Once again, Lady Gaga has proven she is the queen of her own castle, now adding Haus Laboratories, her makeup line, to groundbreaking accomplishments in music and film. In a recent meeting of the first-name-only-required greats, Gaga spoke to Oprah, the original multifaceted female mogul and an early champion of emotional well-being, about her exponential career path and her battles with mental health issues.
The two women consider it a personal quest to lift the stigma and shame that can surround mental illness, and the role that each has played in opening up the global dialogue is undeniable: Oprah teamed up with Prince Harry earlier this year to create a documentary series exploring the issue (out in 2020), and Gaga was invited to meet with Prince William in London to discuss mental health initiatives they could work on together, but was unable to attend as she needed to be with her doctors. Here, Gaga opens up to her hero about her personal growth from both pain and kindness.
Oprah: I first interviewed you almost 10 years ago in 2010 on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and I could see then and feel, energetically, you blossoming into yourself. You were at this moment where you were wide open to your own self-discovery and self-expression. How have you become more of yourself in the past 10 years?
Lady Gaga: I think as my career has grown and changed and I’ve done different things, I’ve become very mindful of my position in the world and my responsibility to humanity and to those who follow me. And I consider myself to be a kindness punk. I look back at everything I’ve done, and I look at what I’m doing now, and punks, you know, have a sort of reputation for being rebellious, right? So for me, I really view my career, and even what I’m doing now, as a rebellion against all the things in the world that I see to be unkind. Kindness heals the world. Kindness heals people. It’s what brings us together—it’s what keeps us healthy.
When you look back on the past 10 years, at what moment do you feel that you were most able to express that kindness heals all things?
I think it really started with my relationship with my fans. Looking out into the audience and seeing so many people who were like me, people who felt different, who didn’t feel seen or understood. And then also seeing a lot of kids who felt afraid to be open about who they were, it became sort of an existential experience for me, where I thought about what it means to be an individual—I wanted to fight for those individuals. I actually said this the other day on social media. I said, “I didn’t do this for fame, I did it for impact.” And that’s the truth. I recognized very early on that my impact was to help liberate people through kindness. I mean, I think it’s the most powerful thing in the world, particularly in the space of mental illness.
Have you known that since you were at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and dropped out after a year, and then pretended to be your own manager and hauled your keyboard from gig to gig—you knew it then, right?
Well, that was a bit cunning. I don’t know that that was completely kind. But I learned from my mom, Oprah. When I would come home from school, if I was bullied, she would always say, “Kill them with kindness.” And maybe “kill them” is an aggressive way of saying it, but, you know, she meant it in the kindest of ways. What she meant was, “Don’t fight fire with fire; fight fire with water.”
I want to say I think the thing that you have done the most with, and the best, in a way that now the whole world is sort of coming to understand—we see it all through social media—was starting the Born This Way Foundation. You were making a statement to people that however you are is how you’re supposed to be. I want to know what advice you have for people who are still afraid to be themselves, who are living a false life.
I think I would say that, truthfully, it’s not false. If you are not yet out in the open about who you are, I would have compassion for yourself that you’re not ready yet, and take steps every day.
That really is kind.
You know, it’s very easy to say to someone, “Be brave,” but it’s not so easy to practice. I mean, if you feel shame for who you are, and you don’t feel supported by people around you, you’re afraid. Shame is powerful. But give yourself time. Allow yourself to take little bites every day. That’s what I would say: Take little bites of bravery. I wouldn’t say it’s a false life. I would say that’s a reality, and that reality can change. That’s actually also why I made Haus Laboratories, truthfully.
Let’s talk about this. What made you feel ready to become a beauty entrepreneur?
I wanted to do it because (a), I had the time—I wanted to put everything into it, which I do with everything that I do. I don’t just put a company together, hire a staff, and have them do it. I said this the other night at our launch: “My fingerprints are all over this. It’s a crime scene.” And (b), I felt that I had the platform and had built the foundation around what I stand for, so that when this company came out, it would be a rebellion in a kind way against the status quo of beauty as it is today, which is in many ways on social media, a competition. It’s a beauty pageant in a lot of ways. This company exists in an influential space in culture where we say, “Our Haus. Your Rules.” And everyone is welcome—all gender identities.
