Lady Gaga’s house in Malibu is on a relatively nondescript road just off the Pacific Coast Highway, situated in what feels (for Malibu) like a normal suburban neighborhood. When the gates to her compound swing open, you head down a long gravel driveway that threads through the multi-acre property, past the fenced-in ring where she rides her horse, Arabella, past the barns and the stables and the giant barking dogs, Grandpa and Ronnie—and pull up to a house made of fieldstone that looks, at first glance, as if it belongs in the South of France. A cheerful young fellow greets you at your car, explains that he is the head of security, and asks you to sign an NDA. There are at least a dozen other cars parked around, most of them belonging to people who are doing some kind of work here—taking care of the property or the lady in residence in one capacity or another. The whole setup is both grand and yet, somehow, unassuming (for a rock star’s house in Malibu).
When Gaga comes down the stairs and makes her entrance on this hot, do-nothing August afternoon, she is wearing a diaphanous periwinkle robe with ruffled edges that sweeps the floor, nothing underneath but a matching bra and thong—along with nude kitten heels and Liz Taylor–worthy diamond jewelry. Having just returned yesterday from a long, restful vacation on some remote tropical island with her boyfriend, she is uncharacteristically tan, and as she leads me out through the French doors into the garden, I can see nearly every one of her tattoos—and her shapely behind—through the robe. There are roses trembling in the breeze, and a long, sloping, grassy lawn that leads down to a pool and the Pacific Ocean beyond, flickering in the high afternoon sun. “This is my sanctuary,” she says. “My oasis of peace. I call it my ‘gypsy palace.’ ”
She bought this palace about four years ago, when she was going through a rough patch—both physically and mentally—and has been spending more and more time here lately. “I just got rid of my place in New York—it was too hectic every day outside on the street,” she says. As we stand there looking out at the ocean, I ask if she’s happy. “Yes—I’m focusing on the things that I believe in. I’m challenging myself. I’m embarking on new territory—with some nerves and some overjoyment.” (Gaga has a funny habit of making up words that always make perfect sense.) “It’s an interesting time in my life. It’s a transition, for sure. It’s been a decade.”
In April, Gaga noted on her Instagram that it was the tenth anniversary of her first single, “Just Dance.” It was the song of the summer of 2008—the final hours of the golden years, just before the economy imploded and the Great Recession took hold—and almost immediately, she became the biggest pop star in the world, haunting our dreams—and nightmares—with monsters, meat dresses, and some of the stickiest melodies ever written (GAAAA-GA OOOH-LA-LA!). When I ask her what has changed for her over these last ten years, Gaga, who’s 32, says, “A galaxy,” and laughs. “There has been a galaxy of change.” She pauses for a moment. “I would just say that it’s been a nonstop whirlwind. And when I am in an imaginative or creative mode, it sort of grabs me like a sleigh with a thousand horses and pulls me away and I just don’t stop working.” Another pause. “You . . . make friends, you lose friends, you build tighter bonds with people you’ve known for your whole life. But there’s a lot of emotional pain, and you can’t really understand what it all means until ten years has gone by.”
On October 5, Warner Bros. Pictures will release the fourth iteration of the tragi-musical love story A Star Is Born, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. The first version came out in 1937, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, followed by Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976. Gaga thinks of it less as a remake than as a “traveling legacy.” Directed by Cooper, in his debut, the film is remarkably assured, deeply engaging, and works on several levels: as a romance, a drama, a musical, and something else entirely, almost as if you’re watching something live, or documentary footage of a good old-fashioned rock-’n’-roll concert movie.
“I wanted to tell a love story,” says Cooper, “and to me there’s no better way than through music. With music, it’s impossible to hide. Every fiber of your body becomes alive when you sing.” As Sean Penn said, after seeing the film more than once, “It’s the best, most important commercial film I’ve seen in so many years,” and he described the stars as “miracles.” Cooper and Gaga, and the film itself, are likely to be nominated for all manner of awards.
