Meet Beth Ditto: the coolest woman on the planet

Sex. Drugs. Squirrels. You probably haven't heard of Beth Ditto, but a glance at the opening page of her remarkable CV will provide a clue as to why she's now, officially, the coolest person in rock'n'roll.

Beth is a larger-than-life lesbian activist from the Deep South. During childhood, she recalls being so poor she had to eat squirrels. But now, her punk band, Gossip, is on the verge of completing a rags-to-riches journey to the dizzy heights of global stardom.

In recent days, Beth has been compared to Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Debbie Harry. The New Musical Express describes her as a future "rock goddess". Noel Gallagher reckons she's "fookin' immense". At the age of 25, she's just signed a major record deal, and is about to become very, very famous.

"Beth has got a voice that's just absolutely phenomenal," says Krissi Murison, the deputy editor of NME, who recently interviewed her. "It's amazing. She has the sound of a soul or gospel singer, which the Gossip throws over the top of a sort of funky punk soundtrack. Everyone I know who's heard them has been absolutely blown away."

High praise indeed. Yet Ditto's appeal extends far beyond the "riot-disco" sound, cutting a swath through the indie club scene of Britain and the United States. On both sides of the Atlantic, her brand of outspoken feminism and outlandish fashion sense creates almost as many headlines as her music.

"The refreshing thing about Beth is that she actually stands for something," adds Murison. "She's one of the first really talented lesbian musicians that we've seen for some time. In both her clothes and her music, she's pulling down stereotypes about what lesbian woman should look like, and stand for."

Despite her size (at little more than 5ft, she weighs in at 15 stone), Ditto is also described as a style icon. "She's glamorous and sexy, and is completely obsessed by clothes. The queer politics, as she puts it, is also a big thing for her, and she's not afraid to stand up and shout about it."

Success has arrived at a gallop for the Gossip. Just over a year ago, they were a little-known punk band whose albums had achieved critical acclaim, but had limited commercial success beyond the indie clubs of Portland, Oregon, where the band had been based since 1999.

Then they released "Standing in the Way of Control", a slow-burning hit that inspired the Sony label to snap them up. They were swiftly tipped for greater things and invited to spend the summer touring with the poly-sexual disco troupe Scissor Sisters. It wasn't long before Ditto made her first appearance on MTV. A few weeks later, Jonathan Ross invited the Gossip on to his chat show, to perform the title track of their third album, an attack on Republican opposition to gay marriage.

Then, on Tuesday, Ditto was chosen by NME as number one on its annual "Cool List" of zeitgeist-catching musicians, beating Pete Doherty into 28th place, and providing a blow for female equality as one of five women in the top 10.

"This year's Cool List is a testament to the raft of hugely talented women who have taken hold of the music scene in 2006," said the magazine's editor, Conor McNicholas. "From Beth to Lily (Allen) and Karen (O, from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), they've brought new energy to a scene dominated by men. They're also living proof that you can still rock a crowd when you're wearing stilettos."

It was, to such a violently committed feminist, the most fitting of accolades.

The Beth Ditto story begins in rural Arkansas. She grew up in Searcy, a small Bible Belt town that is said to have inspired the film Footloose. Although she talks fondly of her childhood, and has a tattoo that reads "Mama" on her shoulder, Ditto admits that it was an uncomfortable environment in which to come to terms with her sexuality.

"Being feminist and queer came out of my pores," she has recalled. "As a kid, I was always mad. Just noticing the women at Thanksgiving, running around the kitchen while the men were watching football. I was like, fuck this! In junior high, I would get crushes on my best friends, and get so mad at them for getting boyfriends. I really wanted it to go away!"

It was also, she often reminds interviewers, a childhood of grinding poverty. Hence the well-worn anecdote about eating squirrels. "My mom hated us doing it, but all the kids we knew ate squirrels," she has said. "I remember this one time, I was 13 and had been smoking pot with my cousin for the first time.

"He got the munchies so bad that he just took out his BB gun and started shooting at them out the window, and then he just skinned them and fried them, and ate them just like chicken. We used to play with the tails afterwards."

When she was 17, Ditto met her bandmates Nathan Howdeswell and Kathy Mendonca (since replaced by Hannah Blilie). Soon after, they moved from her Searcy to Olympia, a liberal town in Washington State.

"When I met those kids, it totally changed my life," she says. "I was a weirdo, a total baby dyke, with short hair and big baggy pants. I shaved my body in all kinds of ways, and I would wear tons of eyeliner and dye my hair pink."

"I was 18, and I decided to move to Olympia, and one of the reasons I stayed was that here was a community of people who think that I'm great. Not just hot, but awesome! I never knew that, I never thought about that."

The group's first album, That's Not What I Heard, was released in 2000, and helped the band to build a strong following on the underground indie scene. However, it failed to break through to a wider audience. The band released a further four albums (two full-length) on small labels. All were critically acclaimed, but failed to achieve chart success. "To be honest, the Gossip have been going for years and years, but it's taken them an awfully long time to get the recognition they deserve," says Sarah Jane, music editor of the lesbian magazine Diva.

"They've got the potential to be up there with the White Stripes, and have often been compared to them. But like many lesbian bands, they've never had exposure or money put into them, so have always stayed underground.

"Finally, though, they seem to have got the success they deserve with Standing in the Way of Control. It would be easy to dismiss them as one-hit wonders if the next one doesn't do as well, but I think they've got a handful of great garage albums in them. They've got potential to be as big as The Killers, and their songs are much leaner and catchier."

