Beth Ditto

Beth Ditto

On this date in 1981, singer/songwriter Beth Ditto (née Mary Beth Patterson) was born in Arkansas to Velmyra Estel, a single mother who was in high school. Ditto did not know her father and later took the name of a man who helped raise her, Homer Ditto, who died at age 57. “My dad loved to show me off at honky tonks at the VFW where he would do sound,” Ditto posted on Instagram with his photo. (June 16, 2019)

The fourth of seven siblings, she had several stepfathers and grew up in Judsonia, where “her mother was overwhelmed by the demands of men, motherhood and rural poverty. Ditto was shuttled between the homes of Velmyra and [at age 13] her foul-mouthed aunt Jannie.” (The Advocate, Nov. 17, 2015)

She had a strict religious upbringing. “I was overcome by the Holy Ghost one time, but in a Baptist way. I was six or seven, and I was saved. I just cried and cried. It was joy!” she later remembered. “You live in this shadow that you’re going to burn in hell until you’re saved. And I still worry about it a little. I don’t believe in heaven, but I do still fear hell.” (Irish Examiner, July 6, 2009)

In her memoir “Coal to Diamonds” (2012), she “speaks openly about multigenerational instances of sexual abuse experienced by the women in her family, including her own experiences, having been molested at the age of five and raped by an uncle throughout her adolescence.” (Biographical entry, “The Encyclopedia of Arkansas,” March 21, 2024)

She deemed Judsonia a “shit town” where MTV was banned at the behest of the local Christian college. “As far as having fun – you couldn’t buy alcohol, there’s no drinking, no music, no dancing. So what do you do? You either go to church, you get knocked up or you move away.” (The Telegraph, June 18, 2017)

She started to realize in high school that she was gay and tried to convince her boyfriend to get her pregnant to prove she wasn’t a lesbian. Soon enough, she was grateful he scotched the idea. She moved at 18 to Olympia, Wash., and worked selling hot dogs in a mall. She and guitarist Nathan Howdeshell and drummer Kathy Mendonça, all from Arkansas, formed the indie rock group The Gossip in 1999, later dropping “The” from the name.

Ditto on vocals and keyboards fronted the group with a voice compared to Etta James’ and Janis Joplin’s. After several albums and Mendonça leaving the group to become a midwife, Gossip broke through with their 2006 studio album “Standing in the Way of Control” that hit No. 1 on the UK indie chart.

The title track became the unofficial theme song of the British teen drama “Skins.” The Irish Times called Ditto’s performance on the album as “a compelling combination of Brenda Lee, Dolly Parton and Siouxsie Sioux.” The Independent called the song “a juddering gay rights anthem and said Ditto was the star. (June 18, 2017) “Not only did she have an original voice – sometimes singing with honeysuckle sweetness, other times with a wildcat howl – but she was charismatic, too.”

The band would make five studio albums and relocate to Portland, Ore., before splitting up in 2016. Ditto had married longtime girlfriend Kristin Ogata in Maui, Hawaii, in 2013 before divorcing in 2018. Gossip returned with a show in 2019 that expanded into a world tour. A second reunion was announced in November 2023, with their sixth album “Real Power” released in March 2024.

Ditto had become a plus-size fashion favorite, started a clothing line and appeared nude as early as 2007 on music and LGBTQ+ magazine covers. Feminist legend Germain Greer told The Guardian that Ditto’s intention was to force acceptance of her body type, 5 foot tall and 210 pounds, “to challenge the conventional imagery of women.” She had been diagnosed with sarcoidosis after moving to Washington but recovered from the rare immune-system disorder that killed comic Bernie Mac in 2008.

She once described in an interview how coming out as an atheist was harder for her family to reconcile than accepting that she was gay. “Southern life really was God-fearing. Granny Ditto was a strict Pentecostal, with hair down to her knees,” she said, adding that it helped her to realize that “every 2,000 years, there’s a religion that happens to rule, and Christianity is just today’s religion.” (The Sunday Times, Feb. 4, 2007)

PHOTO: Ditto at the 2011 launch in Los Angeles of the Belvedere Vodka and RED Special Edition Bottle to raise money for RED’s Global Fund, co-founded by Bono and Robert Sargent Shriver III to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in Africa. Shutterstock/Kathy Hutchins photo.

Freedom From Religion Foundation