After her opening slot at the Born This Way Ball, we become heavy metal lovers with Lady Gaga’s BFF during her post-show DJ set at the Drake Hotel.
It’s 10:30 p.m. on Friday night. I’m avoiding my Twitter feed like everyone’s avoiding the snowy streets and the TTC, because as much as I want a play-by-play from every gay at Lady Gaga’s show at the ACC, I also kinda don’t. So what did I do? Went to hang out with her BFF instead.
Lady Starlight is one of Lady Gaga’s (pre-fame) BFFs, and an opener on her worldwide Born This Way Ball tour. Starlight has also been hosting post-show DJ sets of heavy metal and old-school rock throughout the tour’s various stops. After tonight’s arena jam, Starlight (née Colleen Martin) is spinning at the Drake Hotel, and we decided we should hang out.
Starlight found Gaga long before The Fame, and they were known around Lower Manhattan as quite the notorious duo, go-go dancing on stage in bikinis—or underwear? I can’t decide—and lighting hairspray cans on fire. Those who knew of my plans for the evening wondered why I wouldn’t rather focus in on the Born This Way Ball as a spectacle, or join in on the hundreds of fans camping out in tents to score wristbands for floor seats. See, it’s fans like these that seem to entirely misunderstand the cult of Starlight, and why I find her to be the infinitely more fascinating Lady.
Indeed, so much of what is written and known about Starlight is in relation to Gaga, like how Starlight had a hand in “creating Gaga’s image,” or what her bestie is like behind the scenes—all that mundane, trite shit. It’s a shadow I’m not so sure she cares very much about, but one that I’m tired of as a reader. Their relationship is covered much like any celebrity sibling duo (famous by association/proximity/inspiration), and they’re frequently painted as “practically sisters.” But if Starlight really did invent/create Gaga—I prefer to think Starlight catalyzed her—perhaps she has more significant observations to contribute other than whether or not the meat dress was her idea.
I spot Starlight from across the room, in a tulled-out, lacy, powder blue knee-length dress paired with turquoise stockings and black pumps. “I’m, like, Japanese Gothic Lolita,” she says. “But more Lolita, that’s my jam right now.” Her makeup is perfect, and her hair is just so. As she offers me a piece of mint chocolate chip ice cream-flavoured bubblegum, I notice her nails are as bare as can be, something I find oddly comforting, like an assurance she isn’t putting on some sort of contrived act.
“I’ve always been obsessed with music since I can remember. My dad had this huge record collection, so it was always just an important part of life for my family,” she begins. Raised in upstate New York, near Albany, Starlight was the kid who did anything and everything with her brother, Jason Martin, who she unexpectedly cites as her biggest inspiration. “My parents let us be exactly what or who we wanted to be.” They soon picked up toy guitars and formed a fictional childhood band, the Brown Cuts Neighbors, and a had brief stint making performance art and music on Schenectady Public Access television. In Lady Starlight’s early appearances, like the performances with her brother’s now-actual Brown Cuts Neighbors band (see below), the parallels are eerie: you can see the conceptual ideas and stage theatrics that formulate much of Gaga’s current act. This is what people (read: reporters) probably mean when they make claims of Starlight’s influence on Gaga, but no one ever really bothers to delve into the mathematics of the equation.
Starlight’s speech pattern is slow and considered, like someone who converses comfortably—just not about herself. In 2001, after a stint in London and an attempt at the university thing, Lady Starlight ended up in New York City, as a go-go dancer and later a DJ. Her stage name comes from a song of the same name by British glam-rockers Sweet. There wasn’t much thought to it, she laughs. “Flyers had to be made.”
In her role as Gaga opener, Starlight’s doing original music and interpretive dance performance art—“demented vaudeville,” as she calls it. When the Tumblr crowd weighs in on Starlight’s performance, you’ll see a lot of I-don’t-get-its floating around. “It’s so difficult,” she says. “This show was designed for a small theatre. What am I going to do in an arena? Everything has to be bigger, bigger, bigger, and sometimes that doesn’t read.”
How does she want to be perceived? “I just want to be inspiring to people. The particulars don’t matter. I don’t care if people like me or hate me, because it’s really the same thing. When they see me on stage, whether someone says, ‘Wow, I wanna do something like that,’ or they say, ‘I could do so much better,’ if it gets them out to do what they want to do onstage, then I’m good.” She still, however, is considerably less fond of the YouTube clips.