Ditto and the other members of the three piece - Howdeswell plays guitar, Blilie drums - are currently spending three months in the studio, recording a follow-up, which is expected to finally register as a chart success. Their spokesman points out that until now, none of their tracks have even been admitted to BBC Radio 1's playlist. "I think they're now questioning that decision," she said yesterday. "It's fair to say that their first two albums were a pure punk sound, but the most recent has a much wider appeal.

"It's got a much more gospelly sound, as they don't have a bassist, it isn't too different to the early White Stripes."

"The song-writing has become much stronger, and the band also has much more of an idea about what they're meant to be doing. The producers they are now working with have been much more able to refine their ideas."

In the months to come, Ditto's upward trajectory won't been harmed by her outspoken manner, which - although it sometimes generates controversy - has her feted as a future lesbian icon. She recently generated hostile headlines by telling one interviewer that the recent rash of high-school shootings in the US came as no surprise because depressed teenagers didn't get the help they needed from the authorities.

"I think Beth Ditto is a fantastic role model, not just for lesbians, but for all women," adds Sarah Jane. "She's honest, intelligent, witty, outspoken, fiery, and incredibly charismatic.

"She's also a self-confessed fat-femme who is proud of who she is and how she looks. In a music industry populated by thin, airbrushed singers, that's incredibly refreshing."

Ditto's interest in fashion, and growing status as a style icon, is about to be cemented with a book, So Crazy. "It's a style guide," she says. "All the usual fashion don'ts will be fashion dos. Like horizontal stripes on big bodies, and chin-length hair. Fat people look fab in Miu Miu. They just do."

Other fans are taken by Ditto's energetic presence on stage, which frequently sees her strip down to her underwear.

"They're such an active band. She dances and throws herself into the audience during a performance, and it's hot work," adds Murison. "At a gig in London, at Koko a few weeks back, Ditto mooned the audience and then turned around and front-mooned them."

"She's not just behaving like this to shock, though. It's part of her view that the world's just a bit shit, and you've got to do something to put a smile on people's faces. But she's certainly not shy."

Having just been declared the coolest person on the planet, it's easy to understand why.

A Sapphic songbook: the sex lives of pop stars

Madonna

Although Madonna has never been a card-carrying lesbian, her forays into bisexuality have been salivated over by the media. In the video for "Justify My Love", for instance, Madonna passionately kisses the ex-Roxy Music muse Amanda Cazalet, who, just to confuse matters, was dressed as a man. Her Erotica and Sex period of the early 1990s was full of same-sex references, and she famously kissed both Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears at MTV's Video Music Awards. Madonna is also said to have had a relationship with the American comedian Sandra Bernhard.

Alex Parks

The most credible winner of a musical talent show, Alex Parks has verve - and a great voice. She is also gay. Wearing boyish clothing and spiky hair, she impressed both Fame Academy judges and viewers, who bought 500,000 copies of her first album, Introduction. Her second, Honesty, failed to make an impact on the charts.

Melissa Etheridge

Melissa Lou Etheridge, while unknown to many Brits, is a huge name in the US. The singer has won the Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance twice in her career, in 1992 and 1994, but she has made as many fans with her gay-rights activism as with her music. Etheridge came out in 1993, and had a long-term relationship with Julie Cypher, in which the couple raised two children. Etheridge has since exchanged vows with the actress Tammy Lynn Michaels. In October, Michaels gave birth to twins - courtesy of an anonymous sperm donor.

Dusty Springfield

Despite becoming one of Britain's greatest vocal stars in the 1960s with her own brand of Motown-inspired soul, Dusty Springfield was famously tortured about her private life. She opened up once, to Ray Connolly of the London Evening Standard, to say: "A lot of people say I'm bent, and I've heard it so many times that I've almost learnt to accept it. I know I'm perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy." She was never again so candid, but recent biographies have confirmed that Springfield did have lesbian relationships.

Joan Armatrading

The current president of Women of the Year in the UK, Joan Armatrading was born in St Kitts in 1950, but grew up in Birmingham. Her eclectic influences, which dipped into rock, pop, reggae, and folk, won her legions of fans, and made her Britain's first truly successful black artist. She has never made much of her lesbianism, but her hit single, "The Weakness in Me", is now widely considered a gay anthem.

Katie O

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' striking, speaker-humping singer, Karen O - and the fifth coolest person in the world according to the NME - is nothing if not provocative. Although not out of the closet officially, it seems Miss O has certainly peered around the door. In an interview with the lesbian and gay magazine The Advocate, she said that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' song, "Mystery Girl" wasn't written about anyone in particular, but that "when I first started writing songs, the subject (the person I was singing about or to) would be a girl. But there are two types of girls I get crushes on. One is the sort of girl who's really got it together and who has a sort of boyish look... and the other is the blond cheerleader type." She added: "All of my sex dreams are of a same-sex or homoerotic nature."

kd lang

Initials uncapitalised in homage to the Modernist poet ee cummings, kd lang came out as a lesbian in 1992, shortly after her pop career went stratospheric. Once out, she embraced her new liberty, becoming infamous for a Vanity Fair cover in which she appeared to be seducing Cindy Crawford. A champion of gay causes, she has also taken a stand against the values of her Alberta upbringing. "Meat Stinks", her crusade to vegetarianism, went down like the Titanic in her cattle-ranching hometown.

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