Maybe you watched the trailer for “A Star Is Born,” and thought, huh, that’s weird. We’re supposed to believe that Lady Gaga lacks the confidence to sing her own songs, or that she is unattractive, and, therefore, she couldn’t have a singing career?
If so, you’re not alone.
The movie, which opened Friday and stars writer-director Bradley Cooper alongside Lady Gaga, is the fourth take on “A Star Is Born.” Previous incarnations followed a similar plot — a famous troubled man discovers an immensely talented woman, they fall in love, she goes from a nobody to a sensation overnight while he battles his demons. This version, however, departs from previous ones in the emotional dynamics between the two leads.
“Almost every single person has told me they like the way I sounded, but they don’t like the way I look,” Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, says in the film’s trailer.
As we all know, Lady Gaga is one of the world’s biggest pop stars. Unabashedly performing in elaborate costumes (meat dress!) and putting on eye-popping stunts (Super Bowl halftime show, anyone?) is her thing. She’s a killer songwriter, too. So it feels a little ludicrous that she wouldn’t sing her own songs — as Ally also says in the trailer — or would be told she could never make it as a musician because the way she looks.
But Gaga has said she relates a lot to the character she plays.
“When I see myself in this film, I see so much of myself when I was younger, when I did not believe in myself, when I was bullied in school, I felt ugly, and my only escape was music,” she said last month on the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival. “And that’s why I started to sing and write songs and act, because I wanted an escape from all of that pain.”
Born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, she learned to play the piano at age 4, and by 14 she was performing at open mic nights in her hometown of New York City. She also took acting classes in Lee Strasberg’s method and was cast in student productions while attending an all-girls Catholic school.
In later interviews, she mentioned being bullied, including the time a group of boys threw her into a New York City trash can. “I don’t think I realized how deeply bullying affected me until later in life,” she said in a 2011 MTV documentary.
At 17, she received early admission at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, but she dropped out to try to make a go of it as a musician, playing Lower East Side clubs and getting signed to Def Jam Records, only to be dropped several months later. She’d eventually sign on with Interscope, writing songs for the Pussycat Dolls, Britney Spears and New Kids on the Block.
“She was young, skinny, and blonde, but she had a prominent Italian nose, the kind of nose that rarely survives on a starlet,” reads a 2010 profile in New York Magazine.
According to the profile, Gaga at one point believed her label didn’t think she was pretty enough, and one day at the Beauty Bar in New York, she told friend Brendan Sullivan, also known as DJ VH1: “I’m getting a nose job. I’m going to get a new nose, and I’m moving to L.A., and I’m going to be huge.”
Sullivan told the outlet that he pleaded with her to be reasonable, and he described Andy Warhol’s “Before and After I,” which depicts two noses (one with rhinoplasty) with the word “raped” on top. Gaga went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see it (Warhol also influences her approach to music and art).
The rapper Akon then met Gaga. Impressed by her vocal talent and the persona she had cultivated, Akon signed her to his imprint on Interscope as a singer. Her debut album, “The Fame,” became her breakout.
Others parts of Gaga’s biography directly influenced “A Star Is Born.” Jackson Maine (Cooper) meets Ally in a drag bar, where she’s the only woman who performs. In the scene, she’s singing “La Vie en Rose.”
“I would often say to Lady Gaga, ‘This is a movie about what would have happened if you didn’t make it until you were 31 instead of 21,’ ” Cooper told Vogue. “We talked a lot about where she started on the Lower East Side, and she told me about this drag bar where she used to hang, and I thought, Oh, this is just ripe for the story.”
For much the movie, Gaga sheds all that Lady Gaga-ness and instead becomes the vulnerable, raw and guarded Ally. And despite her ability to relate to Ally, Gaga has also said that “she’s very different than I was."
“I mean, when I was 19 years old and I decided — you know, my friends were calling me Gaga when I was out singing in clubs, and I was like, ‘I’m going to be Lady Gaga' — I knew I had something to say. I wanted to say it,” Gaga told Stephen Colbert last week. “I wanted to knock on every door. I was dragging my keyboard around New York City, banging on everyone’s door. I was pretending to be my own manager to get gigs.”
Gaga continued: “I just was working it and doing everything I could. I really believed in myself, but my character in this film, Ally, she’s not that way. She’s in her 30s, and she’s given up. She doesn’t believe in herself.”
Ally is “incredibly insecure, and she’s lacking in self-confidence,” Gaga said. “And it’s meeting Jackson, or Jack, as she calls him in the film, it’s his love for her and his belief in her that gives her wings to fly.”
Those are wings that Lady Gaga discovered long, long ago.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of “A Star Is Born” iterations.