Betty Who: When You're A Female Artist, Your Body Is A Brand

Photo: Zak Cassar.
What's the real cost of rising stardom? If you're a woman, it's greater than you think.

Betty Who — the warm, hilarious, insanely talented singer-songwriter behind the addictive tunes "High Society" and "All Of You" — was on the road for nearly a month before she made a pit stop in New York (where she lives in the West Village) for a couple of days in early May. The night before, the Aussie-born artist played a sold-out show at Irving Plaza, then went out with friends until about 1 a.m. The next morning, after running a zillion errands (and getting a wax), she squeezed in an interview with Refinery29, meeting me in Williamsburg, before sound check. Ever the focused-yet-laid-back professional, Who has adapted to a demanding schedule, all the while keeping her cheery disposition. 

It hasn't been easy, though. As busy, working women ourselves, we were curious to hear from Who about what it means to be a traveling artist, and having nary a moment to herself. How does she make time for those who are special to her? How does she date? Can she leave her house without makeup on? Open, honest, and very thorough in her replies, Who did not hold back. 

You've already had a really busy morning. But, before you leave your house every day, do you have to make sure you look a certain way in case you get photographed?
“[Today] I was walking, and selfie-cam putting on my lipstick. I remember being like, 'Oh, it’s kinda fucked up on the side, but it doesn’t matter, whatever, it’s fine. I don’t get, like, snapped by paparazzi. But, I thought about it. It’s crazy to me, and I kinda feel lucky to still have that level of anonymity, ya know? I left my house today like: 'Do I wear my black heels, or do I wear my Superstars?' I have to walk around, but the heels give me elevation, and make my hips look better. 

When I watch a music video back I’m like, 'Oh my god! Don’t shoot me from the hips up. You need to give me depth.' I know what angles work for me, and what ones don’t. I know what clothes work for my body. I have wide hips, and I’m not Karlie-Kloss thin. I’m 6’2”, so I’m as tall as [her], but she weighs — arguably — a hundred pounds less than I do. 

I’m that person people take photos of at shows, and then post, ‘I love that she’s not thin,’ like, ‘She doesn’t care if she’s a woman, and I love that.’ Like, sure, great. But also — my heart, ow. I get it. I’m not super skinny. I’m a regular girl. I’m not tiny. When you go see Ariana Grande live you don’t look at her like, ‘Oh, I could look that way. That could be me.’ Because she’s 5’2” and I could eat her. And she’s beautiful, and I’m obsessed with her. I just mean there are different kinds of artists that are kind of otherworldly. Beyoncé, same thing. I could never look that way. Like, my god, my queen. I wish I could spend a day looking as fierce as you. That level of relatability that people have with me sometimes, a little bit, hurts my feelings, but at the end of the day I get it.” 

Like when an actress wears a crop top and she’s deemed “brave.”
"Right. It’s such garbage that we’re not allowed to wear what we want to, because we all don’t look like Taylor Swift. It’s annoying.”

If you want to put personal plans on your calendar, does your management team ever tell you no?
“[Only if] it was incredibly important...and they'd [be] very apologetic...I’ve gotten much better at saying, ‘Hey, that’s not gonna work for me.' When your body is a brand, knowing how to take care of it, and when to say 'no' is far more important than saying 'yes' to everything. The voice is a muscle. I’m nowhere near the same level as Sam Smith or Adele, where they’re, like, flying to an awards show, and then Jimmy Fallon, and then go on tour for six months, and then a world tour that’s two years long. I don’t know how Katy Perry does it. Her show every night is two-and-a-half hours, and she sings the whole thing. She does not lip sync a word in her show. I think it’s just because you can be in 20 places at once as an artist now you’re expected to be.”

What do you mean when you say your body is a brand?
“I mean, everything... Katy Perry is a brand. Her songs are part of her brand, but also her face, what she does on stage, everything she does... It’s all brand. And the brand is Katy Perry.

It’s about exercising. You don’t want people to call you fat. You never do. I think that’s something that women deal with far more than men, in everyday life, but also in [music]. No one talks about Sam Smith the same way they talk about Adele. No one talks about Miguel the same way they talk about Katy Perry, or Madonna. It’s not just the music, it’s not just about the album you put’s also about what you wear, your personality, who you are.

There are two main forms of artists, where you either be the truest version of yourself you possibly can be, and you’re super stripped back and vulnerable — or, you’re this total caricature, blown-out version of yourself that’s kind of, like, an act. It's the Kanye West, or Beyoncé version of: I’m this king or queen, and I am untouchable, and this is my brand. I don’t think either is right or wrong. Rihanna is the truest version of herself because she’s, like, 'I don’t give a fuck.' She’s just really fucking cool. That’s her brand. That’s awesome. I made a decision very early on to be that super true version of myself, because I don’t know how to do the other stuff."

It sounds like you’ve become good at putting your foot down. Is that hard to do as a woman? Are you ever worried about being perceived as a "bitch?"
“Totally. Sometimes I feel bad because my managers are so nice, and they’re, like, the best people and they’re my friends, and we have an amazing relationship, and sometimes I’m like, 'Are you fucking crazy? Stop.' I get sassy and really mad. It’s about taking out your anger and frustration, because there’s a lot of it, and articulating it to the right people. Talking about it to the wrong people is what makes you a bitch, and what makes you not look good.”
How do you date when you're always traveling? 
“I don’t casually date. I definitely don’t Tinder. Finding a person who’s understanding is almost impossible. I’ve had two boyfriends in the last two years, and they’ve both been wonderful. I’m really grateful for the experiences I’ve had, but I’ll tell you what: Breaking up on tour is the worst thing in the world. I was on the floor of the House of Blues [Chicago], in the greenroom sobbing on the phone, breaking up with my boyfriend. Then I had an hour to do hair and makeup, and go play a show. You don’t have the time to grieve a relationship. But also, like, how many albums am I gonna write about the fucked-up relationships I had? I think that’s kind of the artist’s lot in life, to not have normal relationships, because you have to fuel the fire somehow. 

[Who had many thoughts on this topic and continued to discuss the challenges of dating before eventually winding around to the idea of having children.]

I’m so excited about the prospect of motherhood. I want all the babies. That’s the part of my life I’m most looking forward to. My business plan is to basically work really hard for the next, like, eight years, so when I go, ‘I’m gonna go have a bunch of babies with this man that I love,’ I can go do that.” 

Are you willing to sacrifice your anonymity as time goes on?
“Totally. My job is getting up in the morning, putting my makeup on before I do anything, so that when I go outside, if people want to take photos I can take photos. You go to the radio station, they might not play your song on the radio, but you go in anyway and say, ‘So nice to meet you guys, thank you so much for having me.' You have to be nice all the time. It’s about being the brand, the job. I definitely have resigned myself to being totally cool with whatever happens, whether it’s that I don’t have a single song on the radio for the next 10 years, and I just keep making albums, and going from playing 700-person maybe 5,000-person venues if the next album has really good sales. 

I’m gonna do everything I possibly can to be successful. If I’m never famous, that’s okay. I want to do what I do, and do it really well. Maybe I never will be the best, but I’d like to work really hard at trying to get there. It’s fucking scary. Everything about it is terrifying.”

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