Beth Ditto is a bit nervous. This might sound unusual for a woman known for fronting one of the world’s preeminent indie-rock bands—and who has also posed nude for multiple magazine covers—but in her defense, she’s a little out of practice when it comes to speaking to the press. By the time we set a date to discuss her role in the upcoming FOX drama Monarch, the show’s premiere has been delayed for nearly a full year because of the COVID pandemic, and live music has only recently become a possibility again.
“I was grasping at straws,” the 41-year-old says of being effectively unemployed for the past two years. “I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll open a daycare.’ I was really, really thinking of what I was gonna do, because music was gonna be over—I was really that afraid.”
These statements aren’t totally shocking in the grander scheme of everything awful that humanity has experienced since 2020, but it’s still somewhat surprising to hear a person known for her brash confidence express such uncertainty about her life’s work. “We were all shaking in our boots,” she recalls. “Is this the end of touring? How long is this gonna last? What are we gonna do?”
Ditto, whose government name is Mary Beth Patterson, is best known as the lead singer of Gossip, the punk band she formed in 1999 with friends from her home state of Arkansas after they’d all moved to Olympia, Washington—the city known for birthing the riot grrrl movement. The group rose to prominence in the mid-aughts at the height of what TikTok now calls the “indie sleaze” era: the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, yes, but also skinny jeans, American Apparel disco pants, and thick, artfully smudged black eyeliner.
Gossip is not really what we’re here to talk about, though—at least not yet. Some fans may not realize that Ditto is also an actor, and she’s about to appear in what’s arguably her splashiest project to date. She has a starring role in Monarch, which is about a country music dynasty led by matriarch Dottie Roman (Susan Sarandon) and her husband, Albie Roman (Trace Adkins). Ditto plays one of their daughters, Gigi, whom Dottie describes as a “wild card” in one teaser. It promises to be a deliciously soapy drama in the vein of Empire and Nashville with an old-fashioned Dallas twist. Monarch isn’t Ditto’s first acting gig, but it’s certainly her most high-profile one—and she’s not ashamed to admit that she wanted it badly. “Gigi’s description was ‘a fat lesbian country singer,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I really want this part,’” Ditto says. ‘I rarely feel that way, but I was like, ‘I was made for this!’ Like, please give me this.”
She auditioned four different times before being told she hadn’t made the cut, but then fate intervened. “They came back in the next couple days and were like, ‘Actually, you did get it...and you have to be on a plane in two weeks.”
Ditto jokes that she’s only been acting “for 20 minutes,” but she brought a much-needed dash of the South to the production, which mostly filmed in Atlanta but is otherwise very Hollywood. “There are only two Southerners on the show, me and Trace Adkins,” she explains in her charming drawl. “I was always trying to sneak in with the writers, like, ‘This is a good colloquialism, try this!’ Trying to make it more Southern.”
Though her professional music experience was gained in the indie and punk scenes, Ditto still channeled her Southern upbringing to bring Gigi to life. Country is “something I love,” she says. “It’s something I grew up with, [going to] honky tonks and the VFW with my dad.... But I don’t really understand it. I think that’s why it’s fun to be a part of this, because everything’s a learning curve.”
The music industry portrayed in Monarch, however, is a far cry from the version Ditto is familiar with from her early days in the scrappy punk scene. The Romans live in a world where radio hits are still a thing, the only acceptable image is perfection, and presumably no one but Gigi has heard of Siouxsie Sioux.
“We were radical feminist queers,” she says of Gossip’s beginnings. “No one’s goal was to become famous. Our goal was to pay our rent, and that’s an absolute truth.
While the band often appeared in roundups alongside the Strokes and other ingenues of the era, they never quite fit in with this scene, for a multitude of reasons. First, there was the music, which defied easy categorization thanks to Ditto’s gospel-tinged, bluesy vocals and the band’s disco-inflected beats. Secondly, they were unapologetically queer in the period just before major, mainstream pop stars started blithely discussing bisexuality and nonbinary pronouns on Instagram. (“Standing in the Way of Control,” from Gossip’s 2006 album of the same name, was a pointed response to the George W. Bush-era Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have federally prohibited unions between non-heterosexual couples.)
But more than anything else, there was the revolutionary way in which Ditto embraced her body on-stage and off, while surrounded by waifish pop stars baring their perfectly toned abs in low-rise jeans. Years before the phrase “body positivity” permeated the pop culture lexicon, there was Ditto, dancing on stage in a bustier, posing naked on a 2007 NME cover, and starting her own plus-size clothing line. She was a singular icon who could belt with the best of them in between friend dates with Kate Moss—and then Gossip just stopped.
The band didn’t officially split until 2016, but Gossip stopped releasing new music in 2012, leaving a big hole where their danceable anthems used to be. Ditto dropped an excellent, glam-influenced solo album, Fake Sugar, in 2017, but otherwise, fans had to rely on old YouTube videos and weathered LPs for a fix.
