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:

By John W. Miller | reprinted from | 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 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.


CHARACTERS | The “Spark-eyed” Vision of WV Poet Bob Snyder: oct20.2020: Influential West Virginia-native poet Bob Snyder died in 1995. But a new collection of his poetry exemplifies why, says a fellow poet: “Every West Virginia writer should know Bob. At least know about him. You may not ever get the whole story, but this book will help you understand some of it.”

CHARACTERS: A Portrait of the Artist in Her Garden: aug20.2020: Sassa Wilkes paints every day. Now, she is painting in a different fashion, using the Earth as a palette. A portrait of a West Virginia artist growing things in a big way for the first time, thanks to Covid-19.

CHARACTERS | Recalling Stick Artist-Poet-Philosopher-Shaman Boyd Carr: july26.2020: Boyd Carr, who died at age 88 this summer 2020, was many things. West Virginia-based poet Kirk Judd recalls a man he describes as “one of the few true geniuses I have known. He was brilliant in his use of language and in the art of storytelling.”

CHARACTERS: A Rebel of the Decidedly Non-Confederate Sort: july16.2020: She hated several things, one of which she called“narrowmindedness,” a catchall term for her that included racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, science-denying, disapproval of card playing, abstinence from wine and other offenses against humanity.

CHARACTERS | The One-Armed Bandit of No. 1 Holler, West Virginia: june27.2020: The life story of the “The One-Armed Bandit” is the stuff of heroes and legends. You may not know Gary Mays’ tale, though, as the major league career the West Virginia native might have had may have been blocked by racism. But nothing ever kept Gary Mays down for long.

DON WEST | Part 2: “May It Be So”: june6.2020: Long before it became fashionable, Don West fought the passive hillbilly stereotype by pointing to mountain labor’s traditions of struggle and solidarity.


5 QUESTIONS: John W. Miller on taking a deep dive into a small West Virginia town: dec15.2020: Once a thriving West Virginia town whose region produced everything from cigars to classic toys like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Moundsville—population 8,400 souls—looks to figure out where it goes from here. The new 2020 documentary “Moundsville” considers the town’s past and present—and its future possibilities.

West Virginia’s minor league baseball teams suffer major league disappointment: dec11.2020: West Virginia has a rich baseball past, with affiliated pro teams going back over a century, but Major League Baseball just cut its ties to the state’s four minor league teams.

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