“Look at this snack attack in here! I’m feeling this,” says Gossip singer Beth Ditto while raiding her publicist’s desk at Sony headquarters in New York. “Let’s share this,” she says in her Southern twang, holding up the last yellow Starburst. “You bite first because I have a herpe [laughs].” Needless to say, we’re fast friends, so it comes as little surprise when brazen Beth shows us her Spanx. During Vulture’s lengthy chat with Portland’s Ditto, she dishes about Gossip’s new album, A Joyful Noise; her idea for another clothing line (“the IKEA of clothes for fat girls and boys”); and why Karl Lagerfeld needs to cool it on those fat jokes about Adele.
Tell me about the who, what, where, when of the new Gossip album, A Joyful Noise.
We worked in London and Portland, with Mark Ronson and Brian Higgins. We started the record with [Ronson] and we ended up not working on the record with him, which was fine. We picked it right up with Brian. Working in Portland was awesome because we don’t get to do that very often. We worked in this big-ass old house, which the real Alice from Alice in Wonderland — the girl she was based on — lived and died in the house.
Germany is Gossip’s biggest market, and U.K. celeb magazines follow you closely. Do you feel like you’re treated a lot differently overseas?
Germany’s wild! Every time we’re over there, I think, This is what people used to say about David Hasselhoff! Do I ever think Gossip will be really massive in America? No, I don’t think it’ll happen — and that’s fine. It’s kind of nice because I get to experience everything at once. I get to come home and it not be weird, like in Paris or something. It is nice to be completely anonymous.
On the song “Get a Job” from the new album, you sing lines like “You never know how it’s gonna end up tomorrow” in regards to your career. Is this something you actively worry about?
I always was concerned about my plan B. I always knew there was money to go to beauty school. I know exactly what I’d do if music wasn’t happening for me. I like to know that if something falls through, I can depend on myself. I’ve had people ask me in interviews what it’s like to have money, but that’s not how it is. I have a middle-class life. I have a room in London but not a house, nor a BMW. And I don’t give a shit about a BMW! In 2009, I bought a 2008 Toyota Rav 4. I was like, “This is fucking fancy.” When I first got into it, I thought,”I have never been in a car this new before. I was scared to drive it.
I do live a very comfortable life compared to my friends, where there’s still struggle. And I think it’s good to admit that. I’m not gonna be like, “Girl, I feel you — money’s tight!” It’s like the one rich kid living in the punk house. I’d always want to say to him, “No, you don’t know what it’s like.”
You’ve been more entrepreneurial than a lot of other musicians in your position, specifically in the fashion world. How was your experience working with U.K. retailer Evans on a plus-size line?
I wish there was more control in that line, but there wasn’t. It was really fun, but the things that I really wanted couldn’t be turned around in time. It was made in India, which caused a lot of conflict for me. I really want to do my own line that’s ethically made, and I can do whatever the fuck I want with it. I also want to start an online vintage store, kind of like Re/Dress [Brooklyn’s now-closed plus-size haven]. I want to do a “buy the outfit” function, and I want to show how outfits look on all kinds of different body types, even boys and butches. It’s high concept, and I don’t have time. I’d need to find someone to work with me on it, but I’m also very controlling about this, just like I am with Gossip stuff.
What’s your vision of your own line?
It wouldn’t be crazy designs — it would be simple. I want to make the IKEA of clothes for fat girls and boys. Cheap, affordable, basic — but ethically made. Basics, you know? Like Spanx — I’m still confused as to why retailers haven’t ripped them off yet and done it well. It’s because they don’t understand the basics behind it. I love Spanx. I’m wearing ‘em right now!
Don’t you hate the elastic line at your waist? I find Spanx so uncomfortable.
You have to buy them too big. They go all the way up to a size H at Lane Bryant. They’re expensive, but you don’t get any chaff.
Do you think of yourself as a fat activist?
Yes. It takes a really thick skin to do what I do, in the way that I’ve done it. But I realize I didn’t do anything first. I’m still looking up to [singer-songwriter and political activist] Nomy Lamm and [author] Charlotte Cooper — those girls are the bomb. Sometimes I think about Mama Cass [from the Mamas and the Papas] and what she went through, and it must have been really hard being a big girl in the public eye back then. I just got chills thinking about it. It was almost like she didn’t have a body, she was so de-sexualized.
I’m curious what you think of Adele and how she’s treated in the spotlight. She has been made out as comparatively non-sexual in her image, and she wears modest dresses, lots of black — things that hide her body.
I’m really proud of Adele, but I can’t imagine being Adele. I come from a highly politicized, radically feminist, lesbian scene. I have an amazing group of people around me that when things are said about how I look, they just go, “Girl, fuck that job,” “Girl, fuck those people.” I mean, my fashion icon is, literally, a drag queen who ate dog shit [Divine, in Pink Flamingos]. So I can’t imagine not coming from a punk scene and adopting riot grrrl sensibilities. Not having that — can you imagine handling fame without that sort of mentality? Even navigating the world would be tough.
Did you catch wind of what Karl Lagerfeld said about Adele being fat?
A little bit. First of all, Karl Lagerfeld is not even sane. Second of all, he’s not the end-all, be-all of what he does. He’s really talented, but that doesn’t mean he’s right. Third, Karl Lagerfeld used to be this really fat, eccentric dude. He always had that fat kid fan with him, too. To me, only a person who was fat could get away with saying something like that.
Gossip started as a punk band, but your sound has become more polished and dance-driven through the years. How do you perceive the band’s progression?
Starting out really punk came from not knowing any better and listening to music like that, not knowing how to play music — well, still not knowing how to play music. Now we’re more comfortable with the fact that we don’t know. When you turn 30, you gain this amount of confidence to just let things go.
The progression of our music could be seen as selling out or giving in, but honestly, I’ve done everything on my terms. Hopefully you’re not making the same record you were when you were 30 when you were 19, even if people don’t like it. The people who really care are glad that you’re moving forward and trying, even if it’s not their favorite record.