Lana’s knockout combination of looks and talent must be a tough pill for haters to swallow. Why else would so many anonymous ’Net gangsters have bashed the 25-year-old singer’s powerful albeit minimal output?

It’s been just six months since Del Rey (née Lizzy Grant) let off the shot heard ’round the World Wide Web. The homemade video for her beautiful if slightly eerie single “Video Games” is a dusty collage of clips that she nabbed from YouTube—washed-out home movies, blooming rosebuds, plus a few woozy glimpses of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire vixen Paz de la Huerta—spliced with footage of Lana crooning in a lonely hallway or cruising on a moped. The whole thing made for a bittersweet mood piece with astonishing emotional impact.

 

I was dealing with a lot of emotional turmoil, so I understood what it's like to be at war with yourself.

 

Even more surprising is how quickly it made her a hot commodity. As of press time, “Video Games” had been viewed over 13 million times on YouTube. Its follow-up, “Blue Jeans,” has racked up another 4 million views. Her debut single topped the iTunes chart in 10 different countries. But as with most Internet phenomena, the backlash was swift.

The theory appears to be: Chop down Lana’s glowing amber hair, which streams well past her shoulders. Wipe off her makeup. Oh, and deflate her heavily ogled (and much discussed) lips—pouty even when they’re not puckered. All that remains is an average-looking girl who can’t sing. Right?

Wrong. Dig if you will the picture of Del Rey nestled in producer Emile Haynie’s candlelit Manhattan recording studio on a chilly December evening. She wears a simple tan coat, Velcro-fastened Yankees cap over ponytailed hair, worn pearl flats, and a matching knit sweater. The makeup’s off, too—and she’s still a cutie.

More important is what’s coming from the giant studio monitors as Lana and Haynie—the Kid Cudi collaborator who co-produced the beat for Kanye West’s “Runaway” and is executive producing Born to Die—give an exclusive preview of the new album. Lana belts along with the aching vocals emanating from the speakers, her tone sounding every bit as rich and pure as the record. Homegirl can sing her ass off.

It's not exactly a surprise, though. After she mesmerized that live audience just a week earlier, it was already clear what her voice could do. The show was an unqualified success, save for a few journalists who must have been watching an entirely different performance—not that she read any of their reviews.

“I’m pretty much switched off from it,” Lana says between puffs of a cigarette. “What other people have been saying doesn’t have anything to do with me because I never gave any long interviews to anyone. Ever. Everything is basically fiction.”

An air of mystery has surrounded Del Rey from jump, leaving folks free to fill in the blanks with wild speculation. Tonight is the first time any reporter has gotten a chance to hang with her long enough to cut through the fog and get a decent understanding of who the hell she is. “If you don’t know me,” she adds offhandedly, “you don’t know anything.”

She was born Elizabeth Grant, a small-town girl from Lake Placid, New York. The oldest of three, she sang in church as a child, in the choir during high school, and dropped out of Fordham University as a teen to pursue a career in music. Veteran producer David Kahne (Paul McCartney, The Strokes) was the first industry guy to believe in her. Unfortunately, the independent project they released through iTunes in early 2010 is no longer available for purchase. “I always knew there was something there. It just wasn’t commercial. Regardless, I knew I was going to do my thing.”

The false start wasn’t a crushing blow since music has never been Lana’s reason for living. “It wasn’t sing or die,” she says. “I was also passionate about my community. I felt like I could have gone in several different directions.”

One of those possible directions might have led to a career in social work. While living in NYC, Lana says she worked with people who are “fucked up in the head" helping them get their lives together, get jobs, and "transition into being normal, functional members of society.”

Her interest in people's mental health was no coincidence.  “I think it was because the way my head was when I was younger,” she explains. “I was dealing with a lot of emotional turmoil. So I understood what it's like to be at war with yourself.”

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