Cooper is a revelation, having utterly transformed himself into a booze-and-pills-besotted rock star: He learned how to play guitar, worked with a vocal coach and a piano teacher for a year and a half, and wrote three of the songs. “All because of Gaga,” he says. “She really gave me the confidence.” His singing is astonishingly good. Gaga, whose only acting experience is in some of her early videos (Google the long-form versions of “Telephone” and “Marry the Night” if you want to see the early promise), various episodes of American Horror Story, and a couple of cameos in Robert Rodriguez films, not only holds her own with Cooper but somehow manages to make you completely forget that she is Lady Gaga—no small feat. But what really makes this film sing, as it were, is the impeccable chemistry between the two stars, particularly their early scenes of meeting cute and falling in love, which are some of the most touchingly real and tender moments between two actors I’ve ever seen.
Gaga and I have moved inside and taken up spots on the boho-chic sofas in the sitting room off her kitchen. She opens a bottle of rosé. There are candles flickering, cut flowers on the table. Gaga first met Cooper at Saturday Night Live about five years ago, but only briefly, and then one day in 2016—having signed on to make A Star Is Born and in the early stages of figuring out who could play Ally to his Jackson Maine—he went to a cancer benefit in Sean Parker’s backyard in L.A. “She had her hair slicked back,” says Cooper, “and she sang ‘La Vie en Rose,’ and I was just . . . levitating. It shot like a diamond through my brain. I loved the way she moved, the sound of her voice.” He called her agent and, the next day, drove to Malibu. “The second that I saw him,” says Gaga, “I was like, Have I known you my whole life? It was an instant connection, instant understanding of one another.”
Cooper: “She came down the stairs and we went out to her patio and I saw her eyes, and honestly, it clicked and I went, Wow.” He pretty much offered her the part on the spot. “She said, ‘Are you hungry?’ and I said, ‘I’m starving,’ and we went into her kitchen for spaghetti and meatballs.”
Gaga: “Before I knew it, I was making him lunch and we were talking. And then he said, ‘I want to see if we can sing this song together.’”
Cooper: “She was kind of laughing at me that I would be suggesting this, but I said, ‘The truth is, it’s only going to work if we can sing together.’ And she said, ‘Well, what song?’ And I said, ‘ “Midnight Special,” ’ this old folk song.”
Gaga: “I printed out the sheet music, and he had the lyrics on his phone, and I sat down at the piano and started to play, and then Bradley started to sing and I stopped: ‘Oh, my God, Bradley, you have a tremendous voice.’ ”
Cooper: “She said, ‘Has anyone ever heard you sing before?’ and I said no.”
Gaga: “He sings from his gut, from the nectar! I knew instantly: This guy could play a rock star. And I don’t think there are a lot of people in Hollywood who can. That was the moment I knew this film could be something truly special.”
Cooper: “And she said, ‘We should film this.’ So I turned on my phone and we did the song. It was crazy. It kind of just worked. And that video is one of the things I showed to Warner Bros. to get the movie green-lit.”
Weirdly enough, the film was originally to be directed by Clint Eastwood—at one point, starring Beyoncé—and Eastwood offered Cooper the part of Jackson. “I was 38 then, and I just knew I couldn’t do it,” says Cooper, now 43. “But then I did American Sniper with Clint and The Elephant Man for a year on Broadway and I thought, I’m old enough now.” Pop stardom seems to befall mostly the very young these days, but this is a story about grown-ups. “I would often say to Lady Gaga, ‘This is a movie about what would have happened if you didn’t make it until you were 31 instead of 21. We talked a lot about where she started on the Lower East Side, and she told me about this drag bar where she used to hang, and I thought, Oh, this is just ripe for the story.”
Indeed, one of the best scenes in the film comes right at the beginning, when Jack, desperate for a drink, stumbles into a gay bar on drag night. Ally is the only woman the queens let perform on their stage, and as she sings “La Vie en Rose,” Jack falls hard. Gaga says that the chemistry between her and Cooper is so good on film because it’s real. But she also thinks that Cooper “nailed” the complicated voodoo that happens when love and fame get intertwined. “They’re both very complex, layered things, with a lot of emotional depth, and he captured that. This is what I think makes the film so successful: that it was so real. And I’ve lived it, so I can testify to that.” (Another thing that gives the film its authenticity: Cooper cast a few drag queens he knew from Philly, as well as Gaga’s actual dancers, choreographer, and hair and makeup artists, who appear in a few scenes.)
