Beth Ditto
Beth Ditto

Beth Ditto is a force to be reckoned with. Her refusal to be boxed in by her gender, her sexuality, or her stance on body politics has allowed her to kick down doors for women, queers and people of size with punk, DIY-feminist abandon.

Beth Ditto is no shrinking violet. From her booming vocals as the singer for Gossip to her fierce, unapologetic sense of style, to her outspoken passion for activism, Ditto is a force to be reckoned with. Her refusal to be boxed in by her gender, her sexuality, or her stance on body politics has allowed her to kick down doors for women, queers and people of size with punk,
DIY-feminist abandon.

While her boisterous nature has made Ditto a star it can also come at a cost—as was the case with her recent arrest in Portland, Ore. for disorderly conduct. After being cut off and ejected from a bar, Ditto reportedly stood in the middle of the road, shoes off, shouting “Obama!” (well, at least her politics were in the right place). However, Ditto is no diva. Despite being embraced by the likes of Kate Moss, Karl Lagerfeld, and all of Germany (where her single “Heavy Cross” was especially successful), Ditto remains a down-to-earth small-town girl who refuses to think of herself as a celebrity, surrounds herself with people she first met in her teens, and always keeps an emergency beauty school tuition fund tucked away—just in case.

In our first-ever interview with Ditto, the singer speaks quickly, in bursts of syllables laced with her broad Arkansas accent.

Whether she’s talking about enduring poverty as a child or sitting in the front row at New York Fashion Week, she invites a sense of familiarity and easy intimacy, so that forgetting she is a bonafide rock star is a simple task. And it’s this same contradiction of dazzling presence and genuine humility that makes Ditto such a source of fascination and inspiration. Whether she’s stripped down to a bra and soaked in sweat on stage or commanding the pages of a glossy fashion mag in full couture regalia, you never look away from Ditto—and really, why would you want to?

Today, Ditto is known as a successful musician, an activist, and an unconventional muse in the world of high fashion; however, her life has not been all glitz and glamour.

In her memoir, Coal to Diamonds—which the singer wrote with the help of Michelle Tea—Ditto discusses growing up dirt poor in Judsonia, Ark., with unflinching candour. When asked how she was able to be so open, Ditto credits both Tea and her upbringing—using her typical mixture of introspection and humour. “I think it was easier when I was working with Michelle because we kind of understood each other—there was no explaining [required],” says Ditto. “I think it was being able to talk to her via the queer language, not having to explain ‘trans,’ and, you know, like, ‘post-op,’ ‘pre-op,’ ‘femme.’ Knowing what all those things mean. Knowing that she could understand them because she had also lived them. It made it really easy, to be frank, and not, like, really watered down. I’m also Southern and I think Southerners, we’re notorious for being over-sharers. We absolutely don’t have a filter. We just say whatever’s on our minds—except for ‘God damn’ in mixed company. Don’t say that,” jokes Ditto.

In the book, Ditto lays bare the generations of abuse that coloured every aspect of her early life.

It actually started before she was born, when her mother suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father, Ditto’s grandfather. (The case went to trial and Ditto’s mother, Velmyra Estel, not yet a teenager when the court proceedings began, was publicly shamed and called a liar by the town and then by a judge, who found Velmyra’s father not guilty.) This cycle of abuse would continue on into Ditto’s life; neither she nor her siblings and cousins were left unharmed. She shares stories of both overt abuse and the more insidious kind: quiet, endemic abuse that, when endured with enough regularity, becomes the norm. In one particularly chilling instance, she tells a story of her cousin being forced to spend every evening with his nose pressed into the corner of the room—a punishment that went on for most of his childhood.

