On Thursday 1st February 2018, our entertainment editor Becki saw Lady Gaga perform live at Birmingham’s Genting Arena. We didn’t know it then, but it was the last date she would perform on her Joanne World Tour. Two days later, she announced the cancellation of the rest of the tour due to chronic pain.
“I already knew of Gaga’s fibromyalgia,” says Becki. “The original date I was supposed to see her concert was back in October, but the European leg of her tour had to be rescheduled because of the pain she was in. On Thursday, as I watched her dance in that jerky, energetic way she has that is at once erratic and beautiful, I remember quite clearly thinking: I hope she isn’t in pain. When I learnt of the cancellation of her remaining tour dates, I was heartbroken to realise that she probably was. You couldn’t tell. She put her all into her performance. It was, quite honestly, the best show of my life so far. I was moved to tears on more than one occasion, during her powerful songs and her heartfelt performance.”
Lady Gaga’s issues with chronic pain are a core feature of her 2017 Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two. It seems a lot more people now know about fibromyalgia since Gaga’s diagnosis. Before then, I would have to (inaccurately) describe it as ‘a bit like arthritis, but more in your muscles’. It’s actually more to do with nerves and pain signals, but that’s not as easy to get into the 10 seconds while someone is still listening.
In the documentary, viewers are given a glimpse into the woman behind the elaborate costumes, the frantic dance moves, even the soft pink Joanne hat. Between scenes of Gaga recording and promoting her latest album, she can be seen lying flat and crying over the physical pain she is in. She explains that despite the pain, she has a team around her to help and support her – and that she has no idea how those with less privilege cope with the same debilitating condition. As her team hustle around her to try and provide some comfort, she turns to the camera and asks in a small voice: “Do I look pathetic?”
It’s hard to watch, and I struggled to remain dry-eyed. “I’m so embarrassed” she says, which is a feeling I struggle with every day. You’re in so much pain in response to things other people can just do and you think that you’re fundamentally wrong and pathetic and should be ashamed of yourself. The solidarity of seeing someone like Gaga experiencing the same kind of helplessness is what will stick with me from the documentary, despite having to take breaks to finish crying.
As Gaga prepares for the Super Bowl 2017 halftime performance, an event she says “her whole life has been leading to”, her condition appears to worsen. At one point, she sits in a doctor’s office about to undergo trigger point injections, and her team tell her they need to get her ready for an interview. She half laughs at the camera asking: “who gets their makeup done while undergoing a medical procedure?” But she sits there, with needles in her back and a contour brush on her face. She tells her doctors: “The fury in all of this is that I’m f*cking strong, and I still can be. And when I feel the adrenaline in my music and my fans, I can f*cking go. But it doesn’t mean I’m not in pain.”
One of the key things about fibromyalgia is the delayed issues it can give you – which is one of the things that probably makes it most misunderstood. I can do a weekend in a big city walking around and sightseeing in the same way Gaga can do a concert in that incredibly physical way that she performs, but then pay for that for days afterwards. The fact that it was two days since the concert Becki attended and the announcement of the cancellation does not surprise me in the slightest.
Gaga’s main problems with this kind of pain came following breaking her hip. My physiotherapist told me that a lot of the worst of fibromyalgia can be triggered by an injury immediately followed by a period of stress. Gaga’s engagement broke up not long after her hip injury, and she was in the process of starting the Joanne album as well. I injured my shoulder just in time for my last six months of university. I don’t know about Gaga, but I had some pain issues prior to my injury, and it isn’t the case that every injury with stress will cause widespread pain issues like this, but it’s a theory of how the worst of fibromyalgia may come about from an epigenetic standpoint – disposition plus environmental trigger.
It’s been just about 1 year since my Super Bowl Haltime show! Celebrate by watching here ???https://t.co/mMGjxWT1rB
— Lady Gaga (@ladygaga) February 7, 2018
Later on in the documentary, as Gaga stressfully rehearses for her Super Bowl performance, in between numbers she’s lying on a sofa being stretched, burying her face into a pillow so that she doesn’t scream. It’s horrible and powerful and heartbreaking… and it’s something that so many others go through and, as Gaga herself points out, without the aid of wealth and fame and teams of medical professionals and assistants around to help.
It would have been easy for this to be a documentary about Gaga’s privilege in terms of her experiences with fibromyalgia – but she’s always been one to stick up for the little guy. A recent Stonewall report shows that high numbers of trans people are disabled, and disability is an intersection that is as important in feminism as the rest.
My mum was diagnosed with fibromyalgia probably 10 years before I was, but we both only properly learned what it was when a doctor said it was possible I had it – I hope Gaga helps push towards others not ignoring something that can have such a profound effect on your life.
You can learn more about fibromyalgia from the NHS website here, and plenty of resources are available online about fibromyalgia as a condition and about Lady Gaga’s experiences with it in particular.
The documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two is currently streaming on Netflix.
If you have questions about fibromyalgia, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch this space for a more detailed look at fibromyalgia, including an Ask Me Anything.