On Sunday night at the Video Music Awards, Lady Gaga won everything besides Best Contemporary World Music Album, but you probably couldn't tell by the way she acted. Or at least I couldn't.
After all, I was standing roughly 3 feet from her as she descended from the stage, Video of the Year Moonman in one hand, short-loin inspired clutch in the other. And at that moment, she didn't seem like the biggest pop icon on the planet, a woman who genuinely inspires millions and appears determined to speak for the voiceless and use her status to elicit actual social change.
Instead, she seemed like a very demure, very humble human being. This may have had something to do with the fact that she had just accepted an award from Cher (which can definitely be a disorienting experience), or because she had just won her eighth Moonman of the night, but it definitely struck me as odd. After all, if you take everything you know or have read about her, combine it with her videos, fashion sense and over-the-top, decidedly feisty live performances, you are left with a picture that is less human and more, well, deity. Gaga does not appear to be human — more like a pneumatic lion tamer with a penchant for creative haberdashery, or a fire-breathing neo-Shiva in sunglasses — which is sort of the point, I suppose.
But, as I learned on VMA night, it's not actually the truth.
I don't know why it took me so long to realize this. After all, I have interviewed her and used this very space earlier this year to examine her transformation from otherworldly star to a normal girl. But there was something about watching her fight back tears at the VMAs — something she continued to do backstage, just in case you were wondering — that made it click for me. I watched as she hugged Cher, whispered something to her and then made the trek down to her dressing room, still shaking slightly, still saying "thank you" to the various stagehands and show producers who shouted their congratulations as she passed.
I followed her and her entourage out of the theater, trying to keep my eyes on her tiny shoulders as she was surrounded by a ring of beefy security guards. This is much tougher to do than you would imagine; after all, Gaga is very small in person, practically delicate. She does not walk as much as she tiptoes, mostly because of the McQueen armadillo heels she wears, but also because you get the sense that the slightest breeze would knock her over. There is a fine, almost-porcelain quality to her. You want to put her on a glass shelf. You want to run a feather duster over her. There are not many deities you can say this about.
Her entourage headed downstairs, and again, I followed. They made their way into the hallway beneath the stage, a carpeted pathway lined with dressing rooms. Most of the stars heard her coming and popped their heads out to catch a glimpse of her. Yes, she has that kind of clout. I watched from a wall as her team of stylists emerged from her dressing room and started clapping and cheering, and only then did I notice that Gaga was smiling. This was the real her, the person that only her closest friends — and, I suppose, nosy reporters — get to see. The Gaga that only comes out when the camera's aren't around (which is something, like, three hours of each day). There were still tears in her eyes, though now she wasn't crying; she was laughing, making a kind of gulping sound. It was exactly the kind of thing you or I would do in a situation like this, when we have just triumphed and are now getting to share that moment with our friends.
And I watched as she disappeared into her room, followed by her inner circle. The door closed, and her security guards fell into place, but you could definitely hear the celebratory whoop that happened immediately afterward. It was certainly genuine. After all, Gaga cares about winning awards, though I suspect it has more to do with the fact that she gets to share the victory with her friends. That's the kind of person I'm guessing she is.
I don't know how long she stayed in there, because I was already making my way down to the other end of the hallway, where Kanye West was having an impromptu, celeb-filled party in his dressing room. It stopped traffic. Usher popped in. Rihanna did too. There were ballerinas involved. The contrast between the two rooms was noteworthy. Because even when the lights aren't on, Kanye still carries himself like a deity. It's part of his mystique. Gaga is different. She doesn't need a mystique; being human seems to be enough for her.
And, yes, I realize I'm making tremendous assumptions based on a few unguarded moments, but you learn a lot from someone when they know the cameras aren't rolling, when it's just them, their closest confidants and maybe a Moonman or two. For a minute, I got to see the real Lady Gaga, and it was all I needed. She cries and laughs and even gulps on occasion. She is humble and genuine. She is human, after all, even when she's wearing a meat dress. You learn something new every day.
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The Moonmen have all been handed out and the stars have gone home, but there's plenty of MTV Video Music Awards news, interviews, behind-the-scenes scoop, party reports and more still to come, so keep it locked on MTVNews.com.