How Lady Gaga took Stefani Germanotta from New York’s Convent of the Sacred Heart to super stardom

DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER/Michale O’Keefe

Sunday, February 7th 2010, 4:00 AM

Lady Gaga performs onstage during the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards on January 31, 2010.

Winter/Getty

Lady Gaga performs onstage during the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards on January 31, 2010.

Stefani Germanotta (now Lady Gaga) in her senior year class portrait from Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York. CLICK PIC for more Lady Gaga photos.

Stefani Germanotta (now Lady Gaga) in her senior year class portrait from Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York.

For a mega-sta full of surprises, it was no surprise Lady Gaga stole the show at this year’s way-over-the-top Grammy Awards.

For starters, she won two Grammys: “Poker Face” was best dance recording and “The Fame” earned the award for best electronic-dance album.

She wore three different outfits — each more bizarre than the previous, from a risque, heart-shaped stunner to a spiky silver headdress with matching gown.

And she wowed the audience by segueing from a powerful “Poker Face” to a duet with Elton John, with both looking like orphans out of a Dickens novel, and John tweaking the lyrics of “Your Song:” “How wonderful life is, with Gaga in the world.”

“It’s amazing, but not surprising that people have gravitated to her,” says Jeff Rabhan, a music industry executive who has worked with Jermaine Dupri and J.Lo, and heads NYU‘s Clive Davis department of recorded music.

“Artists have not done a lot to differentiate themselves recently. If you look at Beyoncé or Alicia Keys, they’ve been very traditional in their approach. People are looking for something different.”

Lady Gaga certainly is different: a contradiction whose lyrics are X-rated, but who’s also a sweet Italian-American girl from the West Side who adores her parents.

She’s met Queen Elizabeth and been interviewed by Oprah, but says she misses the days when she played lower East Side dives and clubs like the Bitter End.

She coos on stage and on her records like a traditional sex kitten, but revels in her bisexuality and does nothing to dispel rumors she is a hermaphrodite.

Lady Gaga leans heavily on her influences — Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Grace Jones, David Bowie, Queen — but blends the past into something fresh and exciting.

“What makes Gaga different from Madonna is that she’s a performance artist operating in the mainstream,” says celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton. “She takes Grace Jones and Yoko Ono and makes it pop.”

In a world full of meteoric-rise stories, Gaga’s seems one of the most improbable.

It began in 2006, when New Jersey-based record producer Rob Fusari was looking for a sexy rock ‘n’ roll heroine with tousled hair, sleepy eyes and garage band chops to front a female version of the rock band The Strokes.

Instead, he got a chunky girl named Stefani Germanotta with a bouffant, dark eyeliner and a look more guido than grunge. She had taken a 40-minute bus ride to his studio in Parsippany, and he wanted to let her down easy.

“I’m thinking, ‘How can I cut this short and still make her feel like it was worth coming all the way out here?’ ” says Fusari, who has worked with Beyoncé, Will Smith and Whitney Houston. “She was bubbly and nice, but not what I was looking for at all.”

Then she sat down at the piano.

“It was like the Earth had stopped,” he says. “I’m listening to the lyrics and I’m thinking, ‘holy s—, this is something new.’
She was amazing. I said, ‘Play me another song.’ As she’s playing, I’m texting my lawyer, ‘I need a contract tomorrow.’ “

In the months that followed, Fusari helped Germanotta morph into Lady Gaga, pop phenom.

Not long ago, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta waited tables on Cornelia St.

Now, her addictive dance beats, intriguing lyrics and outrageous costumes are reshaping music and fashion. Gaga is the first artist in Billboard Top 40 Airplay Chart history whose first five singles made No. 1.

In a little over a year, her debut album, “The Fame,” has sold more than 8 million copies.

The 23-year-old superstar just finished the North American leg of her “Monster Ball Tour” with four soldout shows at Radio City Music Hall that brought out legions of fans — from tweens to drag queens — in Gaga regalia. She’ll soon head to Europe, Australia and Japan to perform.

She was always gaga for music.

Lady Gaga took up piano at 4 and was writing music by the time she was 13. She danced around fancy West Side restaurants using breadsticks as batons and, in a preview of things to come, greeted baby-sitters naked.