12:10 a.m.: I could have asked her about Gaga’s upcoming effort, ARTPOP, but I didn’t. Instead, I wanted to know about those early, pre-“Just Dance” days in Lower East Side bars. The cocaine, the sex, yada, yada, yada. “From then until now, I went from a young adult to an adult. I’ve finally [reached] the next phase in my life. I’ve finally matured.” I tell her I imagine those days were crazy, hard-partying, New York City nights. “You imagine correctly,” she recalls. “I was actually completely crazy at that time, not really in a good way. I was drinking all the time, and I was just…” She trails off. “It was a time to let loose, I don’t know. But it was a particularly wild time, I was excited. There was an energy in New York when I met her.”
“I never wanted to be famous, but I wanted to have notoriety, which is very different. I wanted to have my opinion respected, and that’s not the same thing as being famous. I never let opportunities go by, no matter how random they seem, and it’s the reason [Gaga and I] started working together. I’m not a really big pop fan, but she’s got a great voice and she’s a great songwriter, and I love her piano-driven stuff.” Today, Gaga and Starlight still talk creative shop, but they’re not involved in each other’s work. “She supports me, I support her. It’s fucking awesome.”
12:30 a.m.: Down in the Drake Underground, openers The Dirty Pearls are wrapping their set. Starlight’s DJ set-up is traditional and minimal: records, mostly 45s, and two turntables, with a microphone. “Computers belong in the office. I believe in standalone instruments and vinyl,” she protests. “I believe people need that. Electronic popular culture is really alienating, and youth are lonely. I want to give people something tangible and real. I think we need that.”
Two fans rush up to us, both barely 19. What do they love about her? “She’s just so free,” says one girl, who traveled in from Waterloo just to see her budding idol. “I love girl power, and she’s just a strong woman, with that rock ‘n’ roll edge. And she dresses crazy, but you can take her serious. She’s a mystery.” It’s for fans like this that Starlight is a staunch supporter of Gaga’s newest anti-bullying initiative, the Born Brave Bus, sort of like a tailgate party where Starlight will DJ and hang with show-goers. Her main advice for young people desperately seeking themselves? “Focus on yourself, and don’t pay attention to what’s going on around you, or the pressure people put on you to be a certain way. I was obviously, obviously, really bullied as a kid, but you’ll realize that when you get older, you’ll find the power to meet the people who’ll think you’re cool, and vice versa.”
1:24 a.m.: Knee-deep into her set, there’s a portion of the evening dubbed “Magical Mystery DJ,” where guests can come up onstage, pull out any record without looking, and she’ll play it. “Fuck transitions tonight,” she proclaims. That means we end up hearing everything from “Think Zinc” by T. Rex to Hello’s “New York Groove.” (I select “When Doves Cry.”) The whole night becomes pseudo-karaoke, singing along to hits like “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” She’s pouring red wine, I’m drinking a diet coke. It’s not very rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s totally perfect at the same time. And, no, Starlight never sings. It’s a curiosity she says you’ll just have to wait for.
2 a.m.: Starlight’s upcoming solo project, then, is all experimental soundscapes and experimental noise. “Noise terrorism, I love it.” She’s currently crafting a theatre show that will be much different than her arena efforts on the Born This Way Ball. “I want to create an environment, a total experience you can’t actually get out of. It’s going to be like a ride at Epcot Centre, like a conveyor belt where you move through. You’re going to want to get out, but you can’t.” There’s also a record—“a sonic art project”—in the works as soon as the tour is over, which will debut as a limited-edition, 500-copy vinyl LP, signed, numbered, printed on her own dollar and available online, because “fuck mainstream shit.”
Starlight is adamant that she doesn’t want to do anything through “the normal channels of boring-ness, which is our culture,” calling the existing structures of the industry “soul-sucking.” When I ask her to elaborate, she’s frank: “I don’t really get what’s going on in music right now. There’s no place for anything except really narrow things, and that comes from radio. The fact that music doesn’t make anyone money anymore is a fucking problem. If no one makes any money off it, what the industry goes for is really safe and tested.” That’s just not her style.
Lady Starlight plays a DJ set on Feb. 17 at Club Absinthe, on the Hamilton stop of the Born This Way Ball.