Beth Ditto, lead singer of Gossip, has broken every rule the music industry could throw at her. Here, she reveals the woman behind the voice that’s poised to push feminism into the mainstream.
Interview by Emily Rems
Photos by Danielle St. Laurent
Styling: Cannon @ Judy Casey, Assistant Helen Barbieri
Hair: Lindsey Avenetti
Makeup: Amanda Needham
It’s a story as old as American popular music itself. Ahead-of-their-time American musicians marginalized in their own country go overseas, cause a sensation, and then are re-introduced to the States as the newest, hottest thing around. Think Jimi Hendrix. Think the Ramones. And now think about 26-year-old Beth Ditto and her scaldingly brilliant punk/soul band, Gossip. A self-professed “fat, lesbian feminist” with a penchant for mouthing off and stripping down, Ditto blasted onto the scene at the end of the ’90s as the indie opposite of mainstream music’s Britney-mania. But seven years later, when her band finally made it overseas to the U.K., it was precisely all the reasons she was different from America’s cookie-cutter blondes that made Ditto a star.
Born the fourth of seven kids in Judsonia, AR, a town so conservative the cable company wouldn’t carry MTV and dancing was banned in high school, Ditto discovered, in the church choir, that she had a voice as big as the Bible Belt. As a restless teen, she also discovered the Riot Grrrl movement, feminism, and her own homosexuality. So just a month after graduating high school, she fled Arkansas, joined her friends out in Olympia, WA, and launched Gossip in 1999. With her schoolmate Nathan Howdeshell on guitar, their pal Kathy Mendonça on drums, and Ditto front and center, the trio delivered a raw punk spin on southern soul that left audiences breathless. In 2000, indie label K Records released the band’s first incendiary EP The Gossip, and their grassroots following took hold.
Moving to the Kill Rock Stars label in 2001, the band started releasing full-length albums, first That’s Not What I Heard (2001) and then Movement (2003), and kept their steady buzz growing with constant touring, opening for such iconic femme-fronted bands as Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre. But despite this success, the band remained largely an underground phenomenon, something Ditto has often attributed in print to blatant size-discrimination in the music industry. After Movement, Mendonça left Gossip to become a midwife and was replaced by the band’s current drummer, Hannah Blilie. The new lineup went to work and created what would become their breakthrough release, 2006’s Standing in the Way of Control. With a new, more disco-punk feel than the band’s previous work, the album—and especially the title track, with its pointed lyrics taking aim at Republican homophobia—became a cult hit in the U.K. Naturally, the band crossed the pond to capitalize on their newfound popularity, and that’s when things really got interesting.
Upon her arrival overseas, Ditto immediately became both a household name and tabloid fodder for her outrageous onstage antics and her off-hours socializing with local celebs like Kate Moss. At the end of ’06, Britain’s music authority, NME magazine, granted Ditto the number-one spot on its annual “Cool List,” an honor followed up by a nude cover shoot and a nomination for “Sexiest Woman of the Year” at the 2007 NME awards. As her fame grew abroad, so did her following at home, resulting in frequent coverage in ’07 by celebrity blogger Perez Hilton and her band’s first record contract with a major U.S. label, Columbia’s brand-new gay-targeted subsidiary, Music With a Twist.
When I finally caught up with Ditto on the phone, she was just settling into a new house in Portland, OR, after a whirlwind European tour and had just received the news that superproducer Rick Rubin had signed on to work with Gossip on their upcoming live CD/DVD. With a speedy southern drawl, she got into the thick of it with me right away, and in no time we were talking as only two big grrrls can, about everything from dressing turkeys to dressing up.
Now that you’re back in Portland after a major European tour, do you love being home?
I live with my best friend Jerry and my partner Freddie right now, so it’s really amazing. I also live with my cat, Rhoda. She’s blind.
You have a blind cat named Rhoda? Like Rhoda Morgenstern?
Like Rhoda Morgenstern. Exactly. I was a bigger fan of Rhoda than Mary. It’s true!
While we were prepping for your cover shoot, we heard that one of your style icons is John Waters’ muse Divine. Were John Waters’ films meaningful to you growing up?
