No pop star has ever flipped the script as utterly as the Gossips Beth Ditto. The voluptuous Lurex lezzie shatters stereotypes as blithely as she does the top notes on her antiwar hit Standing in the Way of Control. With her sexy, hard-won sense of entitlement, Ditto, 28, is extra, extra large in several ways. Her bouncy personality has more stretch than her imminent fashion line and right now, Ditto is busting out.
Having quit their indie roots at the legendary radical label Kill Rock Stars in 2008, Ditto, guitarist Brace Paine, and drummer Hannah Blilie hightailed it to the major label Columbia, which is set to release their forthcoming album, Music for Men, in August. Why the quizzical title? A girlfriend and I were at a show where we were the only two females in the audience, says Ditto. The guys in the audience were really into it, and I thought, This is music for men, and the notion of gender-pleasing sounds just stuck with me. Whether it will please men or anyone else on the gender spectrum is a question that fascinates fans of the Gossip. Reportedly sprinkled with more of that Europop-disco sound that has served Kylie Minogue so well, will it turn off Dittos current crop of raging ravers without gathering a new crew? Its a risk, but Ditto has faced more daunting ones.
How much of the Ditto Effect is about the music is hard to say, so effectively has her persona seduced at least the British media. Musically -- in that rangy, tense, raw-trio way -- you can hear why the Gossip appeal to Rick Rubin, who has produced artists like the Beastie Boys and Johnny Cash. Their stark sound hovers somewhere between Lee Dorsey and the White Stripes, and Dittos voice -- often compared to Janis Joplins -- can howl like a hurricane or caress like a breeze.
But part of her appeal is the sense that Ditto is a real new deal. She wont be ground down by the disapproval of the industry or society or suckered into doubting her magnificence. I ask her if she thinks of Joplin. All the time, she answers. Id have been a good friend to her.
Ditto understands the stresses that can make the most successful singer throw a wobbler. Call her the antiBritney Spears because theyre both basically small-town Southern girls, escapees from the Bible Belt. While Spears looks like the after pic in a liposuction ad and rocks luxuriant extensions, Ditto, with lurid but sensible hair, celebrates her every crevice and fold in stretch outfits normally reserved for biker mamas and hot dance-hall hoochies at parties in Kingston, Jamaica; Brooklyn; and the Bronx.
And her confidence is catching on. An unconventional fashion muse, Ditto was the belle of the ball at Paris Fashion Week in March, partying and posing with the likes of pals Lily Allen and Kate Moss and ber-designer Karl Lagerfeld. And lets face it: Before Ditto, Lagerfeld hadnt been photographed with anyone over a size 4.
Right now, her bold fashion sense is rising to a cool challenge. She is designing a plus-size line for the European clothing chain Evans, which could definitely do with Dittos glam injection.
Between attending the Paris shows of Stella McCartney and Chanel and playing a private party for Fendi, Ditto phoned Out.
Out: Where are you now?
Beth Ditto: Im in Paris in this fucking ridiculous hotel suite. I feel like Dolly Parton. I partied last night, and it was so hilarious. I take a really long nap in the middle of the day, every day. Im really having the best time ever.
Where did you get your musical talent?
My mom is really cool. She sings all the time and loves Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath. My family in Judsonia, Ark., was amazingly musical. When he was 16, my brother played the drums for my cousin who played with Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis in the 80s on the casino circuit.
Your mother was supportive when you were coming out at home in your early teens, but what about your Bible Belt community?
I just came out slowly but surely. I was brought up to always put yourself in other peoples shoes. You never want them to feel bad about who they are for whatever reason. My mom was this incredible island surrounded by redneck conservative America. She taught me what it must be like to be a flaming homo and bullied walking down the hallway at school. My other brothers and sisters were brought up like that too, and they treated me normally.
Do you have a lot of siblings?
There are seven of us all together, with a 20-year age spread. I am the fourth, and I love them. There were so many of us that we all had different experiences, responsibilities, and roles. My mom and dad got divorced when I was 5. I was like, Peace out, guys! I didnt understand. My other brother, who was four years older than me, was really upset, and I didnt know why. Now I guess I do. It was kind of sad.