She attended Convent of the Sacred Heart, whose past students include Caroline Kennedy, and Paris and Nicky Hilton.

Lady Gaga likes to portray herself as a weirdo who didn’t fit in, but an old friend says she was popular — and serious about her art.

“She was always the star of the plays and musicals in high school,” the friend says. “As soon as she would get in costume, she would be in character and would never break.”

School plays weren’t enough, so Gaga organized the school’s “Cafe Casa” nights.

“She recruited singers, songwriters, actors, dancers and filmmakers at Sacred Heart and other schools to showcase their work,” the friend says.

Gaga dropped out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to polish her songwriting and performance skills at downtown clubs.

She was still Stefani Germanotta then, and she looked and sounded more like Norah Jones than Lady Gaga, but was building the foundation for her future.

“She was learning how to put on a show,” says Bitter End owner Kenny Gorka. “She learned to get people to listen.”

Singer Wendy Starland saw Gaga perform at the old Flatiron club called the Cutting Room and was blown away. She called Fusari and put Gaga on the phone.

Before long, Gaga was riding the bus to Jersey every day to work at his studio. Fusari thought she wrote brilliant songs — but with no commercial appeal. He told her to abandon rock riffs and add dance beats. Gaga refused.

Fusari convinced her a drum machine would not hurt her integrity, telling her Queen used one.

“I think that’s what finally got her to give it a shot,” Fusari says. “We finished ‘Beautiful, Dirty, Rich’ that day. It’s one of the songs on her debut album.”

Music wasn’t her only passion: Gaga talked constantly about creating a look that would get people talking — and her wardrobe became bizarre.

During a trip to Miami, Fusari says he told Gaga he didn’t want to be seen with her as they walked to a drug store because she looked like a kinky hooker.

“She’s in the bathing suit with a ripped-up jean skirt with one leg attached. She had on this crazy hat. She was wearing heels that went all the way to the ceiling … I told her I didn’t want to walk with her, so she went in ahead of me.”

Fusari also takes credit for creating the “Lady Gaga” name. He would always greet his protege with Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” when she arrived at the studio. One day his phone’s spell check changed “Radio” to “Lady.”

“She told me, ‘That’s it,’” Fusari says. “‘Don’t ever call me Stefani again.’”

Fusari played Gaga’s music for executives at Island Def Jam, who gave her a contract, but severed it after a few months without explanation. Gaga’s confidence was bruised, but Fusari encouraged her to keep writing and recording.

Fusari liked the direction Lady Gaga’s music was taking, but not the direction of her life. She had hooked up with hard rock DJ Lady Starlight, a staple of the downtown nightlife scene.

They performed as a burlesque revue. Lady Gaga, in leopard-skin G-strings and bikini tops, danced and set cans of hairspray on fire. Gaga’s music was the soundtrack for a hipster strip show.

Lady Gaga admits she was partying like, well, a rock star, using mountains of drugs.

Her father, Joe, freaked out by the burlesque act and the dope, told her she was screwing up her life and didn’t speak to her for months. Her mom, Cynthia, gave Gaga unconditional love and support, but she, too, was worried her daughter was on a dark path.

Her dad’s disapproval eventually convinced Gaga that her talent was a fragile thing, that drugs could destroy her career. She pulled back on partying and threw herself into music.

When she played the Bitter End, her hair was long and dark, like scores of other female singers who have performed at the historic Bleecker St. club.

Germanotta’s vocals were raw and her dance moves unpolished, but owner Gorka saw something special — a hunger for success.

“When somebody is that driven you can almost put money down that something good will happen,” he says.

The question is whether she’ll have the longevity of Madonna or Bowie, or be just a passing fancy.

Fusari thinks she has the talent to stay on top, but must mix things up, the way Elton John bounces between looks and sounds.

One approach is to go back to piano-driven songs. Gaga apparently agrees; her next single is “Speechless,” a piano ballad.

“She doesn’t need to sell 8 million records the next time around,” Fusari says.

“The record I really want her to make is something with Jack White (of the White Stripes). Something with a hard electric guitar over piano. It would make people go ‘Whoa.’ She is going to amaze people for years to come.”

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4 Responses to “How Lady Gaga took Stefani Germanotta from New York’s Convent of the Sacred Heart to super stardom”

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