Lady Gaga is sitting in her ”sanctuary” — the sprawling, olive tree-dotted backyard of her Malibu home — when a silent, tie-clad man arrives with cocktails on a tray. “Thank you,” she says, with the sort of silver-screen elegance that it’s surprising a “dahhhling” doesn’t follow. “I might have busted my ass on the Lower East Side, but there is something nice about a good dirty martini.”
There’s a chill in the air, and while she’s wearing only a tattered Springsteen tee tucked into high-waisted denim shorts, Gaga is intent on watching the sunset. These days, the woman born Stefani Germanotta seeks out serene moments — although her admission that she “craves normalcy” is almost a revolutionary statement from someone who proudly declares that she deals in “the theater of the absurd.” As recently as 2014, the Grammy- and Guinness Record-stacking megastar, who has sold 10.4 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen Music, considered quitting music altogether. She had parted ways with her longtime manager, Troy Carter, citing overwork, not long after 2013’s Artpop failed to resonate on the order of her earlier albums. She felt her image was threatening to eclipse her artistry.
This year, though, the 29-year-old not only recommitted herself to her career, she reinvented it. The unlikely set of jazz standards she recorded with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in the fall of 2014, then won her a sixth Grammy (for best traditional pop vocal album) and spawned an international tour racking up rave reviews for much of 2015. “The audience goes crazy for the way she sings,” says Bennett, 89. “She has one of the great voices of all time, and it’s amazing how musically intelligent she is.” Pop fans the world over voiced a similar sentiment after Gaga’s masterful The Sound of Music medley at the Academy Awards in February, which earned her a warm congratulatory hug from Julie Andrews.
Days later, Gaga revealed that she would take a lead part in American Horror Story: Hotel, the TV show’s fifth season. She won her role as vampire matriarch The Countess after cold-calling series creator Ryan Murphy. “I told him I wanted a place to put all of my anguish and rage and that I was excited to play a killer,” she recalls with relish. “We relate to each other because we’re both transformers,” says Murphy. “We do something trying to work out shit in our personal life. And then the next year we put on a different costume and we’re somebody else.” AHS, the highest-rated series in FX’s history, has had its strongest season this year, with Gaga’s debut in the first episode drawing 12.2 million viewers.
Gaga’s biggest role this year, though, may have been that of the crusader. She released the song “Til It Happens to You,” co-written with Diane Warren, aimed at fostering empathy with victims of sexual assault; authored a Billboard op-ed with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo about ending campus rape; and initiated a partnership between Her Born This Way Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. In October, after seeing Gaga receive an award from the nonprofit Americans for the Arts, The New York Times‘ David Brooks was inspired to write a column on the nature of passion and how Gaga’s “amplified life” embodies it.
More than ever, Gaga’s efforts to end bullying and win support for gay and transgender people — as well as those who have suffered abuse, depression or anxiety as a result of prejudice — seem emblematic of millennials’ embrace of “outsiders” like Gaga herself. “Til It Happens to You,” says Warren, “speaks to her fans. That’s why it was so right to go to her.”
Gaga even managed to devote some attention to her personal life, getting engaged to actor Taylor Kinney on Valentine’s Day. (The 6-carat heart-shaped diamond flashes as she rubs the belly of her French bulldog, Asia.) In March, Billboard‘s 2014 Woman of the Year Taylor Swift tweeted, “Is it just me or is Lady Gaga, like, fully LIVING right now?!?”
Says Matt Bomer, Gaga’s American Horror Story co-star: “She possesses the art spirit. I know that sounds esoteric, but it’s a distinct thing and very few people have it. Typically if they do, it comes with demons. She’s blessed enough to also have the help system and love in her life to be the beautiful soul she is.” Or as Warren says, “Because of the meat dresses or whatever, you forget that underneath is a super, ridiculously talented person.”
“It speaks volumes to me that I’m being recognized as Woman of the Year in 2015,” says Gaga. “This is the year I did what I wanted instead of trying to keep up with what I thought everyone else wanted from me.” Below, she explains in her own words just what following her instinct entails — and how she hopes to show women and men, artists and industry executives alike how a “hard-core chick” can set about dismantling the status quo.
‘I want to explode into my 30s’
“My birthday is in March, so these are the last moments of my 20s. I already mourned that in a way, and now I’m really excited about showing girls, and even men, what it can mean to be a woman in her 30s. Why is it that we’re disposing of people once they pass that mark? It’s suddenly, ‘You’re an old woman.’ I’m not f—ing old. I’m more sexual and powerful and intelligent and on my shit than I’ve ever been. I’ve come a long way through a lot of heartache and pain, but none of it made me damaged goods. It made me a fighter. I want to show women they don’t need to try to keep up with the 19-year-olds and the 21-year-olds in order to have a hit. Women in music, they feel like they need to f—ing sell everything to be a star. It’s so sad. I want to explode as I go into my 30s.
“Once you start being mindful and really going, ‘Do I actually want that?,’ you start to feel empowered and you find your value. I love being the annoying girl. I was a theater kid. I was in jazz band. I went to the Renaissance Faire. I was that girl who got made fun of, that nerdy girl. I believe in that girl. I believe in the integrity, intelligence and power of people like her, and I want to ignite it.”
‘I took a gamble because everyone had written me off’
“As soon as the Oscars were over, [former chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M] Jimmy Iovine emailed me something like, ‘That was so f—ing fantastic, and it could’ve been such a disaster.’ He’s Italian and from Brooklyn, so we speak the same comedic language, but I knew he was right. The truth is you can either nail a performance like that or butcher some of the most classic songs sung by an all-time great. I took the gamble because everyone had written me off. It took me a long time to get those notes. I told my manager, ‘I need two months working with my vocal coach every day and to be sober, which means I can’t do other work at all.’ When I work I need to drink and smoke, and I have body pain [due to hip surgery]. But I’m just like any other girl — there’s a human being in there, and if you can keep the human intact, that’s what you’re going to hear in the music.
