Beth Ditto is staring at herself in the mirror—her face powdered a full-moon white—and cupping, groping, and fondling her exposed breasts like a 12-year-old boy who’s just been handed the keys to puberty. To her right, her hairstylist Lyndell Mansfield, a Cockney punk-rock chick with hot-pink tights to match her hair, is blow-drying two discs of ham, each the size of a quarter. “I say paint them with blush,” Ditto tells Mansfield in her backcountry twang. “I’ve always wanted dark nipples.” Mansfield, who shares her apartment with Ditto when the singer is in London, obliges her friend. A lightbulb flickers to life in Ditto’s head: “Can we get some raisins from the catering table and paint them pink, you know, for the tips?”
That Ditto posed for the accompanying photos wearing edible areolae shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with her antics. The 31-year-old Arkansas native is spiked with a bawdy sense of humor, and when it comes to exposing herself, she’s an expert in not giving a fuck. As the frontwoman of the soulful glam-punk band Gossip, Ditto has a bold, unhinged, and legendary stage persona. News of a half-naked Ditto would clog the blogosphere if only it didn’t happen almost every time she took the stage. Whether it’s at Maggie Mae’s Rooftop during SXSW or the Fendi after-party during Paris Fashion Week, guitarist Nathan “Brace Paine” Howdeshell’s streamlined licks and drummer Hannah Blilie’s propulsive snares are a pied-piper call for Ditto to strip. And strip she does. At some point during a sweaty, dare-you-not-to-dance Gossip set, whatever fishnet or tube dress or muumuu Ditto has on will get torn off and thrown into the frenetic, worshipping crowd.
Ditto is on a one-day stopover in New York, where she’ll engage with an assembly line of journalists to promote Gossip’s fifth album, A Joyful Noise. Her first stop is Times Square, where she’ll meet Howdeshell and Blilie for a taping at MTV News. The openly gay Ditto is a household name overseas, where the band’s third album, 2006’s surprisingly danceable Standing in the Way of Control, cannonballed them to stardom. After releasing two albums of blasted riot-grrrl rock on the underground activist label Kill Rock Stars, Control marked a stark shift in Gossip’s sound—more funk than punk. The formula worked. In England, where music bible NME named her 2006’s “Coolest Person in Rock,” Ditto knows the paparazzi by name. “The first time they were chasing us on scooters, I was like, Who are they taking pictures of? Is Madonna here?” Ditto says of fame’s first strike. “Now, when I see those paparazzi guys, I’m like, Hey girlfriend, how are you? I’m not Angelina Jolie, so I’m not hounded by them, but 2006 was insane—really insane.”
That year, Standing in the Way of Control’s eponymous lead single, a chart-topping, crisply produced middle finger to the Bush administration’s ban on homosexual marriage, crowned Ditto as pop music’s decibel-shattering voice of the sexually oppressed. Since then, same-sex marriage has crawled to legalization in six states, Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann built their campaign narratives around the demonization of homosexuals, and a costumed freak named Lady Gaga hitched a ride on the Gay Rights Express all the way to 23 million Twitter followers. “It always takes a straight person to get the attention of straight people,” Ditto says of Mother Monster, as we trudge through the sludgy Manhattan traffic in a black SUV. Does she see herself as an LGBT icon? “A BLT icon, maybe,” she wisecracks. “I ignore people like Rick Santorum because they’re not going to affect my daily life. I don’t go to bed thinking about them, and I don’t wake up thinking about them. I go to bed thinking about all of the good things that are happening. And I guess if you believe in the Bible, then being gay is a sin, but I don’t, so I don’t really care. Plus, God hates fags,” she says. “Just kidding!”
Ditto grew up in a world where the consequences of sin were omnipresent. The highways surrounding the rural town of Judsonia, Arkansas, are dotted with billboards that warn, “God Is Watching You.” Ditto and her six siblings were raised by her Christian mother and stepfather in a three-bedroom house, and were taught that the one unforgivable sin was questioning the existence of God. “That was the last one I let go of,” she says. As she abandoned religion, Ditto searched for a new guiding force. “I grew up in an extremely accepting, empathetic household, but there were so many rules that weren’t necessarily about sinning,” she says. “It was more about roles for women and not really seeing an example of what I wanted to be. I didn’t relate to teachers, I didn’t want to be a nurse.” That’s when, along with her newfound spirituality, Ditto discovered feminism. “The thing about being spiritual is that I always knew I was destined to do something great, but I never knew what. And when I first heard the word ‘feminist,’ it hit me: That’s what I am.”
Photography by Jeff Bark