From her mighty vocals to her unapologetic attitude, there’s no one quite like Beth Ditto. For her ELLE cover story, the musician speaks to friend and fellow punk rebel Debbie Harry
Over a decade ago, the world met Beth Ditto. She had jet-black hair, a roaring laugh and an insatiable zeal for leopard print. She was like nobody else. Boisterous and unapologetic, Beth would appear naked on the cover of magazines. At shows, she’d strip off on stage, climb into crowds and belt out choruses with a voice so strong it managed to upstage even her most daring antics. A fierce defender of LGBTQ rights, her band Gossip’s (née The Gossip) first hit, Standing in the Way of Control, was written in support of same-sex marriage, a topic she’s still passionate about today.
Today, her interviewer is Blondie’s front woman Debbie Harry. One of Beth’s friends and a collaborator (the pair sing together on the Blondie song, A Rose by Any Name), she couldn’t be more excited to interview her. On the phone, they have an easy rapport, armed with questions and praise for each another. Like Beth, Debbie is a staunch advocate for social justice: at this year’s ELLE Style Awards, she wore a ‘Politicians are Criminals’ badge, and in between screaming at each other’s jokes and swapping sartorial tips, it’s clear that, on stage and off, two of pop’s most pervasive figures have a lot in common.
DEBBIE HARRY: Hi, Beth! Where are you?
BETH DITTO: Debbie! I’m in the middle of a corn field. I’m at a festival in Bavaria. DH: That sounds nice. I’ve seen you do festivals, people love you. You’re an entertainer as well as a musician, which is a genuine gift. I’ve often thought you could be a great stand-up comic.
BD: Thanks, Debbie, that means everything to me. You always say the nicest things. DH: Well, have you ever considered it?
BD: No! I’m too scared. That’s what’s fun about singing, you don’t have to rely on the laughs. Debbie, what’s your sign?
DH: Cancer. What’s yours?
BD: Pisces. Do you believe in all that?
DH: Yeah, well we’re both water signs, aren’t we? We’re compatible. So, what are you doing, what do you do before a show?
BD: Right now, I’m sitting in my underwear brushing out my wigs. I find it hard not to drink before a show.
DH: I think that’s pretty normal, actually. I guess the key is knowing your limits.
BD: That’s something I’m not good at! I think it’s because, where I grew up in Arkansas, drinking was never around or talked about. Even at weddings, I never saw drinking, it was scandalous! So when I got out and started drinking myself, I went ape shit. How many drinks do you have? Do other people do that? I feel like people don’t really talk about it.
DH: I had to say to my guys, no drinking before a show. For a while, everyone was coming out on stage with beers and putting them on their amps. It was like a party on stage, everyone was getting sloppy, so I put an end to it. Now they all have a shot of scotch, and we go out and play. My capacity for alcohol is shit. I smell liquor and turn into a goofball. I’m a cheap date. It’s not a good reputation to have. I can’t handle it, but you can. It’s to your advantage, you know.
BD: I love a little party on stage! DH: Do you have to do those fan ‘meet and greets’?
BD: Yes! I get nervous. I’d like them more if I thought people were going to be there. I get this horrible anxiety where I feel like there’s this big build-up to something, and I always worry nobody will come. You don’t have to worry about that. DH: Well, sometimes only one or two people show up, and what can you do other than think, ‘Here goes nothing’? Having come through the punk scene, it’s given me a kind of strength. I find it wonderful to be rejected!
BD: I have that feeling about critics, even at shows I like to be antagonised. I agree with you about punk: it’s given me a really good perspective and made me feel empowered. [The music industry] can feel like a contest and maybe it’s punk to say, being part of this contest feels gross, it’s not who I really am.
DH: Well, how do you feel about all those talent contests that have been going on for the past 10 years or so? Have you ever done one?
BD: I just guest judged on The Voice, Germany yesterday. It was pretty silly; it’s strange watching it all unfold. I told all the contestants, ‘Listen, I really don’t have any criticism, because who am I to say? If you’re listening to people like [German punk singer] Nina Hagen and [Berlin-based experimental band] Malaria! – they wouldn’t have won The Voice.’ I couldn’t tell them on TV, but afterwards I said, ‘Go start a band, there’s more than one way to make music. You don’t have to be famous, fame is not the goal. Just have fun.’
