Before Lady Gaga became the goddess of weird, she was a bit of a geek.
Or so says her mother. As a teenager, Gaga was so studious at the private Catholic school she attended in Manhattan—the Convent of the Sacred Heart—her friends would get mad at her for not being more fun, says her mother, Cynthia Germanotta. “She was always extremely driven, extremely hardworking. If she had to go to a voice lesson and her friends wanted to hang out, they wouldn’t always understand,” she says. “With her, it was a passion. Not a hobby.”
Germanotta’s motherly advice: “Stay the course, but develop some sense of balance.”
Today, mother and daughter are launching a nonprofit group, called the Born This Way Foundation, which aims to mentor kids in self-confidence and careers, while combating bullying.
As for whether Gaga herself was ever bullied, her mother recalls one anxiety-ridden weekend that became a defining moment. Her daughter, whose given name is Stefani Germanotta, was “purposefully not invited” to a party one weekend by some of her classmates, her mother says. “On Monday, they asked her what she did over the weekend, knowing full well that she knew about the party. It comes down to meanness and cruelty,” she says. “Exclusion is a form of that.”
She adds, “We had a long conversation about it. We talked about how it affected her, about how important it is to be inclusive. She was always one to include people, sitting with new people in school at lunch.”
Germanotta is quick to note that the focus of her new foundation is on “kindness, not meanness,” saying that “bullying is almost overused in the media.” The group plans to partner with three other groups—Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the MacArthur Foundation, and the California Endowment to Empower Youth—to help educate kids, Germanotta says, by connecting Gaga’s fan base with the programs the groups have started.
Tragedies like the school shooting in Ohio this week deeply sadden her, Germanotta says, adding, “It just feels senseless to me.” She says, “I hope that ultimately, we can help people develop much stronger respect for their fellow man. That’s what troubles me the most. It will take time.”
She says this project has long been a family goal. “We always talked about doing something together, giving back,” she says. “As my daughter’s career took off, we started having more serious conversations about it. It wasn’t so much a ‘decision’ as something we always wanted to do.”
She says she is not at all surprised by her daughter’s chart-topping success and wacky style, raw-meat dresses and all. “We just allowed her to follow her creativity,” she says. “Generally, I was pretty independent and driven myself. We’re like that as a family. Our mentality is to be strong.” Germanotta, a career telecom executive who is married to Gaga’s father, Joseph, an Internet entrepreneur, also has a younger daughter, Natali, currently a fashion student.
Gaga attended New York University after high school, but left after a year to pursue her music career. She played in a band around town and experimented with burlesque shows, go-go dancing, and performance art, adopting the name Lady Gaga along the way. Her first international hit came in 2009 with Just Dance, followed by Poker Face. She has since won five Grammy Awards. She turns 26 next month.
“She’s a great businesswoman,” her mother says. “I think I’m learning from her now."
She and Gaga will kick off their foundation on the Harvard University campus this afternoon, with Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra in tow. Also in attendance: a “Born Brave” bus, Germanotta says, that will follow Gaga’s own tour bus across the country in coming months, offering kids at each stop a place to connect.
One thing you won’t see at the launch party: Gaga—or her mama—emerging from an egg. Says Germanotta, “I can unequivocally say that the only thing that will be born today is the foundation.”