“Hi!” Gaga’s dressing room, backstage at the O2 World Arena in Berlin. With the walls and ceiling draped in black, it resembles a pop-Gothic seraglio. But while scented candles burn churchishly, a gorgeous vintage record player on the floor – surrounded by piles of vinyl – and works of art hung on the wall give it a cheerful air. There is a table, laid with beautiful china. There are flowers, growing in the dark. And at the head of the tea table, among the flowers: Gaga.
Two things strike you about her immediately. First, that she really isn’t dressed casually. In a breast-length, silver-grey wig, she has a black lace veil wound around her face, and sits, framed, in an immense, custom-made, one-off Alexander McQueen cloak. The effect is one of having been ushered into the presence of a very powerful fairytale queen: possibly one who has recently killed Aslan, on the Stone Table.
The second thing you notice is that she is being lovely. Absolutely lovely. Both literally and figuratively; what’s under the veil and the cloak is a diminutive, well brought up, New York Catholic girl from a wealthy middle-class family, with twinkly brown eyes and a minxy sense of humour.
“So glad you finally made it!” she says, giving a huge, warm hug. “What a terrible day you’re having! Thank you so much for coming!” Holding her for a moment, she feels – through the taffeta atmosphere of billowing McQueen – borderline Kylie-tiny, but warm, and robust. Like a slender, teenage cheerleader. This is some surprise, give the aforementioned presumption that she’s cracking up.
So when Gaga says, with warm good manners, “This tea is for you,” gesturing to a bone-china cup handpainted with violets, I can’t help myself from replying, uncouthly: “I know you’re tiny and must get knackered – but why do you keep collapsing?”
On Her health:
“My schedule is such that I don’t get very much time to eat,” Gaga says, holding her teacup daintily. I don’t think the teacup is her infamous “pet teacup” that she took everywhere with her earlier in the year – including nightclubs. Perhaps it’s too famous to be merely drunk from now. Maybe it has its own dressing room.
“But I certainly don’t have an eating problem,” she continues. “A little MDMA [Ecstasy] once in a while never killed anybody, but I really don’t do drugs. I don’t touch cocaine any more. I don’t smoke. Well, maybe a single cigarette – with whisky – while I’m working, because it just frees my mind a little bit. But I care about my voice. The thrill of my voice being healthy on stage is really special. I take care of myself.”
Later on in the interview, Gaga takes off the McQueen cloak – perhaps pointedly, for the nosey journalist – and reveals that, underneath, she’s only wearing fishnets, knickers and a bra. To someone who is seeing her practically naked, from two feet away, her body seems non-scarred, healthy: sturdy. She is wiry, but not remotely bony. It’s a dancer’s body – not a victim’s.
I hand Gaga a page torn from that day’s paper, which I had read on the plane. It’s a story about her performance at the Met Ball in New York – one of the big events of the global celebrity calendar. In the report, it is claimed that Gaga “angered” organisers by “refusing” to walk the red carpet, and then suffered an attack of stage fright so severe she locked herself in her dressing room, and had to be “persuaded out” by “her close friend Oprah Winfrey”. It’s merely the latest of the “Gaga cracking up” stories in the press.
“Is this true?” I ask her.
She reads through the story – frowning slightly at first, eyes wide open by the end.
“I wasn’t nervous!” she says, witheringly. “To be honest with you, I don’t give a f*** about red carpets, and I never do them. I don’t like them. First of all – how could any of these outfits possibly look good with an ugly red carpet under them?”
For a moment, I recall some of Gaga’s more incredible rig-outs: the silver lobster fascinator. The red PVC Elizabethan farthingale. The tunic made of Kermit heads. The red lace outfit that covered her entire face, peaking in a 2ft-high crown. She has a point.
“It’s just visually horrid,” Gaga continues, in a merrily outraged way. Her manner is of your mate in the pub, slagging off the neon tabard she’s been forced to wear working at Boots. “Hollywood is not what it used to be. I don’t want to be perceived as… one of the other bitches in a gown. I wasn’t nervous,” says the woman who appeared in her Telephone video dressed in nothing more than “CRIME SCENE” tape, strategically placed across her nipples and crotch. “Don’t be SILLY!”
