"I've always been famous, it's just that nobody knew."
Born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta to affluent parents in Manhattan, the star-in-the making showed her potential early on – learning to play the piano at the tender age of four, and performing at open mic nights by 14. "I was always an entertainer," she acknowledges. "I was a ham as a little girl and I'm a ham today."
She attended the same private Catholic girls school as Paris and Nicky Hilton, and credits her schooling as something that helped her stand out from other blonde bombshells in the charts. "I went to a lovely school and I got an incredible education," she says. "And I actually think that my education is what really sets me apart, 'cos I'm very smart."
Though close to parents Joseph and Cynthia, Stefani risked losing their approval when they went to see one of her 'shock art' shows, which she started performing aged 18 in downtown New York burlesque clubs. "My father came to see shows when I was in leather thongs and didn't understand. He couldn't look at me for a few months," she admitted.
Her father inspired the song Speechless
, which she wrote as a plea for him to have vital heart surgery. Now he loves her work. "When [he] saw me getting better, [he] saw that my ideas were getting stronger. Now my father cries," she says.
So where did the strange Lady Gaga moniker come from? Producer Rob Fusari, who in 2010 launched legal proceedings against the star for alleged non-payment of merchandise and song royalties, claims to have helped Stefani strike upon the now-legendary stage name.
"Every day, when Stef came to the studio, instead of saying hello, I would start singing Radio Ga Ga
. That was her entrance song," he explained. "[Lady Gaga] was actually a glitch. I typed 'Radio Ga Ga' in a text and it did an autocorrect, so somehow 'Radio' got changed to 'Lady'. She texted me back, 'That's it.' After that day, she was Lady Gaga. She’s like, 'Don’t ever call me Stefani again'."
And so a star was born. While still performing on the New York club scene, the then 19-year-old signed a deal with Sony/ATV, and began writing songs for established acts such as Britney Spears, New Kids On The Block and The Pussycat Dolls. Meanwhile, she was working on her own debut album The Fame,
moving to Los Angeles and setting up the Haus of Gaga, the group that creates her eccentric costumes, performances and stage sets.
She launched her assault on the charts in April 2008 with single Just Dance
. It shot to number one in six countries, including the US and the UK, and transformed Lady Gaga into a tabloid favourite – her outlandish ensembles generating headlines across the globe. She followed it up with Poker Face
and Bad Romance
, chalking up number ones, award nominations and critical acclaim at every turn.
In 2010 she picked up two Grammy Awards and three Brit Awards to add to her already overflowing trophy cabinet. Prior to that she had scooped nine Billboard Music Awards, three MTV Video Music Awards and two NME Awards, among others.
The same year she unveiled Telephone
, her eagerly anticipated collaboration with diva Beyonce. The accompanying video, which involved scenes of lesbianism, prison and mass murder, racked up 17 million views on the internet in its first four days alone.
While her career and persona drew comparisons to that of queen of pop Madonna, by 2010 it seemed the singer's relentless work schedule had left her exhausted and fragile. "I always wanted to be a star," she's said. "It's in the marrow of my bones, how I feel about music and art. I sacrifice, bleed and am sleepless for my craft in a shameless and loving way."
That statement rang true when she collapsed on stage in New Zealand, removing part of her costume and lying flat on the stage to complete the show. She later blamed the breakdown on jet lag, but it left her adoring fans concerned for her wellbeing.
She's the most downloaded artist in internet history and in March 2010 sold out three concerts at Madison Square Garden in under an hour. "I don't wanna be one song. I wanna be the next 25 years of pop music," she's said.
At this rate, it looks like she may well get her wish.