Beth Ditto is a firecracker. The brash front-woman of the ever-evolving soul, electro-pop, dance, garage rock, fusion band Gossip has become a gay superstar thanks to her larger-than-life personality, politics and vocals.
From their humble roots in Olympia, Washington, Ditto and her band have gone on to play some of the biggest music festivals in the world. Ditto has graced the cover of countless magazines (nude on more than one occasion) and even walked the runway as a model for Jean Paul Gaultier during Paris Fashion Week.
An outspoken feminist, gay rights activist and pioneering fashionista, Ditto recently designed a line of plus-sized clothing for Evans. Gossip is currently touring with its newest album, A Joyful Noise; Xtra chatted with Ditto ahead of the band’s Canadian shows.
Xtra: Is it hard to maintain a strong queer identity and your politics as the band’s profile grows? Did anyone ever tell you to shy away from your queerness for professional reasons?
Beth Ditto: Not at all. There’s never been any pressure from labels, agents, anyone about distancing ourselves from being gay. It’s possibly, in part, because people know better than to ask us something like that, but the people we work with at Sony have been very supportive of that part of Gossip’s identity.
A lot of artists have really gotten behind Russian band Pussy Riot. How does this kind of social repression make you feel, and do you ever worry about expressing yourself?
I think we’re really lucky, as are any artists who live in the West or in countries where that level of punishment is just not a possibility. I don’t feel at all frightened that I’m going to be thrown in prison for saying something pro-queer or identifying myself as feminist onstage or criticizing the government during a performance. There are risks to some kinds of activism in America, but talking shit about the president onstage isn’t one. I really can’t fathom what it would be like to live somewhere where that is a reality, and I have deep respect for people who speak up and put their lives on the line to try to create change.
Do you still experience homophobia in the industry or in your travels with the band?
Sure. It’s rare; we surround ourselves with queer-positive people. But every once in a while at a festival or whatever, you encounter bands or audience members who are sexist or homophobic. It’s the same as any industry, any job.
Are you surprised by how the fashion community has supported you? Do you feel the urge to do more designing and help change people’s attitudes in the industry?
A lot of people in fashion are artists; they’re the freaks and queers who didn’t fit in in high school, and I actually relate to so many of them really well because of it. The creation and maintenance of oppressive body standards didn’t start with the fashion industry, and it’s a lot more complicated and far-reaching than a runway show. That said, not everyone has access to designers willing to make things in their size, and a lot of designers don’t make off-the-rack sizes that would fit anyone above a size 12. I would love to design more collections for fat girls, ’cause I have so many ideas and everyone deserves to have fashionable, affordable clothes in their size.
You’ve played Toronto lots of times, including several times at the legendary Vazaleen parties. Tragically, we lost superstar artist/promoter and Vazaleen mastermind Will Munro to cancer a few years ago. Is there any advice you can give Toronto queers when it comes to keeping alternative queer culture and nightlife happening and sweaty?
We love coming to Canada; audiences are so sweet and fun! Will is a huge part of my memory of those days. He was such a one-of-a-kind person. He really understood that throwing parties and shows is a part of creating community and that it can be dirty and crazy and chaotic, but also inclusive and positive and creative rather than destructive. There can be sexism within the queer scene, same as any other scene, but Will went out of his way to include women and trans people in everything he did. He combined art and sex and music and fun and activism in a way that few people do successfully, without being cheesy.
I don’t know that Toronto queers need my advice; Will was pretty much the perfect role model. Queer communities need to be inclusive, need to have well-curated art and music; they need affordable events, and events that don’t just centre around drinking. They need to have impresarios and promoters that aren’t just in it for money or personal fame, but who are down for participating in all aspects of what it means to be queer — from going to dance parties to volunteering for LGBTQ youth centres.
Gossip has grown in infamy over the years. Are there any goals/collaborations you still have on the schedule as artists?
Can’t someone just introduce me to David Bowie? That’s all I care about right now. And Tim Gunn. Seriously.
Did you ever struggle with your sexuality when you were younger?
Yeah, of course. I grew up in the South in a conservative, religious town. I thought I was going to go to hell, and I prayed for a long time to just get pregnant so I wouldn’t have to face the reality of who I knew I was. I don’t think kids should have to fear for their mortal souls over their sexuality. It’s incredibly sad that as a culture we still haven’t evolved past a place where growing up and becoming a sexual being is a deeply lonely, solitary, anxiety-ridden process. But I was lucky to have a family that was supportive, and to stumble into a group of high school friends that were supportive, too. You know that weird thing where gays kind of gravitate to other gays in high school even when none of you are out yet? My best friend from high school is a fag who lives across the street from me to this day!
You recently announced you were getting married to your adorable long-time girlfriend, Kristin Ogata. Like a lot of gay celebrities you’ve changed your position on the idea of getting married; why the switch-up?
It will be next summer, in Hawaii. My girlfriend — who is very adorable, thank you — is Hawaiian and her family lives there. I am beyond excited. I didn’t change my mind about getting married, really. I have always been an extremely monogamous person. I think people think I’m really wild in that way, but honestly, the idea of being with one person for the rest of my life makes me so happy.
Are there any queer artists past or present who have inspired you personally or musically?
Leigh Bowery! The Need and Rachel Carns! Vaginal Davis! Have I mentioned Tim Gunn? Divine! John Waters!
How can queer rights move in the right direction?
Oh god. It’s an election year, so in the US all you hear on the news is endless debate over gay marriage. It gets used as a wedge, to whip both sides into frenzy and to distract from the Republican economic and healthcare policies that have brutally negative effects on the very people who vote for them. Access to the right to marry and the right to all other social liberties enjoy ed by any other class of citizen is such a vital issue for queers, and it makes me sick to see it used as a smokescreen to trick working class and poor people into voting for a party that doesn’t give a shit about them. That and abortion issues. Women and queers get to be the battleground for both parties. The news in the US is so dark and depressing right now. I don’t have a lot of answers about what’s the right way forward, but I do think that increasingly prominent visibility of happy, functional, queer role models has been enormously helpful in demystifying gays and offering hope for isolated young people.