The gospel according to Beth Ditto, the Gossip front woman and plus-size fashion designer: how to wear Spanx, why polyamory is in and what to do when you bump into Madonna (literally)
Beth Ditto is wasted. She’s been on tour around Europe for the past eight weeks with her band the Gossip, and she’s barely had two hours’ sleep a night. So has the self-professed grandma of rock’n’roll – with her love of crocheting, baking and fixing her girlfriends’ hairdos – finally succumbed to its more grungy side? No, as it turns out, what’s been keeping her awake is trying to figure out the way the world works, with her best friend and manager, Tara (pronounced, confusingly, in the Southern way, to rhyme with Bear) with whom she is sharing her hotel room.
“So last night we had this crazy conversation, talking about the idea of what opinion is, what fact is, and what judgment is and, like, how those are three different things,” she explains, while munching on a bag of some kind of crunchy, dried fruit. “And how people have this idea that opinion is fact when they see a movie or read a book and how the left does it to the right wing and the right wing does it to the left.”
She’s also bothered that journalism is in danger of dying: “Because we all know that anybody can have a blog and be followed and believed – and it’s, like, people who think they’re so smart and so with it but they don’t even stop to write properly.
“Now, you have to follow me here, because I’m a little woo-woo, but it’s like in medieval times with all these major powers – London existing as a huge city, or Rome – and outside there were all these tiny groups that didn’t really have a voice and now all these little groups do have a voice, for the first time ever. [Like] rural Arkansas [where she was born and brought up] has a voice and those people have never experienced anything of the world.”
Beth Ditto is a most unusual person, quite apart from her status as the most (if not the only) well-known, fashionable, proud-to-be-fat lesbian rock chick, with her clutch of awards and accolades: NME’s Coolest Person in Rock in 2006; nominated for NME’s Sexiest Woman of the Year in 2007; winning Glamour’s International Musician in 2008. She is obviously thoughtful but also fun and seems to enjoy speaking her mind, regardless or – often without thinking – of the consequences.
Take her comments about Kate Moss, who later became a friend. “I was a punk and to me she was just a blonde, skinny, white girl…” Which is why you said that she was boring? “Well, I’d never talked to her [then] and I was coming more from a pop culture point of view.”
The Gossip’s most recent album in 2009, Music for Men, had some hands-on honing by the American producer and co-president of Columbia Records, Rick Rubin. A legend in the music business, and listed in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, Rubin invited Ditto to his home to work on lyrics. I told her I’d read somewhere that she’d said, “I’ve always said that the Gossip are a band I would go see, not a band I would listen to.”
“Yeah, I have always said that but it hurt Rick Rubin – he even called me, which is rare, because he’s an e-mailer,” she says. “He was, like, ‘I read that you said you wouldn’t listen to the Gossip but you would go see them – but we worked really hard on this record and that’s not fair.’ And I was, like, ‘Oh I never really thought about it like that.’ ”
As a performer, Ditto certainly seems to give her all. I went to one of the Gossip’s gigs last year at the old Town & Country Club in London and the place was heaving with a huge variety of people: lots of gay men (among whom Ditto has a big following), patches of punks with peroxide mohawks, some mothers and daughters, and people of advancing years as well as young, studenty types.
When Ditto ran onto the stage, the crowd went into a collective swoon. She was wearing one of her more improbable outfits, which resembled a baby’s short romper suit, but in black lurex, cinched with a belt. Her hair was tomato red and cut in a shiny, boyish bob. What was most remarkable about her performance was her energy; she tore across the stage, strutted (to screams from the audience) and sang her heart out, despite suffering from bronchitis.
After several encores (including Tina Turner’s, one of Ditto’s heroines, What’s Love Got to Do with It), she went down among the audience and then finished the night with a sort of motivational speech: “F*** what anyone thinks of you because you mean everything to me. If you don’t get the respect that you are due, then demand the respect – in the nicest possible way.
“It’s a big, big world. Take it and make it a good world because it’s up to us. Like my mama said to me: ‘Mary Beth Ditto, they are not going to eat you and spit you out.’ ”
I went up to her dressing room after the gig, expecting her to look sweaty after all her exertions, but her make-up was as flawless as her manners, and she was as poised as a Southern belle – albeit an unorthodox one – who had been doing nothing more arduous than reclining on a rocker on a verandah, sipping a mint julep.
She may hang out with the fashion crowd but she does not share that world’s enthusiasm for Class A drugs. Although she later tells me, in her scrupulous way: “I have taken ecstasy four times, probably, since we last spoke [eight months previously]. I have taken four in my life.” But not cocaine? “Oh my God, I would never do that. I feel I can talk a lot anyway, I can dance all night anyway, and I can sweat by myself… I can sit in sweat.
“But I do understand now why people feel that they need drugs [on tour]… because your body doesn’t know where it is and you are seriously burning the candle at both ends, and it’s lonely, you know.”
