Betty Who Is Larger Than Life & Ready to Open Up Her World on ‘BIG!’: ‘I’m Allowing Myself to Be Seen’
Betty Who is an undeniably big presence. As a woman standing at 6’2”, the 29-year-old Sydney, Australia native has spent a lifetime knowing she’ll inevitably draw attention any time she enters a room. And this phenomenon holds true as she walks into New York social club Ludlow House on a rainy Wednesday on the Lower East Side.
Over the last decade, Betty’s height has also become an elemental characteristic to her brand — that of an Amazonian pop force she describes as “sixty percent lesbian singer-songwriter, forty percent Britney Spears superfan.” On stage, she entrances as a statuesque blonde who’s become a regular on the Pride circuit and a must-see performer for pop obsessives known for her energetic, dance-heavy show, replete with muscled backup dancers, costume changes and unabashed celebrations of queer joy.
However, as she curls up on one of the exclusive social club’s lush, velveteen couches, Betty isn’t dressed to put on a show. Instead, she’s decidedly casual for the day, layering a cozy red sweater on top of a loose, white button-down and black slacks. Pairing a single strand of pearls with a blue trucker hat emblazoned with an oil and gas company’s logo, the whole look projects effortless, gender-neutral cool.
Betty, who was born Jessica Newham, is in New York for just one day to discuss her new album – the appropriately exclamatory BIG!, which arrives Friday (Oct. 14) via BMG – as well as her newly discovered mission as an artist. “Why am I here?” she asks rhetorically. “I think it’s to provide community and try to wipe out the feeling of aloneness and otherness that so many people have when they’re not seeing themselves reflected back.”
When it comes to feeling uniquely isolated, her height and gender naturally play into the equation. “I have had that experience so singularly and specifically being a very tall woman,” she says. “But also, like, so many people feel exactly the same way about themselves that I do. Mine happens to be my height. Other people’s is about their hair. Or their weight. Or their feet… So now if I’m put in a power position to be like, ‘Look! I’m queer, I’m different and I made it here because I embraced it as opposed to ran away from it for a decade,’ I guess that’s what I’m trying to manifest.”
A key part of bringing that newfound goal to fruition meant reaching another level of vulnerability in her music. Take BIG’s title track: a tender, diaristic centerpiece on which she boldly proclaims, “If legends are loud and built to stand out, guess that’s who I’m meant to be/ Ten feet tall and I’m proud of it/ You can’t make me smaller, you’ll never make me fit/ ‘Cause baby I was born to be big” over smoldering synths, blazing guitars and the crash of gargantuan drums.
From the beginning of her career, Betty’s music has always been rooted firmly in the sounds and styles of modern pop. As a student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, she obsessively studied Billboard 200 chart-toppers like Spears’ Femme Fatale and Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream alongside erstwhile producer Peter Thomas as a kind of blueprint to follow on her 2014 debut Take Me When You Go. But after creatively parting ways with Thomas after three albums and enduring the COVID-19 pandemic, it was an entirely different sort of artist who made her stop and reevaluate her musical vision in late 2020.
“I had a moment driving back from Michigan to L.A., my mom and I did a road trip. Driving. Cooked. Long, long three days,” she reflects. “And we were listening to [Kacey Musgraves’] Golden Hour. It was before Star-Crossed came out…listening to the song “Mother” with my mom. And so she starts crying and I, like, almost had to pull over ’cause [then] I’m crying.
“And I was like, ‘I think this is the thing I wanna do: have feelings and share them and impact people,” Betty continues. “I don’t think it’s about the wig that I’m wearing on stage.’ Whoa. Who knew? Not me…I had my priorities really mixed up for a long time.” That emotional revelation courtesy of Musgraves led to Who holing up in a cabin in Park City, Utah for two solid weeks with her three co-producers, including Boys Like Girls frontman Martin Johnson, to create the album that would eventually become BIG. And instead of taking sonic cues from pop princesses of the 2000s and 2010s, Who found inspiration from a completely different set of references, like ‘80s rockers Kenny Loggins and Journey.
“There’s a lot of testosterone in the music,” she says. “Which is what I wanted. Some of the music that I care the most about is that, like, kind of intense, super coked-out ’80s sound, so overtly heterosexual that it is inherently the gayest thing ever. That’s one of my favorite sub-sects of culture.”
