October 12, 2018 08:30 AM

Lady Gaga fought an uphill battle to find the superstardom she enjoys now.

The Grammy winner, 32, is earning rave reviews for her turn as a blossoming singer in A Star Is Born, and an old friend of the star says the beginning of her career looked a little like her character Ally’s in the movie. Brendan Jay Sullivan, who was close with Gaga during her early days in New York City, tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story that the superstar was often overlooked.

“She was struggling a lot back then like Ally is in the movie, because she was not being taken seriously,” Sullivan says. “They’d say, ‘Oh you’re just downtown cool but I can’t sell you to mainstream America.’ We heard people say ‘You’re not pretty enough for a pop star.’ And not behind her back either – to her face. Which is crazy because she’s the most glamorous person there is.”

RELATED: Lady Gaga’s Emotional Journey from Bullied Teen to Pop Star to Hollywood’s Newest Leading Lady

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
Peter Lindbergh/Warner Bros.

For more about Gaga, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.

Yet Sullivan says the image of Gaga that exists now was always within the struggling star.

“When you’re young, your wiring of who you are on the inside isn’t fully out there yet,” he says. “But the Gaga you see now with the hair and the Gucci dress on the red carpet, that’s who she really is. That’s who she was all along. I got to help watch the transformation in real time.”

Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock

Before she became the glamorous musician and actress she is now, Gaga suffered a major set back early on her career. After dropping out of NYU, she was quickly signed by Def Jam, a major record company that houses Rihanna, JAY-Z, Justin Bieber, Kanye Wests and dozens more high-profile acts. But within a year, Gaga was abruptly dropped from the label.

“It ruined her life,” Sullivan says. “She was going to be this manufactured record industry creation, but lost the deal. So I got to meet her at a very pivotal part of her life — she already had a big deal and lost it.”

A Star Is Born
Neal Preston/Warner Bros.

RELATED: Lady Gaga’s Ex-Fiancé Taylor Kinney Says He’s ‘Really Proud’ of Her Star Is Born Success

Still, Gaga kept pushing and eventually got back on track and started releasing hit after hit. But Sullivan says the star always kept her eye on the prize, and wanted to get to a point where she could influence the future of the industry.

“Always from the beginning she believed that Lady Gaga was just phase one,” he says. “She told me one time, ‘There’s a musical government that gets to decide what we hear and listen to and I want to be part of that government.’ I believe she’ll do that.”

A Star Is Born is in theaters now.

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