“I felt it was really important that I told that story, because it was such an important story to me and really shaped my view of the world… and of what constitutes abuse. You don’t have to punch a kid in the face for that to be called abuse or neglect. I always call that ’80s child abuse…that’s not really the way it looks, after-school-special style. It wasn’t that black and white. It wasn’t that easy to read. It wasn’t that easy to see. It took me until adulthood to see that, actually, these things were absolutely abuse and totally traumatizing. And that’s why they stuck with me for so long. So for me it was really important to talk about. Also, to tell this story, to let people know that we were on their side.” Ditto adds, “I still have a really hard time sleeping at night sometimes [thinking about my younger cousins]. I have nightmares about them constantly. I can’t imagine what they go through. Just talking about it makes me super-emotional. Writing it and talking about it with Michelle was really hard. The dreams that I would constantly have. It’s just really sad.”

Throughout her childhood and teens, Ditto lived a nomadic life, moving between family members’ homes, moving on whenever living conditions became too toxic. Although she struggled to find her place at home, she did find a place among the outcasts in her high school. When faced with her burgeoning sexuality, Ditto appealed to her high school boyfriend to get her pregnant, thinking that it would somehow solve her growing gay problem. Fortunately for Ditto, her boyfriend had the forethought to decline her suggestion—a rare piece of luck for her in a community where teen pregnancy was common. Even with that bullet dodged, Ditto was on the verge of being swept into a life of struggle, abuse, and poverty when she discovered feminism, an exotic ideology in repressed and patriarchal Judsonia.

“I had to get out of there. I just couldn’t be around it anymore. And I feel like that’s where feminism saved me. It came in and gave me a language to identify those feelings and right some wrongs. And also to forgive myself.”

Today, feminism still remains at the core of Ditto’s beliefs, and when many young women shy away from the label “feminist,” Ditto proclaims it proudly.

“Embracing feminism was what saved my life, so of course I’m going to be a force for it. I think the reason why other women are afraid of it is that I think we’re afraid of our power.”
Another hugely influential discovery for Ditto was stumbling across the Riot Grrrl movement, thanks to VHS copies of music videos by Hole, Veruca Salt, and Nirvana—smuggled in from out of town because MTV was banned in Judsonia—and zines cherished and passed around among her friends (Gossip guitarist Nathan Howdeshell was already a friend). The DIY feminist movement, inspired by the likes of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, helped Ditto to embrace her sexuality, reinforce her growing feminist inclinations, and ultimately leave her family and move from Arkansas to Olympia, Wash., where she started her band. “So many women from our generation benefitted from Riot Grrrl. When people are like, ‘It didn’t change anything,’ that is utter bullshit. I don’t think it’s even arguable.”

“I still consider myself a Riot Grrrl,” says Ditto. “I don’t have any cat’s-eye glasses, but, you know, I would if they fit my face. But they’re too small. You know what, cat’s-eye glasses are sizeist. There, I said it,” she jokes.

Ditto’s bold decision to move across the country, leaving behind everything she knew, paid off. Once ensconced in the Northwest music scene, Ditto found her true calling as the frontwoman for Gossip. It has given the once-voiceless Ditto a global voice, a responsibility that she takes seriously. “I feel like when I have a chance to use the voice, I do. Maybe it’s because I come from a punk background, where it’s not cool to be, like, ‘Yes! I do feel very important!’ ”she jokes. “I think it’s better to be self-deprecating. But I do feel very important in that I’m from a really important movement and was influenced by that and got to be part of it and got to perpetuate it, for sure.”

While she is loath to call herself a celebrity, Ditto is hopeful that her radical messages will resonate with future generations. “One person can grow up and be someone you never thought they could be, and change everything. You don’t think about that when you’re 25 and you’re meeting a 10-year-old, a 12-year-old, a 15-year-old—and they’re listening to music, or writing, and reading your zine or your blog. You don’t think about that. But guess what, in 20 years, when that person is 35, they could be a fucking senator. You don’t know. And at the moment, it’s like you can’t plant the tree and want it to grow the next day. It’s going to take 10 years. That’s what activism is, period. Every little bit counts.” She adds, “Patience is the key in activism, and I’m sorry, but it is. I know we want it now, but we have got to be patient. Sometimes there’s no time and that fucking sucks, and some people don’t have time and it’s an injustice, but it’s a reality.”

