How much do international celebrities owe the people who discover them?
That is the question at the heart of producer Rob Fusari's lawsuit against his former protégé and girlfriend Stefani Germanotta, otherwise known as Lady Gaga. According to a claim filed in New York State Supreme Court last week, Fusari plucked Germanotta from obscurity when she was floundering on the Lower East Side. From there, he steered her career, transformed her from a wannabe Fiona Apple to future queen of the dance charts, became her boyfriend, started a company with her that entitled him to 20 percent of her overall earnings, got her the record deal that would make her a star, and then was discarded almost as soon as the relationship between them went south.
“New York is a contract state,” says lawyer Eddie Hayes. “You signed it, you’re stuck with it. They agreed to pay him, they have to. In the end, they’ll settle.”
The claim has sent shockwaves through the music industry, as the 42-year-old Fusari, far from being some sort of bottom-feeding talent scout or has-been, is fairly well-regarded in the business. He may not be a producing superstar like Timbaland or David Foster, but he has worked for Destiny's Child, Jessica Simpson, Montell Jordan, and Will Smith.
The dispute also is a serious embarrassment for an artist whose mythology is built on the idea that she is sui generis, a triumph of creativity and individuality over marketing. Since Lady Gaga popped up in the summer of 2008 with her Grace Jones-meets-David Bowie-by-way-of-the-Muppets getups, she has sold herself as the essential outcast. The notion that she was born like some sort of disco Athena out of the head of a suburban New Jersey Zeus undermines her entire creation narrative.
So just who is Fusari and where did he come from? According to recent profiles in the Newark Star-Ledger, for the last few years, he has been living in Parsippany, New Jersey, near his childhood home. His studio is a converted doctor's office with walls covered in gold and platinum records. As a child, he was a piano prodigy, like Gaga, but his father was less than encouraging. According to Fusari, his father's last advice before he died was to give up music.
Instead, he went to William Paterson University, majored in music management, and spent much of the next decade floundering around.
In 1997, he co-wrote the Destiny's Child song "No, No, No" with his friend Vince Herbert and it went to No. 1 on the R&B charts. Later, he had a hand in "Bootylicious," another big song for the group.
Still, the music business was punishing. He did the No. 1 song "Wild Wild West" for Will Smith, but his name was left off the credits of the movie it appeared in. He wrote song after song for countless artists, and many weren't released.
As he saw it, Gaga was the artist who was going to change his life.
"[Fusari] discovered her, he gave her sound, they worked in the studio together every single day, and she's performed several of his songs," his lawyer Rob Meloni told The Daily Beast. "According to a contract she signed, he gets the share in four of [her albums], plus merchandising, and he's supposed to be producing a set number of tracks on each of those albums."
But Fusari says he's seen just two checks, one of which came with an agreement that if he cashed it, Gaga would no longer owe him any money and that the existing contract between them was null and void. "He's been frozen out and lost valuable income," Meloni said.
So he declined to cash the check and opted to take her to court.
Fusari's lawsuit contains six claims, five of them amounting to $5 million each, and a sixth amounting to $10 million. But Gaga has already countersued, claiming the agreement she entered into was unlawful because Fusari was not a licensed talent agent and therefore is not legally entitled to her earnings.
Meloni says he is not worried, arguing that the statute Gaga's lawyers are relying on is seldom used in court and probably won't fly with a judge.
"Their claim is ludicrous," he said. "They used a statute that never gets used and didn't even address our lawsuit in their claim."
Three other prominent lawyers with expertise in contract law and the entertainment business told The Daily Beast that Gaga will likely wind up settling, perhaps for a substantial amount of money.
Eddie Hayes, who has represented celebrities including Robert De Niro and Anna Wintour, said: "New York is a contract state. You signed it, you're stuck with it. They agreed to pay him, they have to. In the end, they'll settle."
Said another, who requested anonymity because his company does business with people connected to Gaga: "When these things happen, you generally give the person money to go away, but forget the numbers they're talking about."
