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The Cornelia Street Cafe
Photograph: Courtesy of DW labs Incorporated/Shutterstock

Did Lady Gaga actually work at NYC’s Cornelia Street Café?

An investigation

Amber Sutherland-Namako
Written by
Amber Sutherland-Namako
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I worked at The Cornelia Street Café in the West Village around about 2007-2008, but not for the entirety of either of those years. I was a server some Saturdays and Sundays and a bartender during the week. If I had to prove my period of employment there, odds are that at least a few of the people I worked with would remember me, a handful of friends would testify about having visited me during shifts and I could probably contact the Bravo network for further confirmation, which is a story for another day. 

The Cornelia Street Café first opened in 1977. Multi-hyphenate creatives Robin Hirsch, Charles McKenna and Raphaela Pivetta aimed to create an artists’ respite, and Cornelia’s downstairs stage and bar became one of the city’s best small venues, hosting literary readings, comedy shows and musicians like Suzanne Vega, Jeff Buckley and innumerable unknowns. It also went on to have good food. The Cornelia Street Café closed on January 2, 2019 due to an untenable rent increase. 

Lady Gaga, née Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, was born in Manhattan on March 28, 1986 to a family wealthier than most. She presently appears in the film House of Gucci. In the intervening decades, the notion that she quit school, eschewed her parents' cash and worked at The Cornelia Street Café has become a part of NYC pop culture canon: A part that I have never believed to be true. 

Was just a waitress on Cornelia, now I’m living my dreams, b-a-b-y, oh,” she sang in an improvised rendition of “Poker Face” on an October 3, 2009 Saturday Night Live performance. 

But it’s never added up. If, in fact, Lady Gaga had worked at Cornelia, why had I never heard about it within the confines of the restaurant? Although Germanotta had not yet accrued the exceptional renown she has today, by 2007 she was already known as Lady Gaga at Lollapalooza and in magazine spreads. And, being that a fair amount of my Cornelia coworkers were aspiring entertainers, it would follow that her success story would have created a modicum of buzz. 

I’ve discussed this vexing urban legend with countless people over the years. Relative strangers, other former Cornelia staffers and even friends—people I trusted—believed it to be true. There are probably people in this world whom I have met only in passing who walked away with the impression that not believing Lady Gaga worked at The Cornelia Street Café was my personality. And why do I care? 

For one, it is uncomfortably irksome to have this kind of unfalsifiable anecdote at odds with something absent the ring of truth. You can Google most stuff. And if Lady Gaga or I had worked at The Cornelia Street Café a few years later we’d have probably had some digital snapshot of the time. Even given my own relatively late entrée to social media, I’d have likely ended up on somebody else's. It’s dizzying that such local history involving one of the most famous people in the world is so hard to verify. 

“She did not work at The Cornelia Street Café.” 

Even though my tenure there was truncated, it’s still a special place to have an attachment to. To get the job, I’d applied to an unspecified Craigslist ad and lucked out that it turned out to be for someplace cool, unlike the Champagne-oriented spot that’d requested a headshot (“You looked like a doll,” the interviewer said when we met in person, before ultimately declining to hire me. I photograph well.) or the subterranean pseudo-speakeasy that required applicants to wear seamed stockings to an audition. Those places were casting but Cornelia was hiring and those places were bad but Cornelia was good and it just doesn’t seem right that a person who’s already attached to so much that’s special should become attached to even more that they aren’t really tethered to. 

corneliastreetcafe4
Photograph courtesy of: Aubrey Therkelsen

It was something I needed to settle once and for all—so I called Robin Hirsch, one of Cornelia’s founders, who remains an NYC performing arts fixture

Stefani rings a bell but I cannot for the life of me place her,” he said. “There were rumors from the start of her career that she worked here.”

Hirsch also recalled the tour groups that used to come into the restaurant and others in the area, alluding to Lady Gaga when they came by, though he also overheard one guide asserting that she worked at Palma across the way. It’s a restaurant on Cornelia Street, but not The Cornelia Street Café.

“If she writes in a song something about working on Cornelia Street, this is the place that people are going to think that she worked,” Hirsch said. 

This was strangely encouraging even though it didn’t seem to get me any closer to a conclusion. I reported my findings to a friend, and he gave me the contact information of yet another person who might be among the Lady-Gaga-worked-at-Cornelia believers, but at least it was one I hadn’t met yet. Plus, maybe she was more active on social media back then and had revealing photo buried somewhere in Myspace or something. 

“She did not work at The Cornelia Street Café,” Jackie Brenneman told me over the phone. “She worked at Palma restaurant on Cornelia Street.” 

Brenneman lived on Cornelia Street around 2005 and was a regular at Palma, where some of her friends worked with Germanotta. 

“When she was working at Palma she did often play her own music, but she wasn’t going by Lady Gaga at the time. And her sound was a much more kind of acoustic sound.”

Brenneman was there at times when Germanotta was working, and they socialized the way people with mutual friends in common do. Once, at a small party, the host said in advance of her arrival that Germanotta had recently signed a record deal and adopted a new moniker. When Lady Gaga got there she was styled in a way that would be more recognizable today than during her brief turn at Palma. 

Many months later, Brenneman was traveling with her now husband when she spotted a Lady Gaga poster in a window. This lead to Brenneman’s own own mystery; one that mirrored mine.

“My friends, including my friend who had worked with her, did not believe me that Stefani was Lady Gaga. They hadn’t been at this particular party and the look and stuff is just very different,” she said. 

“So no one in my friend circle who had come out with her many times believed me until the [2009] SNL performance, which now I’m realizing is many years later. And then all of my friends finally realized that I was telling the truth.”

So, for a period of time Brenneman was insisting that Lady Gaga had worked at Palma and nobody would listen and I was insisting that Lady Gaga had not worked at The Cornelia Street Café and nobody would listen and she was certainly correct and I . . . still feel like it’s just a little unclear. 

None of this yet proves that Germanotta did not work at The Cornelia Street Café. Representatives for Lady Gaga did not respond to inquiries. Neither did anyone from Palma, although Lady Gaga did reportedly at least intend to return to the restaurant on one occasion.

So I asked Brenneman whether there was any reason to believe that Germanotta had worked at both restaurants. 

“I don’t have any personal knowledge of her working at Cornelia Street Café,” she said. “I’d never heard that before.” 

I wish I could say the same. 

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