A Star Was Born: How New Kids on the Block Helped Propel Lady Gaga to Fame (Exclusive)
By Leena Tailor
Photo: Brian Babineau
It was June 10, 2008, when New Kids on the Block fan and budding musician, Stefani Germanotta, rocked up to music mogul Jimmy Iovine’s recording studio and rehearsal space, the Thom Thom Club, in Los Angeles, California, excited to meet the Massachusetts boy band.
The New York native, aka Lady Gaga, was 22 and spending her days songwriting and chasing her musical aspirations across the road at Interscope Records, when A&R executive Aimee Nadeau and her colleague, Vince Herbert (who helped discover and develop Gaga) invited her to tag along as they popped in to visit another one of their clients -- New Kids on the Block, who had reunited and were preparing for their comeback album and tour.
“Vince and I were going over and Gaga was hanging out with us, so we were like, ‘Gaga, come meet them,’” recalls Nadeau, a lifelong "Blockhead," whose early encounters with Donnie Wahlberg helped ignite a career in music. “I remember going across the street with her and walking into their rehearsal and that was one of the first times she met them. She was definitely a fan and super excited to meet them -- especially Donnie! She was meeting a lot of people at the time because we would put her in songwriting sessions with Michael Bolton or Akon, but with New Kids she was wide-eyed for sure.”
Danny Wood, 49, says the group knew little about the young singer as she turned up wearing a scarf over her head. “We knew ‘Just Dance,’ and that was heating up at the time, but we didn’t know much else about her,” he says. “I’ll never forget she came into one of our rehearsals and talked to us and you could tell there was something about her. She came in with a scarf over her head and sunglasses on and we were rehearsing in sweats, all sweaty! She was really complimentary of us.”
Two months prior, New Kids on the Block had announced their reunion following a 14-year hiatus, while Lady Gaga had dropped her debut single, “Just Dance,” four days later. It was a significant week for both pioneering pop acts, but it was the summer that followed during which the quintet would give Gaga a key shot in the studio and on the road, helping elevate the songstress to the level of superstardom which has seen her win six GRAMMY awards and just nab two Academy Award nominations.
Gaga’s path to showbiz was clearly established by the time she met the pop heartthrobs. Having reportedly started learning the piano at the age of four, by the time she dropped out of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she had birthed a fan base thanks to her college band, SGBand. Starting to work with producer Rob Fusari, she also created a pop burlesque show with a dancer named Lady Starlight, landed songwriting work with Sony/ATV, and started collaborating with producer and songwriter RedOne.
RedOne quickly saw her star-power potential and would sing her praises to anyone who would listen -- particularly Wahlberg, whom he had become close pals with and was working with at the time on New Kids on the Block’s reunion record, The Block, thanks to an introduction by Nadeau. “I always used to talk to Donnie about Gaga,” the hitmaker recalls. “I was like, ‘She’s an amazing girl and amazing songwriter. She’s going to be the future!’”
Nadeau, who was instrumental in helping New Kids on the Block sign their Interscope Records deal, and her team were also pushing for Gaga to get writing with the group. “We were all like, ‘Come on, she’s a dope writer, you should have her in some of these writing sessions!’”
RedOne says he eventually brought Gaga to the studio. “I asked if she could work with us and Donnie said, ‘Yeah, absolutely,’” he says. “She did an amazing song with us and Donnie and the group were happy and got to know her.”
Although the plan was to get Gaga writing with the guys, Jordan Knight, 48, saw the potential for more. “I actually suggested that she do the duet with us,” he said in the band’s 2012 biography, New Kids on the Block: Five Brothers and a Million Sisters, penned by Nikki Van Noy. “At first she was just going to be a writer. She’s this dynamic personality with an incredible voice, was on Interscope, and they were ready to push her out, so [I said,] ‘Let’s do a duet.’ It fit right in.”
"She’s a force," adds Joey McIntyre, 46, while talking to ET about the singer's rise. "She's just a wonderful person and a good spirit and we noticed that right away. She was so unselfish with her talent in the studio 10 years ago and that was lovely."
Gaga co-wrote and featured on “Big Girl Now,” and also helped pen another fan favorite, “Full Service,” with Wahlberg and RedOne.
Magic! frontman Nasri Atweh was a key songwriter on The Block and believes Gaga’s involvement with the record provided a powerful boost to her inevitable stardom. “They broke her,” he says. “At that time, she was like, ‘My name is Stefani.’ It was like a totally different person. Donnie and I went to see her perform and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is a modern-day Madonna/Cher.’ Everyone was like, ‘She’s going to be the biggest star in the world.’”
Meanwhile, New Kids on the Block had a rapidly selling tour coming up, with a planned 10-date run snowballing into 150 North American and European shows between 2008 and 2010. Eyeing the potential reach of the tour, Nadeau and Herbert encouraged the band to consider Gaga, and other clients like Tami Chynn, as openers, with Herbert said to have pushed Interscope Records co-founder Iovine for financial support for Gaga’s production and dancers.
RedOne also pleaded with Wahlberg, 49, to take Gaga on the road. “I was like, ‘You guys are going on tour and have a sold-out run in Canada. Can you take her with you, please?’” says the musician, who also produced some of Gaga's biggest hits, including "Poker Face" and "Just Dance." “I begged him and he did me a personal favor by taking her on tour because she was a totally new artist back then. When an artist is not big, it’s definitely a favor. I was like, ‘Please -- you guys have sold-out shows and we need the world to know her. She’s talented. Help me -- believe in her.’ He was like, ‘I’m going to do it for you,’ then convinced the group. The guys said, ‘You know what? Yes, she’s talented. We’ll do it for you, Red.’ So, she went on tour with them in Canada and it was awesome.”