So that’s the mission of the line, to be inclusive of all gender identities?
All gender identities, all racial identities, everyone, every age. This is for everyone.
Aren’t you constantly amazed at the power beauty has to uplift people? I just remember being in a hospital where women were getting their fistulas mended in Ethiopia and we were handing out lipsticks, and they were literally trying to crawl out of bed to get to them.
It’s very powerful, and I felt so just not beautiful when I was young, and when I left college, my parents were not very pleased with me at the time. I said I wanted to be a musician. I worked three jobs, paid my own rent, and went to the drugstore to buy makeup. I experimented with color, and I looked at myself in the mirror, and I literally made myself. I invented Lady Gaga. And it made me feel strong, it made me feel powerful. I’ve suffered from depression since I was a little girl, but oh my goodness, the superhero that flew out of me, it was like Clark Kent and Superman—it gave me wings to fly. And that’s also why I refused to change. As my career progressed, even before I was famous, when people would say, “Oh, the makeup, there’s too much makeup. It’s over the top, blah, blah, blah,” I would be like, “This is my life force. This is what helps me fly.”
I’m wondering, Do you still feel pressure to constantly outdo yourself? Is it a shackle on you in any way?
Not anymore. I used to, though. Oprah, I’ve got to level with you 100 percent: I used to try to wrap my brain as heavy as I could around what I could do to…. Instead of being shocking (I used to say “shock art” or “performance art”), I would use the word “bemuse,” which is basically putting the audience in a state of confusion where they can’t look away. I used to just go, “What am I going to do next to get people’s attention?”
After the meat dress, did you feel that way: “Where do I go from here?”
Well, the meat dress, quite frankly, I didn’t think it was going to be as shocking to everyone as it was. But that’s just me. I have a sort of eccentric brain, so for me, I was like, Of course this makes sense. I’m showing up to make a statement about “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” I went to the event with soldiers who were discharged from the army because they were out, or they were found out, and to me, if you’re willing to give up your life for your country, does it matter what your sexual orientation is or what your gender identity is? For me, it was like, “Flesh is flesh,” so that was the intention of the meat dress. For me, that wasn’t shocking; it was shocking to the world. And I have to say, it was quite recently—after doing A Star Is Born, and working with Bradley Cooper, and my experience even with winning an Oscar—I sort of just went to myself, “You have a much greater mission on this earth than to freak the hell out of people. Your mission is to give people a form of love through your art that lifts them up.”
I have to ask you one question about Bradley. I was sitting in Bradley’s kitchen the other day, and he was taking care of his daughter, and we ordered takeout, and it was just wonderful to see him lean into the dad thing.
He’s a beautiful father.
Isn’t he a beautiful father? He’s all the way in. We were talking about all the rumors about you guys last year. He said if they had been true, he never would have been able to look you in the eye sitting at that piano.
He said his Catholic guilt would have never let him be able to look you in the eye at that piano. How did you feel about all of that at the time? You handled it so well.
Quite frankly, I think the press is very silly. I mean, we made a love story. For me, as a performer and as an actress, of course we wanted people to believe that we were in love. And we wanted people to feel that love at the Oscars. We wanted it to go right through the lens of that camera and to every television that it was being watched on. And we worked hard on it, we worked for days. We mapped the whole thing out—it was orchestrated as a performance.
You were orchestrating it as a performance to evoke exactly what it did.
It did. In truth, when we talked about it, we went, “Well, I guess we did a good job!”
So well received. You put so much energy into that film, and then it became one of the biggest movies of the year. What was it like when it was all over? How did you say goodbye to the character of Ally and the whole experience?
Well, actually, the character of Ally stayed with me for a long time. I had to relive a lot of my career doing that role. I don’t know how you feel when you’ve acted, but for me, I don’t view it as filming a movie. I film it as living the character, and it’s a moment in my life, so I relived it all again, and it took a long time for it to go away. When I won the Oscar for “Shallow,” I looked at it, and a reporter asked me, “When you look at that Oscar, what do you see?” And I said, “I see a lot of pain.” And I wasn’t lying in that moment. I was raped when I was 19 years-old, repeatedly. I have been traumatized in a variety of ways by my career over the years from many different things, but I survived, and I’ve kept going. And when I looked at that Oscar, I saw pain. I don’t know that anyone understood it when I said it in the room, but I understood it.
