Australian pop export Jess Newham, known better as Betty Who, is the hilarious and insanely talented singer-songwriter behind the addictive tunes “High Society” and “All Of You”. At 6’1″ with a shock of platinum locks, she certainly stands out in a crowd but it wasn’t until 2013 that Who first gathered the world’s attention.
A viral video awas uploaded on YouTube of unabashed romantic Spencer gathering a flash mob composed of friends and loved ones at Home Depot to propose to his boyfriend Dustin. The raw emotion of the video coupled with the synth drenched “Somebody Loves You” captured the imagination of millions across the world. The video was the perfect vehicle for Who’s upbeat anthem and, on the back of the viral video’s success, quickly saw Who’s star value explode both as a performer and as an icon amongst the LGBT community. There is no formula for stardom but this is certainly one of the more unconventional pathways to fame. Some twerk, some dance, some make home videos. For Who, it was being the soundtrack to a proposal in a hardware store that launched her career. No-one said the music industry made any sense.
In these days of public relations teams carefully constructing an appropriate image, photoshoping every Instagram image and agonizing over each tweet, the most refreshing thing about Who’s fame is that it was achieved on the back of sheer hard work and raw talent coupled with some incredible luck. Fans have embraced the singer, who studied the cello and received a classical music education at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, because of her accessibility, warm demeanour and affable nature.
In 2014, she released her long anticipated debut album “Take Me When You Go” and things have only improved from there. Music Weekly had an exlusive chat with this promising young starlet about and her role as a LGBT advocate, touring with music idols and what it’s like to perform in front of the President of The United States.
First up, Where did the name Betty Who come from?
The name Betty Who came from a song that I wrote when I was 17 and I kinda didn’t have a name for it so I just called it Betty Who because I didn’t have a name for it yet and I just thought it sounded cool. By the time I was 19 and was trying to think of a stage name t one point I just threw it out there “What about Betty Who” and they were like, yep it sounds perfect and I won’t need to think about it again and it just kinda stuck from there.
What’s would you consider the difference between Betty Who (her stage name) and Jess Newham (her birth name)?
I think the biggest difference is probably, even just physically when I am Betty Who I’m wearing a lot of stage makeup, I’m performing all the time and wearing stage clothes and when I’m Jess Newham I don’t like to wear a lot of makeup and am quite chill. It’s kind of conflicting even just physically in that way. If I didn’t have to put makeup on ever again I probably wouldn’t. But I do a lot of it ad have a lot of fun with it as Betty Who.
I believe you’re living over in the States now? How has the transition gone from growing up in Australia to being in the Big Apple?
Yes, I am, I’m living over in New York. The Big Apple is quite a trip y’know. My mum is American so I did spend a lot of time visiting America and have a lot of family in California, my godmothers; one is in LA and the other is in northern, northern California. So I knew enough about America to not be out of my element. I moved over here as a teenager, which is such a transitional part of your adulthood and your developmental stages that on some level I’m more comfortable in the States than when I go back to Sydney… On some level, it’s quite easy, but still, New York will kind of chew you up and spit you out if you’re not prepared.
It seems one of your recent career highlights has been your tour with Katy Perry and Kylie Minogue. Tell us more about that?
I’m such big fans of both of them so it’s so cool just to watch… I’m very much of the mindset of if you’re going to be somewhere that you’re out of your element in, you may as well soak up everything you can. Be a sponge and learn as much as you can. That’s kind of how I felt about the tour. So I did 5 shows with Kylie and 14 shows with Katy. I saw the Kylie show four times and Katy’s show 12 times. I feel like I learnt how it went and how it all happens and why it happens the way it did. It was so educational and I had such a good time and made so many awesome friends and stuff like that. I was very very lucky to be a part of both of those incredibly powerful women’s tours.
We were talking about Kylie’s reunion tour and I was saying how I was, I think I was 12 when I saw her homecoming tour in Sydney, and then 10 years later on the same stage, I was performing, opening for her. It was a bit full circle moment and it was a core experience both times around.
Were they able to offer any advice as a performer?
They were both very kind to me on social media and fully supported me. Katy tweeted “Betty’s playing at this time”. If I learned anything, I learnt a lot about the different ways that people tour and if there is anything that will help me in my career later on it’s that Katy does her meet and greet before the show and Kylie does hers after. When you’ve been on the road for a long time you kinda forget that different people do it in different ways. I definitely got a lot of insight in that world.
Both Madonna and Kylie are huge LGBT icons and you also have a huge LGBT following yourself. How did this come about?
You don’t really plan for anyone to be a fan of yours. Especially as a writer, you make the music you want to make and hopefully people will like it. Hopefully those people that like it will attract other like-minded people and then you have your fanbase.
For me, it was kind of interesting because I’d just made this EP and I was playing my first show in New York and it was totally terrifying, thinking what if nobody shows up and it was an 80 person room, such a small room, and first show in New York and I think it was an 80 person room, probably 76 – 77 of those people were gay men. So I’m thinking to myself,”I think there’s a pattern emerging here.”
Over time it just became so obvious in that the people that were the first people to reach out and really helped jump start and gave me chances I really shouldn’t have had at that time in my career were all LGBT and they ha faith in my career, probably when I didn’t totally earn it or deserve it. It really the whole reason I am where I am. From there I started playing pride festivals and putting my foot in the door there. They’re literally the coolest thing ever because you’re celebrating being yourself and who could be more happy about anything?
And then of course this video happened which was the viral video of the man proposing to his boyfriend in a Home Depo and it was a flash mob to my song. Something happened there and I became a voice within the LGBT community before that, it definitely solidified it then. So after that, I’ll get onstage or someone will be introducing me and that will be the thing they’ll lead with “You’ve all seen the video!” and that to me is what really solidified my presence in the LGBT community and I clearly try to do as much as I can to help out and lend a voice.
I was at the LGBT ballot in the Democratic National Committee presented the President of the United States, so I just did that a week ago, which is totally crazy. I almost entirely played Pride festivals this summer so I’m definitely a presence in the LGBT community. I want to be at least.
A photo posted by Betty Who (@iambettywho) on
Has this cause been something that has always been that’s quite personal to you or has it just happened as a result of you resonating amongst the LGBT community?
A little bit of both. In Australia, even though I grew up in a family that was very tolerant and always very accepting. You get to be exactly who you want to to be and our next door neighbours in the apartment that I grew up in in Sydney were a fabulous, wonderful gay coupe that my family were very close with and so I never really understood that that’s not just how life was. That everyone just got to be who they were. and that’s how it happened.
When I moved to America, specifically at the time I did the gay rights movement was getting a lot of attention. I didn’t really realize that not everybody was totally fine with just being who you are. So my shock value was the opposite from most people. I’ve been living in a big city my whole life and there’s a handful of these people that think that this is not alright. So that was really shocking and quite confronting for me which made me quite excited. Now I’m really passionately involved in the LGBT community and trying to spread tolerance and love, and self-love and promoting this especially to young LGBT community members that being who you are is totally fine and if people make you feel shitty about it, who cares because who you are is awesome.
So what’s next for Betty Who?
What’s next? I am making a new album right now and I’ve been writing it for the past couple of months and I’m slowly starting to wrap it all up so hopefully in the new year you’ll be hearing some new stuff from me. I’m really excited about the new stuff I’m working on and I hope everybody likes it.