Did you sing in church?
Yes, but it wasnt what people imagine -- soulful people with healing hands. We didnt have that, but my Grammy did. She was a full-blown Pentecostal who would speak in tongues and jump up and down. My Grammy grew her own food and didnt have a restroom until the 80s and lived in a shotgun shack insulated with newspaper until the very end. The things that woman could do! Growing up that way made me and my brothers resourceful. We had to make our own fun. We didnt have fancy toys, but I felt like we had a lot. We were really creative. I wouldnt trade any part of it, even the most horrible parts. Just being in this really surreal side of the world --
-- Arkansas, you mean?
No, I mean Paris. It feels surreal. My mom is still in a trailer. We were so broke, but she really didnt want us to look dirty or neglected, even if the hot water got turned off. She used to say, I dont care how poor you are, there is always water somewhere. There were a lot of filthy kids with dirty mouths in the neighborhood who used a lot of double negatives and wrong forms of the words. I was a weird, fat, talky kid.
I have a really great ability to turn things around. Thats how I can survive now. In my little elementary school brain when I was growing up, I was really obsessed with how there were way more poor kids than rich kids, but somehow it was always the pretty girls who got voted into student faculty and the rich kids who were popular. That made no sense to me because we, the poor kids, were the majority. From an early age I thought, Whenever there is a vote, if we all get together then one of us will win it.
What happened when you campaigned for the weird kids?
It completely worked! My senior year I was a big yearbook kid.
You made your own family and you have Freddie, the love of your life. If you had met him when he was still a girl, would you have felt the same?
Freddie has asked me not to talk about him in interviews anymore. But I can tell you I met him when he was a girl.
So you did share that journey.
Its more about your pronoun and the context of your gender in the world than it is about a binary gender system. Its making things more fluid and accessible to people of all identities, who dont really fit into one or the other.
The Kill Rock Stars scene in Olympia, Wa. where you started out must have been another alternative family for you. What was it like arriving there?
It was a dream. Coming from Arkansas I just thought every punk scene was really small. So when I went to Kill Rock Stars I was shocked. I was listening to Pussy Whipped by Bikini Kill, Call the Doctor by Sleater-Kinney. To go and see where professional punk is made was a good entrance into the world of labels. Its really important because it sets the foundation for punks of the future who may not know that then. But someday they are going to turn 30, and you cant sleep on couches and get scabies forever. You know what I mean?
Did you go with a major label to get a bigger platform?
I didnt know what to do. We wanted to be on a large indie, someone who could do something for us in Europe. Honestly, our manager at the time made it seem like no one wanted us, even after wed topped the NME Cool List in the U.K.
And now youre even creating a plus-size fashion line with Evans.
Im just as excited about the line as I am about the record. Its a dream. You sketch something and send it to the art directors, and they make a little model of it and send it back to you.
Are you going fitted or flowing?
I do like muumuus, but its way fitted. I tried not to make the line look like me. I think thats where people have gone wrong. The whole idea is to get the cut right, because they never do for big people. I cant wait for the next collection. Ill be more assertive.
Was George Michael a meaningful artist to you? You do such a beautiful version of his Careless Whisper.
Thanks! Yeah. When I was a kid in the early 80s, MTV was outlawed in our town. They removed it from our cable option.
For being too obscene?
Yes, for being too obscene and too empowering, really. This Christian college in our town ran everything, still runs everything. When I lived there you had to ask for the gay magazines behind the counter, you couldnt just grab them off the shelf. Im almost positive they dont even carry gay magazines today.
You mean they cant read this interview in your hometown.
Right. Im almost positive they wont be able to read this.
So theyd be surprised to see you on the cover of Out?
The local newspaper ran a story that said I didnt believe in God. That caused a bit of a ruckus. Other than that, no one is ever surprised. I think Im exactly what they thought I would be.