In recent years, Lady Gaga has swapped her role as pop music’s Queen of Shock to become a self-declared “kindness punk.” The star, who once wore a meat dress in public, told Oprah that she now wants to spread an important message about mental health. And it seems that this is a lesson she has learnt the hard way.
Gaga took to the stage at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in January 2020. And her appearance was more pared-down than the public is used to. Wearing an orthodox black trouser suit, her bright pink mane was the only nod to the fact that this was one of the greatest performers of recent years. Indeed, many tuning in might not have even have recognized her as the 11-time Grammy Award winner.
The candid sit-down interview was part of Oprah’s 2020 Vision tour, in conjunction with WW (formerly WeightWatchers). The events have featured inspirational celebrities including Amy Shumer and Michelle Obama, and they strive to promote wellness and positivity. Moreover, Gaga was to open up about her mental health battles more than anybody expected – even Oprah.
Afterwards, the chat-show legend and philanthropist posted a video on Instagram to tell Gaga that, “You were so good, so real… I couldn’t believe you were doing that!” Gaga replied, “That’s what happens when you’re in the presence of an angel.” During the interview, the singer had talked about her battles with mental health issues, which were triggered by a series of deeply traumatic events when she was on the cusp of fame.
Lady Gaga is, of course, the stage name of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. Born in New York in 1986, Germanotta was brought up in a Catholic household of Italian heritage. As a young child she was already interested in music and had started playing piano by the time she was four. Moreover, her interest in performing was strongly encouraged by her parents.
“I don’t know exactly where my affinity for music comes from, but it is the thing that comes easiest to me,” the singer was later to say in a 2011 MTV interview. “I might not have been a natural dancer, but I am a natural musician. That is the thing that I believe I am the greatest at.”
In addition to being a natural musician, Germanotta was also a good actor. As a teenager, for example, she took on major parts in a number of plays at high school. Then, aged just 17, she joined the acclaimed Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. However, after a year of studying there, she dropped out to go it alone as a singer.
At first, though, fame was hard to come by for Germanotta. She had three jobs, one of which was burlesque dancing, to keep a roof over her head. Nonetheless, little by little, moments in the spotlight came, with minor appearances on MTV and an audio children’s book. With other friends from NYU, she performed around the city. And it was at a venue called The Cutting Room in 2006 that she caught the eye of a scout named Wendy Starland.
Starland subsequently put Germanotta in touch with music producer Rob Fusari in 2006. They began a successful partnership that was briefly to turn romantic, and Germanotta soon developed a unique style. She also became known as Lady Gaga, a moniker taken from Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga.” Inspired by 1970s glam rock, she performed alongside kindred spirit Lady Starlight.
At the same time, and helped by Fusari, her songs found their way into the office of Vincent Herbert. He was the record executive she was later to give the accolade of “discovering” her. Having previously been briefly signed – then released – by Def Jam, Gaga was now taken on the books at Herbert’s Streamline Records label, part of Interscope, in 2007.
Part of her work with the new record company was to write songs for artists including New Kids on the Block, The Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears. Before long, she started collaborating with producer RedOne and moved to LA. Then, in August 2008 she put out debut album The Fame. It was to catapult her from the New York underground club scene to international stardom.
Tracks from the album – including “Poker Face,” “Just Dance” and “Paparazzi” – topped the charts around the world. They reached number one not only in the U.S. but also as far afield as Australia and the U.K. In fact, “Poker Face” outperformed any other single globally in 2009, selling almost 10 million copies and picking up two Grammy nominations – and one win – in January 2010.
While her catchy dance records received multi-platinum status across the globe, the accompanying videos and Gaga’s outrageous outfits also grabbed attention. In the promo for her second single from album “Poker Face,” Gaga climbs out of a swimming pool in a dark bodysuit and metallic mask. She’s flanked by two huge Great Dane dogs. The clip was given numerous nominations at the 2009 MTV VMAs.