Last December, I went to Cooper’s house in Los Angeles to watch some early footage, and as we sat in the screening room he built in his garage, surrounded by guitars and an old piano, his editor cued up scenes. What struck me immediately was how intensely visceral the musical sequences are. Cooper explained that at Gaga’s insistence, they were all shot live. “All the music is as real as you can get it,” he said to me that day. They shot some of the concert scenes at the Stagecoach country-music festival in Indio, California, and more at the Glastonbury Festival in England. “At Stagecoach, four minutes before Willie Nelson went on, we hopped onstage,” says Cooper. “That was real. At Glastonbury, I got onstage in front of 80,000 people. It was nuts. But Lady Gaga is so good that if the world I’d created wasn’t authentic, it would stand out in a second. Everything had to be raised to her level.”
One bit of history that’s gotten lost in the Gaga saga is that while she started playing piano at four and writing songs by eleven, she wanted to be an actress before she wanted to be a singer. When she was twelve, she began taking Method-acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute and later at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “I loved it so much,” she says, “but I was terrible at auditioning—I would get too nervous and just couldn’t be myself.” So she decided to make a go of it as a musician—and had a record deal within a year. Was she nervous making a movie? “Of course—but I knew I had it in me, in my heart, to give an authentic performance.”
The biggest challenge for Lady Gaga was creating a musical character that was not like . . . Lady Gaga. “I wanted the audience to be immersed in something completely different,” she says. “And it’s almost hard to speak about, because I just sort of became Ally.” For as good as the Garland and Streisand versions are, you do sometimes sort of feel like you’re watching movies about . . . Garland and Streisand. That being said, there may be no more perfect person to take up this franchise than Gaga. “It’s so humbling,” she says. “Judy Garland is by far my favorite actress of all time. I used to watch her in A Star Is Born, and it’s devastating. She’s so real, so right there. Her eyes would get glassy, and you could just see the passion and the emotion and hear the grit in her voice.” Streisand came to the set one day. “It was a magical moment. She really made me feel like she passed the torch.” When I mention Streisand’s voice, she says, “The singing is beyond, but what is even more beyond is how involved she was in everything she did. She was a part of creating that film. That made me feel good, too, that we approached making this film the right way.”
The soundtrack will be released the same day as the movie, and because this is a Lady Gaga production, she has had a big hand in it. There were many writers and producers who worked on different songs, but the brain trust was Gaga and Cooper, working closely with the blues-oriented producer and songwriter Ben Rice and Lukas Nelson, who’s Willie’s son. “She’s a fan of my dad’s, but she’s got a tattoo of David Bowie, and Bowie was my hero as well,” says Nelson. “I tend to gravitate toward rockers who were kind and stood for change and the right to be who you are—to be a freak and be proud of it. And I think a lot of people have turned to Gaga in that realm—as a sort of beacon of hope: I can do whatever I want. She invented herself.”
It was Gaga’s idea to thread bits of dialogue throughout the record, and there are a few songs that are not in the movie—“treats,” as she calls them. She asks if I want to hear some music, and we head into a tiny vestibule off the kitchen, a kind of office with a desk, computer, and two very loud speakers. She plugs in her phone and cues up a jaunty, mid-tempo piano banger called “Look What I Found,” and as it begins to play, Gaga dances and sings along, at full volume, about two feet from my face. Suddenly I feel a bit like James Corden in a new segment: Kitchen Karaoke. I cannot resist, and start dancing too. “Our own little discotheque,” says Gaga.
She cues up another song—a huge, soaring, sad ballad called “Before I Cry,” with a full orchestra. It is the first song for which Gaga composed the string arrangements—and conducted the orchestra in the studio—and it was inspired by a harrowing scene in the film when Jack has fallen off the wagon and picks a fight with Ally while she’s taking a bath. On the soundtrack, it begins with this bit of dialogue:
Ally: “Why don’t you have another drink and we can just get fucking drunk until we just fucking disappear? Hey! Do you got those pills in your pocket?”
Jack: “You’re just fuckin’ ugly, that’s all.”
Ally: “I’m what?”
Jack: “You’re just fuckin’ ugly.”
As the song plays, we stand facing each other in the little cubicle, and before it’s halfway through, we both have tears in our eyes. She hugs me and, as we head into the kitchen for more wine, says, almost to herself, “I love that we’re dancing and crying. Like, real Italian style.” That’s my natural state, I say: dancing and crying. “Me, too,” she says.
