CHARACTERS: The West Virginia brain drain made one of the world’s greatest popstars


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“Characters” is a series profiling people with a West Virginia connection—living or dead & not necessarily natives—worth knowing more about. We define ‘character’ as being one and having some.


Lady Gaga at premiere of “A Star is Born” in London, September 27, 2018. Courtesy of Wikimedia. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

By John W. Miller | reprinted from Moundsville.org | dec18.2020

Lady Gaga’s mom, Cynthia Bissett, is one of tens of thousands who left the northern panhandle of West Virginia in the 1970s and 1980s, as factories, mines and smelters closed, a phenomenon Dave Bernabo and I explored in our PBS film “Moundsville”.

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 around Moundsville. These celebrities don’t define the region, but they’re a reminder of how much talent the region is capable of producing—and the people who have stayed behind certainly appreciate how they help forge a connection to the wider American world.

In the case of Gaga—born Sefani Germanotta—that connection is alive. In early November 2020, the day before the election, the musical star campaigned for Joe Biden in Pittsburgh as she touted her West Virginia roots.

She still visits her family. “It’s not uncommon to have a Gaga sighting,” Nora Edinger, a Wheeling-based writer, told me. “You’ll hear about her popping up at the Kroger, or in a restaurant.”

That happened once recent 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. She dined with family and friends in the same room where, a few weeks later, we held a party after the premiere of our documentary at a Moundsville theater. 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!


People in West Virginia still talk about Gaga’s mom. Cynthia Bissett attended John Marshall High School near Moundsville and then West Virginia University, before moving to New York City. In a 2010 story, the Charleston Gazette quoted Becky Lofstead, who went to school with Lady Gaga’s mom.


A 2009 “Rolling Stone” magazine cover photo of Lady Gaga. She bounced back all bubbly from the time she needed a pep talk from her West Virginia grandma.

“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 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.


“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.’” ~ Lady Gaga’s WV grandmother to the singer


Bissett reared Gaga—born Sefani Germanotta—in New York City, but she got some help from her mom, Ronnie, who stayed behind in West Virginia.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 of her age.

Said the singer:

“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.’”


Image from Lady Gaga page at SuperStarBio.

If Gaga got gritty Appalachian pep talks from her grandma, she inherited a golden voice from her grandpa. Paul Bissett, Sr. was a legendary West Virginia amateur crooner in the 1960s, singing at weddings, birthdays and public events. A woman named Mary Butler emailed me to tell the charming story of Mr. Bissett singing at her wedding:

“Not only was Paul Bissett a State Farm Agent, he was gifted with a beautiful voice.  He sang in the McMechen Methodist Choir, but also in the McMechen Mens Chorus.  The chorus was directed by Ray Ponzo, bass player in the Wheeling Symphony, band director at Union High School in Benwood and later for Shadyside High School.  The chorus sang at many events around the Ohio Valley.  Paul sang ‘The Twelfth Of Never’ at my wedding.  My uncle, Earl Summers, Jr. played the violin, making it a very musical wedding.”

When Bissett died in 2013, his obituary noted that he was a “a very well-known singer throughout the [Ohio] valley.” Among his survivors, it mentioned “his loving wife of 63 years, Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Ferrie Bissett,” and four grandchildren, including a woman named Stefani Germanotta — otherwise known as Lady Gaga.


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