According to Fusari's lawsuit, the producer first became acquainted with Germanotta in March 2006, when she performed a set at a downtown club called The Cutting Room.
While there, she bumped into a fellow singer named Wendy Starland, who was friends with Fusari and knew he was looking for a young singer to front a group that he saw as a female version of The Strokes.
Starland arranged a meeting and within days, Germanotta was at the Port Authority, getting on a bus to Parsippany. As he tells it in his lawsuit, it was not love at first sight. For one, Fusari says Germanotta was a "guidette," more like a cast member of Jersey Shore than the next Jack White.
But Germanotta sat down at the piano, and according to the claim, Fusari realized within seconds that she had "star potential."
They began working together daily, and soon after that, she scored a record deal with Island/Def Jam. (Fusari now claims it was he who first introduced Germanotta to Josh Sarubin, the executive who signed her. She also hired a manager named Laurent Besencon, who was also Fusari's manager. Sarubin and Besencon did not respond to inquiries from The Daily Beast.)
Perhaps more significantly, Fusari helped come up with Germanotta's famous stage name, which was inspired by Queen's hit "Radio Gaga," a song he played for her constantly. "I didn't name myself," the future Lady Gaga later told the Canadian newspaper 24 Hours. "My producer Rob Fusari used to call me that in the studio."
For several weeks, they tried writing rock songs, then agreed to switch gears, moving into dance music with a track called "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich." It had an up-tempo, hip-hop influence and helped set the stage for what the Gaga sound was to become.
One of the central claims of Fusari's lawsuit is that if he had not pressured her to change her music style, she might never have become such a star.
But that's not quite how Gaga sees it. She told Rolling Stone last May: "It was like a baby becoming a toddler—at a certain point, I smelled my own shit and I didn't like it."
Regardless of their agreement to change her image, relations between Gaga and Fusari began to deteriorate, particularly after she was dropped by her label.
According to Fusari, Gaga became "verbally abusive" and he decided to end the romantic part of their relationship. Meanwhile, Besencon, the manager who was playing both sides of the fence, set Gaga up with a producer named Red One, with whom she wrote her two breakout hits, "Just Dance" and "Poker Face."
"As a result," the suit says, "Fusari soon found himself being involuntarily relegated… to the fringe on all musical creative decisions being made on behalf of Germanotta."
Nevertheless, Fusari continued to champion her, he says. According to the suit, he even "approached" his old friend, Vincent Herbert, whose company Streamline Records was distributed through Interscope, an arm of NBC/Universal and perhaps the most successful label in music today. From there, Germanotta was introduced to Jimmy Iovine, the company's chairman and legendary producer and entrepreneur.
But it didn't help, the producer's suit says. "Fusari found that he was being frozen out of the negotiations that were taking place [with] Interscope."
In August 2008, Interscope released Gaga's debut album, The Fame, which went on to sell more than 8 million copies worldwide.
Fusari received two big checks, the first for more than $200,000 and the second for $394,965. On the back of the second, immediately beneath the endorser's signature line was a sentence that allegedly read: "Endorsed In Accord And Satisfaction Of All Sums Due To Undersigned."
"By adding this endorsement to the back of the check," Fusari's suit claims, "Defendants had attempted to trick plaintiff into depositing said check and thereby settle all outstanding debts due him."
Early this year, Fusari went to see one of Gaga's sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall and acknowledged to the Star-Ledger afterward that he couldn't exactly take credit for her kooky outfits and Yoko Ono-like performance antics. "It's over my head," he told the paper.
But the nuances of her stage persona are not all that important, his lawyer says. What matters is that Fusari discovered her. "Can you say with certainty that she would have become an international superstar without him?" Meloni says. "She didn't have people beating down her door. She didn't even have real representation. You say, 'Of course she would have been discovered.' That's absolute bullshit. There are so many people who are talented and haven't been."
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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.