One of the many things about Lady Gaga that go underappreciated is that she doesn’t tell us everything. For example, we know very little about her new boyfriend, Christian Carino—other than that he’s a 48-year-old CAA agent—because she doesn’t talk about him. She doesn’t want to talk at all about the new music she’s working on for a future album, or the scripts that are suddenly rolling in. She understands more than most that a little bit of mystery and magic go a long way in this world of too much. She has sort of inverse boundaries: She won’t tell you, for example, where she just went on vacation, but she’s totally open about having been sexually assaulted when she was a teenager.
Her 2015 song “ Til it Happens to You,” which she wrote with Diane Warren for the sexual-assault documentary The Hunting Ground, was nominated for an Academy Award. When she performed it at the Oscars in 2016 on a stage full of 50 other assault victims, it eerily presaged the #MeToo movement that unfolded a year later, much to Gaga’s surprise. “I feel like I’ve been an advocate but also a shocked audience member, watching #MeToo happen,” she says. “I’m still in disbelief. And I’ve never come forward and said who molested me, but I think every person has their own relationship with that kind of trauma.”
She was still Stefani Germanotta when she was raped at nineteen by a music producer. She told no one. “It took years,” she says. “No one else knew. It was almost like I tried to erase it from my brain. And when it finally came out, it was like a big, ugly monster. And you have to face the monster to heal.” In late 2016, Gaga revealed in a Today interview that she suffers from PTSD because of the assault. “For me, with my mental-health issues, half of the battle in the beginning was, I felt like I was lying to the world because I was feeling so much pain but nobody knew. So that’s why I came out and said that I have PTSD, because I don’t want to hide—any more than I already have to.” When I ask her to describe how she experiences the symptoms, she says, “I feel stunned. Or stunted. You know that feeling when you’re on a roller coaster and you’re just about to go down the really steep slope? That fear and the drop in your stomach? My diaphragm seizes up. Then I have a hard time breathing, and my whole body goes into a spasm. And I begin to cry. That’s what it feels like for trauma victims every day, and it’s . . . miserable. I always say that trauma has a brain. And it works its way into everything that you do.”
In September 2017, Gaga announced on Twitter that she suffers from extreme nerve pain caused by fibromyalgia, a complex and still-misunderstood syndrome she believes was brought on by the sexual assault and that then became worse over time, exacerbated by the rigors of touring and the weight of her fame. (Earlier this year, she had to cut her European tour short by ten shows because of it.) In the Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, which aired that same month, Gaga allowed cameras to document her suffering to shed light on the syndrome. “I get so irritated with people who don’t believe fibromyalgia is real. For me, and I think for many others, it’s really a cyclone of anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma, and panic disorder, all of which sends the nervous system into overdrive, and then you have nerve pain as a result. People need to be more compassionate. Chronic pain is no joke. And it’s every day waking up not knowing how you’re going to feel.”
Today, Lady Gaga is the picture of health: bright-eyed, sun-kissed, fit as a fiddle. “It’s getting better every day,” she says, “because now I have fantastic doctors who take care of me and are getting me show-ready.” Speaking of shows, she recently signed a $100 million contract with MGM Resorts International to do a Las Vegas residency at a 5,300-seat theater. It will be called Lady Gaga Enigma, and beginning on December 28 she will perform 74 shows spread out over two years—a reasonable pace that will allow her to take better care of herself and make more movies. “I’ve always hated the stigma around Las Vegas—that it’s where you go when you’re on the last leg of your career,” she says. “Being a Las Vegas girl is an absolute dream for me. It’s really what I’ve always wanted to do.”
As she sits before me on our respective couches—in her periwinkle chiffon, dripping in diamonds—Gaga and Vegas make perfect sense. She has always been a master at swirling together the nostalgic with the startlingly modern and coming up with something that feels entirely new. Creating the shows for Lady Gaga Enigma, of course, has brought back together the Haus of Gaga—her team of stylists and monster-conjurers, including Nicola Formichetti. “We’re plowing away, making something brand-new, but still with the iconography that we’ve already created—and making sure fans leave with the feeling that they went home for a bit with their community.”
