There is a lot of hair in the room and very little of it belongs to me. Grande dame of pop Cyndi Lauper and her current chart-topping successor Lady Gaga are here to launch lipsticks, but they make a great advert for hairspray. Cyndi has a touch of the Bride of Frankenstein about her, a streak of red running like a vein through a bird’s nest of platinum blond. It’s a formidable thatch, but sorry, Cyndi, no one can compete with Gaga.
As a journalist, having words fail you is a sackable offence, but Gaga’s hair almost defies description. One section is left down, blond locks streaked with bright yellow, but at the back of her head there nestles a blackish, Christmas-pudding shaped hairpiece. This is all crowned by what could loosely be called a hat, in the form of a black-lacquer creation that looks like someone has dipped a giant cabbage in an oil slick and balanced it on her head. It appears to melt down her face as an eye mask.
Gaga’s clothes are, for her, almost restrained – a black lace bodysuit fitted with signature pointy shoulder pads and patent platforms. Altogether it really shouldn’t work, but it does – a logic-defying and thus typically Gaga coup de théâtre.
‘This [her lace bodysuit] is actually a dress that I pinned to make it look like a leotard,’ she says. ‘It was a gift from the Pet Shop Boys. They had their costume designer make it for me. And the hat is by Charlie Le Mindu. My shoes are from a sex shop and so are my lace tights. Since we’re talking about sex today it’s kind of appropriate!’
The sex to which she’s referring is specifically of the safe variety. We are gathered here in a wood-panelled room of a Mayfair club to talk about Gaga and Cyndi’s ‘From Our Lips’ campaign. The pitch is simple: punters buy either of their new Mac lipsticks and the full purchase price goes to the Mac Aids Fund. Viva Glam Cyndi, Cyndi’s signature lippie, is a sheer coral red. When we meet she is wearing it, but admits that her lunch has taken its toll. ‘I’ve eaten the lipstick off right now.’
Viva Glam Gaga is a baby pink, and it comes with a story: ‘There was this colour I used to wear when I was living in downtown New York called Pink Nouveau. It was a bright, toxic, neon pink. I was 18 and singing and a complete unknown, so didn’t have much money to buy lots of nice make-up. Pink Nouveau was my “ta-da!” lipstick, the one thing that made me feel more famous than I was. So I asked the guys at Mac to make something that was derived from that.’
Whatever you think of the colours, you can’t quibble with the cause. Today, in spite of the stereotype of Aids as a gay men’s disease, women worldwide are more likely to become infected with HIV than men, and while the overall rate of HIV infections has slowed, the number of women infected with it is growing. By selling lippie and raising awareness, Gaga and Cyndi hope to do something about it.
‘The rate of infection worldwide is higher than ever for women in our particular demographic,’ says Gaga. ‘Those most at risk are women in my age bracket, 17 to 24 [she is 24], and Cyndi’s, which is 38 to 60 [Cyndi is 56]. Part of the problem is that women in those groups are not getting tested. Here in the UK, for example, the statistics are that 73 per cent of women have not been tested for HIV. This is a disease that affects everyone, not just the gay community, and right now it’s mostly affecting women.’
The message that they want to get across is simple. ‘There’s no negotiation in the bedroom any more about using a condom,’ says Cyndi. ‘You have to protect yourself.’
‘Or,’ chips in Gaga, ‘and I can’t believe I’m saying this – don’t have sex. I’m single right now and I’ve chosen to be single because I don’t have the time to get to know anybody. So it’s OK not to have sex, it’s OK to get to know people. I’m celibate, celibacy’s fine.’
In light of some of her past sartorial choices, statements (‘I just sleep with the guys in the band because it’s easier,’ she once said) and song lyrics (‘The way you’re twirlin’ up them hips, there’s no reason at all why you can’t leave here with me…’), it might seem odd to hear Lady Gaga preaching restraint, but to be fair to her, what she’s really advocating is a woman’s right to choose.
‘Something I do want to celebrate with my fans is that it’s OK to be whomever it is that you want to be. You don’t have to have sex to feel good about yourself, and if you’re not ready, don’t do it.’ (‘And if you are ready,’ she adds, ‘there are free condoms given away at my concerts when you’re leaving!’)
What it’s about, she concludes, is having the confidence to stick to your guns. ‘I remember the cool girls when I was growing up. Everyone started to have sex. But it’s not really cool any more to have sex all the time. It’s cooler to be strong and independent.’
