You know how it is. You’ve just quit a well-paid career job in Australia to start a new life in “the city that never sleeps”. You find an apartment in Manhattan’s fashionable Lower East Side, on Rivington Street, and you’re walking home, bleary-eyed, a few nights later when you’re struck by the sight of an arresting young woman sitting on a stoop. .
Something about the woman seemed familiar, recalls Matthew Dunn (who grew up in rural NSW and is now an executive at one of New York’s most luxurious hotels, the Knickerbocker in Times Square). “She looked immaculate, with sleek, turbo-blonde hair, pulled back into a ponytail. She was sitting on the stoop with a couple of friends, enjoying a cigarette, but it wasn’t until we walked past that we realised it was Lady Gaga.”
This must have been years ago, surely? No, says Dunn, the encounter was in 2018, just before her hit movie A Star Is Born – for which she has received a best actress Oscar nomination – was released.
So, if you’re a Lady Gaga fan visiting New York and hope to, if not spot the star, see where she often hangs out, where should you go?
WELCOME TO THE JOHNSONS: LOWER EAST SIDE
The night Dunn spotted Lady Gaga, “she was sitting out the front of Welcome to the Johnsons, a small, understated, dimly-lit dive bar”.
Dunn knows this because he and his partner turned around and headed into the bar for a drink. “This was definitely our New York moment,” he says. “The thing that blew us away was just how relaxed she was. No one was making a fuss, she was just like any other patron.
“She played pool with her entourage, enthusiastically spinning the cue over her head and yahooing whenever she made a shot. She cuddled and danced with Christian Carino, now her fiance – both looking very much in love.
“She went to the bar to buy rounds of drinks and occasionally danced up against her friends when a song she liked came on.
“We left her alone to enjoy her night out with her friends, but she seemed totally approachable.”
What Dunn didn’t know then was that Welcome to the Johnsons, at 123 Rivington Street, has long been one of Gaga’s favourite haunts. To mark the release of A Star Is Born, NYC & Co, the city’s tourism body, released a web guide to the bars, restaurants and cafes associated with the superstar.
“Gaga met bartender Luc Carl there in 2005,” it points out. “They dated on and off for six years, and Carl was the inspiration for many of Gaga’s songs. Today the singer still references the bar as one of her must-visits for anyone visiting NYC.”
Don’t expect anything flash. “It’s as no-frills as you can get,” the guide explains. There’s a 1980s Ms Pac-Man video game and “a questionable sofa that looks like it has been there since the dawn of time”. Be sure, however, to check out the graffiti-covered toilets. Gaga used the larger one as her dressing room during her formative shows.
176 STANTON STREET: LOWER EAST SIDE
“Lady Gaga wrote several songs which mention Rivington Street because she lived in a one-bedroom walk-up for five years in nearby Stanton Street,” says Dunn. “Some appear on her 2008 debut album, The Fame.
“Apparently she visits the apartment building whenever she finishes a big project, to remember where she came from and how it all started.”
This humble apartment was her first independent home. Born on March 28, 1986, at Manhattan’s Lennox Hill Hospital, Stefani Germanotta was raised in the affluent Upper West Side. She went to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a private, all-girls school on Fifth Avenue. Her parents encouraged her musical and acting skills (she studied method acting at the famous Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute) and briefly lived in a New York University dorm when she was accepted, aged 17, as a student at the Tisch School of the Arts, on Broadway.
WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK: GREENWICH VILLAGE
The park, dominated by Washington Square Arch, is the heart of the NYU’s Greenwich Village campus. The teenage Germanotta relaxed here on her way to and from the university’s historic Bobst Library (open 24 hours, naturally, and well worth a visit). In 2005, she also performed two original songs for NYU’s annual student talent contest, coming third. She quit college that year to pursue her musical career, polishing her dramatic and musical skills in small Manhattan joints before her first big hit, Just Dance, in 2008.
CORNELIA STREET CAFE: GREENWICH VILLAGE
Many singer-songwriters, including Suzanne Vega, got their start at 29 Cornelia Street, a venue that opened four decades ago. After quitting NYU, Germanotta worked at this cafe as a waitress, reputedly using her tips to pay for printing the fliers to her shows. See corneliastreetcafe.com
THE BITTER END: GREENWICH VILLAGE
A tiny, 230-capacity nightclub at 147 Bleecker Street, this venue bears a heritage plaque, boasting that it’s NYC’s oldest surviving rock’n’roll venue. It opened in 1961 and Bob Dylan played pool and occasionally performed here in the early years, but it has been the graveyard of many hopeful musicians. Apparently James Taylor and Neil Young both “bombed” on their first performances. Germanotta, in pre-Gaga days, regularly performed at open-mic nights here between 2005 and 2007. She returned in triumph in 2016 to promote her Joanne album on the roof. See bitterend.com
PIANOS: LOWER EAST SIDE
How did Germanotta transform into Lady Gaga? Music producer Rob Fusari claims to have renamed her after they began dating in 2006, her name derived from Radio Ga Ga, the 1984 Queen hit. Around the same time, she met Lady Starlight (real name Colleen Martin), a performance artist who clearly influenced her onstage reinvention.The pair performed a pastiche burlesque “art show” billed as Lady Gaga and the Starlight Revue at venues around Manhattan, including Pianos at 158 Ludlow Street. See pianosnyc.com
HOTEL ON RIVINGTON: LOWER EAST SIDE
Even though it’s only a decade ago, most of the grungy venues on the Lower East Side where she performed before she became famous are now long gone. However, if you’re looking for a Gaga-related hotel, this could be it. In 2008, she went with friends to watch the Killers perform at Madison Square Garden. They were invited back by the band to this hotel at 107 Rivington Street which, reputedly, inspired her song, Boys Boys Boys. See hotelonrivington.com
JOANNE TRATTORIA: UPPER EAST SIDE
As kids, Germanotta and her sister Natali were often taken for family outings to Vince & Eddie’s Fireplace at 70 West 68th Street. Now her parents, Joseph and Cynthia Germanotta, own a restaurant on the old site with Art Smith, who was formerly Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef. See joannenyc.com
ART BIRD & WHISKEY BAR: GRAND CENTRAL STATION
On the lower dining concourse you’ll find the latest business venture of the Germanotta family and Smith, featuring “fast family soul food” with buttermilk fried chicken and grit bowls – plus wine, cocktails and an extensive whisky menu. Just don’t expect to be served by the waitress who was the star attraction when the restaurant opened in July 2018: Lady Gaga herself. See grandcentralterminal.com/shop/art-bird-whiskey-bar
Steve Meacham was a guest of Singapore Airlines and NYC & Co.
Singapore Airlines flies from Singapore to Newark Liberty International and return fly three times weekly, departing Singapore on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. See Singaporeair.com