Speaking of Gaga iconography! I have somehow failed to notice that for the past couple of hours I’ve been sitting next to a half-mannequin with a heavy metal harness wrapped around it that resembles a sort of human/reptilian rib cage and spinal column. It was made by Shaun Leane, a jewelry designer who worked regularly with Alexander McQueen. Gaga picks up another piece, a kind of metal orbiting fascinator, also designed by Leane, that was part of the “Savage Beauty” exhibition at the Met, and gently sets it on her head. “I bought it at an auction,” she says, batting her eyelashes. And now she wants to show me something else, and goes in search of a key. She finds it in the kitchen, and then along the way to wherever we’re going I get a quick tour. In her ballroom-size living room there is a grand piano and a giant modern pink blob sofa, and an even bigger pink rug. “I like pink,” she says. “It’s a relaxing color.” There’s her Golden Globe (for American Horror Story, in 2016) and a framed photograph of Patti Smith, along with pictures of Elton John and David Furnish’s boys, Zachary and Elijah, Gaga’s godchildren. Resting on the mantel is a framed letter from David Bowie (“Dear Lady, Unfortunately I will not be in NYC for a few months but many thanks for the cake”). On one wall is an enormous George Condo painting of a woman in a ball gown, her face obscured by smears and smudges. “Reminds me of myself,” she says with a wink. “Beautiful but a little bit messy.”
Finally we arrive at the locked door. She turns the key and opens it to reveal . . . a room filled with fashion! Two rooms! “This is mostly Saint Laurent from Hedi Slimane’s work there,” she says. “I’m excited to see what he’ll be doing at Céline. Here’s a McQueen cape that was custom-made for me for the ‘Alejandro’ video. And then in here”—we move into yet another chamber, deeper into her fashion closet, racks upon racks of leather and feathers and sequins and a lot of black—“this is all Gianni Versace from the nineties. I wear some of it, but I mostly collect it to keep and preserve to give to a museum one day. Because I just love these designers.” Pause. “There’s my Joanne hat!” That is the pink fedora she wore in nearly every video and every performance from her Joanne album and tour, when she began presenting herself as . . . herself, mostly.
When did all of the crazy-brilliant obfuscating costumes fall away? “For me, fashion and art and music have always been a form of armor. I just kept creating more and more fantasies to escape into, new skins to shed. And every time I shed a skin, it was like taking a shower when you’re dirty: getting rid of, washing off, shedding all of the bad, and becoming something new.” I wonder aloud where all that began. “I just remember feeling so irritated at the thought that I had to conform to being ‘normal,’ or less of whatever I was already born as. And so I took such radical enjoyment in expressing who I am in the most grandiose of ways.” She laughs. “It was sort of like a very polite ‘Fuck off.’ It was never about looking perfect—it was always about just being myself. And I think that’s what it’s always been about for my fans, too. It was a form of protection, and a secret—like a wink from afar. I’m a monster, and you’re a monster too.”
She locks the door, and as we head back out to the living room to say goodbye, she picks up a glass vase filled with fresh-cut roses from her garden and hands it to me: “Just a little something,” she says. For all of Lady Gaga’s histrionics and grandiosity and obfuscation and mucking around with monsters—and despite the fact that she claims to have “concrete in her veins”—most people seem to get that she’s all heart. “I am not a brand,” she says. “I have my unique existence, just as everyone else does, and at the end of the day, it’s our humanity that connects us—our bodies and our biology. That’s what breeds compassion and empathy, and those are the things that I care the most about. Kindness!” She lets out a mordant chuckle. “It can drive you mad. Someone very important in my life says to me often, ‘You cannot stare at the carnage all day.’ And I think . . . you have to stare at the carnage to an extent because if not, you’re being ignorant and complacent—to not view injustice and want to be a part of advocating for others. But. . . .” She pauses for a long time. “Once we just look each other in the eyes, if we can keep that contact, that contract, I think the world will be a better place.”
Suddenly we both notice the sound of music wafting in from somewhere, as if someone opened a little girl’s jewelry box. It’s a Mister Softee truck.
“It’s down by the beach,” she says, “but can you believe that? The sound travels all the way up here.”
The sound is a little creepy, I say.
“Or,” she says, “it just sounds like kids having ice cream at the beach.” We both laugh. It reminds me of something we talked about earlier: that while Gaga’s music is often funny—with a wink or a bit of camp—she herself is a serious person. This has been a very serious conversation, I say. “Yes, it has,” she says. “Isn’t that funny?”.
This interview originally appeared here.