Read criticism of pop star Lady Gaga and you will see words like baffling, bizarre, tasteless, offensive and wacky.
The words also are often associated with performance art and avant garde fashion, two art forms that Gaga has claimed are a big part of her work.
In an interview on 60 Minutes before last month's Grammy Awards — at which she famously arrived in an egg — Lady G described herself as a performance artist. "I art-direct ... every moment of my life," she said.
Of course, most performance artists don't have a catalog of No. 1 hit songs by age 24, a constant mob of paparazzi following them, highly anticipated music videos and one of the world's hottest concert tours, which plays Louisville's KFC Yum Center on Saturday night. And most hitmakers don't achieve that kind of fame wearing fashions that would be considered bizarre even at a costume party.
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Although her music tops the charts, the Gaga "show" draws mixed, even divisive, public reaction. Central Kentucky designers and performers are at the very least fascinated by and at the most fans of how Gaga presents herself.
"She's creating something on a pretty consistent basis that has an element of spectacle and intrigue," says performance artist Lauren Argo, a University of Kentucky theater graduate who presents work in Kentucky and New York. She will be part of Gaga's audience Saturday.
Nancy Jones, chair of UK's theater department, was not surprised to discover that Gaga was once a student in New York University's prestigious theater program, back when she went by her given name, Stefani Germonatta.
"That's really important information in terms of teaching," Jones says. "We are teaching people to use theater as a real avenue for individual expression, and she takes that to heart."
Gaga's performances are often well beyond simple song presentations. Take her 2009 MTV Video Music Awards performance of her song Paparazzi (sample lyrics: "I'm your biggest fan; I'll follow you until you love me"). It ended with her hanging by a rope and drenched in blood, a statement that she says was about the public's desire to see the destruction of a celebrity.
Then there are the clothes: outrageous looks and controversial choices, such as the dress made of raw meat that she wore to last year's VMAs. An ardent supporter of gay rights, she said the look was a statement against the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"It has people thinking outside the box and outside the rack," says Lexington fashion designer Soreyda Benedit Begley.
Begley says the moment that caught her eye was when Gaga met Queen Elizabeth II in a full-length red latex Elizabethan-style dress with puffy long sleeves and red beads surrounding her eyes.
"That told me, 'She's serious about this high-fashion thing,'" Begley says. "She uses a lot of independent designers and couture designers, and it makes you think, 'Maybe that can be my design one day.'"
Begley says Gaga has become a muse for her and other designers, including Lexington jewelry designer Maui Crane, who has developed a set of accessories inspired by the pop star.
Crane, who is going to Saturday's concert, says his new designs "are based on the idea of fashion as body armor, as a way to protect yourself and show yourself," echoing Gaga's statements that a big part of her act is directing attention to her work and away from her private life.
Crane recalls seeing Germonatta in Miami three or four years ago, before she was Lady Gaga, "and you could tell she was going to be big then, because she was fearless — she really didn't care what people thought."
Begley and others say that fearlessness is essential to pulling off Gaga's act.
"What she brings to the industry is very valuable because it's an industry that has been struggling creatively," says Begley, who notes that Gaga is very much on her mind — and other people's minds — as they work on outfits to show at the Beaux Arts Ball on April 9 and other events. "Having someone like Lady Gaga wearing these fashions makes you more comfortable taking risks."
Michael Baird, a junior in UK's theater department, says Gaga shows him and other students that there are few limits in what they can do with theater.
"I saw videos of her at the Tisch School for the Arts (at NYU) just playing piano, and she was very expressive then," Baird says. "But you look at her now, and it shows you how you can transform abstract ideas into a new form. She has made a concept of herself as a person."
That has influenced Argo, the performance artists who says she was often referred to as "La-La" when she was at UK.
"I'm kind of fascinated by and worked some in performance around the idea of La-La as myself," Argo says. "She has gotten me interested in the idea of creating a character."
She and others hang on Gaga's every move — what will she wear and do next? Gaga arrived at the Grammys in an egg to perform her latest hit, Born This Way.
"She enters in an egg, and no one can see her, but everyone knows who it is, and they are fascinated to see what she is going to do," Argo says.
Far from begrudging her success, artists echo Begley's sentiment: "Keep it coming, Gaga."