The pain that you had taken to get there. Because when you’re raped, particularly repeatedly and at that age, you would have PTSD for years about that.
I have PTSD. I have chronic pain. Neuropathic pain trauma response is a weekly part of my life. I’m on medication; I have several doctors. This is how I survive. But you know what, Oprah? I kept going, and that kid out there or even that adult out there who’s been through so much, I want them to know that they can keep going, and they can survive, and they can win their Oscar. I would also beckon to anyone to try, when they feel ready, to ask for help. And I would beckon to others that if they see someone suffering, to approach them and say, “Hey, I see you. I see that you’re suffering, and I’m here. Tell me your story.”
Which is the greatest gift I think we can give each other. I mean, that’s why I think Avatar and James Cameron is one of the wizards of our generation: because of that message, “I see you.” There is nothing more powerful than that.
There really isn’t. I’ve actually not opened up very much about this, but I think it’s an important thing for people to know and hear: I was a cutter for a long time, and the only way that I was able to stop cutting and self-harming myself was to realize that what I was doing was trying to show people that I was in pain instead of telling them and asking for help. When I realized that telling someone, “Hey, I am having an urge to hurt myself,” that defused it. I then had someone next to me saying, “You don’t have to show me. Just tell me: What are you feeling right now?” And then I could just tell my story. I say that with a lot of humility and strength; I’m very grateful that I don’t do it anymore, and I wish to not glamorize it. One thing that I would suggest to people who struggle with trauma response or self-harm issues or suicidal ideation is actually ice. If you put your hands in a bowl of ice-cold water, it shocks the nervous system, and it brings you back to reality.
Have you also used DBT therapy?
I actually have a teacher; I take dialectical behavioral therapy. I think that DBT is a wonderful, wonderful way to deal with mental health issues.
I ask because I’ve had so many girls at my school [the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa] struggle with this.
It’s a really strong way of learning how to live, and it’s a guide to understanding your emotions.
It needs to be a much bigger conversation. I want to know, What did you once believe was insurmountable, and in the end, you realized, the solution was so easy?
I once believed that there was no way back from my trauma. I really did. I was in physical, mental, and emotional pain. And medicine works, but you need medicine with the therapy for it to really work, because there’s a part that you have to do yourself.
Is this suffering from your fibromyalgia?
It is. Although there are many different theories about fibromyalgia—for me, my fibromyalgia and my trauma response kind of go hand in hand. The fibro for me is a lighter pain; the trauma response is much heavier and actually feels the way I felt after I was dropped on a street corner after I’d been raped repeatedly for months. It’s a recurring feeling. So I had a psychotic break at one point, and it was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me. I was brought to the ER to urgent care and they brought in the doctor, a psychiatrist. So I’m just screaming, and I said, “Could somebody bring me a real doctor?” And I didn’t understand what was going on, because my whole body went numb; I fully dissociated. I was screaming, and then he calmed me down and gave me medication for when that happens—olanzapine.
I’m familiar with it. I have hundreds of girls, so there’s nothing you can tell me I haven’t been through or experienced.
Yeah, so I take methocarbamol, and olanzapine, which is probably the most important—it helped me that day, and that man and all my friends, they saved my life.
This is my last question: What do you believe life is asking of us?
I believe life is asking of us to accept the challenge. Accept the challenge of kindness. It’s hard in a world the way that we are; we have a very, very grave history. We’re in trouble, and we have been before. But I think life asks us amid these challenges, this hatred, this tragedy, this famine, this war, this cruelty: Can you be kind and can you survive?
Styled by Tom Erebout and Sandra Amador; Hair by Frederic Aspiras for Joico; makeup by Sarah Tanno for Haus Laboratories; manicure by Miho Okawara for Miho Nails; produced by Joy Asbury at Joy Asbury Productions.
To hear the full interview listen to Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations podcast available now.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of ELLE.