Beth Ditto is five feet two inches tall, weighs 210 lb., has a sweet kewpie doll face, shuns deodorant, boasts tattoos, and refuses to shave her armpits. When combined, these qualities don’t readily summon the image of a high fashion icon—at least outside of a John Waters movie.
Yet the 28-year-old American punk rock dynamo who happily defines herself as a “big, fat dyke” has suddenly become the unlikely darling of an industry desperately grasping for relevance—and customers. Last month, Ditto tore through Paris fashion week like a fleshy tornado—photographed with Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, sandwiched between Kanye West and Thandie Newton at Stella McCartney’s show in a Hervé Léger-style bandage dress, and in the front row at Alexander McQueen. Ditto and her band, the Gossip, headlined Fendi’s closing-night bash; the crowd roared as she stripped off the spangly Chanel short shorts and sequined bra custom-designed for her by her new best friend Karl, and danced in her skivvies while her other new best bud, the supermodel Kate Moss, gyrated nearby.
It wasn’t the first time Ditto’s marshmallow flesh had thrilled fashion cognoscenti eager to feed off her current cool. In February, she appeared naked on the cover of the debut issue of the avidly awaited British style magazine Love, accessorized only with a tangerine-orange wig and fuchsia boa, her nipples mysteriously absent in the name of newsstand decency. Inside the glossy Condé Nast publication, editor-in-chief Katie Grand, a major influence in European design circles, predicted Ditto’s rise: “Defying all fashion logic and received wisdom, she is going to be the biggest fashion icon of the year,” she wrote.
And so it is: just as Betty Grable got the troops through the Second World War, Beth Ditto has emerged as the morale-boosting pin-up girl of the current economic collapse, a necessary antidote to the skinny, rich-bitch regime personified by Paris Hilton, and atonement for past excesses. Designers who don’t make clothes that fit her clamour to associate with her. “I love her energy,” Lagerfeld enthused. “She is the opposite of everything in fashion now—she is an extreme beauty.” Of course, it’s the attention-getting extreme that stokes fashion’s engine. Were Ditto merely a gauche size 14, it’s unlikely anyone would be paying attention.
Fashion’s discovery that fat people exist is spreading. Part is pragmatic: with close to one-quarter of adults in the U.K. and Canada considered obese, and 30 per cent in the U.S., the industry can’t afford to be seen as exclusionary. “No one is a sample size in the whole issue,” Grand boasted in Love. Vogue editor Anna Wintour personally styled the plump British singer Adele for this year’s Grammys and featured her in the magazine’s current issue, whose cover promises “Fashion for every figure—from size 0 to size 20” and steals from Dove’s celebrated 2005 “Campaign for Real Beauty” with its declaration: “Real Women Have Curves.”
Ditto’s journey to her current station as “fashion icon of the year” is a Bizarro World version of the Audrey Hepburn classic, Funny Face. Raised in poverty in rural Arkansas, Ditto came out as a lesbian before hightailing it to Olympia, Wash., where she formed the Gossip in 1999. The band veered onto the music radar in 2006 with the hit Standing in the Way of Control, a protest against president George W. Bush’s opposition to gay marriage. Celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton was an early proponent. “Beth Ditto will always be an outsider and a misfit,” he says. “She plays by her own rules and that’s why people love her.” British music magazine NME also took notice, naming Ditto “The Queen of Cool” in 2006 and featuring her au naturel on its cover in 2007.
