October 10, 2018 08:00 AM
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Lady Gaga, the Hollywood star, has arrived!

Unlike Ally, the shy, insecure singer she plays opposite Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born, Gaga, 32, born Stefani Germanotta, always felt she was destined for greatness.

PEOPLE’s new cover story goes inside her often-difficult journey to success — and to happiness. “What intrigued me about Ally is she was nothing like I was when I started,” Gaga recently told PEOPLE. “When I wanted to become a singer and decided that I was going to really hit the pavement and try to make it, I really believed in myself. I was intrigued by her vulnerability.”

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

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty

Back in 2008, when hit singles “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” off her blockbuster debut album The Fame made her a household name, few were aware Gaga’s struggle to get there.

“I was bullied and made fun of for having big dreams,” she later recalled of her years at the elite private Catholic school she attended. Being an outcast took its toll, causing her to act out.

“I was a such a bad kid… a f—ing nightmare,” she explained.

This week's PEOPLE cover

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

Dropping out of New York University in 2005, Gaga made a deal with her dad that if things didn’t work out for her music career, she’d go back. She swiftly landed a record deal — and then lost it within a year.

WATCH: Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper Have The Sweetest Friendship!

At the time, “it ruined her life,” says friend Brendan Jay Sullivan, who met her in the early 2000s and wrote the 2013 memoir Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side, and the Prime of Our Lives.

Her dad didn’t force her to return to school, and she continued to take her music and performance art to any stage that would have her.

But “she was not being taken seriously,” Sullivan says. “We heard people say, ‘You’re not pretty enough for a pop star.’ And not behind her back either—to her face.”

That all changed once she became Gaga, a name based on the Queen song “Radio Ga Ga.”

A Star Is Born
Peter Lindbergh/Warner Bros.

Her first producer and later boyfriend, Rob Fusari, who witnessed the creative transformation, says that when he first heard her sing, “it was like watching electricity bouncing off the walls.”

To play Ally, Gaga recently told PEOPLE she had to go “back further into my childhood, into my high school years.”

“That’s where I went . . . to be vulnerable, to be my authentic self,” she said.

A Star Is Born is in theaters now.

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