But still these rumours persist – of collapses and neuroses. You are, after all, a 24-year-old woman coping with enormous fame, and media pressure, on your own. You are currently the one, crucial, irreplaceable element of a 161-date world tour. How do you keep depressive, or panicked, thoughts at bay?
“Prescription medicine,” she says, cheerfully. “I can’t control my thoughts at all. I’m tortured. But I like that,” she laughs, cheerfully. “Lorca says it’s good to be tortured. The thoughts are unstoppable – but so is the music. It comes to me constantly. That’s why I got this tattoo,” she says, proffering a white arm through the black cloak-folds.
It is a quote from the poet and art critic Rainer Maria Rilke: “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?’ ”
“I think tattoos have power. I did it as a way to kind of… inject myself with a steadfastness about music. People say I should take a break, but I’m like, ‘Why should I take a break? What do you want me to do – go on vacation?’ ”
On stage, later that night – dripping in sweat, just after playing a version of Bad Romance where the chorus sounds even more tearfully euphoric and amazing than usual – Gaga shouts to the crowd, “I’d rather not die on a vacation, under a palm tree. I’d rather die on stage, with all my props, in front of my fans.”
Given that one of her props is a 6ft-high hybrid of a cello, keyboard and drum machine, with a golden skull nailed to the side of it – something that makes the “keytar” look like a mere castanet – you can see her point.
But it has to be said, for a 24-year-old, death is a recurrent theme in her performances. The thematic arc for the Fame Monster tour was “the apocalypse”. On the current Monster Ball tour, Gaga is eventually eaten by a gigantic angler fish – a creature she was terrified of as a child – only to be reborn as an angel. Her MTV Awards performance of Paparazzi, back in September, had her being crushed by a falling chandelier – amazing – before bleeding to death while singing.
“What’s the nearest you’ve ever come to death?” I ask her. “Do you have any recurring illnesses?”
She goes oddly still for a moment, and then says, “I have heart palpitations and… things.”
“Yes, but it’s OK. It’s just from fatigue and other things,” she shrugs, before saying, with great care, “I’m very connected to my aunt, Joanne, who died of lupus. It’s a very personal thing. I don’t want my fans to be worried about me.”
Her eyes are very wide.
“Lupus. That’s genetic, isn’t it?” I ask.
“And have you been tested?”
Again, the eyes are very wide and steady. “Yes.” Pause. “But I don’t want anyone to be worried.”
“When was the last time you called the emergency services?” I ask.
“The other day,” Gaga says, still talking very carefully. “In Tokyo. I was having trouble breathing. I had a little oxygen, then I went on stage. I was OK. But like I say, I don’t want anyone to worry.”
It’s a very odd moment. Gaga is staring at me calmly but intently.
Lupus is a connective tissue disease, where the immune system attacks the body. It can be fatal – although, as medicine advances, fatalities are becoming rarer. What it more commonly does is cause heart palpitations, shortness of breath, joint pain and anaemia, before spasmodically but recurrently driving a truck through your energy levels, so that you are often too fatigued to accomplish even the simplest of tasks.
Suddenly, all the “Gaga cracking up” stories revolve 180 degrees, and turn into something completely different. After all, the woman before me seems about as far removed from someone on the verge of a fame-induced nervous breakdown as possible to imagine. She’s being warm, candid, smart, amusing and supremely confident in her talent. She’s basically like some hot, giggly pop-nerd.
Of course, she hasn’t said, outright, “I have lupus.” But the suggestion throws the whole previous year – being delayed on stage, cancelling gigs, having to call the emergency services – into sharp relief.
Gaga is certainly very affected by her aunt’s demise: the date of her death, in 1976, is woven into her Rilke tattoo on her arm. When I ask her if she ever “dresses down”, she says the only thing remotely “dress down-y” she has is a pair of pink, cotton shorts, embroidered with flowers, that once belonged to her aunt.
“They’re nearly 40 years old,” she says. “But I wear them when I want her to protect me.”
The story that I thought I would find when I met Gaga – dark, otherworldly, borderline autistic diva-genius failing under the pressure of fame – just dissolves, like newsprint in the rain.
All that’s left is a mardy pop sex threat – the woman who put out three, Abba-level classic singles in one year, in her early twenties, while wearing a lobster on her head. As I’m sure Mark Lawson says at times like this, Booyakasha.