The Gossip’s electrifying performances are fuelled by a revolting-sounding cocktail which their guitarist, Nathan, invented and named “Whiskey Business” – a blend of sugar-free Red Bull and Jameson’s. “It tastes gross,” Ditto grins. “Like if you took three children’s vitamins and ground them up with a teaspoon of water, but it’s awesome.”
The next time we meet is at a studio where Ditto is modelling her second collection of plus-size clothes at Evans. There is a rail of dresses and tops behind a screen and a particularly sexy cotton jersey maxi number in black, with plunging neckline and Grecian folds which cunningly conceal a large tummy. The murky khaki version of it Ditto has on really suits her, with her milk-white skin and dark eyes. There are Sixties shifts in great retro patterns to be worn with leggings, which she has designed with a long waist to stop that annoying business of forever having to hoick them up. One of the engagingly practical aspects about Ditto is that she is absolutely committed to creating fashion that is comfortable as well as cool.
After the interview that takes place after the shoot, during which we spoke mainly about gender politics and her love life, I send Ditto some follow-up questions via e-mail about the nitty-gritty of looking good when you are large, such as: How important is underwear? You mentioned the joys of Spanx, for instance. Do you believe in the importance of a good bra? Are you into French camiknickers or no knickers at all?
Some weeks later, she came back with detailed replies and here is an edited extract:
“i am an underwear fanatic. i’m on the hunt for the perfect pair of panties and have been since i can remember. i like to mix comfort and cuteness. underwear are not cute when they’re bunched up or ill fitting. we all know what can go wrong with a poor pair. i am always on the look out for a perfect combination of stretch, cotton and lace. comfort is confidence in my opinion, and confidence is sexy and beautiful.
“i love spanx for 100 reasons. there’s no rubbing. for me, spanx accentuate shape without concealing your body. they truly are a revolution. i remember all my proms wearing snap at the crotch old school girdles. the misery and discomfort is ungodly, not to mention the work it took to undo them just to go to the bathroom.
“when i was a teenager i achieved the same results of spanx with tights that were a size too big and pulled them up to right under my bosom. so there’s still that option, for a cheaper solution.”
Back at the fashion shoot, Ditto is crouching and pouting, wearing her Evans gear as well as some torturous-looking super-high stilettoes. Her Australian hairdresser, Lyndell, tweaks her hair, her make-up artist is around – apparently this process takes two-and-a-half hours – and presumably Cedric, her stylist, as well as Tara on stand-by. Ditto hands a bag of dirty laundry to one of her entourage, saying that she will wash her underwear herself, and we take off to her hotel.
She has a number of heroines, one of whom is Vivienne Westwood, whose giant yellow Anglomania T-shirt she is wearing as a dress. “I love her for a lot of reasons,” she says, as we sit around a table in the hotel suite. “Number one, I really do think she invented punk. Number two, she’s an activist and she’s more of an activist now than she ever was.
“I’ve met her only one time and she said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.’ And I was, like, ‘You’re not really supposed to – you’re Vivienne Westwood, you know.’ ”
Ditto was born in Searcy, Arkansas, and christened Mary Beth Patterson. Her mother was a nurse, now 53, who worked long hours supporting her family of 7 children. Mary Beth’s father left when she was young and was replaced by a number of stepfathers, the most significant of whom was Homer Ditto, whose surname Beth adopted.
“There were too many kids and not enough bedrooms,” she says. “Like I’d take a bath with the door open and not even think about it because there was no privacy.”
So what’s your mother like? “She’s kinda like me only she’s a little more reserved. I think she wanted me to do the things that she always wanted to do. Not like, you know, ‘Wow! A free spirit,’ but to let go of all the hang-ups she had about herself, and her voice and her insecurities…”
Her voice? “Oh, she is an amazing singer and a loud person. She held my nose to teach me how to use my diaphragm.” (Her daughter learnt how to sing gospel in choirs at school and at church.)
She describes her upbringing as “really Southern old-style… with my mom, there was always a baby and my sister rocks her kids to sleep, and my brothers rock their kids to sleep, just like my mom rocked us to sleep. People are always saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to hold a baby.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s like holding a football. Just gimme that kid.’ I’ve always loved babies and I’ve always loved kids.”
At the age of 18, Ditto was rescued from the life she had envisioned for herself of being either a full-time mom or a hairdresser, when her friend Kathy Mendonca, the original drummer of the Gossip (now a midwife), sent her a ticket to Olympia, in Washington state. She describes it as “a magical place. Things have been created there, which have caught on in the pop culture, which are incredible and just couldn’t happen anywhere else.”
From there, she moved to her present home in Portland, Oregon, which she says is equally amazing: “It’s dyke city, with a huge fat-positive scene and huge feminist scene.”
In January, this year, she broke up with her girlfriend of the past nine years, Freddie, who identifies herself as a man. There had been tensions in their relationship for some time and Ditto had written a song, Love Long Distance, about their difficulties: “Call yourself a romantic, let me explain/ Been across the Atlantic and back again/ I had it with your antics, your childish games.”
What went wrong? “We didn’t drift, we didn’t explode; we just had incredible differences that were unresolvable. The things that were wrong four years ago [when she wrote the song] were the same things that were wrong when we broke up. I was never given an ultimatum, but the only thing I was not willing to give up was the Gossip.