Strength and independence are what both Gaga and Cyndi have in spades – in spite of a 30-year age gap, they are both girls who wanna have fun, glam it up, be themselves. Mac clearly has the right faces for its campaign. Cyndi is an 80s icon who became famous at the same time as the Aids epidemic was beginning to take hold. ‘I lost a lot of friends in the 80s and 90s and it was a big heartbreak – I can’t just stand by,’ she says.
Her biggest hit was, of course, ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’, which became something of a feminist anthem and spoke about exactly the kind of female empowerment that, 26 years later, means Lady Gaga can 1) call herself Lady Gaga and no one minds (her real name is Stefani Germanotta), and 2) wear outfits that are brazen as well as just plain bizarre and still be taken seriously – to the tune of eight million albums and two Grammys.
Gaga herself (Cyndi calls her just ‘Ga’, by the way) is obviously cut from the same cloth, whether the cloth is fishnets or PVC. Born and raised in relative comfort on the Upper West Side of Manhattan by an internet entrepreneur and his business-partner wife, Gaga went to the exclusive Convent of the Sacred Heart, a private Catholic school on which the teen series Gossip Girl is reputed to be based. At 17 she won a place at the Tisch School of the Arts, equivalent to our own Brit School talent crèche.
‘When you’re in the public eye, you’re a role model whether you want to be or not. And I want to be’
By the time she was 20, she had a record deal and was writing songs for Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls. Two years later, her second single ‘Poker Face’ had reached number one in six countries. But although she was brought up in privileged Manhattan, her real schooling was in the gay club scene on the Lower East Side, where she morphed from a talented pianist into a synth-pop princess. It was the same scene that Cyndi, also a New Yorker, had worked. ‘Cyndi is a lot of my inspiration,’ says Gaga.
What unites them, as their dress sense and big hair suggest, is that they have both made being different their stock in trade. In among the tweeny poppers such as Miley Cyrus, Gaga represents the outsiders in a way that indie rock used to do. ‘I don’t feel that I look like the other perfect little pop singers,’ she says. ‘I think I’m changing what people think is sexy.’
She says that she has ‘no friends’ in the music industry, despite the fact that everyone from Cheryl Cole to Sharon Osbourne showed up to watch her recent performances at the O2 in London. She also wowed the Brits this year, taking home three awards and performing a medley in a Philip Treacy headdress that was, inevitably, the most-talked-about wardrobe choice of the night. But she still doesn’t quite feel accepted: ‘I didn’t speak to anyone at the Brits. I have no friends in the music industry.’
Well, she has one. ‘It’s great with Ga,’ says Cyndi. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but with you I never have to worry about being the geek! A lot of people find me too …different. I speak differently, my sense of glamour is not theirs, and they have a problem with me because I say what I think. It’s nice because she’s a partner in crime now. We’re two geeks!’
As if to prove that Gaga also says what she thinks, at this point she suddenly chimes in. A previous interviewer has riled her and she has something she wants to say. ‘We were asked really sort of snidely if we think that promoting make-up to young people – like ten years old – is a bit much. It’s exactly that kind of mentality that I want to challenge.’
Gaga doesn’t think that promoting make-up to young girls is harmful. She recalls how, when she was little, putting on make-up with her mother was a rite of passage that made them closer. ‘My mother wearing lipstick and me putting on lipstick when I was little was this moment for us. Because make-up is not anything other than a woman’s sense of her femininity. It’s something that brings a tremendous amount of strength. The stereotype that make-up is a superficial thing is wrong.’
Cyndi is right behind her. ‘Yeah, Ga. It’s a visualisation of how you feel.’ Ga is not done yet. ‘The assumption that make-up is something on the outside is wrong. It comes from within. If you feel like an outsider, a geek, you can celebrate yourself.’
Whether or not you agree with Gaga, she plainly feels that what she says and does has consequences. When she burst on to the scene just over a year ago, you wouldn’t have had Gaga pegged as any kind of role model. But she is growing up fast.
‘When you’re in the public eye, you’re a role model whether you want to be or not. And I want to be,’ she says. ‘I’m not one of those self-obsessed artists who don’t care about their fans. It’s not just about the music. I look out into the O2 and there are 18,000 screaming young people and I have a responsibility to them – and you’re an idiot if you don’t know that.’