Betty Who doesn’t just shake hands – she hugs. As she vows to look for little ol’ me in the crowd during Motor City Pride (“I’m 17 times bigger than any regular person”) and give me a tight squeeze, it’s almost no surprise. It’s the kind of gesture you’d expect from someone as undeniably wholesome as the Aussie pop star. Born Jessica Anne Newham, her big breakout was, after all, a very loving nod to, well, love.
At a Salt Lake City Home Depot two years ago, Betty’s infectious pop ditty “Somebody Loves You” famously set the scene for a surprise proposal between two boyfriends amidst a flash mob, joyous tears and all the cuteness of the cutest thing you’ve ever set your eyes on.
Since going viral, Betty Who’s released a full album, her sweet-as-candy debut “Take Me When You Go,” and opened for Katy Perry and Kylie Minogue. Before her next stop – Motor City Pride, where she’ll take the Main Stage at 6 p.m. June 7 – Betty Who hopped on the phone to chat about watching Pride festivals on TV as a baby, learning “the foundation of musical knowledge” at Michigan’s Interlochen and how, in just a couple of years, her fanbase has evolved from gay fans to… more gay fans
You were in Michigan not long ago while on tour, and now you’re coming back to Detroit, but for the gays this time.
Yeah – for the gays! (Laughs) Always for the gays!
What was your experience when you were here in May?
We were pretty in and out. The last few weeks of the tour were insane, but I have family in Northern Michigan, in the Traverse City area. We played a couple of shows there over the years. It’s always really nice to be home. It was so fast (this past time), but it was still nice to be on Michigan soil.
You also went to Interlochen Center for the Arts. How would you describe your time there?
Interlochen was great. It’s definitely kind of a school for a bunch of teenage crazies, which is exactly what it was and exactly who my friends were. Everybody is so passionate and so dedicated to their art at such a young age, which is really hard to find. And to me, it was valuable. It basically taught me everything I know and made me who I am. I was a very different person before I went to Interlochen, so I’m really grateful for it.
When you say it made you who you are, do you mean musically-speaking?
Not really musically because I studied cello. I mean, it gave me a foundation of musical knowledge in a lot of different ways. Personality-wise, though, because it was the first time I’d been to co-ed school. It was the first time I’d had gay friends who were my age; my mom had many gay friends that were her age, and I grew up with a super tolerant “people are people” bottomline rule.
Have you ever been to a Pride in the Michigan area?
I don’t think I have! I think Detroit will be my first one. I did Chicago Pride last year, so kind of close to home, and I did Columbus Pride. I’ve done a couple Midwestern Prides but not Michigan. So, finally coming home!
Tell me about the first time you attended a Pride event.
I grew up in Sydney, Australia, and Sydney has one of the biggest gay Pride festivals in the world, which is Mardi Gras. I had never been to the parade because I was a little young and it’s quite steamy at the parade, so I never actually attended it. But I watched the parade on TV every year, so I virtually had been attending Pride since I was a baby because my mom would volunteer every year. She would work them, and I’d be like, “Mom is working! I wanna watch it!” And I’d hope I could spot her, which is really why I wanted to watch it. “Maybe I’ll see Mom on the telly!” I was too young to know anything else!
That also means I’d been watching Pride festivals since I was a kid. I think the first Pride festival was probably at Interlochen because we had lots of LGBT events that were part of the Gay-Straight Alliance, the GSA, and I was one of the community leaders and, when I was a senior, I was vice president, so I organized a bunch of Pride events and was really involved in the community at Interlochen. When I got to college it was kind of inevitable that I ended up playing at a bunch of them as well.
Kylie Minogue is a fellow Aussie. Do you share the same enthusiasm for her as the gay community does?
Oh my god. You have no idea! You know I opened for her, right? I just opened for her on tour. That literally just happened like a month ago in Australia.
What was opening for Kylie like?
The story I told her when – oh my god, she’s literally a dream, I can’t even tell you. Growing up in Australia, I’ve always loved Kylie, but I didn’t realize how many songs of hers I actually know until I watched the show.
She is such a queen. I told her this story when she came into my dressing room, because we played at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. When I was 13 years old she was on her Showgirl: The Homecoming Tour, which I believe was the first tour she played since fighting breast cancer, so it was a very emotional tour for her. I think she had a whole week at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, and I went to see one of the shows. I was 13 years old and Bono came out and I remember being really emotional even though I don’t fucking care about Bono. But he came out and I burst into tears and everyone was freaking out. I was literally moved by the spirit of Bono even though I don’t, like, give a fuck. It’s hysterical in retrospect. I told Kylie this whole story, and I was like, “It’s been pretty much 10 years since you played that show, and I was at the show and now I’m here opening for you.” She was like, “How full circle is that?!” And I’m like, “KYLIE!!”
