When Lady Gaga stepped on stage at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre yesterday to launch her youth foundation, it was hardly a typical appearance for the pop star who has built her reputation with over-the-top theatrics.
She didn’t hatch from an egg, or appear in a dress made of raw steaks. Instead the 25-year-old Gaga wore a subdued full-length black dress and spoke to a polite audience of students, academics, and educational specialists about the Born This Way Foundation, a nonprofit charity whose mission is to “foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated.’’
The official rollout of the foundation was held at Harvard because the university’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and its Graduate School of Education are offering assistance to the fledgling organization.
Gaga - who was joined by Oprah Winfrey, spiritual leader Deepak Chopra, and Kathleen Sebelius, the US Health and Human Services secretary - is counting on her supersize persona, which has already had a major influence on pop culture, to help encourage and fund the foundation’s programs.
“The goal of the Born This Way Foundation is to challenge meanness and cruelty by inspiring young people to create a support system in their respective communities,’’ she said. “This is about changing . . . the school environment, and not putting the power in the hands of the teachers or the government.’’
While Gaga said the organization was not “an antibullying charity,’’ much of the talk yesterday revolved around bullying, both in person and on the Web.
Winfrey said she is lending her support because the foundation’s mission is in line with her personal values.
“What is exciting to me,’’ Winfrey said, “is that thought leaders have gathered together as one force to ask why does bullying and violence and hatred against young people continue in our society and what we can do about it.’’
The foundation has yet to reveal many details about what it will offer, but Gaga did say that it hopes to launch a social media platform. Her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, who is Born This Way’s cofounder, said more details about programs would be forthcoming.
In response to her mother’s remarks, Gaga said with a smile that she would rather refer to “parties’’ than programs.
The foundation is planning a nationwide bus tour, which it says will teach teens about getting involved in civic groups and allow them to connect with mentors. The “Born Brave Bus’’ will also follow the route of Gaga’s next North American tour.
While yesterday’s Harvard launch was no Lady Gaga concert, hundreds of fans gathered outside in the afternoon snow for a glimpse of the singer.
Ryan-Lee Johnson, 21, said he traveled from Britain for the event, which was highlighted by a question-and-answer session. He runs a Gaga fan site and has multiple tattoos honoring his favorite star. “This event encourages and supports all the people who have been through bullying and gives them the bravery to say, ‘This is who I am,’ ’’ he said.
Johnson said he knows firsthand the impact of bullying. “A bully wrapped me in a tennis net and beat me,’’ he said. “The doctor said I was so lucky to still be here.’’
The star power behind the group immediately makes it one of the nation’s highest-profile efforts against bullying, which has been gaining more attention from education specialists, policy makers, and politicians. Some recent suicides tied to bullying, including the death of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley in 2010, have led to new laws meant to combat such behavior. According to the Berkman Center, 48 states have enacted some form of legislation that requires schools to form bullying policies.
But Gaga said laws won’t make bullying disappear. “There is no federal law that can change these problems,’’ she said. “The only way to solve the problem is to change the environment.’’
Gaga’s celebrity status will bring new attention to the problem, said Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Corp. in Cambridge, who will serve as a research fellow for the foundation. “She can bring attention to the table. She cares deeply about the issue,’’ said Boyd.
In recent years, Gaga has been outspoken on various social and political issues. She campaigned against the military’s now-abandoned “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy, which allowed gays and lesbians to serve as long as they hid their sexual orientation. She has also advocated in favor of laws allowing gay marriage.
No matter what message she wants to promote, Gaga can wield an enormous virtual bullhorn to attract attention: She has almost 20 million Twitter followers and 48 million Facebook fans.
A November report from the nonprofit Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., found that 20 percent of teenagers said they had been bullied in the past year. The report said that while most bullying still happens face-to-face, 8 percent of teens said they were the victim of bullying through e-mail, social media, or instant messaging. Another 9 percent said they were bullied via text message.
John Palfrey, the Berkman Center’s faculty codirector who is working with the foundation, said bullying on the playground or in schools isn’t drastically different from cyberbullying.
But there are some distinctions, according to Palfrey. Online bullying can often last longer because the taunting or harassment can remain for months or even years on websites such as Facebook or Twitter, he said, “and that skews the effect on the person who is being bullied.’’
Michael B. Farrell can be reached at email@example.com.