When "Judas" came to them, they were ready. Lady Gaga's latest music video premiered on May 5, and within hours, her fans her "little monsters," as they call themselves were responding in droves. Nicolina Asaro, a 20-year-old accounting student from Staten Island, N.Y., retro-engineered Gaga's "Judas" makeup, including her filigreed Egyptian eyeliner design, and posted a tutorial on YouTube. A 15-year-old from Finland who goes by the name Minzana uploaded an intricate pencil drawing of Gaga holding her "Judas" lipstick gun, which quickly made the rounds of many Gaga fan sites. Ten-year-old Timmy DeMott shot a video of himself singing "Judas" using his family's kitchen as a stage and a banana as a microphone. Lady Gaga linked to DeMott's video on Twitter ("What a banana cutie!"). And when Gaga tweets, people pay attention. She has nearly 9.9 million followers more than anyone else, including Justin Bieber and President Obama. Her Twitter bio is two words long: "mother monster."
There is much that is superlative and unprecedented about Gaga, from her seemingly overnight success (she's the first artist to hit No. 1 on Billboard's Pop Songs chart with her first five singles) to her spectacular sense of presentation (who else would arrive at the Grammys in a giant translucent egg, then hatch out of it for her performance?). But what might be the most over-the-top thing about Gaga more than the meat dress or the horns protruding from her skin in the "Born This Way" video or the triple-platinum sales of her debut album, The Fame is her obsessive, abundantly creative fan base. And true to her innovative spirit, Gaga has forged a reciprocal relationship with her acolytes unlike that of any other pop-music icon. "They are the kings. They are the queens," declares Gaga, who has little monsters tattooed on her left arm. "I am something of a devoted jester." (Imagine how bizarre this would sound coming from the imperious likes of Madonna or Kanye West.) That unconditional devotion is expressed in the be-yourself anthem "Born This Way," the first single off her new album of the same name (out May 23).
Of course, no matter how many declarations of love and reverence Gaga makes from the stage or her keyboard ("Been crying reading all your beautiful messages for my new song," she tweeted on May 9 after she released the power-disco track "The Edge of Glory"), devotion is not the same as intimacy. The mother monster doesn't even pretend to let her fan-children get close to Stefani Germanotta, the 25-year-old beneath the wigs and latex. What Gaga is selling is a perfectly mannered facade. As she put it last year, "I would rather die than have my fans not see me in a pair of high heels."
She's also selling adoration, appreciation and a tribal sense of protection. Gaga is particularly committed to gay-rights causes: she's donating part of the proceeds from a remix of "Born This Way" to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Most of all, she inspires little monsters to make stuff to consume her product, yes, but also to create their own. Gaga's network of disciples is a subculture unto itself, with its own language ("Put your paws up!" is a little-monsters rallying cry derived from a dance move in the "Bad Romance" video) and its own celebrities. Michelle Phan's YouTube guide to replicating Gaga's "Poker Face" look silver eye shadow, lightning bolt has been viewed over 27 million times. Anna Chong, a recent graduate of the London College of Fashion, constructed a line of Gaga-inspired doll outfits for the toy company Harumika (Chong's fabric of choice for the meat dress: Parma ham). When young cartoonist Elena Barbarich created a poster for the "Telephone" video, starring Gaga and Beyoncé, Gaga called it brilliant on Twitter spurring another fan to have the image tattooed on his torso (on his right side, which in monsterville is a bit of a faux pas: Lady Gaga promised her father she would leave the right side of her body tattoo-free, and many of her ink-stained fans follow suit).