A cause to go Gaga over

Anyone who’s ever been the target of bullying or taunting back in the day and later achieves some measure of success relishes that opportunity to go to the high school reunion to throw an unspoken “Ha!” – or, in some cases, a loud spoken “HA!” – back in the faces of the perpetrators and spectators.

But for 25-year-old Stefani Germanotta, who was at Harvard University yesterday to unveil her Born This Way Foundation, it’s about using her experiences as a teen to help other teens and tweens accept who they and others are and, in turn, foster a conducive atmosphere for kids to be able to get the education they need without distraction.

Germanotta has risen above her background to become one of the most celebrated pop artists in the world, now known as Lady Gaga. And that celebrity helped her garner the aid of Harvard’s esteemed Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the presence of Oprah Winfrey, philosopher Deepak Chopra, and Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, and partner with the renowned MacArthur Foundation as well as command the spotlight of local and national media. Top researchers from companies such as Microsoft will lend their expertise to the effort.

Harvard law professor John Palfrey, who is codirector of the Berkman Center, called the chance to shape the foundation’s message “a researcher’s dream.”

Nicolas D. Kristof of the New York Times attended the event yesterday and had a very revealing interview with the New York City native and what she brings to her and her foundation’s role in helping kids with their self-esteem and reducing bullying.

“I was called really horrible, profane names very loudly in front of huge crowds of people, and my schoolwork suffered at one point,” she told Kristof. “I didn’t want to go to class. And I was a straight-A student, so there was a certain point in my high school years where I just couldn’t even focus on class because I was so embarrassed all the time. I was so ashamed of who I was.”

That is the point of the foundation, whose codirector will be Lady Gaga’s mother, Cynthia Germanotta. While many focus on teen suicide as a result of bullying, especially around here with the notoriety of the Phoebe Prince case, studies show that bullying and taunting can affect education, especially for someone like Lady Gaga who was a high-performing student. A study by the University of Virginia last year found that when an atmosphere of bullying exists in a school, the entire school suffers academically.

Bullying is generally thought of as physical intimidation, but reports and studies show the Internet is a significant source of bullying. That’s an area where Lady Gaga’s presence could have a huge impact: She has 20 million Twitter followers and 48 million fans on Facebook, the most by far on both platforms of anyone in the world.

For the singer, who has campaigned against the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, this foundation is just another example of where she can use her influence as well as her experience. And it clearly was validation of what she overcame to achieve her success.

“This might be one of the best days of my life,” she told the audience at Sanders Theater.
                                                                                                                                        –JACK SULLIVAN


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