasn’t what was in the script, and I didn’t know what to do, so I just said my line. Then he said something else, and I didn’t know what to do because I thought I was just supposed to be saying what was on the page. So I just said another line—the next line. Seeing that I wasn’t going off-script, he said, ‘Are you okay?,’ and I just started to cry.” Through this, she learned to focus more on the story than the lines. So when it came to the concert scenes, where their experience was reversed, she tried the same technique. “When we sang ‘Shallow’ together at the concert, after he runs over and starts to pull me on the stage, I didn’t think, ‘I haven’t made it yet as a singer.’ All I had to do was go, ‘I haven’t made it yet as an actress.’ ”
Heather Perry: The thing that I was most impressed with was that she’s a very strong businesswoman. In anything she does, you’re like, She’s such a boss.
When Gaga was 14, she was shopping at a boutique on the West Side—singing, as one does—and a sales guy approached her and offered to give her the phone number of his uncle, a vocal coach. Don Lawrence, whom she calls the aortic valve to her career, made time in his schedule to work with her. “Later, I remember we were talking one day—we used to talk a little bit during our lessons, because we liked each other so much—and I said, ‘I just don’t know how I’m gonna make it,’ ” she says. “I was taking meetings with entertainment attorneys and knocking on people’s doors, trying to get them to listen to demos that I made on a four-track Tascam cassette player, and he said to me, ‘There can be a hundred people in the room, and 99 of them won’t believe in you, but all you need is one.’ ”
After high school, Gaga enrolled in Collaborative Arts Project 21 through NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts but dropped out after a year—“when I decided to really say, ‘Sorry, Mom and Dad,’ and be a starving artist on the Lower East Side,” she says. She worked three jobs, including one as a go-go dancer. She used to call clubs and pretend to be her own manager. She would haul her piano from gig to gig. Once, while performing at a jazz bar where a crowd of frat boys wouldn’t be quiet, she stripped down to her underwear to get their attention. The moment was a turning point—it made her understand something about commanding attention. “I already knew that she was this authentic, open, raw, real artist who could sing and write songs and be this quadruple threat,” says Heather Parry, who produced the Netflix documentary and executive-produced the film. “But the thing that I was most impressed with was that she’s a very strong businesswoman. In anything she does, you’re like, She’s such a boss.”
A Star Is Born, of course, is an evergreen, regenerative parable on the price of fame—which may be a bit of a chestnut, but it works. The best stories about the human experience are the ones in which ordinary people are made to withstand extraordinary forces—alcoholism, physical and emotional trauma, global stardom, the merciless machinery of capitalism. Lady Gaga is an artist. She feels things profoundly. She’s grappled with the inherited trauma of the death of her father’s sister at 19; with the emotional trauma of having been bullied in school and later sexually assaulted; with the physical trauma of a hip injury and surgery that left her with chronic generalized pain. But pain is the ballast against which sublimity takes shape.
I can’t make music or act without using and accessing the pain that I have in my heart. I mean, what better place to put it?
In one of the most moving scenes of her documentary, Gaga is getting ready to perform at the Super Bowl, but she’s feeling melancholic. “I’m so excited to do it,” she says, “but I can’t help but realize that when I sold 10 million records, I lost Matt [Williams, her ex-boyfriend and ex-stylist]. I sold 30 million and lost Luc [Carl, her ex-boyfriend]. I did a movie and lose Taylor [Kinney, her ex-fiancé]. It’s like a turnover,” she says. “This is the third time I’ve had my heart broken like this.”
At the start of A Star Is Born, it’s a scene about Jackson, not Ally, that gets at the heart of the experience. “For me, in music and in acting, I’m always pulling from my past experiences, family dynamics, relationships, pain, happiness, joy, the roller coaster ride of my life—how that has kind of created this beautiful disco ball that’s somehow refracted and fractured,” she says. “The opening moment, where you see him pop some pills, down some booze, hop onstage, and just electrify the audience until the last bass note hits, and the limousine door shuts as the cameras are flashing, and it goes to total silence—this is how I feel as a performer. That’s what it feels like when you go onstage, and there are 20,000 people screaming, and you’re singing, and dancing, and performing, and then the show is over, and there is no sound. It’s emotional.”
“Success tests relationships,” she continues. “It tests families. It tests your dynamic with your friends. There is a price to stardom.” But, she adds, “I can’t make music or act without using and accessing the pain that I have in my heart. I mean, what better place to put it? Otherwise, it’s of no good use.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of ELLE.