“At the end of 2014, my stylist asked, ‘Do you even want to be a pop star anymore?’ I looked at him and I go, ‘You know, if I could just stop this train right now, today, I would. I just can’t. [But] I need to get off now because I’m going to die.’ When you’re going so fast you don’t feel safe anymore, you feel like you’re being slapped around and you can’t think straight. But then I felt hands lifting me. It was like everybody came together to try and put a star back in the sky, and they weren’t going to let me down.”
‘I was born to sing with Tony’
“There is nobody more badass than Tony Bennett. That man is a part of the history of music in a way that is extremely powerful, and he taught me to stay true to who I am, to not let anybody exploit me. He is responsible in so many ways for making me happy, and I can say the same for Elton [John]. When the whole industry turned their back on me during Artpop, they were the ones who said, ‘Hey, this is a blip. It’s going to go away.’ On tour, I had people give me war medals and memorabilia just to thank me for exposing a younger generation to Tony Bennett because he changed their lives in such significant ways. I want to be a part of curating a culture where we don’t give credence to anyone who is rude or crass or not good for the world.
“After Cheek to Cheek, everybody was like, ‘Oh, you’re Rod Stewart now.’ I love Rod Stewart, but I would also argue that I’m not doing an adult contemporary jazz album later in my career and I’m not just doing it because I like standards. I am an Italian-American girl from New York who won state jazz competitions in high school for my abilities. I was born to sing with Tony and for him to be like, ‘Yes, you were.’ And so was Ella [Fitzgerald] and so was Judy [Garland] — we could go on and on listing the amazing women he sang with. It’s a party I’m thrilled to be invited to.”
‘I put all my rage into that dark art’
“I’m not the type of girl who fits most molds. That’s why working on American Horror Story with Ryan [Murphy] is a destiny. I wanted to create something extremely meaningful by exploring the art of darkness. The reason I love watching horror films, mysteries and documentaries about crime is that it somehow numbs me from the pain I experience in my own life. You are watching something worse than whatever you think you’re going through. The terror of that suspends you, and you are able to forget about your own pain for a moment. It’s like a safe, psychological form of masochism.
“Ryan and I have both experienced the same sort of criticism over the intention of our work. My whole career has been built on this perception that I’m trying to evoke attention because of the things I’m interested in, when it’s not that way at all. If you don’t like to be disturbed, [American Horror Story] probably isn’t for you. If you don’t like absurdity, I’m probably not for you. I hung upside down for 45 minutes for Robert Wilson and drained all the blood in my body, and I’ve stood in a freezing cold river naked for two hours with magnets on my head for Marina Abramovic. I’m a hard-core chick. I go there. I can put all my rage into that dark art, and then the rest of my life can be spent clearheaded, doing the things I know to be right, like philanthropy and sticking to my guns musically.”
‘When did you become the fashionable robot?’
“You can’t sell your soul once you make it. It’s a big mistake to just go after the money to try to stay on top. I think that’s what everyone wanted me to do. But I’m a different kind of girl, and when being different is not in style it’s hard for me to function. People think, ‘You can just sit down at a piano whenever you want and write,’ but I couldn’t write for two f—ing years. For Artpop, I was doing beats instead. I didn’t want to be near that damn [piano]. It was too emotional. I would start to play and sing, and my mind would go, ‘You are way too talented for this shit. F—, your voice sounds good. F—, that’s a beautiful chord. F—, that’s an amazing lyric. Why are you letting these people run you into the ground? When did you become the fashionable robot?’ Can’t being an artist be enough? Is talent ever the thing? I think for Adele it is. I think for Bruno Mars it is. But that’s what I learned from working with Tony: If talent isn’t the thing, then you are way off-base.
“That’s why every up and down of my career was worth it — it has led me to epiphanies. We can’t create without epiphanies. You could have one and not even know it because you’re so high or there are seven models sucking your dick or you’re so intoxicated by the lifestyle. I’m grateful for what I have, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value the gift of life. Because while this house is beautiful, once I cross my property line I’m no longer free; it’s legal to stalk me all over the world. The thing that makes me happy is that piano.”
‘Let us purify this industry’
“I call on every artist to be kind to one another, and compassionate. Let us purify this industry again and put our finger in the face of every executive and say, ‘If you are spending money, is it on someone who can really sing? Is it on someone who has a perspective?’ It’s almost funny to see the look on Tony’s face, the way he shakes his head, when I tell him how the industry has become. This whole thing of remixes for the radio, I have to say: When it doesn’t feel like the two artists were in the room together, it really hurts me because it’s such an injustice to what it means for two artists to meet. It’s clever. But are we putting too many limits on the way things need to be on the radio for artists to feel free enough to create genuinely?
“We can blame the digital era forever, but music is a natural right of humankind. We’ve been singing in caves since the beginning and learning about reverb because of our voices echoing off mountainsides. That’s the thing that scares people the most about me — of all of my contemporaries, I’m probably just the most romantic. Especially in a world where music education is not the biggest thing. Kids become depressed when they are born with a creative instinct but are not taught how to express it. Can you imagine having to come and someone says, ‘I’m so sorry, but you can never ejaculate in this life’? If you don’t teach someone how to release that energy, it gets blocked up, and it’s painful. Kids need to learn how to express who they are and seek value in it.”