The comparison I make today may seem strange and unexpected. The similarity seemed so odd when it first struck me that I almost dismissed the thought immediately. But in the week since I first saw Evita on Broadway, my brain has been ticking, reminding me, almost begging me to further explore what first occurred to me in the Marquis Theatre: that there's a fascinating resemblance between the first lady of Argentina in the mid-1900s, and the first lady of pop music in the 21st century: Lady Gaga.
In the musical world of 1930s Buenos Aires, Eva Duarte began as a struggling actress, determined to be famous. She was an ingénue but not immediately loved; she sought approval from the men she seduced and left behind. She played a coy role at times, but was ultimately ruthless (see: Another Suitcase in Another Hall) when it came to getting what she wanted. Once Eva rose to a role in the public spotlight, she quickly ascended past famous and into infamous, becoming a legend in her lifetime, dazzling "her people" and representing both an unattainable glamour and a grounded, passionate commitment to the masses. She became a representation of what could be, providing a fantasy in which her hard-of-luck subjects could live; instead of languishing in their plight as "descamisados" without hope, the working class grasped onto the realized fantasy of Eva Duarte Peron. She was their light, their hope, their inspiration – a responsibility she took so seriously she often put her own health aside in order to be what she determined they needed. Rarely has a woman so captured the fascination of the world around her, and kept herself married to that world while simultaneously being launched beyond it. But in the early 2000s, another woman has managed the same miracle: performing arts student Stefani Germanotta, known better to the world as the queen of pop, Lady Gaga.
How can one compare a pop star to a political ambassador / president's wife? Easy – celebrities have become our modern substitute for royalty. No longer do we, as a society, look to politicians or military figures or the exceedingly wealthy for inspiration. Instead, we seek escape in the pages of Us Weekly or on the screen at PerezHilton.com: lusting after the designer clothing, the exotic vacations, the extravagant homes and unconditional (if fleeting) love that celebrities receive from every direction.
Like Eva Duarte, Stefani Germanotta was a driven and focused young woman. Her community at New York University circa 2004 sensed there was always something "different" about her, though she was not uniformly appreciated. (I have spoken to several of her NYU classmates, whom I thank for their help in reconstructing these early impressions.) In brief she was thought of as decidedly talented but also a bit strange, freakish even, stepping outside of boundaries and pushing her own agenda of fame while cultivating, religiously, her talent.
Initially a singer-songwriter in the Sarah McLachlan style, Stefani made a living writing for other artists and singing on demo recordings. She was famously discovered when the R&B artist Akon overheard her and was immediately convinced that she could be a star. He was, you could say, the Juan Peron to her Eva. The student Stefani Germanotta was transformed into Lady Gaga – and the world would never be the same.
How long was Gaga famous before she became a superstar? Not long. Practically as soon as she burst onto the scene with ("Just Dance"), her unique style and impassioned delivery elevated her to icon status. Stefani, like Eva Duarte, was transformed practically overnight from an unusual but mostly-invisible woman into a symbol, with a new name, an otherworldly wardrobe, and an endless audience who always wanted more.
Eva Peron had the "descamisados," the working class subjects who were near the point of revolt against the government when she became first lady of Argentina. At her heart a descamisado – literally "shirtless one" – herself, Eva became a mouthpiece for the people as well as an escape for them. She provided both comfort and inspiration to those who'd had neither in recent memory. Most importantly, she never forgot where she came from: while working tirelessly for international power and status, she managed to simultaneously stay in touch with the working class of Argentina. For perhaps the first time in their lives, they no longer felt invisible, but acknowledged by someone of status.
As the descamisados were to Eva Peron, "little monsters" are to Lady Gaga. Calling herself "Mother Monster," Gaga embraces her own oddities not only supporting but encouraging any strangeness amongst her fans. In an age where bullying has become an epidemic, when suicides and homicides related to "being different" abound, she has continuously been a mouthpiece for equality, love, and strength. While inarguably other-worldly, Lady Gaga manages to come across as unquestionably grounded. (A recent interview with Anderson Cooper showed her crying on the steps of a Lower East Side tenement building where she once lived, still unable to grasp how far she'd come, even with 5 grammys to her name and over 13 million albums sold.)
Neither Eva Duarte nor Stefani Germanotta was an obvious beauty, but there was/is no question about the absolute radiance of Eva Peron and Lady Gaga. One was a first lady in 1946 and the other is a pop musician in 2012. It might at first seem a stretch to compare Eva Peron to Lady Gaga. But upon further examination, it becomes clear that both women – through hard work, sheer talent, and an unbreakable commitment to their roots and the struggles therein – transformed the societies in which they live(d).