Michelle Tea follows Beth Ditto’s fame trail to Paris

As most of us know, queer women are wildly underrepresented in the fashion world. While gay men seem to have the scene covered, lesbians aren’t so visible. But, as out writer Michelle Tea noticed while following Beth Ditto and co. around during Paris Fashion Week, another group is even less visible: Poor folks.

Anyone who has read Tea’s books (such as Valencia or The Chelsea Whistle) knows her background — she’s a lower middle class girl from Chelsea, Massachusetts — and anyone who knows the story of Beth Ditto knows she’s a poor girl from a po-dunk Arkansas town who worked her way onto the covers of fashion magazines.

In The Believer’s 2009 music issue, Tea follows Ditto and manager Tara Perkins (also the lady behind the Sex Workers Art Show) around Paris and, like many of us, wonders “how did this happen”?

“I’ve got survivor’s guilt. I’ve got punk guilt,” Ditto admits in the article, which highlights the fact that while she has become fashion’s first lady, she hasn’t changed much.

“If people think you’re rich they give you things. If they think you’re poor, they don’t give you anything,” Ditto says while scoring free schwag from designer’s showrooms. A point that Tea hangs on to:

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?

While the article also covers usual Ditto/fashion territory (how magazines don’t know how to dress larger women, etc.) Ditto’s statement about getting things for free if you are rich is worth exploring. As the rest of us drown in debt, struggle to keep or get jobs and are more concerned with keeping a roof over our heads than buying a designer bag, there is something amazing about a band like the Gossip making it so big in a world many of us feel so alienated by.

Where folks like Tea, Perkins and Ditto would have been shunned by Kate Moss five years ago, somehow the Gossip’s success overseas has them all backstage, watching the models gear up and bringing home complimentary furs.

In a way, the Gossip’s rise to glory among the fashion elite is a classic story. A story of a hard-working punk band making it big without cash to back them up, without a trim and traditionally “hot” front woman — just with raw talent and that American work ethic that is hard to find in popular music these days. Tea writes:

Even though I have been here all week, knowing that every moment was leading to this, watching Beth accosted by photographers and flattered by designers, I still cannot get over how this little band that I have known for so long, this indie queer feminist punk band, is the absolute star of the Fendi show. The reality is staggering. In many ways it shouldn’t be a surprise — less-talented, less-interesting, less-charismatic artists get famous all the time. They just tend not to be so outspokenly queer, so flamboyantly fat, so poor in their roots, so disconnected from the music industry, with no secret dad producer or mom publicist. The Gossip got to this lit-up stage in Paris through the force of their own dogged dedication to their DIY garage-rock band. It makes my eyes fill with f—–g tears.

The Believer couldn’t have chosen a better writer to dissect the Gossip’s rise to fame. The whole article isn’t available online, but you can order it or pick up an issue at a local bookstore today.

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