Instructing her co-producers to “think of me as a gay man instead of a queer woman,” the unique approach harnessed a completely new, masculine kind of queer energy in Betty’s songwriting, and even challenged the singer’s perception of her own gender expression by the time the record was complete. While she insists she feels entirely comfortable and authentic using she/her pronouns, songs like album highlight “I Can Be Your Man” — a slinky kiss-off which finds her helping a friend through a breakup by coyly taking the place of her now-ex-boyfriend — helped move her along a path to reject traditional precepts of femininity, ones she so often felt both bound to and stifled by as a female pop star.
“I was just like, ‘Oh, I actually just have to stop subscribing to a bunch of the stuff that I thought I had to be as a woman, and figure out what that means for me,’” she says. “And a lot of it is pulling away from femininity and exploring my masculine side. And then that’s allowing me to come full circle back to my divine feminine sensuality – sexuality stuff that has made me a lot more clear about what that is and what’s really powerful in me about that. But I definitely live outside of the binary of gender, that’s for sure.”
As a body of work, no pun intended, BIG! is also a particularly marked departure from Who’s last album, 2019’s Betty. And though that LP bears the singer’s name, she says it now represents something like a time capsule — one of a particularly difficult chapter in her life after being dropped by RCA Records in 2017. “I was in so much pain when I made that record,” Who says of Betty. “I was pretty in survival mode. And also very in a desperate attempt to prove myself to everybody else. All I probably did was prove myself to myself, that I could make a record without the help of a label.”
However, when she looks back at Betty with the benefit of hindsight, the singer admits the project’s 13-song tracklist, which includes fan favorite tracks like “Ignore Me,” “Do With It” and “The One, feels varied to the point of incohesion. “I think when I listen to it now, I hear all the different wigs I’m trying on, you know what I mean?” she offers. “Of course they’re all different aspects of my personality…But to then try and tie them all together with a short little skirt and a microphone on stage, I look back at her and I literally do not recognize her from where I’m sitting now.”
It’s by design — albeit also somewhat ironic — that BIG! feels, in many ways, more intimate and personal than its independently released, self-titled predecessor. This summer, the album roll-out for the record began with lead single “Blow Out My Candle,” a triumphant anthem that finds Betty fearlessly confronting her critics and non-believers. She insisted the track be the starting point of the album’s overall narrative, and had a particular statement to make in the accompanying music video – choosing a utilitarian leotard and bright track jacket as her only wardrobe pieces, as she belts out, “I won’t stop runnin’ down that road/ I’ll keep dancin’ till I die/ You can blow out my candle/ But you’ll never put out my fire.”
“I’m really trying to get very realistic and self-aware,” she says months after the visual dropped. “And the ‘Blow Out My Candle’ video was a really big part of that, where I was like, ‘I’m gonna be in a leotard, but it’s not because I’m giving sexy kitten. I’m giving, like, ‘Here’s my body. Here’s my face. Here’s all of it in 360. I’m not hiding behind stuff or at an angle that makes me look thinner than I am. This is me.’”
The wistful “She Can Dance” — a kind of autobiographical elder sister to the LP’s title track — soon followed, though Who describes her feelings about the song as “tumultuous,” despite it being the label’s favorite track on the album altogether.
“I wanted to write a brand statement [for the album],” Betty says of “She Can Dance” – though in the process she inadvertently ended up essentially putting her life story to music. And with lyrics like, “Couple records come and gone/ Never thought it’d take this long/ Sometimes I wonder who the hell I’m foolin’/ Got no trophies on the shelf/ Record deal went straight to hell/ I swear to God, I don’t know what I’m doin’,” it’s easy to see why the song would leave her feeling exposed.
Yet Betty’s commitment to radical authenticity — in both her music and her personal identity — remains immutable and bigger than ever, no matter how many growing pains or as yet unforeseen obstacles remain in front of her.
“I’m allowing myself to be seen,” she says. “It feels like the journey to BIG has been gruesome. It’s like that shedding of snake skin. It’s not, like, painless in the middle of the night for me. It’s like the Hulk ripping off clothes, like, fully screaming as I’m becoming my final form.”
Stream Betty Who’s BIG in full below.