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The SPIN Interview: Beth Ditto

“It’s perverted!” cries Beth Ditto. The lead singer of the bluesy punk trio the Gossip is at home in Portland, Oregon, flipping through the Fingerhut catalog, a mail-order retailer of such household necessities as bath towels, crucifixes, and gun cabinets. She’s feeling nostalgic (the company’s nonsensical name was a joke among friends back in her tiny hometown of Searcy, Arkansas), but also appalled. “People who sell rifles are dirty homos who won’t come out of the closet,” she ventures. This is just one opinion, and the 26-year-old Ditto has many, many more. In the eight years since the Gossip formed, the famously full-figured, outspoken frontwoman has become a sensation in the U.K., where the group’s most recent album, 2006’s Standing in the Way of Control, went Top 10, while attracting only a cult following in the States. This status might change in the spring, when Columbia releases an album of live material produced by new label co-chief Rick Rubin. Naturally, Beth Ditto already has something to say about that.

Now that Rick Rubin has taken an interest in the band, how involved do you think he’ll be in your next studio album?
I’m not really sure, but I don’t care who is involved. You know when you meet someone but you don’t want to presume that you’re friends and you’re afraid to say hi to them in public, ’cause they may not remember you? That’s how I feel about Rick Rubin. He’s been really sweet and supportive, but we’re small in the grand scheme. I mean, Jay-Z or the Gossip? Jesus, let me think about it. But I think he will work with us in the future.

Do you find it at all marginalizing to be on Music With a Twist, a Columbia subsidiary for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender artists?
No, I love being on a queer label. You’re sitting in a room with a group of people who have all the same reference points as you, you don’t have to explain anything about your identity to them, and people aren’t like, “What’s a tranny?” It’s not about integration versus segregation; it’s just a way to get the music out there.

You’ve said that you think being a bigger, gay woman might have held the band back from mainstream success, but do you think it’s also worked to your advantage?
I never would say that it worked to our advantage, but I think it’s a breath of fresh air for a lot of people. And you gotta play the game. If you can work it, then you work it no matter what. And talent transcends all those things.

What do you make of the fact that the Gossip are very popular in the U.K. but not nearly as well known over here?
Sometimes I think of America as this imperial child of England that doesn’t know what to do until England tells it. But I’m ready for the backlash over there. It’s coming!

You have been known to strip onstage during live shows. Isn’t there a danger that it will attract exactly the kind of attention that female musicians want to avoid?
I have a lot of things to say about that, and one of them is that it’s important that the body becomes a normal thing. I don’t think the rules are the same for me as they were for Courtney Love or [Bikini Kill/Le Tigre frontwoman] Kathleen Hanna, because I don’t think my body was accepted in the same way. In the beginning, people were really uncomfortable with a big girl, so it was a radical political statement; and it’s even more radical to not be objectified with your clothes off. Also, onstage, it’s so hot we’re dying. It just feels nice sometimes.

What do you say to the argument that conforming to a certain weight is not about body image but a health issue?
This always kills me. Healthy is a lie! Call me a radical or call me a conspiracy theorist: I think the people who want to argue that it’s about health don’t know what they’re talking about and are just listening to people who have a lot of body-hatred issues. When I go to the doctor with a sore throat, the first thing they say to me is “Have you ever thought about losing weight?” And I’ll be like, “Have you checked my cholesterol? Have you checked my fucking blood pressure?” And then they’re always shocked when it’s absolutely perfect. I probably eat better than most of my thin friends do. Don’t get me wrong — I just had chicken strips today, and they were delicious. But I’m not unhealthy. I don’t know anybody else who can sing and dance at the same time for an hour straight.

Keira Knightley called you “sexy” and said that you had “the most amazing body.” Can you take that compliment seriously coming from somebody who looks like she might have an eating disorder?
The way I feel about Keira Knightley is that even if she has an eating disorder, it’s good for people to hear her say something like that, because people listen to people like her. If she is anorexic, if she is sick, then she knows. And it’s sad because she also knows that she wishes she wasn’t that way, or she wishes things were different and that there was more than one way to be. I don’t judge women for feeling they have to be thin, because they’re conditioned their whole lives to “hate yourself, hate yourself, hate yourself.” I judge the world for being so antifemale.

