One of the people who left the Moundsville area in the 1970s, part of a wave of exiles portrayed in the movie Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here), was Cynthia Bissett, mother of mega popstar of the universe Lady Gaga.
Bissett raised Gaga, aka Sefani Germanotta, in New York, but her own mother, Ronnie, still lives in Glen Dale, next to Moundsville. (The two are twinned in many ways, sharing a high school — John Marshall, which Cynthia attended — parks and other facilities.) The family doesn’t talk to the media, but Lady Gaga still visits.
“It’s not uncommon to have a Gaga sighting,” says Nora Edinger, a Wheeling-based writer for Weelunk.com, a trendy media start-up that covers the region. “You’ll hear about her popping up at Kroger, or in a restaurant.”
That happened in November, when Gaga shopped for Thanksgiving groceries at Kroger, which was reported by TMZ. She also showed up at the Later Alligator, a cozy restaurant off Wheeling’s main square, and dined with family and friends in the same room where, a few weeks later, we held a party after the premiere of Moundsville at the Strand theatre (in Moundsville.) As Weelunk.com reported:
“One of the servers who has waited on the family for years, said, ‘Susan, guess who’s in the back room?’… ‘I don’t know’ … [She] said, ‘Lady Gaga’s in the back room!’ and my heart fell on the floor!
Gaga isn’t the only celebrity with ties to the area. Country music star Brad Paisley and Hall of Fame baseball player George Brett also have roots in the northern part of West Virginia.
In a 2010 story, The Charleston Gazette quoted Becky Lofstead, who went to school with Lady Gaga’s mom.
“I remember Cindy,” Lofstead said. “We were sorority sisters. We both pledged Chi Omega back in the fall of 1972.” Lofstead remembered Bissett as being very outgoing, smart and having a flair for fashion. She was also a cheerleader.
“Cindy was just this young, beautiful brunette — everyone liked her. Lady Gaga actually looks a lot like Cindy — only blonde.” The two lived in the sorority house their junior year. Lofstead remembers Bissett was just about the only one who could cook. After graduation, they lost touch. Bissett later moved to New York and married Joseph Germanotta.
Lady Gaga herself posted this picture of her mom in a WVU cheerleader outfit.
In a 2010 Vanity Fair story, Gaga recalled visiting her grandmother during a rough patch before securing her current status as one of the greatest pop stars who’s ever lived.
“All I will say is I hit rock bottom, and it was enough to send a person over the edge. My mother knew the truth about that day, and she screamed so loud on the other end of the phone, I’ll never forget it. And she said, ‘I’m coming to get you.’” Gaga says they went to her 82-year-old grandmother’s house in West Virginia. “I cried. I told her I thought my life was over and I have no hope and I’ve worked so hard, and I knew I was good. What would I do now? And she said, ‘I’m gonna let you cry for a few more hours. And then after those few hours are up, you’re gonna stop crying, you’re gonna pick yourself up, you’re gonna go back to New York, and you’re gonna kick some ass.’”
That she did. A star was born. As the natural gas boom has wracked the coal industry, and factories have fled West Virginia in the last few decades, a lot of creative cultural energy has also left the region. But the stubborn spirit and work ethic that mined coal, hammered steel and assembled toys on the factory line live on in people like Lady Gaga, and her mother and grandmother, and the eternal wisdom that all you can ever do, really, is pick yourself up.
John W. Miller