Beth Ditto, the frontwoman of the band Gossip, may be a big star and a fashion icon in Europe, even walking Paris runways, but she still doesn't get much attention in the States. This month she released a memoir, Coal to Diamonds, which details her extreme poverty and hardship in rural Arkansas, move to Olympia, Wash., during the height of riot grrrl, her diagnosis of sarcoidosis (a rare immune-system disorder that attacks the internal organs), and eventual success as a musician on the world stage.
While the book has plenty of rambling, confused moments, there are glints of insight into what it means growing up truly poor in America, as well as being overweight and queer in an unsympathetic community. A place where cars equaled freedom, and teenage pregnancy was a way to avoid making even more difficult choices. In one passage, Ditto explains:
"...the gay feelings were becoming unavoidable. I didn't have any doubts how I felt. I had two options: coming out and not knowing what the future held, or staying in and becoming a typical Judsonia woman. In my desperation, I wanted an easy out, and I figured that a baby would be a certain way to avoid the looming eternity of hellfire and brimstone I was sure was in store from me. Plus, so many other girls were having babies that it seemed normal. I started begging Anthony to knock me up."
Far from perfect--Ditto never quite allows us to see how she made the jump from nobody to somebody after being featured on the cover of the UK's NME although she notes it-- the book will surely prove useful for many queer boys and girls still questioning their identities, while also serving as a useful document from the late part of the 20th century in understanding what it was like growing up in rural America pre-Internet. Unfortunately, it seems a bit premature, as if Ditto needed to wait a few more years so that she had more space to analyze and understand her extraordinary life story.
Luckily, the gorgeous plus-sized singer is featured on the cover of the December issue of The Advocate and gives more background to her experiences, including the admission that growing up poor has left her with anxieties about scarcity.
"For me it's underwear. I am so obsessed. If you knew how many pairs of underwear I have it would blow your mind. It is ungodly. Because growing up you ended up having to share with your mom and your sister and even your underwear and bras, or having to wear nursing bras because they were hand-me-downs."
Although there are times that a reader of Coal to Diamonds is desperate for more details about how Ditto made her life and lifestyle work, some of her ways of explaining the complexities of being young and queer and confused are refreshing. For example, after moving to Olympia, "a great place to be queer," she admits that she "had a hard time feeling like a lesbian, because I didn't feel like I was attracted to girls. The girls I liked were always more like boys than girls, and I thought all lesbians only liked girls who were just like them. Butches went with butchy girls, and femmes went with femmes. I liked girls who were so different from me they were a whole other species."
After her break-up with Freddie Fagula (a trans man) after nine years together (something left out of the book), Ditto found love with longtime friend Kristin Ogata (a lesbian) and the two are set to be married in 2013. As Ditto tells The Advocate: "We just always kind of knew that we were always in love. It's blissful, I think. It's really sweet and perfect. I feel like it's like so simple that it's a miracle. I feel like Dan and Roseanne."