As she prepares to go solo, the self-confessed ‘snot-nosed punk’ from Arkansas talks stealing the runway at Marc Jacobs, discovering riot grrrl and a close encounter with a UFO
Taken from the winter 2015 issue of Dazed:
“Did you see? Someone turned me into Ursula from The Little Mermaid!” screams Beth Ditto. She’s describing an Instagram photo made by a fan who turns runway models into cartoon characters. While most would be offended by the comparison to the purple-hued sea witch, Ditto is ecstatic. “She’s an i-c-o-n!”
Just a few months ago, the outspoken musician made a surprise appearance at Marc Jacobs’ SS16 show. Held inside New York’s legendary Ziegfeld theatre, the show saw Ditto dominate the runway in a side-split, cleavage-baring silk dress, whilst trailing an enormous white feather boa. “I’ve always been a huge admirer of Beth’s on so many levels,” says Jacobs. “She has an incredible sense of self. She’s brilliantly outspoken, hilarious and so incredibly genuine. Having her model for our show was, and will forever be, an incredible moment for me.” Sending shockwaves through the fashion world, Ditto’s head-turning appearance proved the fearless riot grrrl from Arkansas is just as unpredictable as ever.
Now, after 16 years as the unapologetic frontwoman of Gossip, Ditto is quietly working on her first solo record. Here, she talks backstage antics, a close encounter with a UFO and how 90s punk saved her life.
I keep finding crazy images on the internet where you’re hiding under tables backstage at the Marc Jacobs show.
Yeah, ha ha! It was a factory of madness. There was so much going on. Have you seen The Muppets Take Manhattan? It was sort of like watching that unfold. One girl was preggers and there was this one cute model who taught me how to walk. But the hard part was keeping up with some of them! I mean, I’m only 5’1” and even in heels it felt like I was running a marathon.
You’ve had such an interesting relationship with the fashion world. How do you see its role in articulating your views on feminism?
It’s weird. All of the designers I’ve ever met have some sort of relationship with punk. I swear! Or at least, some sort of underground movement. For the most part, the music industry is so male-dominated, especially on the business side of things. Being around the fashion industry, there are so many more women and it’s so gay.
I think one of my favourite quotes of yours is, ‘Punk would have been nothing without fashion.’
It’s so funny and so true. It’s the same kind of struggle. Of course, you can say that the fashion industry is sizeist or sexist, but you can’t deny it’s a female-dominated industry and it’s their choice – that’s what they want to do. That in itself is feminist, even if it’s not radical feminism. Had I not had that experience with fashion, I think I would’ve still been a shitty little snot-nosed punk who’s just like, ‘That’s so fucked up and so stupid.’ I would never listen to the people who told me, ‘You can’t do that,’ or, ‘This world isn’t for you.’ It’s the same thing – judging people who are just trying to do what they want to do. It’s their bodies and their lives. I mean, people talk shit about my body and at the same time talk shit to Kate (Moss) for hers. That is so fucked! You know, you can’t win. That’s the sexism.
“People talk shit about my body and at the same time talk shit to Kate (Moss) for hers. That is so fucked! You know, you can’t win. That’s the sexism” – Beth Ditto
I always get the impression you’ve never compromised your views.
I have no other choice! I’ve never been very good at doing what other people want me to do. I was the worst as a teenager, my mum will tell you! I mean, I grew up in a small southern town – it was so Christian that you couldn’t even get MTV. We had no access to pop culture. I was rebellious in the sense that I didn’t like someone controlling how we thought, and what we could and couldn’t see. In America they have Martin Luther King day and our school wouldn’t even recognise it. Even today, I don’t think they recognise it.
Yeah. I also had short hair and never wore make-up because it was my way of showing people I was in an experimental phase. Let’s just say I didn’t have the Rachel haircut! But secretly, at home, I would do all of these crazy hairdos trying to look like Priscilla Presley. I would literally get dressed up to the nines and then take it all off, because I didn’t want people to see me like that. At the time, I didn’t understand that it could be just as powerful an expression. I enjoyed keeping those secrets.
What were the scenes and subcultures that made you think differently about self-expression?
When I was 13, grunge saved me. It all started with Nirvana. All of a sudden, it was cool to have dirty hair and make your own clothes. Suddenly we had something. It was empowering. It gave us meaning and that was really powerful. Then, when riot grrrl finally made it to Arkansas, that was it for me! Its radical feminism spoke to me so much more than the second-wave feminism of the 70s. I felt like I finally found my place. I can’t explain it, but 90s punk saved me.
This might be a strange question, but are you interested in the supernatural?
I’m definitely afraid of ghosts. I still sleep with the lights on and I won’t go near a Ouija board. I once made my mom come and get one out of my house because I wouldn’t touch it. The last thing you want is to conjure up some weird kids! I also saw a UFO once.
In 1999 or 2000. It was a weird, strangely sunny day in Olympia after band practice. (Former Gossip drummer) Kathy and I were trying to get out of this parking lot and the car wouldn’t move. The driver was just staring at the sky. I walked out and was like, ‘What?’ And there was this orb in the fucking sky! I’m not kidding. I swear to God it was not a fucking plane. I thought, ‘Are we going to die?’ It was anxiety on a level I can’t explain. We drove home and I had my eyes on it the whole time. It was the shiniest material I’ve ever seen, sort of like a barbell piercing. I went and knocked on all of my neighbours’ doors, trying to get them to come out and look at it. I was like, ‘the Gossip can’t be the only people who see this!’
“I also saw a UFO once... there was this orb in the fucking sky! I swear to God it was not a fucking plane. I thought, ‘Are we going to die?’” – Beth Ditto
That is insane.
It gets worse. The next day we played a show in Seattle and when we came home someone had broken into our house. I’m not fucking around with you. They found photographs I kept hidden under my bed and moved one to the coffee table. Nothing else was taken. It’s a longer story than that, but I swear I made myself insane – and I know I’m a crazy person, but I’m not kidding. I’m telling you someone was looking for that picture.
How does it feel going it alone after so many years in Gossip?
I think the scariest thing is that you have to trust yourself. Especially because I don’t play anything, I’m really at the mercy of other people. I keep asking people what they want to hear me make and they say, ‘Make the record you’ve always wanted.’ The thing is, I would just make a record full of the saddest songs in the world. I love melancholic R&B and slow jams. I love Cat Power. But honestly, I’m not that sad. I just enjoy that music. I’ve learned a lot about myself. Let’s see what happens...
Beth Ditto today announced her upcoming collaboration with Jean Paul Gaultier. The Beth Ditto ♥ John Paul Gaultier shirt is available exclusively at www.bethditto.com and her line is out in February, 2016.
Hair Tamara McNaughton at Management + Artists using Bumble and bumble, make-up Lisa Houghton at Tim Howard Management using Tom Ford Beauty, photographic assistant Christopher White, fahsion assistants Ioana Ivan, Katie McGoldrick, Celine Sheridan, Lael Osness, Vickki Acuna, production Dayna Carney at Management Artists
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