Her personal life also underwent some major changes during Gossip’s hiatus. In 2018, she split from her wife, Kristin Ogata, after more than a decade together. She then started dating Teddy Kwo, a transgender musician who played bass in her band. Ditto and Kwo are still happily together, but she’s been open about the fact that it was sometimes a shock to move in the world as part of a couple that to outside observers looked traditionally heterosexual. “You forget what it’s like to be straight and for people to treat you like a straight person,” Ditto said in 2021 on the Homo Sapiens podcast. “You’re like, ‘Oh wow, this is, like, instant ease.’”
This was also the period when Ditto began acting. Her first screen appearance came in 2018’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a dramedy directed by Gus Van Sant that also starred Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, and Carrie Brownstein. She played Reba, a woman whom Phoenix’s character, John Callahan, meets in AA; Reba helps him learn how to see his life from a different perspective. “They needed a, quote-unquote, big, fat, redneck woman,” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘Oh, I can play that. I know those people.’ I just pretended to be my aunt the whole time. And it worked!”
After that, Showtime tapped her for On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a dark comedy series led by Kirsten Dunst as Krystal Stubbs. Ditto starred as Bets Gomes, the wife of Krystal’s boss. The show flew under the radar when it debuted in 2019, but it was critically acclaimed and renewed for a second season. One year later, though, the network reversed the renewal because of the pandemic.
Gossip was also supposed to reunite around this time. The band got back together for a series of European shows in 2019, with hints that more dates—and possibly new songs—were coming soon, but, well, you know what happened next. Now, however, they’re finally ready to give things another shot.
“There’s a new Gossip record,” Ditto reveals, excitement sparkling in her voice. “It’s almost finished, and everything feels really good.” She has “no idea” when it’s going to come out, but fans can at least take comfort in knowing that it exists. And Gossip is also “definitely” going on tour, which is something Ditto legitimately worried would never happen again. That’s how the daycare idea came about—she’d spent much of the pandemic babysitting her nieces and her friends’ children, and she loves kids enough that she wouldn’t have minded veering in a very different direction from her former life as a dance-punk provocateur.
“When [the Monarch] part came through, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna try really, really hard to get it, because [babysitting] is the only option I have right now,’” she says, laughing.
Ditto’s career is full of moments in which she seems to have asked herself, “Well, why not?” before plunging forward into fields where she has no formal training but is still able to go pro with surprising speed. “What Would Beth Ditto Do” was literally the title of an advice column she wrote for The Guardian from 2007 to 2008, and it’s a motto we could all live by. Take fashion, for example: no one could have guessed that a person who looks like Ditto would become a muse for Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier, then go on to design her own plus-size fashion line covered in the pages of Vogue, but Ditto wanted to do it, so she did.
Fashion, however, is one area where Ditto seems ready to hang up her sequined hat. “I had fun doing it...and it was really hard,” she says of her clothing line. “I feel like now there are so many people who are better at it and who know what they’re doing and can actually manage a business.... I loved doing it, but I just feel like there are things I’m way more passionate about.
”The landscape has also drastically changed, with celebrities like Lizzo starting their own shapewear lines for “every body” and Sports Illustrated tapping a curve model for the cover of its swimsuit issue. No one would say that the battle for fat acceptance is won, but it’s certainly in a much different place than it was 10 years ago. “I’ve come to a place where body positivity, fat positivity, and the activism of it is beyond fashion to me,” Ditto says. “I think it’s because of my age. It’s something else for me personally, and I’m really glad to see people take over and do all these really rad things—and doing it better than I ever could, so that’s great.”
She hasn’t fully set aside her interest in making things, but now she just does it for herself. “I love to sew,” she explains, describing what she does on her increasingly few days off. “I’m very, very crafty. I love anything from crochet to knitting to punch needle to weaving—anything that has to do with a string, I’m there, I love it. I have a Cricut [electronic craft cutting] machine, I love that thing. So, I have a pretty banging craft room and I spend a lot of time in there.” Ditto also confesses that one of her greatest pleasures in life is the decidedly unpunk pastime of doing laundry at home in Portland, OR, where she lives with Kwo. “I’m just like, ‘Look at this organization,’” she says, laughing. “I really like to be like, ‘Mmm, all the pillowcases have been done today.’ I take a lot of pride in my house.”
It’s funny to imagine this glam-rocker-turned-actor sighing happily while doing something as domestic as folding sheets, but after years on the road, followed by the trauma of the pandemic, can you blame her for wanting to savor the simple things? The key word here is still “pride”—in yourself, your body, your work, and everything else. No matter how much changes, the answer to the question “What would Beth Ditto do?” remains the same: just be yourself.
This article originally appeared in BUST's Fall 2022 print edition. Subscribe today!
Photos by Christopher Dibble // Styling by Stone Jarboe // Hair by Blaine Provancha // Makeup by Annah Yevelenko. Dress: Elizabeth Dye, earrings: Max Saltzberg Estate, ring: vintage.