“There was a lot of judgment, like, ‘You’re joining the fashion world,’ and somebody who calls Kate Moss boring and then all of a sudden becomes friends with her and all of a sudden has this respect for her because you’ve been thrown into this world you didn’t understand before but now I git [get] it… Like being in front of the camera today, I understand that it is a job and it’s really tiring and you’re actually giving a lot.”
Part of the problem was the age difference between her and Freddie, who was seven years her senior: “I think I was malleable and impressionable… I’m almost 30 now, not 20 any more, and the difference is crazy, although I still have a lot of growing to do, of course.
“I didn’t realise until after we broke up that I was always jealous of his exes and really felt threatened by them. I was the first fat girl that he’d ever dated and that was really strange. When Freddie and I first started dating we were open [sexually] and I f***in’ hated it. It destroyed my self-esteem and I blamed him for it for so long.
“I really tried for him to be the one but it was such hard work all the time. I’m not someone who gives up easily because I’m such a monogamist… well, a serial monogamist. The part of me that is feminist doesn’t like the idea of competition between girls and what we do to each other and how we tear each other apart. But I also don’t think polyamory is helpful for me anyway.”
Did you say “polyamory”? “Yeah. That’s a new thing that’s goin’ around these days.”
Anyway, they both have new girlfriends now. Ditto is with Kristin, who has been one of her best friends since she was 19: “She’s Asian – Japanese/Chinese – and very beautiful and handsome.
“She’s really into Hesher… Do you know what Hesher is?” Nope. “Like really heavy metal psych rock. And her hair is LHB.
Do you know what LHB is?” Afraid not. “A long-haired butch.” Ah. “She’s two years older than me and she’s taller than me – five foot four – which is awesome.”
What does she do? “She’s my assistant now!” A big gurgle of a laugh. “But she was a waitress and before that she wanted to be a doctor and went to school [college] for seven years. She’s an only child – so different from my family. Really sweet and really gentle.”
It turns out that the two have harboured a secret passion for each other for years – “a really crazy secret love, although it wasn’t that secret because everybody knew about it, I think, even Freddie” – and they plan to have a baby together. “Kristin is the one for me, for sure, and we’ve talked about having a baby and if it’s a girl we will call her Yoko.”
She says that although her girlfriend is the “butch” and she is the “femme”, she believes that no one person is all one thing or the other: “Like in our house, if something’s broke there’s no way Kristin would fix it – I would be the one to fix it even though I’m the femme.”
I wonder whether now that she is such a celebrity, Ditto has groupies lining up to hang out with her. “No, I don’t. You can ask Kristin. But I don’t read people’s sexual energy very well unless I know them – and sex is something which is really intimate.
“Also, it’s not like you’re going to find a closeted butch woman who’s gonna sleep with you as a femme but you will find a closeted femme that will sleep with a butch.”
Well, unlike the folks she left behind, Ditto certainly has seen something of the world…whether it is the radical, gay, green, punk, feminist scene in Portland or the glamour and glitz of the entertainment business which she is still a little bemused to find herself in, bumping (literally, much to her consternation: “Everybody went white as a sheet”) into Madonna at Pedro Almodóvar’s party. Debbie Harry, another of her heroines, was there, and Penélope Cruz. “And I was, like,” she whispers, “ ‘How the hell did I get invited to this party?’ ”
The Ditto of her late twenties, as she says, is very different from the girl who escaped from small-town Arkansas and, although there are some signs of the trappings of stardom (the rider for the shoot, for one, with an insane list of requirements, including a particular sort of water and tofu; the large entourage; the controlling management), she still retains a sense of perspective about her good fortune.
“I identify with all the things that are going on in Portland, but I feel like I have a window into life that other people there don’t have…Like I get to make a living out of art. And I don’t know many people that get to make a middle-class living. Middle class is rich where I’m from. Our slogan in the Gossip when someone starts to bitch about something really ridiculous is ‘Shut up and quit your bitchin’, cos you’re rich.’ You know, we’re lucky basically.”
I spoke to a fashion magazine editor before interviewing Ditto and she said that she found the whole Dittomania thing offensive and even a bit cruel. But I couldn’t agree less. On each occasion that I’ve seen Ditto on television – with Jonathan Ross, for instance – or in her print interviews, she has always seemed far too original and bright, with her own unshowy self-assurance, to allow herself to be patronised.
Still, I ask her, as Tara hovers to wrap things up before another sleepless night of philosophical debate, how she feels when people say that she is like a fetish or a mascot. “Well, what’s wrong with being a mascot? You know, they can treat me that way but I don’t care. You realise really quickly, from growing up poor, who your friends are.
“And you quickly learn that it’s not about making enemies your friends; it’s about making more friends and forgetting about enemies anyway. I mean it’s just ridiculous to me because everybody is someone’s mascot and someone’s fetish. Right?”
There’s nothing“ditto” about Ditto and I mean that, as she would say, in the nicest possible way.