Cynthia Germanotta knew her daughter Stefani had talent as a child, however, she didn’t exactly expect her to become a six-time Grammy winner now better known as Lady Gaga. “We certainly always felt that she would be a performer, but never in the order of magnitude that she has reached,” Germanotta says of raising Gaga with her husband, Joe.
“She learned to play piano by ear at home when she was really young. One day I said, ‘Do you want to take some lessons?’ She was a little bit confused by that because she said that she heard the music in her head. She didn’t understand why she had to take a lesson,” Germanotta notes. “That was a defining moment because I knew there was something different about her at that point. I didn’t know what it would lead to, but I realized that there was something more there.”
Gaga, of course, skyrocketed to superstardom after the 2008 release of her debut album The Fame, and hasn’t stopped since, earning a Golden Globe along the way and solidifying herself as a fixture in pop culture history. Her ascent, though, couldn’t be described as easy.
“I have to say, Jonathan, this has been a very overwhelming experience for our family,” Germanotta candidly tells me over the phone, detailing how Gaga’s own relationship with mental health has inspired the whole family—Cynthia, Joe, and their 26-year-old daughter, Natali—to look inward. In 2012, it also pushed Germanotta and Gaga to co-found the Born This Way Foundation, an organization that prides itself on encouraging young people to create a “kinder and braver world.”
“To be able to build it with our daughter and my family has been very rewarding, but it actually came out of some struggles,” Germanotta says, alluding to some of Gaga’s own battles with bullying, sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and fibromyalgia.
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Now, Germanotta and the Born This Way Foundation have launched the #BeKindBeTheDifference contest to encourage everyone to participate in mental health first aid training, what she describes as “CPR for the mind,” and what helps individuals identify signs of mental health struggles in loved ones. “One in five Americans live with a mental illness, so the chances that we will encounter someone in our life—family, friends, co-workers or even strangers—who is struggling is quite high,” she says, making sure not to forget that one contest participant will score dinner with her plus VIP access to Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway.
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Over a 30-minute conversation, Gaga’s mother opens up about raising a celebrity-in-the-making, mental health, #BeKindBeTheDifference, and what the best lesson she’s learned from her daughters is.
Since co-founding the Born This Way Foundation, you and Gaga have noted that mental health has affected your family. How so?
The foundation really grew out of my daughter’s passion and her desire to help young people be better equipped than she felt that she was to deal with her problems. Let’s say that she was uniquely very different growing up and her peers didn’t always appreciate that. As a result, she experienced some meanness and cruelty at various times—things like being taunted, isolated, humiliated, both in school and out of school, and these things affected her very deeply. It shattered her self-value, her sense of self worth, and she began to develop anxiety and depression in middle school. It’s something that followed her through college and even through her career.
When her career took off, she began sharing these experiences and talking about the need for a kinder and braver world. Because she was talking very openly during her performances about the negative experiences that she had growing up, I came to realize that it was helping her heal and it was also helping other young people. Both of my daughters have similar experiences and I’m proud of her for channeling that into good. It has really opened my eyes in a very, very good way.
The Foundation has teamed up with the National Council for Behavioral Health to launch the #BeKindBeTheDifference contest just in time for Mental Health Awareness Month this May. Can you explain what mental health first aid training is?
It will teach you how to recognize and respond to signs of mental health and trust issues and the challenges and crisis associated with that. It will give you skills to really reach out and provide support to people in your life who are in need. We think that we could all do more to help those dealing with mental illness and getting trained in this particular type of mental health training should really be an essential first step.
Gaga was bullied as a teenager, and you’ve each described an instance in which classmates threw her into a trash can. What did that feel like for you as a mother?
The saddest part of that instance in particular is that she did not tell me. We’re very close as a family and we share a lot, but she later told me that she was so embarrassed and so upset by the situation that she couldn’t even approach me with it. It was sad. There were other experiences that she had. Last summer, [our foundation] conducted a survey of other 3,000 young people and over 1,000 parents and we uniformly learned that parents will overestimate what their children will talk to them about. It wasn’t unique to me that that happened. It’s still continuing to happen to parents today.
Do you have advice for moms on how to get their children to open up?
It’s one thing to listen, but it’s another thing to really understand what your child is saying. We are strong believers in family dinners. It’s a great way to create a safe environment to get young people to open up. In our research, we learned that family events are a great way for people to communicate. Things as simple as an outing or going bowling will really connect everyone and get you to start talking in a more comfortable way. I know that I missed some warning signs that I could have been better equipped to recognize in my children if I had either taken mental health first aid training or just been aware of some of the warning signs that will help you recognize the difference between normal biological teenage behavior and somebody really struggling with a mental health issue.