One of the places where Ditto is successfully making her mark now is in the world of body politics. Much has been made of Ditto’s stature, and while most women would crumble under the intense scrutiny she has faced about her body, Ditto actually welcomes it. She is proud—ready and willing to talk about fat politics and subvert expectations about how women are supposed to look, behave, and feel about themselves. “I just feel like it’s a good topic of conversation. I feel like I get sick of it weighing on my mind, but I don’t feel resentful. I’m comfortable being a guinea pig. I’m like, ‘If you want to discuss, discuss away. If you want to debate, go for it.’ I’m not digging around for it on the Internet. Which is another key to happiness in my life. I just feel like when things start to weigh on me, I just have to remind myself to get in touch with what’s going on with me and how I personally feel about it. And so I think that keeps me from being resentful toward that kind of attention. I don’t feel a lot of pressure. I feel like it’s more important to talk about it honestly. I guess I’ve just accepted that as one of the things about being a person who’s recognizable or identifiable.”

And for those people who claim to simply be concerned about her health, Ditto has this to say: “Well, are you concerned about people who weigh 120 pounds and smoke every day and do loads of coke on the weekends? Are you concerned about them, just because you look at them and they’re thin? No. So let’s talk about concern later. That’s always my answer to that.” Ditto continues, “I love to throw my blood pressure around in people’s faces, which is 120 over 78, which is perfect. Literally, textbook perfect. So that’s my favorite trick. I love it. I think the facts speak. They really speak loudly. It’s an insane idea to me that people would look at a person who’s in the right height-weight index and think, Oh, they’re healthy, when it’s like you don’t even know what they’re doing to play into that little limit that you’ve decided was the right one, and I think that’s just absurd. You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

Perhaps it’s this utterly unapologetic attitude that has allowed Ditto to penetrate one of the least fat-friendly cultures imaginable: the world of high fashion.

Ditto has walked the runway for Jean Paul Gaultier, rubbed elbows with Karl Lagerfeld, and was featured in a stunning editorial in Pop magazine, in which she was decked out in couture from Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, and Marc Jacobs. But even when playing muse to some of the world’s top designers, Ditto remains faithful to her mantra, The Personal Is Political. “There’s also something really awesome about being that person, that guinea pig. And sometimes it just takes somebody to be there, to be, like, ‘I’m not accepting this. Fuck that. No way.’

“I feel like things have happened. And change is slow, and it’s real. But meeting with those designers you learn so much about where they’re coming from. It’s also a money thing. I think what’s more insane is how much money that shit costs. I think there’s a lot of different arguments that go with fashion—about bodies, attitudes, money. It is an elite, exclusive, privileged world. And I get to peek into it. Mind you, not as deeply as other people, but I feel like I’ve penetrated it really pretty deeply, and it’s fun and confusing sometimes. Also, my dad used to have this saying when the milk expired. He’d say, ‘Ah, that milk don’t know what day it is.’ That’s how I feel about the tag on the fucking clothing. Like, that dress doesn’t know what size I am. It doesn’t tell me what size I am, I tell it if I want it or not. I feel like, also, being fat really forced my creativity and my resourcefulness. I like a challenge. Like, I see your size 12 and I accept your challenge.”

While Ditto’s body image is a healthy one, it hasn’t stopped her from having had a complicated relationship with her body over the years.

After all, it has endured physical and sexual abuse, prejudice, self-mutilation, and severe illness—shortly after moving to Portland, Ore., Ditto was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a disease that nearly left the singer blind, deaf, dumb and with paralysis in her face and vocal cords, and she suffered a devastating spell of depression that left her suicidal. In Coal to Diamonds, she describes the decision to check in to the hospital as: “That’s where you go when you’re all grown up and you need a babysitter. I needed a babysitter, badly.” However, her body is also something Ditto takes great pride in and loves, as it is the source of her voice, of her being, and, as she puts it, “It’s where my brain lives.”