“What’s the best thing you’ve spent your money on so far?” I ask, in a far more cheerful mood.
“I bought my parents a car,” Gaga replies. She has often spoken of how close she is to her parents – particularly her father, whom she appears to borderline worship. Presumably, she sees herself in him – a self-made man, he started as a rock’n’roll bar musician, before making his fortune as an internet entrepreneur. By the time Gaga was 13, the family were rich enough to send her to the same school as heiress Paris Hilton.
Gaga is not faking her current outsiderness – even back then, when she was still just Stefani Germanotta, she was the Goth girl with dyed black hair, obsessed with Judy Garland, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, and wearing her skirts really high.
“It’s a Rolls-Royce,” she continues, sipping on her tea, daintily. She has lifted the veil now: she looks as casual as it is possible to in a wig and couture. “It’s black. My dad’s very Italian, so I wanted to get him a real Godfather car. I had it delivered on their wedding anniversary.”
When Gaga rang her father and told him to “Go outside!”, he refused. “He thought I’d got him a dancing gorillagram,” she giggled. The car had a huge bow on it, and the message, “A car to last like a love like yours.” At first, Gaga’s parents just thought they had it for the day, to drive round in. When she told them it was theirs to keep, her father shouted “You’re crazy!” and burst into tears.
“You see, I don’t really spend money and I don’t really like fame,” Gaga says. “I spend my money on my shows – but I don’t like buying things. I don’t buy diamonds, because I don’t know where they came from. I’ll spend it on fashion.” She hugs the McQueen cloak close.
“I miss Lee every time I get dressed,” she says, sadly. “But you know what I spend most of my money on? Disappearing. I hate the paparazzi. Because the truth is – no matter what people tell you – you can control it. If you put as much money into your security as you put into your cars or your diamonds or your jewellery, you can just… disappear. People who say they can’t get away are lying. They must just like the… big flashes.”
The conversation turns to the music industry. Gaga has an endearingly schoolmarmish belief that most acts are “lazy”.
“I hate big acts that just throw an album out against the wall, like ‘BUY IT! F*** YOU!’ It’s mean to fans. You should go out and tour it to your fans in India, Japan, the UK. I don’t believe in how the music industry is today. I believe in how it was in 1982.”
She explains she doesn’t mind about people downloading her music for free, “because you know how much you can earn off touring, right? Big artists can make anywhere from $40 million [£28 million] for one cycle of two years’ touring. Giant artists make upwards of $100 million. Make music – then tour. It’s just the way it is today.”
While on this huge, technically complex, sell-out world tour, Gaga has written and recorded the majority of her next album: “I don’t understand bands who say they’ll tour for one year, then record the next,” she exclaims at one point, going Thatcher again. “I make music every DAY!”
On her new album:
Although she “can’t talk about it yet”, she is clearly excited about the next album. She keeps trying to tell me things about it, then claps her hands over her mouth, going, “I can’t!
“But everyone’s going to f***ing know about it when it comes out,” she says, excitedly. “You know when people say, ‘If you could say one sentence about who you are, what your life is?’ It’s that. For the whole album. Because I recently had this… miracle-like experience, where I feel much more connected to God.”
You were raised a Catholic – so when you say “God”, do you mean the Catholic God, or a different, perhaps more spiritual sense of God?
“More spiritual,” Gaga says, looking like she’s biting her tongue. “I don’t want to say much, because I want it to stay hidden until it comes out – but I will say that religion is very confusing for everyone, and particularly me, because there’s really no religion that doesn’t hate or condemn a certain kind of people, and I totally believe in all love and forgiveness, and excluding no one.”
Would you play for the Pope, if he asked you?
“Yeah,” Gaga says. There’s a pause. Perhaps she considers her current stage show, and the section where her male dancers grab their gigantic, fake white penises, and bounce them off their palms to Boys Boys Boys.
“Well. I’d do an acoustic show for the Pope,” she amends.
Astonishingly, given how late I was, Gaga has given me a full hour of interview time. I later find out that she turned down doing a video acceptance speech for the World Music Awards in order to fit me in. I feel I’ve done amazingly well, considering how badly the day started. Then Gaga puts her cup down, and turns to me.