By the time the tour kicked off in September 2008, Gaga, who also opened for select U.S. dates, had dropped her debut record, The Fame, and weeks later she would release one of her biggest hits, “Poker Face.” However, it wasn’t until the following year that both “Poker Face” and “Just Dance” would top the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and in the meantime, the driven star continued to hustle, with Jonathan Knight remembering how she would jet off to other gigs as soon as each performance wrapped. “It was trippy just watching her open for us, then after the show she’d disappear and go play tons of nightclubs late at night and come back,” the 50-year-old musician and television star says. “She was hustling back then … and then she just blew up.”
“She’s the hardest-working artist I’ve ever known,” reiterates Nadeau, who now works in A&R for BMG Records. “On tour, she would go on at 8.30/9 p.m., jump offstage, run to one club and do an appearance, go to another club and do an appearance, be up all night working with DJs, then be on a phoner at 5 a.m. for radio stations. She worked her butt off. That girl didn’t sleep for two years -- it was insane.”
“New Kids played a huge part in breaking her and I don’t think the world knows or gives them enough credit -- she got fast-tracked to playing arenas which is difficult to do, and the world was really paying attention when they came back, so it helped her 100%,” Nadeau adds. “But she also took advantage of that opportunity. Some opening acts are like, ‘Here’s my new single,’ and she was like, ‘Where are the Jordan girls sitting tonight? Are you ready for New Kids? Are you excited as I am?’ She got accepted by the fans by warming them up so well, she went to all the stations, she met all the DJs, she played all the clubs. She took the opportunity extremely seriously, whereas a lot of artists don’t.”
Wood says that it was seeing Gaga in action during the tour, which emphasized she was destined for fame. “When we started the tour, that’s when you knew she was going to be a star,” he shares. “We were lucky enough to tour with her and it was a great experience. She was always very sweet. Then, hearing her whole record, it was like, ‘She’s got four or five number one records on here. She’s going to be gone!’”
“She always had that aura about her of she’s going to be star,” continues Wood, who recalls being stunned when Gaga turned up sans wig and makeup to a birthday party his friends later threw him in Los Angeles. “I didn’t think it would be as big as she is now … no one did. You never can imagine that with anyone -- not with us, not with anyone -- but she definitely had something special and we all saw it.”
“We launched another legend,” McIntyre laughed during the band's October interview with ET. “She was amazing. We had a great relationship with her. Her spirit -- you could tell she was determined. The rest is history.”
While Wood, Knight and Atweh agree that a star would be born regardless of how she got her break, RedOne credits the group taking her on tour for her most pivotal breakthrough. “That was her first big show, ever. That was the world’s first look at Lady Gaga -- with New Kids on the Block,” he says. “She was just starting and nobody knew her. There were all these big tours and none of them would [take her,] but Donnie did it for her and for me. Then she became big after that.”
Adds Nadeau: “I saw her at one of the clubs on Cahuenga [in Hollywood] early on and she was playing for 200 people and we had everyone at the label come out and she was going on a whole club tour. The next time I saw her perform was on a giant stage at the Staples Center opening for New Kids. She went from playing for 200 people, if she was lucky, to playing for almost 20,000 people and that really was her education and her fast track. She got to learn how to perform on a big stage. There was never that small in-between for her, building from 200 to 1,000 to 20,000-seater venues … she got catapulted right into it.”
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EXCLUSIVE: Jonathan Knight Opens Up About Hiding His Sexuality As a Teen
While the tour gave Gaga a platform to develop the live performance skills which have since seen her become a hot property in touring, it also proved significant in helping prove her worth to label executives. According to Nadeau, when Gaga was signed by the label, she “wasn’t top priority by any means,” and part of Herbert’s strategy was to build her in the Australian and Canadian markets to help garner subsequent attention back in the U.S. Nadeau says when Gaga “started blowing up” in those territories, the label’s interest and financial backing for the songstress grew, but she truly hit Iovine’s superstar radar after he witnessed her in action.
“I remember going to a show the guys played at the Kodak Theatre and backstage, Jimmy Iovine basically told my boss, ‘Tonight was the first night that I looked up on that stage and realized, ‘Wow, she could actually be a big star,’’’ Nadeau says. “And, that was well into her already having hits in Canada and Australia and being on the tour. So, it really did help even the label to see her as a star.”
“At that point in my career I had never worked with an artist where it snowballed so quickly,” Nadeau adds about the beautiful chaos that ensued. “You’re constantly pitching and begging and calling in favors, just trying to get as much exposure and opportunities as you can for an artist, who doesn’t have a track record. With Gaga, it was like a snowball that was getting bigger and bigger and rolling down a hill so quickly that we couldn’t keep up. People were calling us like crazy to get her to do interviews, feature on records, write with people. It was crazy.”
The scene backstage during those days was likely a stark contrast to today, with Nadeau recalling how she would often visit Gaga before or after her set and be the only person there to see her in certain cities. “Michael Bolton’s kids wanted to meet her at one point, which was fun,” she says. “I went to Madison Square Garden and took his daughter and her friend backstage. She was so accessible during that time, whereas now it’s probably like insanity.”
Wahlberg helped present her with the Best Pop Vocal Album award for Born This Way at the GRAMMY Awards in 2011. The Blue Bloods star also took to Twitter to declare how “epic” her career-defining performance at the Super Bowl LI halftime show was in 2017, while Jonathan Knight praises the eccentric flair which he admits made him wonder how anyone would relate to her back when she started touring with the band.
“It’s been so cool to witness her growth from day one to where she is now,” he says. “I think she came along at a good time when society was changing and we were becoming more accepting of difference, so it’s been pretty cool to watch her rise.”