Proving Gaga’s love of self-expression, the cinematic video to “Paparazzi” sees her being chucked off a balcony by love interest Alexander Skarsgård. The star, playing an exaggerated version of herself in the seven-minute-long promo, is then photographed in a pool of blood by the waiting paparazzi below. At the same VMAs in 2009, the clip earned two awards.
Then, while performing on The Fame Ball Tour over the summer of 2009, Gaga penned a bunch of new tracks. These included further global chart-toppers “Bad Romance,” and “Alejandro.” And on another single, “Telephone,” she dueted with fellow megastar Beyoncé. The two appeared in an eye-catching video as glamorous felons on the run.
But it was the video to “Bad Romance,” which sees Gaga kidnapped by dancers and trafficked to a Russian gangster, that perhaps proved to be her most successful. It earned her Video of the Year at the 2010 VMAs, as well as six other awards – “Telephone” also won her an eighth. And there were even more triumphs to be had. The promo, as well as the single itself, both won Grammys. Moreover, the clip has scored in excess of a billion views to date on YouTube.
In addition, it was at the 2010 VMAs, where she was nominated for 13 awards, that Gaga wore an infamous dress made of meat. Although she changed clothes three times during the evening, it was the outfit crafted from real cuts of animal flesh that garnered the most attention. The singer wore it to receive her gong for “Bad Romance” and was afterwards interviewed by slightly queasy vegan Ellen DeGeneres.
The dress – which has its own Wikipedia page – shocked the world, but many missed its point. Gaga, an advocate for the LGBT community, was accompanied by a group of soldiers who’d been expelled from the army over their sexuality. The dress was intended to signify that a dead soldier is a dead soldier, no matter what their sexual orientation. Talking about the dress, she said in a 2011 60 Minutes interview, “I use the media to make political statements, but my music is so damn good that I can.”
By now, Gaga was a worldwide phenomenon. The Monster Ball Tour saw Gaga performing more than 200 shows worldwide from late 2009 through to the summer of 2011. She earned close to $230 million dollars for her jaw-dropping performances, the most ever for a debut artist. Then, in February 2011 she released album “Born This Way.” The titular single was downloaded in excess of a million times in five days, becoming the record holder for the quickest-selling iTunes single ever.
But despite her enormous fame, Gaga was hiding an almost insurmountable private pain. During her chat with Oprah, she revealed the incredibly traumatic incidents that were to affect her physically and emotionally for years to come. They occurred just before global success was to sweep in and mask, but not resolve, the pain.
“I was raped repeatedly when I was 19 years old,” Gaga told Oprah onstage at Fort Lauderdale. “I also developed PTSD as a result of being raped and also not processing that trauma. I did not have anyone help me. I did not have a therapist. I did not have a psychiatrist. I did not have a doctor help me through it.”
Tragically, Gaga said that the success she’d been working so hard for throughout her teens was to prove a barrier to her recovery. “I just all of a sudden became a star and was traveling the world, going from hotel room to garage to limo to stage, and I never dealt with it,” she revealed.
While experiencing a meteoric rise that most artists could only dream of, Gaga’s unresolved inner conflict was to manifest itself in self-harming. However, she didn’t want the act to define her. “I like to say I used to cut as opposed to I am a cutter,” she explained. Sadly, this wasn’t to be the only way she punished herself.
“I also used to throw myself against the wall,” Gaga continued. “I used to do some horrible things to myself when I was in pain. You see the blood, and then you feel chaotic, and then you spiral more out of control.”
“It is actually not helpful in any way. It is going to make your spiral worse,” Gaga added. “It will make the neurotic stage that you’re in something that is going to be prolonged instead of shortening the amount of time that you’re in it. [My mother and] I always say with the Born This Way Foundation, ‘Tell me, don’t show me [your pain].’”
The star and her mom set up the Born This Way Foundation in 2011 to help support the mental wellbeing of young people. Part of the reason for its creation was the tragic suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer. An anti-homophobia campaigner, he died after relentless bullying. The non-profit organization works to create a kinder and braver world.