She’s in a much better place today, but when asked if she thinks about that internal tug of war, she says, “All the time. Right now is a really interesting time because I just bought two wedding dresses—I hate to be that person who talks about their wedding all the time, but it’s consuming my life, so it’s going to come up—but I just got two wedding dresses because I’m not sure which one I want to wear. Both are a size 20. And I’m trying to maintain a 20 and not gain or lose because those are expensive dresses and I’m not sure if they’re going to fit in four months. One of the symptoms of my disease is really serious [weight] fluctuation. So I’ve been, for the first time in my life, really conscious about what I’m putting in my body. And people are like, ‘Oh, you’re going on the wedding diet.’ And I’m like, ‘What? No!’ Why can’t a fat person watch what they’re putting in their body without it immediately pertaining to getting smaller? I think it’s really interesting. You can’t experiment with what makes you feel one way or the other without [people] immediately going to body image. I don’t think it’s bad. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to not want to spend more money on a dress—especially when you’ve bought two of them already. But it’s conflicting because it’s like, ‘Am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Is this Man’s way of tricking me into being played that way?’

When Ditto discusses her upcoming wedding to her fiancée, Kristin Ogata, the already vivacious singer becomes even more animated. “It’s in June, I’m flying my family to Arkansas. I’ve been told not to tell anyone where it is. Kristin was like, ‘Will you please stop telling people where we’re getting married?’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I guess that’s a good idea.’ It’s really good to get really excited. I feel really lucky because I have a lot of really awesome friends who are in the biz, in the beauty biz. I think it’s going to be really beautiful, it’s going to be incredible. And I can’t wait to be married. I’ve never been that girl who’s like, ‘I’m going to get to wear a beautiful dress,’ so to me it’s weird turning into that person.”

Beth Ditto and fiancée, Kristin Ogata
Beth Ditto and fiancée, Kristin Ogata

Ditto has been hands-on in the organizing of the event and the reception, but even for a rock star, putting together a wedding can be daunting. “Planning is great and also stressful. It’s just like you see in the movies—when you see the family and this person can’t sit with that person, and that person has drama because so-and-so dated this person—it’s really like that. But I’ll tell you that the wedding ceremony, the party we’re having, there are so many people I couldn’t narrow it down. It’s the Southerners meet the Hawaiians, let’s just say that. She’s from Hawaii and I’m from Arkansas. It’s the locals meet the yokels, I’m really excited.”

And as for the ceremony itself? “We’re writing vows. It’s nontraditional but traditional. Because I like traditional, and I think people are always really surprised by that. I like it pretty straightforward. The person who’s officiating it is a princess, there’s a lot of goddess-y elements, and I’m really excited about that. Maybe a little witchy, because we’re lesbians,” she laughs.

“[Kristin and I have] known each other since we were 18, so it’s not like a brand new world, but I feel like I’m really excited for the new chapter, to see what happens. Because so far life has brought so much cool shit, I’m like, ‘What the fuck is going to happen next?’ ”
While there is no way to know for sure what the future holds for Ditto, at the very least she is enjoying every minute of the present.

“You know, there are times when I’m like, ‘Wow!’ I say to my girlfriend all the time, ‘We have such a blessed, privileged life, and we’re so fucking lucky to have what we have.’ I have a great house, I have a great girlfriend, I have great friends, I have an amazing job and an amazing family. I don’t feel like a celebrity. It comes up a lot in interviews, especially in places like Germany and France. They’ll be like, ‘Oh, so you’re a celebrity.’ It’s just a completely different world. I don’t feel it because I come home to Portland and no one gives a shit, and it’s great! It’s very humbling—to be, like, at the nail salon and the ladies are talking to you and they’re like, ‘So what do you do again?’ every single time I go in there. And it’s just keeping it real and keeping me in check, which is good for the old big head.”