You and Perez Hilton are good friends. When his blog makes fun of celebrities for the way they look, isn’t he contributing to the issues that you’re talking about?
Let me tell you how I stay friends with Perez: I don’t look at his blog. I don’t agree with what Perez says a lot of the time, and I think he knows that, but we really appreciate each other. He reminds me of an old friend — this kid Richie I grew up with — and he’s sweet to me. But I’d like to keep my self-esteem and self-respect, so I have no desire to look at that site. I don’t look at the Internet. It’s the fat-girl trick of the trade: You pay attention to what’s important or you’re not going to survive.

You’ve said that while growing up in Arkansas, you once got stoned with your cousin and ate a squirrel. What did that taste like?
Wait, let me tell you something: The funny part of that story is not that I ate a squirrel. It’s that it was the first time I ever got stoned. That was not the first or the last time I ate squirrel. But anyway, if you prepare it like a chicken, it tastes like chicken.

What’s the worst gossip that’s been spread about you?
One time this band — I can’t remember which one — thought we stole their merchandise and turned it inside-out and spray-painted gossip on it. Really, I had no interest in stealing this band’s merch, and I wouldn’t steal a band’s merch no matter how much I hated them. I would deface it, but I wouldn’t steal it.

As someone who was inspired by the riot grrrl bands of the early ’90s, do you get depressed about the state of women in rock when you see someone like Cat Power unable to get through a live set or Amy Winehouse appearing in public with scratches all over her?
No, I don’t, because I think they have a right to express every single bit of imbalance or vulnerability they have. Of course, I know it’s not good for girls to see and that people will judge them in a different light. But sometimes I think the only element that riot grrrl was missing was a little emotional sensitivity. Things were so cut-and-dry. I’m thinking of their proverb “Jealousy kills girl love.” That’s harsh. Jealousy is a natural emotion, and if you felt like you couldn’t control it, you felt guilty about it. And there was no discussing these intense feelings — there were just rules that were enforced. Mind you, I’m ten years too late for it. And it was a revolution, absolutely. But it is empowering to be emotional and at the same time to be taken seriously. Crying out in public takes a lot of fucking guts. Which is why Britney is so rad and I’m so mad that they took her kids away.

There’s definitely an imbalance in the world when you can be as powerful and as successful as she is and still have your kids taken away and given to someone like Kevin Federline. What the fuck has he ever done in his life? And tell me he’s not shitfaced out of his mind right now. I think it’s all a cultural misunderstanding. She’s from Louisiana, I’m from Arkansas. When I go home, guess what’s in those baby bottles? Mountain Dew. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s just normal. People fail to see that regional culture is a massive part of a person’s experience. She is just trash. And when I say trash, I mean that in the most positive way, as in, I was trash, too.

With the election coming up, is there a candidate the Gossip will support?
I don’t think so. It would depend on the candidate and how rad they were. It was hard enough for me to get behind Bands Against Bush. It wasn’t the kind of activism I wanted to do. I didn’t feel like it was enough. Instead, I decided to make a record [Standing in the Way of Control] about people feeling powerless and trying to empower them.

Last summer you participated in Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors tour. Were you in the Madonna or the Cyndi camp growing up?
I was in the Boy George/Cyndi camp. I loved hanging out with her. Right before we’d play, she would always say, “Take no prisoners,” which I think is really cute. She had a lot of advice, too, like “Don’t do drugs.” Every single person I’ve talked to who has been around the business for a long time, they always say that.

That doesn’t seem like advice you need. Have you tried any drugs besides pot?
I did Ecstasy once. Pot is not my jam — it makes me out of my mind. I’m seriously under the covers with my teeth chattering. Or I pee my pants.

What would you do if the Gossip broke up?
I’d be a hairdresser. I would say all the money I’ve made from the Gossip is just the hairdressing fund. I never said I was going to be in a band forever. I’m going to do it someday, no joke.