Ditto’s comfort with her capaciousness is central to her identity: she’s known for stripping down on stage and tossing her delicates into the crowd, a temptation she resisted when the band appeared on Letterman last year. “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,” she told Spin in 2006. In a 2007 interview in Elle, British actress Keira Knightley, who has denied rumours she’s anorexic, confessed to a girl-crush after seeing Ditto on stage: “I stood there watching her strip, thinking, ‘Oh my God, that woman is so sexy.’ ”
In the U.K., Ditto gained celebrity for her stop-the-insanity criticism of “the size zero machine”: “If there’s anyone to blame for size zero, it’s not women,” she told NME in 2007. “Blame gay men who work in the fashion industry who want these women as dolls . . . The Beckhams are part of the machine; Paris Hilton is part of the machine.” Ditto’s militant message resonated with an audience that tuned in to the wildly popular body-affirming British reality show How to Look Good Naked. Ditto further endeared herself when she turned down an invitation from the British chain Topshop to do an in-store gig because the retailer didn’t offer clothing in her size. “Give me the job. I want to design, I want you to make clothes for big girls, big boys,” she said. Topshop’s chief executive, no fool he, signed Ditto up to design a line for its Evans chain, which caters to customers sized 14 to 30, due to launch in July.
Sensing her mass appeal, the Guardian newspaper hired her in 2007 to write an advice column, “What Would Beth Ditto Do?”, in which she dispensed wisdom on surviving breakups and decorating on the cheap. All the while, Ditto’s message was defiantly anti-consumer. Style cannot be purchased, she told readers: “My number one theory in life is that style is proportional to your lack of resources—the less you have, the more stylish you’re likely to be.” She also expressed the kind of positive self-image that cosmetic surgeons hate: “I owe all the best parts of my adulthood to embracing my imperfections and showcasing them,” she wrote.
Of course, Ditto’s popularity combined with her disdain for the fashion establishment made it court her all the more ardently; even the Gap begged her (unsuccessfully) to appear in an ad. Nancy Vonk, the chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather in Toronto and co-creator of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, believes fashion is trying to tap into Ditto’s originality and authenticity. “She’s just so exactly who she is and she loves who she is,” she says. “I think she’s one of those people who transcends her physical body as a really appealing human being.”
Ditto’s embrace by the size zero machine she once slammed has been greeted with enthusiasm—and skepticism. Vonk hopes it will pave the way to more diversity. “I do think there is a significant connection to the demand for the acceptance of bigger people in fashion and in life in general,” she says. Yet a cultural disconnect exists: the same month Ditto appeared on Love’s cover, Jessica Simpson’s weight gain was the subject of raging media debate. In her new book, Bodies, the British psychotherapist Susie Orbach claims body-image neuroses are rampant: “Eating problems and body distress now constitute an ordinary part of everyday life for many people and many families,” she writes. Orbach believes Ditto’s singular status makes her a token: “If you only have one person it’s not a real challenge to the mono-imagery out there,” she says. “She just becomes momentarily iconic.”
Other signs suggest fashion’s acceptance of Botero-ish figures doesn’t surpass lip service. Annie Leibovitz’s photographs of Adele in Vogue, for instance, appear to have been Photoshopped to slim the singer. The writer of an accompanying profile must time travel back three centuries to find an era in which Adele’s “voluptuous” look would have been accepted: “She might be one of Charles II’s court favourites, perhaps, or an actress painted by Reynolds or Romney, and her healthy bawdiness would certainly have been celebrated by Wycherley and Fielding.” And any size 20 women looking for “fashion choices” will find none.
The forced rictus smile on Lagerfeld’s face when he posed with Ditto in Paris said it all: it was like Louis XVI being asked to “Say cheese” beside Robespierre. Ditto later told the New York Times that the skinny designer, who chronicled his 96-lb. weight drop in Karl Lagerfeld Diet, made a lot of “fat-phobic” remarks when they met.
Even so, Ditto remains a recessionary role model. Recently, the Times of London ran a story: “Get the Beth Ditto in a bandage dress look” (with the caveat: “without her anarchic attitude to grooming”). An even more telling sign of the times appeared in a photograph of Paris Hilton’s neglected birthday celebration in Las Vegas last month: two zaftig women appear to have been imported for a timely dash of fashion frisson—like Marie Antoinette finally forced to eat bread.