The return of Saturn is the astrological period when Saturn completes its roughly 29-year orbit around the sun, returning to the same position it was in at the time of our birth. It’s a fabled time in everyone’s life, repeating every 30-ish years, and is said to bring with it trials, tribulations, and cosmic lessons that often define your late 20s. These obstacles, when surmounted, redefine us until its next revolution. Defining moments in lives, relationships, and careers can usually be tracked back to one’s return of Saturn. While the exact time it takes for Saturn to complete the rotation is 29.5 years, many of us begin to feel big changes around age 27.
Betty Who, turning 27 later this year, walks into a green room on the north side of Chicago for a conversation with me before her show that evening. That’s her second sold-out Chicago date, by the way. The first time I interviewed her four years ago, it was in a small rock club with a capacity of 175 people. She was playing big pop songs in small venues, had one four-song EP to her name, was still unsigned to any major label, and had dreams of being one of the biggest names in pop. Today, she is selling out rooms 10 times the size of that little venue a while back and has two perfect pop albums under her belt.
Oddly, she is again unsigned. After a major-label deal with RCA, she closed her contract a couple of months back and has been releasing music on her own — a defining moment in her life and career and certainly not a typical move for any pop star. But Betty Who has never been just any pop star.
Betty comes dressed in a very off-duty-pop-star uniform of black boots, black jeans, and a black satin bomber with her name embroidered on the chest. There’s silver glitter on her eyelids, perfect black liner, and, of course, her signature coif of platinum blonde hair that has become her most recognizable feature. Many pop stars have an iconic hairstyle, be it a gravity-defying ponytail, a blue wig, or a blonde hair bow, but Betty’s blonde beauty moment has become an inseparable part of her brand. But was it all part of the plan?
“Absolutely not,” she tells me definitively. “I had no plan. I had shoulder-length hair in high school, and the summer after my senior year I cut it off and had this weird, short mop kind of thing happening. I couldn’t figure it out for a long time until I finally started going shorter and shorter on the sides, and I had my dark blonde natural hair.
“Then I read this Marilyn Monroe biography, as sort of cliché as it is, and it totally moved me. I love her so much, and the darkness that surrounds her. I think it’s what’s so fascinating about her so I wanted to kind of delve a little deeper and figure that part out a little bit, almost as sort of like a cautionary tale. I read the part about her dyeing her hair blonde and I was like, yeah, so I went platinum, and here I am.”
Every time Betty has hit the road, the crowds have been bigger, the venues have been bigger, and the shows have been bigger. Things are growing for the pop star and fast, but she’s still living the tour-bus-to-green-room-to-stage life, which isn’t easy for a person having to put herself in full hair and makeup before the lights go up. I’ve always wondered, what’s the hardest part of becoming Betty Who in close quarters with limited space?
“It’s so specific, but honestly one of the hardest things for me is washing my face,” she laughs.
“So I get offstage and I’m all sweaty and gross, all I want to do is take my makeup off, but there are people by the bus and they’re gonna want to take pictures, so I have to get to the bus with my makeup still on. But then I’m on the bus, and it doesn’t have clean water. So, then it’s like, do I wait for everyone to go back inside so I can go back to the venue to wash my face?”
“If we get somewhere early, I’m literally packing my face wash so I can take it into a coffee shop bathroom and lock myself in and wash my face. It’s something that I’ve been trying to be really religious about.”
Pop music is an art form that is as visual as it is aural, and many stars experiment with their looks as much as their sound throughout their career to keep people’s attention on them just in case their music won’t. Much of Betty’s success has come from her consistency in her look and sound — which is not to say that she’s stayed the same, but her evolution has been more streamlined and authentic than big changes spun for headlines and Instagram likes. Whether it’s a dark lip on a red carpet or one of the many wigs that have begun to play a role in her live shows, or simply in her offstage gear, when does she feel most like Betty Who?
“I think the time I feel like I’m the most Betty is probably onstage because it’s not even about the look. It’s not about my hair being done. It’s about the connection. It’s about my ability to have time and space with people who get my music. That’s what my music is about. It’s about getting it.
“I think so many pop stars don’t want to make pop music, whereas so many up-and-coming pop people actually hold a reverence for pop music that so many other pop stars seem to have forgotten. I love pop music, I want to make pop songs. I really just want you to come and have a good time.”
What has changed, and drastically, over the years, is her show. The biggest shift came with her last album, The Valley, and the Party in The Valley Tour Parts 1, 2, and 3, the third of which she is on now. It went from a fun, singer-songwriter concert with a few step-touch eight-counts to an all-out pop show, with Betty and her backup dancers dancing full-out almost every number.
“I wanted the show to reflect the artists I’ve looked up to my whole life — Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, J. Lo. I wanted the show to feel like an arena show in a club because I can’t play arenas yet — which I am furious about — so I want to do the show that I would do in an arena.”
“I think working on myself and my body — SoulCycle, Flywheel, and my
personal trainer in L.A. who I love — has totally transformed my body
in a lot of ways. That work that I’ve been putting in just kind of
came as I was thinking, If I’m gonna dance a whole show, I better get
my shit together.”
Since her debut, Betty Who has been putting out music that has been on par with the most successful pop music of its time. The music feels like the toothache-y pop perfection of “Teenage Dream” and “Run Away With Me.” All the pieces are there. The music, the glitter, the blonde. Betty should be playing on the same fields as the artists playing arena shows at the moment.