What are some of those warning signs?
It won’t be a one-time thing where they’re having a sad day. You’ll start to maybe see a pattern. Let’s say you have an outgoing child that may be more introverted spending time alone in their room, maybe their grades are slipping, that’s just a couple of examples of things to look for.
Gaga has come out as a victim of sexual assault and rape, and she’s written about her PTSD diagnosis. What is it like to watch her share that trauma with the world so openly?
In the beginning, it was a little bit shocking for me and it was hard for me to understand because I didn’t grow up that way. [My generation] kept more of our feelings inside and didn’t really talk about it. Over time, I saw that everybody was healing from this, everybody was feeling more empowered about getting help and also feeling more hope that they wouldn’t be stuck in this cycle of hurt for the rest of their life. It was was helping other young people feel more comfortable about talking about it themselves, and then maybe taking the next step and going for help. In the end, I’m proud of my daughter for being brave enough to stand up and talk very personally about her own issues. I really believe that it’s helping people of all different ages.
By the time she talked about PTSD, I was feeling a lot more comfortable with her talking much more openly about it. I also know how important it was for her to share that to help other people. For me, the difficult time that I experienced was more in the early years of her performing when she would talk so openly on stage about things that happened to her. It probably wasn’t one thing in particular.
You both co-founded the Foundation. Has working with Gaga on a professional level changed your relationship?
It has changed and I think it’s helped develop a different kind of bond because we’re not just inwardly looking anymore, we’re outwardly looking at the affect that this has had on other people. She has also helped me be more open myself about issues that I may have, needs that I may have to be addressed that I wasn’t that comfortable with. It’s been a very interesting thing to observe that not only has she helped other young people, but also that she actually helped her own mom in the process.
Lady Gaga and her father, Joe Germanotta.
It sounds like you and your husband fostered creativity at home. Natali, your youngest daughter, is now a fashion designer and even helped put together Gaga’s 2017 Super Bowl halftime show costumes. Why was doing so important?
It’s really simple. It’s because we could see it. We could see the passion. We could see the joy that they gained from it, and we just made a decision to foster that. We were very [strict] with them about their schoolwork as well. I think it’s really important to complete school and be well rounded in studies, so it was important for them to focus on that, but it was just very simple. There was such a passion and a joy for it and they were excelling at it so we fostered it.
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Your husband has joked that early on in Gaga’s career, he wondered if she “had a screw loose” after watching a wild performance of hers in New York City. What was your concern back then?
I think that was like a birth of Gaga moment. It was just so incredibly out there than what we had experienced in the past with her. And we really didn’t quite understand it, but the audience loved it. It’s what was happening at the time. We were just like, ‘This is really taking a different turn,’ and we didn’t understand it.
Is it hard to share her with the world? In Five Foot Two, she’s so incredibly open about her personal life, and specifically about her body pain.
There’s definitely a hard side to opening the blinds to your house. People can see the light in to what your world is like. You have to take a deep breath, really, when that happens. That documentary, it was difficult for her to even make the decision I think to show it that way. You see a lot of the positive sides of fame depicted in a lot of different films and she really wanted to show a completely different side of it. That is a difficult decision, but I really do believe that it’s been very helpful when many people see that it’s okay to be vulnerable, you can be successful, you can overcome some of the struggles that you have with the right type of help. And I think it’s been a very helpful thing for many people to see.
Natali Germanotta and Lady Gaga.
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
What are you most proud of as a mom?
I’m most proud as a mom that both of my daughters are good people. Of course, I’m extraordinarily proud of their talent, but the most important thing, I believe, in this world is being a compassionate, good, and decent human being and I’m very proud of both of them for that.
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What’s the greatest lesson that your daughters have taught you?
I think the greatest lesson is to allow them to take risks and make mistakes and be there for them. Coming from a place where, unless you are willing at times in your life to take a risk and do something that’s outside of the box, you’re never gonna know, and we kind of held hands together in that process. That’s been a great lesson to me.
Do you have any mothering advice that has helped you raise children?
I will never profess to be an expert on parenting. I think it’s something we could all help each other with, but I think that the greatest thing we can give ourselves and our children is to listen to them and also try to understand where they’re coming from. I think that a lot of children are undervalued and let me explain how I mean that. I think that we don’t often turn to children until they’re at a certain age—you’re able to vote, you have your driver’s license. One thing I’ve learned through the Foundation is they have such an incredible voice and passion about things in life and the earlier that we can tap into that and foster that and empower them and inspire them to let that free, incredible things happen, and we’ve seen that through our work. They’re much more capable than we give them credit for, young people. And I’m surprised every day and it’s really beautiful to watch.
What’s the best gift your daughters have ever given you?
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