From Riot Grrl to Runway Model to TV Star, Beth Ditto’s Body-Positive Rebellion Is Just Getting Started
‘You can either die like the dinosaurs or become part of the resistance,’ says the punk rocker co-starring with Kirsten Dunst in Showtime’s ‘On Becoming a God in Central Florida.’
About halfway through our conversation, during one of many brief asides, Beth Ditto tells me that she loves phone interviews. “I love phone interviews because,” she says, pausing provocatively as if about to reveal a secret, “I am literally in my nightgown in the backyard. I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet.” She erupts into laughter. Her voice exudes warmth and charm, and I can picture her leaning closer to her phone receiver to confess her effortless sartorial choice. After 20 busy years in the entertainment industry, the singer-slash-model-slash-actor enjoys the simple things in life.
With her latest foray into acting, Ditto proves that there is nothing she can’t do. The Arkansas native stars alongside Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgård in the new Showtime series, On Becoming a God in Central Florida. The hour-long dark comedy is set in a small town outside of Orlando in the mid-’90s—a decade Ditto says she knows well—and follows a couple who has been swept up by a cultish pyramid scheme promising to make them billionaires. Ditto plays Bets, neighbor and friend to Kirsten Dunst’s character, Krystal. It’s not bad for one of the punk rocker’s first high-profile acting jobs.
As Ditto tells it, she never planned to be an actor. In 2016, she made the decision to part ways with the indie rock band Gossip, which she had fronted since 1999. During her time in the band, she cultivated an image as a riot grrrl and feminist-LGBTQ activist, earning comparisons with Janis Joplin for her ferocious growl of a singing voice. She released a solo album called Fake Sugar in 2017 and soon people were asking her to give acting a try. “[Acting] just came along at the most incredible, crazy time,” Ditto says. “I wanted to quit Gossip and I didn’t know what to do… It just so happened that people were asking me [to audition] at the same time, and that’s all there is to it.”
Though Ditto came to On Becoming a God in Central Florida with almost no professional acting experience, she was comfortable playing Bets right away. She drew experience from her own upbringing in the South, from an understanding of cultural nuances to an insistence that her character have bangs. Above all, she related to the day-to-day experiences of Bets’ working-class family. “I feel really close to the part because I can understand the struggle of it,” she says. “And like, you know, people’s contentment with being where they are and just being glad that they’re not struggling like other people. That’s something that’s really close to me.”
It’s shaping up to be quite a summer for Ditto. Earlier this month, she joined the likes of Brooke Shields, Kendall Jenner, and Marky Mark as one of the new faces of the Autumn/Winter 19 Calvin Klein campaign. Hardly a stranger to the fashion world, the industry vet has graced the cover of Love magazine, walked for Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier, and designed her own plus-sized clothing line. And yet, she was reluctant to let herself get too excited about landing the coveted Calvin Klein job.
“I don’t count my chickens ever because with that fashion stuff, it can be really finicky,” she says. “You just never know. And especially somebody like me, especially in the beginning, people were really afraid of putting fat bodies in magazines.” Ditto worries that her tendency to not overthink things makes her seem spoiled, but it comes across more as a defense mechanism developed by someone who has been disappointed a few too many times.
The excitement finally set in when she saw the campaign for the first time. One stripped-down photo captures Ditto reclining in a lacy black bra, her shiny red hair draped over the edge of the sofa and face unmade-up save for a swipe of black liner on each eyelid. The rocker joins supermodels Naomi Campbell and Bella Hadid, along with Odell Beckham Jr., Diplo, and breakout Euphoria star Jacob Elordi, in the #MyCalvinsIRL campaign.
“It was really cool,” Ditto says of the experience. “It did make me feel like, ‘Oh, this is my ’90s dream coming true.’ It was really great, too, because nothing like that in America has ever happened for me before, so that was really surreal.” That a self-proclaimed fat activist modeled for such an iconic underwear brand is a big deal for the body positivity movement. While the campaign is undoubtedly a major personal accomplishment for Ditto, she feels that this moment is really for all of the women who have been championing body diversity and “pushing the envelope” for years. The model says she has mostly received positive feedback on the photos, though there are always the trolls who perpetuate stereotypes that “[fat people] are lazy people, that we don’t eat right.” She imagines clapping back at them, her Southern twang oozing self-assuredness as she says, “Let me tell you something, honey. I made a polenta crust last night for a pizza. A polenta. Crust.”
It’s easy for the 38-year-old to get carried away with her thoughts, delivering each answer as an impassioned, energetic, stream-of-consciousness monologue. (“I’m the worst because I’ll be like, ‘What was the question again?’”) After talking for 10 minutes, I’m convinced she could add motivational speaker to her already impressively lengthy resume. She manages to sound both eloquent and completely unrehearsed as she meditates on perms, feminism, and the pitfalls of social media culture.
Throughout her career in fashion and entertainment, Ditto has remained steadfast in her feminist values, waiting on the world to change. Now, two decades later, her experience inspires optimism. “I can say 110 percent that it’s so much easier than it used to be, being a 38-year-old feminist and fat activist queer,” she says. And in her message to the haters who have a problem with it, Ditto does not mince words: “You can either die like the dinosaurs or become part of the resistance.”