When I first saw Pink Flamingos, I didn’t know whether to throw up, laugh, cry, or burn the tape. It was definitely the most amazing kind of confusion I could have ever asked for when I was 15 or 16. It was like John Waters and Riot Grrrl fit into my life at the same time and changed my life for the better, because I saw what drag queens looked like and learned about fat oppression and how it is so linked to sexism and female oppression.
What you said reminded me of something that you told The Sun in the U.K. about a year ago. You said, “People fear me because I’m fat, lesbian, and blatantly feminist.” Which of the three—the fat, the lesbian, or the feminist—do you think is the most threatening to people? Do any of these parts of you still stand in your way?
I think what people still misunderstand the most is the fat thing, because people don’t know what to think. One of the things that really blows my mind these days is fashion. [Fashion] people don’t know what to do with someone like me, who doesn’t give a fuck if they think I’m attractive or not, ’cause their job is to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible so you’ll appreciate what they have. But fashion is a world that I’m starting to dabble in now, and it’s like dancing with the devil a little bit.
People do use fashion as a nonverbal language, but if you’re above a certain size, your vocabulary is cut short, because you don’t have as many options to express yourself.
Yeah, I think you’re right. I know that people are looking at you and they’re judging you. I know that my skinny friends get treated better than I do. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve been thinner, and I see the difference between how people treat me when I’m 130 pounds and how people treat me when I’m 200 pounds. I just want to say, “Fat girls, you need to change your standards, not lower them! If that person on the football team’s a dickhead, why would you fucking want to date that piece of shit when there’s a really cool nerd in the corner who has his eye on you and has had it on you the whole time?”
Nerds are hot!
Yeah, nerds are absolutely hot. It’s true!
The last time you were in BUST, a couple of years ago, we were talking to you specifically about your legendary sense of style. What advice can you give plus-size gals, such as myself, who want to dress like rock stars but don’t know how?
This is the number-one thing: just because something makes you look thinner, that doesn’t mean it’s a good outfit. That is the key in life for fat girls. For example, I love tent dresses. I think they’re the best things ever, and I’ve always been obsessed with them because I was obsessed with Mama Cass as a kid.
My favorite thing about the way you dress is how flagrantly you break the rules that all fat girls are taught early on about fashion, rules like, “never wear stripes,” “never wear clothes that are form-fitting,” and “don’t ever show your upper arms.”
Oh yeah, I was totally told not to show my upper arms. I never even got to wear a bikini, which I feel is the biggest rip-off. [Now] I just wear what I like. But it did take a long time to undo the brainwashing. I was like, “Fuck it!” you know?
So why do you think you can get away with being unique in an industry famous for trying to make all women look and sound exactly the same?
I think it’s because if it all went away tomorrow, I wouldn’t give a shit.
You think that’s what sets you apart?
When people are in bands, they want it, you know? They want to be famous. They want to make money. And right now, I want to make money, and I want to be successful, and I want to do as well as I possibly can with the power and the strength and the opportunities that I have. But if tomorrow someone was like, “Here’s your cut, we’re not going to put out another record by you,” I’d be fine. Because I don’t live and breathe for that kind of attention, people notice that they can’t knock me down, so they become intrigued.
But what would you do if that happened?
I’d be a hairdresser.
You’d be a hairdresser?
Yeah, I would. I think when you come from a punk background, and you come from a place where you go on tour, you sleep on people’s floors, you’ve been in a van that breaks down, you’ve gotten bad record reviews, you started your band when you were 18—then you have time to grow and learn through hard knocks. It’s so much different than if I were a Jessica Simpson, whose whole life has been spent being groomed for this thing. Then every time someone would say something negative about me, I’d feel knocked down. But when it comes to someone attacking me personally, I know when someone is just being a dickhead. I feel like I do have this John Waters window into the world, where things are just kind of funny, you know? I think one of the most important things you can do is just laugh at yourself. People take themselves too seriously.
But something that your audiences really seem to connect with is the raw emotion and righteous anger that come pouring out of you when you’re on stage. Do you consider yourself an emotional person off stage, too?
