JULY/AUGUST 2009
MICHELLE TEA

THE GOSSIP TAKES PARIS

IN EUROPE, BETH DITTO IS A MUSIC AND FASHION ICON, SO FAMOUS SHE CANNOT RIDE THE TUBE. IN HER NATIVE LAND, SHE’S JUST ANOTHER FEMINIST PUNKER FROM ARKANSAS.

DISCUSSED: Accidentally Brain-Damaged Cats, Supermodel BFFs, The Dark Family Landscapes of Joyce Carol Oates, The Cure, The Designer Swag Rich-Poor Paradox, Too Punk to Prom, Perkins Pickles, Galoshes for Fat Girls, Knits v. Crochets, The Novels of Jacqueline Susann, Furred Motorcycle Helmets, The Best SNL Appearance since Nirvana, Miss Piggy

DAY ONE

SISTERHOOD ASS TATTOOS

It is early March in Paris and I’m at the Westin, crashing in a room paid for by the Italian luxury brand Fendi, best known for its clever purses. Given it’s Fashion Week, the streets outside my hotel are packed with women so beautiful and so insanely tall they look like aliens, carrying portfolios and cradling cell phones and moving as if by sonar.

My room was meant for one Tara Perkins, a girl with two different names for two different lives. Under the alias Annie Oakley she created and manages the Sex Workers’ Art Show Tour, a traveling cabaret featuring performances by people whose art is informed by their time working in the sex industry. As Tara Perkins, she’s manager for the Gossip, an indie-punk band with overtly queer/feminist lyrics who, though they’ve been little known in their native US, are huge overseas, in large part because of their charismatic, outspoken, fat, femme lead singer, Beth Ditto.

Beth is short and her body is a stack of curves upon curves. Her hair changes so swiftly you could mistake it all for wigs, from a black bouffant to short, choppy, and orange to the jet-black asymmetrical bob she wears to Fashion Week. Also of note, Beth is a lesbian, and is super outspoken about it. Same goes for feminist. Same goes for her emergence from a legacy of backwoods Arkansas poverty that few people escape.

But even in Portland, Oregon—where Beth lives in a ramshackle house with her best friend and her pet, a brain-damaged, blind cat that was accidentally killed while getting spayed, then revived in present, imperfect condition—people have little idea how insanely famous Beth and the Gossip have become in Europe. Unless they are total music nerds with a subscription to London’s New Musical Express, they likely don’t know that the influential magazine voted Beth Ditto the number one coolest person in the world in 2006 (the first time in the history of the magazine that a female had been so dubbed). The following year Beth was naked on the NME cover, covered in giant lipsticked lip-prints. By 2007, the London paparazzi began behaving badly, flinging themselves in front of Beth’s cars, clambering up the sides of buildings Spider-Man-style. She turned up on Jonathan Ross, Britain’s David Letterman, telling stories about her pothead cousin shooting backyard squirrels to satisfy his stoner munchies. She began penning an advice column, “What Would Beth Ditto Do?,” for the Guardian. She accepted an offer to design a line of clothes for Evans, the plus-size women’s clothing chain owned by Topshop’s parent company.

By the time Fashion Week 2009 rolls around, Beth is naked on the cover of Love, a new magazine created by British fashion avatar Katie Grand. A larger-than-life blowup of the photo—featuring Beth with messy, flame-colored hair, topless, holding a ruffled fuchsia bolero jacket against her crotch—is plastered onto the side of a building in London, and it is official: Beth Ditto can no longer safely ride the Tube.

Even Karl Lagerfeld is obsessed with her, he who infamously declared the existence of fat French people more alarming than the scourge of anorexia (and this during that fashion season where starving models were dropping like flies, one on his very own runway). Currently designing not only his eponymous collection but also for Chanel and Fendi, Lagerfeld invited the Gossip to headline the Fendi party scheduled to close out a Fashion Week in a time when rich people are feeling poor and the notion of luxury is being scaled back from, oh, five-thousand-dollar dresses to, um, four-thousand-dollar dresses. Who better to end the party than a girl who grew up in a part of Arkansas with no MTV, no telephones, no indoor plumbing, and no money?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Michelle Tea is the author of four memoirs and the novel Rose of No Man’s Land. She curates the monthly RADAR Reading Series at the San Francisco Public Library.

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