Lady Gaga has taken a lot of heat lately for “borrowing” Madonna’s express-yourself-like-a-virgin shtick. But maybe the person who really should be crying “plagiarism” is Oprah Winfrey. “Be yourself and love who you are and be proud, because you were born this way,” Oprah told fans during her swan song last week. Oh, wait, Oprah didn’t say that. It was Lady Gaga on The View, confessing how she’d been bullied in high school for her big nose and buck teeth. “Getting picked on in school, it sticks with you for life,” she said.
To understand why Gaga’s new album Born This Way is a huge hit despite some pretty lousy reviews, don’t listen to her songs (besides, Madonna sang them better). Listen to her sermons. “I didn’t used to be brave. Tonight, I want you to forget all your insecurities,” she urged her flock at a recent concert in Cleveland. “I want you to reject anyone who didn’t make you feel accepted. Maybe you felt misunderstood—” Gaga went on and on like this between sets, sans music and backup dancers, to the cheers and ululations of the “Little Monsters,” as she calls her fans.
Gaga doesn’t give her audience free cars or reading recommendations, but she does dole out pop psychology to the Glee generation as freely as Oprah did to middle-aged moms and underemployed dads. The Little Monsters lap it up, following her every move on Twitter (she’s got more followers than anyone on the planet) and showering her with fan mail that looks like something spilled on Oprah’s couch: “Dear Mother Monster,” begins one from Ashleigh Hill of Zanesville, Ohio. “I’m only 19 and I am helping raise two kids that are not even mine. I know I’m doing the right thing, but my family is always on me that I need to go back to college and get a real job.” Tiffany Dysart, 22, one of the minions at Gaga’s Ohio concert, says the 25-year-old pop star “empowers me. I’ve talked to young fans who go through self-mutilation, depression, eating disorders, image problems, bullying, and coming out. They say, ‘Gaga helped me come out.’”
Gaga understands what it’s like to be an outcast, or at least an awkward teenager. When she was still just Stefani Germanotta from Manhattan, her Catholic-school classmates thought she was so weird that they once threw her in a trash can. As her pal Justin Tranter of the band Semi Precious Weapons explains: “Girls would ask her, ‘Why do you get so dressed up and spend so much time on makeup? What, are you a lesbian?’ ” (The answer: No. It just takes a lot of time to stitch meat into a dress and make a telephone hat.)
“With her incredible creativity, she is lighting people’s hearts and giving them strength to go on in these turbulent times,” says her friend Yoko Ono. Or, as Gaga ministered to her fans recently: “Connect, embrace, liberate, love somebody,” No, wait, Oprah said that.