Only thing is, she doesn’t quite fit the mold of the pop stars we have grown up looking at. At a towering six-foot-two with an athletic build, she’s intimidatingly taller than the petite frames we’re used to seeing, but has that ever stood in her way?
“Still does. All the time,” she answers matter-of-factly. “I hesitate to say that if I was a really skinny girl that I would be successful; I couldn’t tell you if that’s true, I’m not built that way. A part of me thinks that might be true. A part of me thinks that if I was a man, I’d be incredibly successful. If I had the skill set that I have as a man and was putting on the show that I’m putting on as a man, I’d be a star.”
“I still get passed over for opportunities because I’m not the right size. The frustrating part of my body type is that I’m in between plus-size and standard sizing. I am considered plus-size, but I’m not thick and curvy, because I’m really tall, so I have sort of more of an athletic build. But also not really, because then you put me next to a Nike model and I don’t look anything like her.”
“It’s funny, I posted a picture from the live show on Instagram the other day where I’m in the middle of turning or something — live pictures of my show are always so gnarly because I’m in the middle of doing something crazy. Half the time my face is wild; my hair is, like, all over the place. I posted one where I’m leaning over and my hip is hanging over my skirt because I’m leaning or in the middle of breathing for the first time in six minutes, and someone commented, ‘I love that you’re letting your chub hang out, it’s so inspirational.’ Like, ‘You’re so hashtag brave’ or whatever it was.”
“I was like, ‘Wow, I understand what you’re trying to tell me but it does nothing but make me feel bad.’ But also at the same time, she doesn’t know that I’m in the middle of breathing and also, who cares if it is! I don’t feel like I have totally worked out what makes me feel good and bad about myself. And having people talk about my body is one of those things that I’m still finding my way through, because I don’t think anybody is that confident. I don’t think that anybody feels great about their body, but I still don’t feel confident enough in my skin to hear other people say good things or bad things about my body and not have it mess with me, so I’m still working on it all the time.”
I sort of don’t fit into any categories. I am very much my own body
type, so I get passed over for a lot of stuff because I’m not big
enough or I’m not small enough. Which is fine, because my day will
come. Who cares.
“But I love being strong, and that’s what I’m working on the most right now, is just feeling like I could be an Amazon in Wonder Woman, you know what I mean? I just want to be a badass. And I feel great about that. I’m very confident in that part of my body.”
Still, whether her trajectory was typical or otherwise, Betty has built herself a loyal fan base of people who will shell out and show up to see three different iterations of the same tour in support of one album, the third leg premiering some surprise new material as it goes. Though in some circles, she is still simmering just under the radar, she does have herself a cult following that is indicative of something greater on the way.
The thing that I learned the most coming out of last year was that
everything that I felt was completely warranted, and everything that I
experienced was hard and awful, and I should have been sad. And I’m
glad I was, because it led me to be where I am now.
“I feel like the hardest thing in the world to do is become a female pop star, because the wealth of people who are trying to do what you are trying to do is unbelievable. My competition is incredibly stiff, and I think there are a thousand girls who are more beautiful and talented than I am who deserve it more and they’ll never get it, and there are girls who don’t deserve it and are less talented, and [they] get it.”
I’ve always thought that I would be successful because I never really second guessed it, I always was like ‘This is what I was put on this planet to do and I’m gonna go do it, and everybody can believe in it or not.’ And I think that level of ‘I don’t give a fuck what other people think’ actually sort of propelled me, because a lot of the time, believing you’re going to be successful is all you need to do.
Many indie artists would kill for the support of a major label, and Betty landed one early on in her career. A few years later, she decided she didn’t need it. As Saturn careens closer and closer to her sign, we have seen her grow more powerful, more confident, and more fearless than she’s ever been — both on- and offstage. Without the help of a major label or, conversely, a label to make her decisions for her and hold her back, she is taking a break from crafting a traditional album in favor of releasing singles on her own time, making the kind of music she wants, and putting it out when she feels the time is right. But, I had to ask, does she think the art of making and releasing an album is dead?
“No, I don’t. I think that I’m taking a break from it, not because I think the album is dead but because I think it takes a certain artist to make a record that people will listen to, that everybody will listen to. Everybody listens to Frank Ocean albums. Everybody listens to Ed Sheeran albums. Everybody listens to Beyoncé albums.”
“You don’t know any better when you sign when you’re 19. But now I do. And I won’t do it again. I won’t put myself in the position where my success and failure are based off someone else’s success and failure. I’m happy to not do well as long as it was my decisions that led me to not doing well, and I’m happy to succeed on my own back, which I have been doing anyway — succeeding in spite of people, rather than succeeding because of people.”
All of these moves that are defining her career and her life — the make-or-break changes, the frustration to finally become free — what has it all taught her moving forward?
“To trust my instincts, because they’re never wrong. A lot of people who don’t understand the feeling or what you’re going through will belittle your emotions or experience. The thing that I learned the most coming out of last year was that everything that I felt was completely warranted, and everything that I experienced was hard and awful, and I should have been sad. And I’m glad I was, because it led me to be where I am now.”
“Letting myself experience those things and not letting people be like, ‘Why are you being so dramatic? You’re signed to a major label, just be happy with what you have.’ That sort of drove me to be angry enough to be where I am now, which is driven as fuck and excited, finally, for the first time in years. Because I feel like I’m in charge of my own destiny, and that, being in charge of my own destiny, is the most important thing that has happened to me in the last five years.”
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