I’m part Pisces and part Aquarius. I’m a cusp, so I’m really, extremely, emotional. But I don’t feel angry. People will say, “Oh, there’s so much anger in your show!” and I think they’re really mistaking passion for anger. Things make me angry sometimes, and I’ll go off, but mostly I’m not that angry. I just have a really good time, and it comes across as anger, which is really funny.
Are you heavy into astrology?
Am I woo-woo?
Are you woo-woo, and if so, just how woo-woo are you?
I’m a pretty woo-woo lesbian. I definitely consult the Tarot, and I definitely take my star sign very seriously, but I’m not someone who checks her horoscope every day. I think it makes more sense to listen to the stars than it does to listen to people sometimes. My star sign says I won’t have a very hard time in my life. And that my childhood is probably the roughest it will ever be.
Your new record is coming out on Music With a Twist. I imagine it’s amazing to be chosen as the poster child for the first major gay label. But at the same time, does it make you feel like you’re being marginalized?
I don’t mind, because being queer is really important to me. Where I fit in and where my people are is already marginalized. There’s so much going on right now with the civil rights of gay people being violated, I don’t ever think of myself as not being marginalized. Being a radical thinker, I would rather my band be [described] with terms like “queer,” “dyke,” “feminist,” or “Riot Grrrl,” than be grouped in with something that we’re not. It’s just like Kurt Cobain said: I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I’m not.
Your most popular song to date is “Standing in the Way of Control,” because it’s being used by the gay community as an anthem against our government’s opposition to gay marriage. Do you think this momentum will make you more politically active this presidential-election season?
I don’t have that much attachment to this election, except that I really don’t want a Republican to be in office. I hope that we all get together and make a really good decision, and I hope that whatever happens next is gonna be fucking awesome, ’cause I can’t deal with more bullshit.
Since this interview is going to be in our December/January issue, I was wondering what your plans are for the holidays. Do you go back to Arkansas?
No way! I have too many family members for that! It’s just chaos. I go home when it’s cheaper, when I don’t have to buy gifts, and when it’s not such a scramble for my attention. I love my family, but when I go home, it’s just like somebody threw a chicken leg to seagulls
You being the chicken leg?
Yeah, ’cause you know, they haven’t seen you, and they’re just so sweet. I have one uncle who, every time I see him, is like, “Why don’t you come home?” He wants me to come live at home again, and he’s completely serious! I could have a Grammy and a 40 million mansion somewhere in Beverly Hills, and he would still be like, “Why don’t you move home?”
Do you have any favorite holiday foods or rituals that you do up for yourself in Portland?
I love Christmas. I’m not gonna lie to you. I like the idea of people getting together. I love to cook, and I make the world’s best dressing!
Dressing? Like stuffing?
Yeah. But there’s a difference! People don’t know that! It’s very southern to make dressing. It’s very northern to make stuffing.
What’s in your dressing?
Cornbread. And you bake it. It’s called dressing because you put the turkey in the middle of it and you bake it all together.
Do your friends and chosen family come to you for home cookin’ on holidays?
Yup. We all come together, and usually they come to my house. Everybody brings a side dish, but I can guarantee that if there’s a big meal, it will be me making the big dish, whether it’s a pot roast or whatever. My best friend, Jerry, and I are both from Arkansas, and we seriously have a chicken-and-dumplings battle. He thinks he makes the best, and so do I.
Speaking of food, lots of papers in the U.K. seem obsessed with the fact that you grew up eating squirrel. Is it just a normal southern thing to lean out the window, shoot at squirrels with a BB gun, fry ’em up, and eat ’em? Because that’s the story I read, that your cousin shot them and you both ate them.
Well, what I thought was just so funny [about that story] was that it happened the first time I ever got stoned. And it’s not really normal to just shoot out your window—that’s what I thought was funny! But then I realized what [people in the U.K.] thought was really funny was that we were eating the squirrels. They would ask, “Did you eat the squirrel?” And I’d say, “Well not that squirrel, but I did eat squirrels.”
Would you eat squirrel now?
