Beth Ditto interview: Hot gossip
BETH Ditto is lying flat on her back when I enter her hotel room in London's Mayfair. She is short enough that her toes don't reach the end of the sofa, and all that famous flesh that has graced the covers of magazines from the NME to the launch issue of Katie Grand's Love is spilling in great doughy rolls out of a black vest stretched so tight it thinks it's a body-stocking.
Photographers always want to shoot her naked, Ditto tells me later, and "naked or whatever, it's fine". Her hair, black and spiky, is a mess, and her eye make-up, also black and spiky, is wandering south. Her face is like a china doll's, sweet and young, and the rosebud mouth set into it unpainted for a change. She looks tired and scrappy, like she doesn't give a damn what I think of her.
And she doesn't. Ditto's catchphrase, repeated in a soft, cracked twang – Dolly Parton meets Scarlett O'Hara – is "I don't care", or rather a hand-on-hip "Ah don't cay-er." The whirlwind couple of years that have catapulted her from punk riot grrrl from deepest, godliest Arkansas to size-20 muse of Anna Wintour and mate of Kate Moss don't seem to have had much effect. In fact, all this ripe Southern sass is refreshing and rather fabulous. "I stopped worrying a long time ago what other punks were going to think, and I stopped worrying a long time ago what all this was going to look like to people." She gestures at the beige surroundings, the posh hotel room standing in as today's metaphor for how much life has changed. "I surround myself with people I trust. I won't go anywhere without our manager, and it's not because I'm like, 'Don't talk to me, talk to my manager.' It's because she's a feminist dyke like me. That's how I stay sane around it all."
The very sight of Ditto sprawled across a sofa, ready for Rubens to take up his brush and paint her, or perhaps Marc Jacobs to drop plump grapes into her mouth, seems radical. I can't imagine her ever doing a Sophie Dahl – she evidently loves being fat too much. Yet my first thought, I'm ashamed to admit, is that I've never interviewed anyone this big before. We are so used to the most ample part of our fashion icons being their handbags that Ditto's size is a proper eye-popping revelation. We may be familiar with her body from magazines or seeing her strip on stage – a visceral memory of mine is Ditto proudly mooning to an intimate crowd in Glasgow three years ago before inviting everyone back to her hotel for the after-party – but close up and clothed, she packs even more of a punch. "An element of being fat is that people think they're doing you a favour when they tell you that you look cute," she says. "It's like when you're a lesbian and people don't know how to approach you because they're used to doing it in this weird sexual way. I don't care if you think I'm cute or not, okay?"
Still, some of the more nasty comments must hurt. One recent tabloid story began: "Warning: This May Hurt Your Eyes..." then showed Ditto stripped to her Spanx, having a fine old time. No matter her mettle, she has crossed over into a world where body image is queen and there are consequences. "I never read my interviews and I never Google my name," she says. "It's a bad idea. But my weight is a political issue and I love talking about it." She pauses and then changes her mind. "You know, I think if I read stuff I would get upset. But I'm not that dumb. There are rules, like certain magazines just aren't allowed backstage. I look at the pictures of myself sometimes because I really like the outfits but, you know, don't go looking for a fight if you don't want one."
She is sympathetic, though, to those who haven't coped so well. "Bless Susan Boyle. I wish I could be her friend. But she's probably too Christian to be my friend. She'd probably be like, 'Uh, I don't think so.'" A big bear of a laugh follows, and I find myself thinking Susan Boyle could do with a friend like Beth Ditto. As for Kate Moss, who recommended that Ditto design a collection for Evans, which hits stores next month, she says, "She's very sisterly towards me. She always makes sure I'm really taken care of. If you knew her, you might think differently. When you see pictures of Kate out and about and hear stories..." she pauses. "But she's really deep."
