Twenty years ago, Beth Ditto was a loud, fat, sexually confused choir nerd with permed hair and a Kool-Aid dye job in rural Judsonia, Ark. It was a town where girls often got pregnant before high school ended, as Ditto’s mother, Velmyra, did. When Ditto was a child, she didn’t yet know the truth about who her biological father was (it was, she thinks, “too sad and exhausting” for her mother to explain it), and her mother was overwhelmed by the demands of men, motherhood, and rural poverty. Ditto was shuttled between the homes of Velmyra and her foul-mouthed aunt Jannie, the beloved dictator of a house filled with neglected kids.
In her new memoir, Coal to Diamonds, Ditto writes about growing up poor in the South in a “shit town” where squirrel was an acceptable snack and coming of age “is fast and harsh.” She continues, “Women in Judsonia never had a break to catch their breath or to ask themselves what the hell happened.… Young women pull a bunch of children into the world behind them, without a rest for their brains or their bodies or their hearts. No space to understand the abuse that had happened, never mind time to figure out how to unlearn what they didn’t even know they’d been taught, or to have a fighting chance to break the cycle.”
Today, Ditto, 31, is a world-famous iconoclast, the reigning queer queen of indie music. Ditto has revolutionized fashion by insisting that big girls need a place at the table. She’s become a muse to a host of fashion designers, launched her own fashion line with Evans in the U.K, and walked down the runway for designer Jean Paul Gaultier. She was the face of Donatella Versace’s Versus line at Milan Fashion Week in September and has launched her own line for MAC Cosmetics.
Then, of course, there is the music. Ditto is one of three members of Gossip, a post-punk indie rock band formed at the end of the riot grrrl days in Olympia, Wash., in 1999. Gossip’s newest album, A Joyful Noise, debuted in Billboard’s top 100 in the U.S., but in Europe — where Ditto enjoys David Hasselhoff–like fame — it reached the top 5 in four countries: Austria, France, Germany, and Switzerland (where it was number 1).
The group’s previous album, Music for Men, sold over a million copies worldwide; the gold record hangs in Velmyra’s double-wide trailer. In 2007, after Gossip performed on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross (he’s the U.K.’s equivalent of David Letterman), the band became celebs and Ditto was vaulted into superstardom.
That same year, NME magazine, having previously voted her the coolest person in rock — the first such designation for a woman — featured her on the magazine’s cover naked. The U.K. stood up to applaud, and feminist legend Germaine Greer, praised the singer in The Guardian: “NME had enough courage to put the coolest woman on the planet on the cover, and Beth Ditto has given them the kind of picture that they can use: attention-getting but certainly not obscene.… Her intention is to force acceptance of her body type, 5ft tall and [210 pounds], and…to challenge the conventional imagery of women.”