I don’t think so, but I might. It depends on how my mom made them. I don’t think my mom would make squirrel anymore, though. She was never keen on cooking squirrel because she thought they were cute, but we ate them a lot. We were poor. You ate what you had to eat.
I understand you come from a very religious southern town. How did growing up in such a strict environment shape you as an artist?
It was a big deal, because I had to be extremely resourceful. When you grow up, and you are just naturally attracted to the unconventional, you really do search deeply. Like, I knew that I didn’t want to be a part of mainstream society. I knew at a really young age that I was a feminist.
How did you know?
I was about 11 when I heard the word “feminist” for the first time, and I remember thinking, “That’s what I am! That makes a lot of sense to me.” I wish I could remember where I heard it, but I don’t. I just know that by the time I was in the seventh grade, I was doing all my reports on violence against women and Gloria Steinem.
That’s heavy stuff for a seventh-grader!
From a really young age, I just had a sense of injustice. I would look at the world and think, “Well this isn’t fair! This is stupid!” You know? I think that’s absolutely what it was for me. And then you hear a word that labels it all, and you’re like, “Oh! That’s what it is!”
I’d like to ask you about something else that happened when you were a teenager. I read that when you were 17, before you formed Gossip, you had a nervous breakdown and your pubic hair turned white!
Yeah, half my pubic hair turned white. And it still is white.
Can you tell me what made you completely melt down?
I think that there were lots of things going on. My best friends moved away to Olympia, and I was the last one left [in Arkansas]. That was really intense. Very “sink or swim.” Like, I could stay in Arkansas and get pregnant and never come out of the closet and live my life miserably, or I could get the fuck out. That’s a really hard decision to make when all you know is God and your family. My mom was just like, “You’re gonna go and not come back. You’re gonna get there, and you’re gonna love it, and you’re never coming back.” It wasn’t manipulative. It was very matter-of-fact. I was like “Oh, Mom, you’re crazy!” Because I decided to just go to Olympia to visit, but then I just stayed.
How did you get from Arkansas to Washington when you finally did decide to leave?
Kathy [Mendonça], the first drummer of Gossip, actually bought my ticket. I think I’m gonna write a song called “Kathy’s Credit Card,” ’cause she put it on her card. If it weren’t for her, I would not be here at all. Jerry and Kathy were the reason that I moved to Olympia. I graduated high school on May 15th, moved to Olympia on June 15th, and Gossip started in July. I always consider the first four years I lived in Olympia my college years.
When you’ve had a very sheltered, religious upbringing, and your family is saying you’re never coming back, that seems a lot different than just going away to college.
My upbringing wasn’t extremely sheltered. It was just closed-off to pop culture. I mean, my mother’s favorite bands were Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, and my dad listened to Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. My mom was open-minded, extremely pro-abortion, and extremely pro-birth control. She was way ahead of her time. If she had moved out of Arkansas instead of starting to have babies at 15, she would have been a New-Age hippie living somewhere in the Northwest. In so many ways, I am a product of her.
You are living the life that she would have had if she had gotten out.
Exactly. I feel like I was raised by an extremely open-minded person in an extremely closed-minded place. And I didn’t know if I was gonna make it out. I like to say the stars lined up, because there’s just no other explanation. I think that’s one of the reasons my belief in astrology is so intense. I read around this time last year that you were dreaming of buying your mom a doublewide trailer.
Has that happened yet?
No, I haven’t made that much money yet. But when I have that much money to spare, the first thing I’m going to do is get my mom a doublewide and a storm cellar.Do you have any other dreams that you feel will be like markers of your success when you’re able to do them?I want to buy my own house. And I want a goat. And I want chickens.
Why a goat?
Well, I hope I’ll have a big yard that needs the attention of a goat, ’cause it’ll eat the grass away.
And in this domestic scene, do you ever factor in things like marriage and kids?
I factor in cats, and goats, and chickens, and best friends, and little brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews coming to visit always.
That sounds really nice.It is nice, right?
But no kids, thank you.
This story was originally published in BUST Magazine, Dec/Jan 2008.
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