Ditto is 28 and has already been in her band The Gossip for more than a decade. Perhaps that's why she's so unmarked by the trappings of celebrity – she says she has been around long enough to know the game. Still, I'm surprised. Setting up the interview was a nightmare, with Ditto cancelling at the last moment citing exhaustion, that classic pop star euphemism and get-out clause. Aha, I surmised, the diva has grown too big for her designer boots. But it turns out she really was knackered. "Every time I get off tour I need two days to recover," she says. "It's really, really bad. I actually can't move. You're around people too much. You never get time alone, so when you do everything shuts down."
She's teaching the music industry a few lessons. The Gossip's new album, Music For Men, is their first signed to a major label, Columbia, and it's produced by the legendary Rick Rubin, mostly renowned for his work with Johnny Cash. It's a more commercial affair than their last album – an indie slow-burner that included the massive single Standing in the Way of Control – but even with all the extra money and celebrity cach pumped into it, it still sounds like The Gossip: raw, bluesy and with killer dance hooks. And in a year when Ditto has become a fashion icon, she insisted on not being on the album cover, instead sending the record company a photo of The Gossip's drummer, Hannah Blilie, striking a pose somewhere between Elvis and George Michael minus the mirror shades. They were not best pleased. "I know that's not what they wanted," Ditto says with a cheeky smile. "But I'm a femme lesbian and here is this masculine woman. It's a different kind of lesbian visibility." Besides, Blilie is the one who gets the girls. "She gets hit on way more than me," says Ditto. "She gets harrassed all the time. People do not mess with me."
Ditto has been in a relationship with her partner Freddie for years, a woman whom she describes as gender-queer and refers to as "he". Music For Men has some pretty vicious songs about the nightmare of long-distance relationships and love being a four-letter word (sample lyric: "I never wanna see your face again"). Is it a break-up record? "We're still together," she laughs. "But you know, life is not the same any more, and it makes things really hard. Me and Freddie talk about this a lot. He says, 'You chose this life' and I'm like, 'Did I?' I feel like it chose me, like fate just swooped in and I've chosen not to say no."
Ditto always thought she was going to be a hairdresser, not a pop star and certainly not a fashion icon. "I still do actually," she shrugs, explaining that she has put money aside to go to beauty school. "This doesn't last forever. But it's a debate – am I choosing this? And am I choosing it over him? Meanwhile, Freddie is a house cleaner, and that's my reality, the life I go home to."
Ditto grew up in Searcy, a Bible-belt town with a population of 1,000. She was one of seven, brought up by her mother, who was a nurse for 30 years and now works in McDonald's. They lived in a trailer park, there was little money and a lot of godliness. Ditto knew she had to get out. "You're talking about billboards the size of this room, and all they say is, 'God is watching you,'" she shudders. "I think people feel comforted by that but I feel grossed out. It was so normal as a kid, I never thought twice, then when I went back I'd start to get really freaked out. You realise it's not God watching you, it's other people. I've never believed in God but I feel like my mum had to have made some kind of deal with something so that none of her kids would have to go through what she did, having a baby at 15."
To date, she is the only one who has left Arkansas. "It's a typical southern family, you know? Very Steel Magnolias." When she was a "little bitty kid" she was called Bethie-bug, then Bubble Butt "because I was always chubby and my butt was really bubbly", and now she is known as Aunt Beffers. It's like a feeding frenzy when she goes back, she says, and almost everyone accepts her. "I do have one aunt, Artie May, who said to me, 'I hope you enjoy your time on earth' and just smiled. I was like, 'Wow, thanks Artie May, you really care about my soul.' I don't believe in hell, so I don't care. It's her worry, not mine."
She met Nathan Howdeshell, the guitarist in The Gossip, as a teenager in Arkansas, and started to get a glimpse of who she might be. But when Howdeshell – the only straight member of The Gossip – and her other friends moved to Olympia, Washington, Ditto found herself alone again. She lost the ability to speak for three months, was constantly shaking and went into such shock that her pubic hair turned white. "It's true!" she bellows. "Each time someone left it drew me closer and closer to realising that either I was going to move away and come out of the closet or I was going to stay in Arkansas, become a baby machine and never be true to myself. It was scary. It could easily have gone either way. I could have got knocked up."