Let’s talk about the viral effect of “Somebody Loves You.” How much of an impact did that song have on your gay following?
It’s funny; I already only had basically a gay following like from the beginning, even before the video happened. Not sure what it is. I don’t know if it’s the music; I don’t know if it’s me. But when I played my first show in New York City, I played it in a room that holds like 80 people, and when I played that show I think 78 people in that room were gay men. Maybe two of them were straight women. Like, that was it. My whole demographic was gay men. So, when the video happened, it amplified and exploded. As opposed to 100 gay men coming to my shows, it was 600 gay men coming to shows. And so after that, kind of slowly my LGBT fan base has grown, so not just gay men but gay women have been coming to the shows way more – which is awesome – and now straight women are coming a little more as well. I think my demographic previously was like 90 percent gay men, 10 percent straight women. Now, just from watching all the shows, here’s my guess: 60 percent gay men, 30 percent gay women, 8 percent straight women and 2 percent straight men. (Laughs) I’ve met one or two straight men who have come to the show and they’re like, “I listen to your music all the time,” and I’m like, “Oh my god, you’re a straight man who’s at my show right now – this is crazy! I don’t know what to do!” They freak me out. I’m like, “Why are you here?!” (Laughs)
Can you go into a Home Depot now without getting recognized?
(Laughs) I wish I was getting recognized at Home Depot! How cool would that be – I could get all the help I wanted. I can never find what I need at Home Depot! But no – I don’t actually spend a lot of time at Home Depot, shockingly enough. So no, I haven’t gone to Home Depot a lot, but I’ve definitely become the resident wingman for many of my gay friends who wanna go out in New York, and they’re like, “Me and my boyfriend just broke up. I need a wingman. Come with me to the gay club.” It’s like a moth to a flame.
So you’re a matchmaker too?!
I’ve always been a matchmaker, since I’ve been in high school. I make friends with everybody just pretty generally. I just love people. I love knowing people. I love having relationships with every single person that I possibly can. Even in high school a friend that I had from another group of friends would meet this other friend I had from my group of friends. I’d be like, “Oh, you should hang out!” and it’d be this beautiful high school romance. Now, I’m still playing that except on a much grander, scarier scale.
So what you’re saying is you’re essentially a grown up high school student?
I was working yesterday and the guy I was meeting with is like, “I’m 35 going on 80,” and I’m like, “I’m 23 going on 16!”
How did your debut album, “Take Me When You Go,” end up being so outsider-themed?
Until quite recently, I’ve never really had a proper boyfriend. That never really happened to me until about two years ago. So, when I was writing the record, I met a boyfriend of mine who I used to date. He was the first person who was like, “No; you are the person that I love. I wanna be with you only.” And I was like, “This is a great feeling.” So he and I had only been dating for five or six months when I was finishing up the record, so I was still relating to all the feelings previous to the relationship. I know what it feels like to be looked over constantly. That was a massive theme on my album, which is what gives it this “not totally accepted for who you are” vibe. I mean, every now and again my mom’s like, “You know, it’s still OK if you’re a lesbian!
How do you respond?
All the time, I’m like, “I will let you know. I’m still straight, but the second anything else happens, you’ll be the first person I call.” It’s like, that’s the environment I grew up in, and so I’ve always been accepted for who I am by so many people in my life. I’ve been lucky to have awesome friends, and when it came to love and relationships, which is what so much of the record is about, it was the one place that I would let myself not be accepted instead of saying, “If you’re not gonna accept me for who I am, I’m outta here.” I let somebody constantly not accept me and that was a lesson I had to learn. That that is not OK.
How far are you into the next album?
I have started it. It’s very conceptual. A lot of it is very conceptual right now. I have a full list of things that I share with my label and my manager and I’m just trying to get everyone on the same page going into it. I’ve written a couple of songs that I like, but I haven’t dove into it, nowhere near as much as I want to.
I’m really looking forward to it. Once I get off this next tour, I’ll be doing that. So, it’s kind of scary and also, mostly scary. (Laughs) But, you know, I’m optimistic and really hopeful and looking forward to creating again because it’s been so long. You tour a record you made and finally, once you finish the album, I think you’re so just – I’m just fucking tired! I don’t wanna think about creating anything. I don’t wanna make any more decisions ever again! (Laughs) Now that I’ve played the same songs for the last year, I’m good now. I’m good to make something again finally.
I’ve never given birth, but I imagine delivering an album is like having a baby.
(Laughs) It’s kind of like an empty nest right now. I had the baby, and then the 18 years that I spent feeding it and paying for it are now over, and now my baby’s going to college and I’m like, “Ohh. What do I do with myself now?”
Betty Who will perform at 6 p.m. June 7 at Hart Plaza in Detroit (Main Stage). For more information, visit http://www.motorcitypride.org.