You don’t have to be
famous. Fame is not the goal
BETH DITTO by DEBBIE HARRY
DH: That’s what I was saying about you – you have a natural ability to entertain and to make people happy. You certainly have that. It’s not a goody-goody thing; you have razor-sharp wit and innuendo, and people like that. They like being shook up a bit.
BD: Thank you. You know, I remember one time, we were on a photoshoot together, you gave me the best advice about getting ready; I’ve quoted you a million times. You said: ‘Always do your own make-up, it looks better.’ I think about that every time I put my make-up on before a show.
DH: You know where I got it from? I got it from Elizabeth Taylor.
BD: Really? That’s incredible.
DH: There’s a fucking incredible female icon for you. BD: No shit, Sherlock.
DH: What about fashion? You really are a no-holds-barred kind of girl. You go for it, right? You love colour, you love flair, I know you like to be outrageous.
BD: Yeah! I got into punk in the Nineties, and I think that’s where it comes from. That idea of not being afraid. I’m open to anything, except I hate uncomfortable shoes. I can’t stand high heels. That’s one of my biggest struggles. People always ask me about my size and the fashion industry. Fuck that. More than anything, people try to pressure me into wearing heels.
DH: I can only wear them for a short time. I like the way they make certain clothes look, but I don’t work in them, that’s for sure. I’m trying to imagine your wardrobe. I bet you’ve got a lot of moods in there?
BD: I’ve got a lot of Walmart clothes in there, I’ll tell you that much. Maybe it’s from growing up poor as a kid, but I have bad scarcity issues. If I find a nice shirt, I’ll buy every one of them, because for my size it’s not easy to find. I used to make all my own clothes, but now there’s no time. I love to sew.
DH: Oh, sewing is great. I concur completely. Before a tour, I do this ritualistic thing for about a week where I hypnotically sew for hours a day, trying to put together a look. It’s very therapeutic. Now Beth, let’s get on to your passion for LGBTQ rights and this Trump business. We should talk politics, don’t you think? BD: Yes, I agree. I have so much to say.
DH: We need to hand out some grit here.
BD: I feel so overwhelmed by the amount of wrong that’s happening, where do we start? The Environmental Protection Agency? Corporate corruption? Transgender people in the military? Russia? It feels like we’re watching a reality show.
DH: Exactly. But I do think it pushes everybody who would perhaps be inactive into being proactive, like you are. I love that you’re taking a stand with the LGBTQ communities and being an advocate. I’m committed to the idea of modernising and revamping our government. I think we have to look at that very seriously.
BD: Modernising is a great word to use, because it’s so archaic. It really is built on an ancient foundation.
DH: I’m a firm believer in the pendulum, things swing back and forth. Having lived through the hippy era, the love generation and all that, I really do think anything is possible. We’ve certainly made a lot of mistakes through the years. Do you think the human race gets better?
BD: I worry that people with bad intentions are always the people who rise to power, because they’re the ones who will do anything to get it. People with a conscience aren’t going to trample over others to get their way. But that idea of a pendulum gives me comfort. I think sometimes we expect too much of each other and it can feel divided. We need to use our strengths and passions and interests for a greater good. Debbie Harry’s on environment, guys; Beth is on LGBTQ rights; let’s all meet in the same place!
DH: We need that when we have such a loser in office who isn’t pro anything except his own bank balance.
BD: I’m going to think a lot about this pendulum effect. I think people will feel a lot less stuck if they embrace the idea that things will eventually swing the other way.
DH: As long as we’re doing something, and focusing, we can make a difference. Taking action is an affirmation that you’re assuming power, and it can build.
BD: I’m coming out of this conversation thinking, ‘Yeah, we can do this!’
DH: I think that’s a positive note to end on, don’t you? I love you, Beth Ditto.
BD: I love you, Deborah Harry. I’ll see you on the flip side.
Beth Ditto’s album, Fake Sugar, is out now. Blondie’s UK tour runs from 7-17 November and the band’s new album, Pollinator, is out now
Pink organza dress, CHRISTOPHER KANE. White-gold and diamond earrings, all CARTIER. White-gold ring, Beth’s own