Living with her brother and sister ("long story"), she was so scared of the dark that she had to sleep on the floor beside them. "Everyone thought I was too old to be afraid of the dark, but I'm still not over it," she admits. "Oh, it's awful. Last night I had to cover the lampshade to dim it, and I always leave all the lights on." If you walk into any room that Ditto has slept in, you'll see a lamp wearing a T-shirt, the only sign that now and then big girls do cry.
A year later, she did get out. Ditto followed Howdeshell to Olympia, home of the riot grrrl movement, and formed The Gossip. Now she lives in Portland, Oregon, and has bought her own home. "I clean my own house, do my own laundry," she says proudly. "I plant my own flowers. I don't cut my own grass but that's because I'm never home. I'll never say that I'm not doing well. I'm not as rich as some people I know, but if you think about some of the people I know they're really f***ing rich!" She still finds herself looking around a room and thinking to herself, "There's a millionaire. And another one. And another..."
"I take care of a lot of my friends, and my family want for nothing. Except for my little sister's cellphone bill," she grins. "I haven't paid that in a while."
She was quite the darling of Paris Fashion Week earlier this year. Designers who would otherwise break out in a cold sweat at the thought of size 12 couture were falling over themselves to create one-off pieces for her. She sat in the front row, sacred showcase of the stick-thin and thinner, and once again looked like she didn't give a damn. Karl Lagerfeld pronounced her "an extreme beauty". In the fashion world it's extremes that count, and Ditto, at the opposite end of the spectrum, suddenly became mascot of "the now".
Didn't she feel exploited? "It was awesome!" she shrieks. "Do I enjoy standing next to Karl Lagerfeld? Yes, that was totally surreal and f***ing cool. What if, come tomorrow, he hates me? Well, I don't really care because he's not my friend. It's not like a break-up. He's just a person who makes dresses for me sometimes."
In fact, if anyone's going to be doing the breaking up... "I wouldn't say he's a really cool person but he's a really cool artist," she says breezily. "I appreciate a lot of art by really shitty people. And I'm not so weak to think that this is going to last or they're going to love me forever."
I'm curious, though, how Ditto squares her front-row tickets with her radical feminism. A scene that encourages women to starve their curves away can't exactly be described as sisterly. "It's very contradictory," she admits. "It's not about changing the face of Chanel, or Karl Lagerfeld's mind. It's about making the three people who used to feel the way I felt feel better. If you looked at it any other way, you would lose your mind." I get the impression she's still trying to figure this one out.
She tells a story that gives me my only glimpse of divadom. "We were invited to Rome last summer for this big industry showcase," she remembers, pulling a face. "I said I'll go on two conditions: if you fly my best friend and pay for first class." She looks pleased with herself. "That was surreal – there are people who can just drop that amount of money and say, 'You got it.'" When they arrived in Rome, they were chauffeured to a room full of men in suits. "I'm sitting there, and it dawns on me that here they are, all the millionaires and billionaires who run the music industry." She shakes her head.
I wonder again whether Ditto feels tainted by all this, whether the trade-off has taken her to places she doesn't want to go. Then the Southern sass returns. "I can go back to Portland any time I want," she says. "Tomorrow, no matter what was scheduled, I'd just say I'm not doing it. It doesn't matter how big it is. It may not shoot your record through the roof but that's not the most important thing."
And as for those men in suits now pulling the strings behind Ditto, she knows exactly where they stand. "You know, in a crazy way, they need me more than I need them."
Music For Men, by The Gossip, is out tomorrow on Columbia. Beth Ditto's collection for Evans is launched on 9 July – see www.bethdittoatevans.co.uk
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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