Lady Gaga. Oprah. Harvard.
It could have been Madison Square Garden. The stacked, wood seats are filled with a shouting, buzzing audience. When the event eventually commences, those on stage will have to pause every few moments to accommodate the rowdy group’s spontaneous and stupendous applause. And when pop-icon and international superstar, Lady Gaga, emerges from the wings of the theater, the sheer decibel level is stupendous.
But raucous greetings aside, we aren’t in Madison Square Garden. Instead, the stage at Sanders Theatre is soberly outfitted with a few tufted armchairs and two small tables, backed with three additional seats apiece. A rectangular poster mounted to the far wall touts the debut of the Born This Way Foundation in minimalist font.
The effect of these moves is pointed and convincing. Today is not about Lady Gaga: The Superstar. Today, even in foot-high heels and a floor-length body-skimming gown, Gaga is low on pomp and circumstance. She has arrived at Harvard to utilize her extraordinary following of virtually millions of “Little Monsters” to one end. Over the course of the hour-and-a-half long event, she’ll repeat it many times. She wants to change the world, and she doesn’t think it’s going to be that difficult to do so.
The foundation is founded on three pillars: safety, skills and opportunities. In a safe environment, endowed with the skills to love and respect, opportunities for today’s youth, says Gaga, will be endless. And Lady Gaga’s hope is that the Born This Way Foundation will spark a major shift on the cultural landscape—igniting a movement on par with Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation. She wants a systemic shift in how we love, learn and live with each other, and she isn’t afraid to come out and say so. She has high expectations. But it helps to have famous friends, and Gaga’s enlisted an army of some of the world’s most powerful to launch her movement.
First, President Drew Faust takes the stage to introduce the legendary Oprah Winfrey, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleeen Sebelius, and, of course, Gaga herself. Oprah appears and eloquently frames the event for her rapt audience. “Every human comes with the divine right to be himself or herself,” she says. And as we hover on the precipice of this should-be-could-be global undertaking, we have to keep in mind a unified purpose. We are coming together to “fulfill the highest expression of ourselves as human beings.”
After, Oprah welcomes the woman of the hour. The two engage in a brief interview to discuss the aims and responsibilities of this foundation. Gaga thanks the Harvard Graduate School of Education for its support profusely, and humbly name checks her partners in this enormous effort, especially her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, with whom she founded BTWF.
When Oprah asks how she managed to recruit Harvard to join in her effort, Gaga replies with a smile. “Well they have phones,” she says. “I called them!” Lady Gaga also answers questions posed by a panel that includes Deepak Chopra and that is moderated by Harvard Law School professor, Charles J. Ogletree. A few audience member also provide some crowd-sourced inquires for the singer.
And although Gaga claims that the woman she is in the context of the Foundation is utterly apart from the woman that she is on stage, the artist in her is not so easily suppressed. Both she and Oprah speak of the necessity of creative expression. And remind the crowd that even the world’s most famous artists and celebrities seek validation in the work that they do. “Even Beyoncé, in all her Beyoncé-ness,” says Oprah, “asks, ‘Was that okay? Did I do okay?’ We all want to know that what we do and what we say and who we are matters.”
Later, with a surprisingly throaty laugh, Gaga acknowledges how “utopian” her view of love, acceptance, and bravery really is. But a powerful message is “like a good pop hook. It picks you up and makes you want to move.”