“You should come out with us tonight,” she says, warmly. “Actually, I’ve never had a journalist come out with me, so you’d be the first. It’s going to be fun. It’s like an old sex club, in Berlin. Come party with Gaga!”
It is midnight. Gaga came off stage half an hour ago. Dressed, once again, in knickers, bra, fishnets and her black taffeta McQueen, she has been standing in freezing, driving rain outside the O2 World Arena, signing autographs for fans.
Her fans are infamously, incredibly devoted – as she is to them. She calls them her “Little Monsters”. They draw pictures of her, get tattoos like hers, weep when she touches them. Her den-mother championing of “all the freaks” (fat girls, gay boys, lesbian girls, Goths, nerds, everyone who gets picked on at school), allied to her global pop juggernaut, makes her relationship with her fans intense. When you watch her with them, you see that culturally, what she’s doing is… providing a space for them. Giving them somewhere to meet.
Then her security guy gives the signal, and we are all bundled into people carriers with blacked-out windows, and whizzed across Berlin.
Paps in cars try to follow us, but it seems what Gaga said earlier was true: if you spend enough money on security, they can’t follow you. She simply has two burly men stand in front of their cars, impeding them, until we have vanished.
“It’s, like, a sex party,” Gaga explains. “You know – like in Eyes Wide Shut? All I can say is, I am not responsible for what happens next. And wear a condom.”
As we take the alleyway to the sex club, security men appear and close it off with giant, blacked-out gates.
The club – the Lab.Oratory – is an industrial, maze-like building. To get to the dancefloor, you have to pass a series of tiny, cell-like booths, decked out with a selection of beds, bathtubs, hoists and chains.
“For f***ing,” a German member of our entourage explains – both helpfully, and somewhat unnecessarily.
Despite the undoubted and extreme novelty of such a venue, Adrian – Gaga’s British press officer – and I give away our nationalities instantly when we comment, excitedly, “Oh my God! You can SMOKE in here.” It seems a far more thrilling prospect than… some bumming.
It’s a small entourage – Gaga, me, Adrian, her make-up artist, her security guy, and maybe two others. We walk on to the small dancefloor, in a club filled with drag queens, lesbians dressed as sailors, boys in tight T-shirts, girls in black leather. The music is pounding. There is a gigantic harness hanging over the bar. “For f***ing,” the same German says again, helpfully.
Gaga is heading up our group. Even, like, Keane would slope off to a VIP booth at this point, and wait for people to bring them drinks. Instead – cloak billowing, and very much looking like one of the Skekses in The Dark Crystal – Gaga marches up to the bar, leans on it in a practised barfly manner. With a bellowed, “What does everyone want to drink?”, she gets the round in.
It reminds me of what was possibly the best moment of this year in Gaga world: the tabloids running a shot of Gaga – dressed only in fishnets, a bra and leather cap – sitting in a pub in Blackpool, with a pint of Stella and a plate of chips.
“I really love a dingy, pissy bar,” Gaga says. “I’m really old-school that way.”
We go into an alcove with a wipe-clean banquette – “For the f***ing!” the German says, again – and set up camp. Gaga takes off her McQueen cloak, and chucks it into a corner. She’s now just in bra, fishnet and knickers, with sequins around her eyes.
“Do you know what that girl at the bar said to me?” she says, sipping her Scotch, and taking a single drag off a fag before handing it back. “She said, ‘You’re a feminist. People think it means man-hating, but it doesn’t.’ Isn’t that funny?”
Earlier in the day, conversation had turned to whether Gaga would describe herself as feminist or not. As the very best conversations about feminism often will, it had segued from robust declarations of emancipation and sisterhood (“I am a feminist because I believe in women’s rights, and protecting who we are, down to the core”) to musing on who she fancied. (“In the video to Telephone, the girl I kiss, Heather, lives as a man. And as someone who does like women, something about a more masculine woman makes me feel more… feminine. When we kissed, I got that fuzzy butterfly feeling.”)
We had concluded that it was odd most women “shy away” from declaring themselves feminists, because “it really doesn’t mean ‘man-hating’ ”.
“And now she’s just said the same thing to me! AND she’s hot!” Gaga beams. She points to the girl – who looks like an androgynous, Cupid-mouthed, Jean Paul Gaultier cabin boy. “Gorgeous,” Gaga sighs.
