She's the exact opposite of a diva: arriving fresh and prepared for our interview. She offers refreshments and answers questions graciously, with perfect posture, finishing-school polish, and not a hint of attitude. Perhaps even more shocking? The fact that Lady Gaga – the same woman who once arrived at an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper wearing nothing but eyeliner, underwear and Alexander McQueen boots – is actually quite conventional.
When asked whether she believes in marriage, she laughs, thrusts out a hand with long purple nails and points to her left ring finger." Honey, I'm Italian," she remarks. "I want a big rock on my finger and a church wedding with flowers and lots of bridesmaids. I'm an old-fashioned girl."There's nothing old-fashioned about her, though, when she takes the stage at the Staples Center in LA the night of her 25th birthday. "I'm a workaholic; I'd rather be onstage than celebrating birthdays," she says. She has been touring nonstop since she was signed to Interscope Records in 2007. "Being onstage when you're turning 25, singing for 20,000 people, is the most incredible feeling in the world."
And indeed, from the minute she sings that first note, fans are standing on their seats, dancing furiously, snapping photos and making "monster" claws with their hands – a nod to Lady Gaga's affectionate term for them, "little monsters". They're also dressed like their idol, in fishnet stockings and Cleopatra eyeliner, with rhinestone-covered Diet Coke cans doubling as rollers teetering atop their heads.Last year, the singer spent her birthday in Australia, where friends threw her a typically over-the-top party in a forest clearing. "I didn't know what was going on," she recalls. "My friends drove me to the middle of nowhere. We were smoking weed and watching Avatar on this huge screen they'd set up. I remember there were spiders everywhere and we were all screaming and running through the forest. It was really great inspiration."
Back to the Staples Center. Over two action-packed hours, Gaga, as she asks to be called, makes no fewer than 10 costume changes, features classic cars onstage, dances as her piano bursts into flames, and makes it clear to the audience that they're hearing her live ("No-one is going to pay to hear me lip-synch," she cries. "Every word that comes out of my mouth is live."). And if she worries about her safety amid her screaming fans, she doesn't reveal it. "My fans are there because they love me and I love them," she says. "Some people will be respectful of the relationship between artist and fans, some won't, but I think with my fans I have this beautiful sincerity between us."
Towards the end of the show, she holds up the birthday gift she received from friends: the red ruby slippers reportedly worn by her idol, Judy Garland, in The Wizard Of Oz. Placing them atop her piano, she plays a flawless, stripped-down rendition of her hit "Born This Way" – her third number one in Australia. The woman is on fire – literally – during the encore, her Madonna-esque cone bra shooting flames. The curtain descends.
Before Gaga became the most written about pop star since Madonna, she was Stefani Germanotta, the daughter of middle-class Italian-Americans in New York City. She crossed town to attend an elite all-girls Catholic school on the wealthy Upper East Side, along with her younger sister, Natali, and although she was a good student, she felt she never fitted in. She says it's what drove her to music. "In high school I was always the underdog and I was bullied," she recalls. Gaga's experience as an outsider lit a fire and, at age 17, she was admitted early to the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where she studied music and formed her first group, the Stefani Germanotta Band. She quickly gathered a following on the downtown music scene in Manhattan, channelling Janis Joplin with a '60s, hippie look of long, messy hair with off-the-shoulder sweatshirts and jeans. (Look just how far Lady Gaga has transformed herself.) In the singer's second year of college, she dropped out to pursue music full-time.
In 2006, at 19, Germanotta was performing in a well-known New York club called The Cutting Room when she was asked if she would meet with a music producer who was trying to create a female version of The Strokes. She took a bus to New Jersey that night to audition. The producer, initially sceptical, asked her to play one of her songs on the piano and, before she had finished, he'd signed her. Lady Gaga was born.
While it's easy to miss, what with the Kermit the Frog capes, meat dresses and 25cm footwear, Gaga's singing chops and classically trained pianist hands are indisputable. She cites musical influences from Carole King to David Bowie and French torch singer Edith Piaf. She has likewise been compared to each of them, plus Prince, Yoko Ono and Elton John. Her creative process is as raw and as vibrant as her product. "If I could describe my songwriting process it is like a 15-minute regurgitation. Mental and verbal vomiting for 15 minutes. Sounds, words, ideas and then it is my job after those 15 minutes to honour whatever it is I did. It's not that I have a time on it; it's just that its always quick. Then I go back and edit and fix and modify and tweak."With her new album, Born This Way, Lady Gaga is still making the hard dance music that made her famous, but she says this album is much more personal than her first. "Its been an interesting voyage for me to reopen the wound in myself every time I go into the studio and throw salt in it, and poison and arsenic, and try to provoke something truthful in myself and answer questions about life."
Any Lady Gaga album is naturally going to be talked about; she could ride the fame she's already amassed for decades, but she hasn't arrived yet, she's just setting the stage. Elton John called Born This Way "fucking amazing" and the title track "the new 'I Will Survive'", while Rolling Stone says "Born This Way" "sums up all the complex Gaga mythos, all her politics and Catholic angst and smeared lipstick, in one brilliant pop blast". The album is infused with religious imagery and symbolism, and reinforces her familiar mantra – be who you are and love it. Gaga speaks for the outcast, for the disenfranchised, for every person who's been bullied. And in this spirit she's donating a portion of profits from a country version of "Born This Way" to an anti-bullying charity.
But in terms of the album, "One of the themes that is recurring, also on a song called 'Bloody Mary', is my fascination with dark and light and with divinity and humanity," she explains. Of another song on the album, "Judas", she says, "I say Jesus is my virtue and Judas is the demon that I cling to. It's all about me being haunted by my past...by something that terrified me, but needing to understand it in order to move forward into my future. I grapple with all sorts of ideas about destiny and your battle between good and evil, if it's something that's pre-chosen for you or you choose it on your own."
And for her personal life, as accessible as she is, she's perfected the art of privacy. When I ask whether she has a boyfriend, she replies with a single word: "No." The discussion is over.
To say Lady Gaga is larger than life is nothing. For her fans, it's life that's become larger because of her. She's the big picture. She's art, fashion, music, inspiration, sex, beauty, spirit and soul. If life imitates art, then art imitates Gaga. While her musical talent and breadth is impressive, it is one small piece of the Haus of Gaga. She's Mother Monster. She claims she was famous before she was born – and she is definitely here to stay.How would she like to be remembered? The question may seem premature at 25, but it's one she’s given thought to. "I would like for my fans when they are 80 years old to look down at their kids and say I'll never forget when Gaga came out. She was fearless. She didn't give a fuck what anyone had to say about her and we loved her because she made us feel free."