Like Lon Chaney, the great silent actor known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, Lady Gaga has traversed roles, from music to fashion to film to politics, transmuting with creative fluidity but remaining – sometimes with defiance – the girl next door.
Last week, the 34-year-old star – days after retrieving her two French bulldogs from a dognapping in which her walker was shot and injured – posted a photo of herself beside actor Adam Driver in which she was wearing a white fur hat and was draped in gold jewellery. It was a publicity shot from Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, a forthcoming film based on the story of Patrizia Reggiani, aka the Black Widow (played by Gaga), who married – and later had killed – Maurizio Gucci, head of the luxury fashion house.
More than a 10th of Gaga’s 40 million Instagram followers “hearted” the picture, not to speak of her 84 million followers on Twitter, and 56 million on Facebook. The legions of “Little Monsters”, as Gaga fans are called, that first adopted her as a transnational symbol of authenticity and inclusivity are numerous. She used them to launch an Amazon cosmetics line, Haus Laboratories, that draws inspiration from her early days as an aspiring singer with a quirky, powerful presence on stage in the clubs of downtown New York.
“Colour is completely transformative – it’s powerful, it’s beautiful, and it’s how I found my voice with makeup,” the singer told a trade magazine last year. Asked if she would ever bend her values to commercial proposes, she responded flatly: “The answer is no. No deal. No message of self-acceptance, no deal.”
But while Gaga’s cosmetics line could turn her $274m fortune into a billion dollar one, Gaga’s voice itself remains key. It’s carried her through numerous albums – and an intimate Academy Awards performance of the song Shallow (from her Oscar-nominated turn in A Star is Born) with Bradley Cooper; a rendition of the US national anthem at Joe Biden’s inauguration in January; and a concert to celebrate Apple’s new starship headquarters in Cupertino.
All told, noted Dorian Lynsky in the Guardian in 2011, “few popular music-makers … have managed to create new codes embracing sexual ambiguity, sartorial flair, harlequin games”. Gaga, Lynsky wrote, was “a chameleon and visionary, a singer and composer, a musician and dancer, [who] has brought the notion of art, a tantalising blend of high concept and trash aesthetic, back to the tired halls of the Top 40.”
But that was a decade ago. In the intervening years, Gaga – whose real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta – has become something more. “Lady Gaga is our generation’s Barbra Streisand,” Evelyn McDonnell, author of Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, told the Observer. At least in terms of having a huge music career, and now a huge movie career, and doing the inauguration, in which she seemed to be channelling Streisand.”
“She has that quirky signature that Streisand has in Funny Girl, a huge fanbase in the LBGTQ community, and also the political activism,” says McDonnell. “There are a lot of parallels there, but Lady Gaga is also coming out of a different era of punk and techno.”
The Gaga phenomenon then – she of a thousand faces and who once claimed “I would rather die than have my fans not see me in a pair of high heels” – shows no signs of slowing: she is merely moving to a new platform.
She has knack of knowing who to call on. By some accounts, her former creative director – and former beau – Matthew Williams, now creative director of Givenchy, helped Gaga harness her original shape-shifting persona. At various times, she’s called on top fashion photographers and video directors such as Jonas Åkerlund, who filmed the promo for her song Paparazzi, among others, to help summon the Gaga muse.
Working with Blade Runner director Ridley Scott is only the latest sortie. According to Vanity Fair, Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio were once rumoured to be up for House of Gucci; at another juncture, Penelope Cruz was headed for the lead role.
The plot follows Reggiani, an Italian socialite, who married Gucci, the twentysomething grandson of Gucci founder Guccio Gucci, in 1972. The couple became a staple item in Italian newspapers. Reggiani, often in dark sunglasses and gaudy jewellery, looked “like a Milanese Elizabeth Taylor,” according to Vogue.
Lady Gucci, as she became known, became famous for her lifestyle and the bills that came due with it. She sailed the Caribbean on her 200ft yacht or to the only non-Italian Gucci store on Gozo. At peak spending, she managed £9,000 a month on orchids. And she furnished the public with some memorable sayings, such as: “I would rather weep in a Rolls-Royce than be happy on a bicycle.” After being convicted of hiring a hitman to kill her now ex-husband, Maurizio, she was asked why she hadn’t shot him herself. She replied: “I didn’t want to miss.”
For Gaga, the options are open. Based in LA, the ex-New Yorker finds herself at the centre of progressive political power, thanks in part to Kamala Harris’s deep roots in the music business, via her entertainment business husband Doug Emhoff. Gaga, like Streisand before her, travels in the company of showbusiness and political society, from Michelle and Barack Obama in Rancho Mirage, to Bel-Air’s Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and the Oprah-Sussex enclave of Montecito.
“I think it’s about who she is. It’s about being queer, but not in a sexual way, and not being straight and proud of the way you are,” says McDonnell. “She comes out of a multi-sexual and multicultural club environment – the New York environment. It’s that Funny Girl thing, but in an extreme form.”