This is Gaga off-duty. Although the booth becomes by way of a shrine to her – between now and 4am, fully two-thirds of the club come over to pay obeisance to her: drag queens and tom girls and superfreaks, all acknowledging the current definitive pop-cultural salon keeper – Gaga alternates between being wholly gracious and welcoming to them, and getting absolutely off her cake. With the thrill of like recognising like, I realise she’s a total lightweight – giggly after two Scotches, dancing in the booth after three, and wholly on the prowl after four.
“Are you straight?” she asks some hot, American boy we’ve been talking to at one point, in the manner of someone who needs to make plans for the rest of the evening based on the reply. When he says, regretfully, ‘No,’ her attention seems to, amusingly, wander.
But that’s just for sex. Gaga’s devotion to, and promotion of, every aspect of gay culture is legendary. Bisexual herself, while her musical education might have been classical, her cultural education was homosexual, and comes to a head in the video for her forthcoming single, Alejandro.
Sprawled across the banquette, in a mood of eager excitement, Gaga shows me stills from the video shoot on her BlackBerry.
On the Alejandro video:
She’s dressed as Joan of Arc, with a ferocious Purdey haircut. To be honest, I can’t see much more than that, because she’s a bit pissed and her thumbs keep getting in the way.
The video is about the “purity of my friendships with my gay friends”, Gaga had explained, earlier. “And how I’ve been unable to find that with a straight man in my life. It’s a celebration and an admiration of gay love – it confesses my envy of the courage and bravery they require to be together. In the video I’m pining for the love of my gay friends – but they just don’t want me.”
We look at the photo on her BlackBerry again.
“I’m not sure about my hair,” Gaga says, suddenly, staring at the BlackBerry.
3am. I am pretty wasted. I am kneeling on the banquette, with Gaga lying by my knees.
I have just come up with the theory that, if you have one of your heroes lying tipsily next to you, you should tell them all the pretentious pop-culture theories you have come up with about them. So I slurringly tell her that the difference between her and, say, Madonna, is that you don’t penetrate Gaga. Her songs and videos are – while sexual – about dysfunction and neuroses and alienation and self-discovery. They’re not, in any sense, a come-on. Despite having worn very little clothing for most of her career, Gaga is not a prick tease.
“Yeah! It’s not what straight men masturbate over when they’re at home watching pornography,” she confirms. “It’s not for them. It’s for… us.” And she gestures around the club.
Earlier in the day, she had said – somewhat unexpectedly – “I still feel very much like an outsider. And I have zero concept of how I’m assessed in the world.” As one of the most-discussed women in the world, this is a surprise. Does she really not read her press? Perhaps this is how she’s stayed so… normal. Ordering drinks, chatting to everyone. She’s the least pretentious multimillion-selling artist I’ve ever met.
A minute later, Gaga springs up, and beckons for me to follow her. Weaving her way down a series of corridors, we eventually end in – the VIP toilet.
“You’re wearing a jumpsuit,” Gaga says, with feminine solidarity. “You can’t get out of one of those in the normal toilets.”
As I start to arduously unzip, Gaga sits on the toilet with a cheerful, “I’m just going to pee through my fishnets!”, and offloads some of those whiskies.
For the first year of her career, massive internet rumours claimed that Gaga was, in fact, a man – a rumour so strong that Oprah had to question her about it, when Gaga appeared on her show.
Perhaps uniquely among all the journalists in the world, I can now factually confirm that Lady Gaga does not have a penis. That rumour can, conclusively, die.
4am. Time for bed. We pull up outside the Ritz Carlton, in a people carrier with blacked-out windows. Gaga opens the door and totters out, looking – despite the McQueen cloak – like any tipsy 24-year-old girl on a night out in Newcastle on a Saturday. Her grey wig looks dishevelled. Her face-sequins are wonky. Her eyes are pointing in slightly different directions – although, to be fair, I can only focus on her myself if I close one eye and rest my head against the window. Tonight, she played to 17,000 fans. Tomorrow, it’s Sting’s Rainforest Benefit, where she takes her place among the pantheon: Debbie Harry, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John.
She leans up against the car for a moment, issues a small hiccup, and then turns, dramatically.
“I. Am. KNACKERED!” she roars. She then walks, slightly unsteadily, up the steps of the Ritz Carlton hotel. A total, total dude.