For Gaga, the trauma of the rapes became like a physical illness, and her body was in “intense pain.” At the time, she chose to suppress it. “I just didn’t stop moving and working and dancing through insurmountable pain… It was so frustrating,” she told Oprah. “I was improperly medicated, and I wasn’t in therapy.”
Looking back now, Gaga doesn’t know how she survived. Clearly emotional, she described the experience to the chat show mogul. “I was afraid I was gonna die. I would say I lived that way for about five years,” Gaga recalled. “And I’d rather face that, those five years, because they made me who I am.”
Ultimately, however, physically she could take no more. Triggered by a court deposition, her body simply shut down. She spoke to Oprah about the terrifying experience. “This part of the brain where you stay centered and you don’t disassociate, right? It slammed down,” the singer admitted. “My whole body started tingling, and I started screaming.”
“I was in a hospital. It’s very difficult to describe what it feels like other than you first start to tingle from head to toe and then you go numb,” Gaga continued. “The brain goes, ‘That’s enough, I don’t want to think about this anymore.’ Boom. You break from reality as you know it.
“You have no concept of what’s going on around you. There is nothing wrong, but you are in a traumatic state,” Gaga added. “I remember going into hospital and screaming, ‘Why is no one else panicking!?’ They brought in a psychiatrist and I said, ‘Can you give me a real doctor?’ I mean, that’s how I was so separated from the world.”
Thankfully, though, the medic was able to help Gaga. “Once we started talking, he realized what had happened to me,” she recalled. “Then he ordered medication for me that I took, reluctantly at first. He became my psychiatrist and assembled a team for me. I went away to a place that I go to sometimes for a reboot. They took care of me, and we got all of the things lined up.”
In 2017 the singer also found out that she has fibromyalgia, a long-term illness that causes agony across the body. It’s a condition for which no cure presently exists, although symptoms can be managed. Gaga told Oprah that her doctor said she’d have to “radically accept” that she was going to be in pain all the time.
“I was like, “Are you kidding me? That’s how I’m going to heal, just by accepting that I’m going to feel awful all the time?’” Gaga explained. Thankfully, though, through a combination of anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, talk therapy and DBT therapy, as well as exercise and meditation, she’s currently able to live with her symptoms.
Moreover, Gaga’s use of medication isn’t something she’s ashamed of. During the one-to-one, Oprah asked what kept her getting up every day when she was in so much pain. Gaga pointed the audience and replied, “All of you… And faith, inspiration, hope. And also, I have to say it, I know this is controversial in a lot of ways, but medicine really helped me.
“I think a lot of people are afraid of medicine, for their brains, to help them,” Gaga added. “I really want to erase the stigma around this. I’m sick of saying this over and over again. What moves me… is that not everyone has access to these things. Not everyone has the money for these things.”
“I want the money for it. I want the best doctors in the world,” the singer continued. “I want us to understand the brain and all get on the same page about it so that Gen Z does not have to deal with this the way that we are right now. Mental health is a crisis.”
Gaga also touched on the fact that her creativity is not hampered by the medication. She opened up about the fact that her recovery has come from “medicine, therapy, DBT therapy, cognitive therapy and also… radical acceptance. I am sitting here… and I have radically accepted that I will put my shame in a box over there and make it very small.
Gaga added, “I will say to myself, ‘I have mental health issues, I take a lot of medication to stay on board, and I’m a survivor. I’m living and I’m surviving and I’m strong. I’m going to take all my life experiences and I’m going to share them with the world and make it a better place.’”
What’s more, the singer doesn’t wish her life had turned out another way. “This happened for a reason. All the things I’ve been through. I was supposed to go through this,” she told Oprah. “Even the rape. All of it. I radically accepted they happened because God was saying to me, “I’m gonna show you pain. And then you’re going to help other people who are in pain because you’re going to understand it.’”