Back in September of last year a guy named Spencer proposed to his boyfriend Dustin in a Home Depot and posted it on YouTube before 11 million pairs of eyes. If you didn’t quietly weep while watching that video, then you have no heart and you hate true love. Either that or you were too busy wondering who was singing in the background. That was Betty Who, and the track is called “Somebody Loves You,” a song that propelled a Berklee College Of Music grad into a global star within months of getting her diploma. Betty Who, née Jessica Newham, was born in Australia, moved to Michigan at 16 while studying classical cello, then shuffled over to Boston to attend Berklee. Now she resides in New York City, putting the finishing touches on an EP slated to drop this Spring. She’s a pop star with a no fucks given attitude, a.k.a. the best kind of pop star. We talked to the 22-year-old about her straight out of college success, high fashion elitism, and how performing arts schools are a hot bed for sex and experimentation.
Noisey: What’s the origin of your name, Betty Who?
Betty Who: My name came from a song that I had written when I was 17, and when I was figuring out stage names I was looking through my old lyric books and I was like how about “Betty Who?” And everyone who I was in the room with was like, “That’s perfect. Never change it!”
What was “Betty Who?” the song about?
It was about this boy that would like never like me because he was super conservative, which is really funny now. I don’t know why I was in love with him! I think probably because he wouldn’t love me, so I was like MUST. HAVE. HIM. He just like was very deflective of my affection, but we were still friends, so it was kind of about that whole interaction between the two of us.
Wait, so you were talking about guys who were too conservative when you were 13-years-old?
Right exactly. Well when I wrote the song I think I was like 16, but yeah, even so.
You were just like, “He’s way too conservative for my feminine wiles.”
Yeah exactly! That and I had a bunch of gay friends and he like didn’t really know what to do around them and I was just like, “This is crazy!” Then he was like, “I could never be with someone like you because of your lifestyle.” I was like, “What do you mean? We’re 16!”
At 16 we have lifestyles?
I know. Apparently.
Do you still know him?
I saw him for the first time a little while ago. It was kind of like, “This is crazy. Wow! Hi! Good to see you!” Because I like, you know, I’ve been doing my thing and seeing him, of course he hasn’t changed. He still looked like he did when he was 16. It was so funny.
Did you play Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now” when you walked in?
Just walked in like strutting in like booty shorts or something? No, I didn’t. I should have, though. It was just kind of funny just looking back at everything I had done and he had done and to see like wow, this is how we got here.
This past year has been kind of crazy for you.
Yes, yes it has. Today I actually opened up my homepage—maybe this is a little kind of over-excited, but my homepage on my computer was the Billboard Hot Music Chart. The Hot 100. It had been that way for years. I remember when I changed it, I was like, “One day, I’m going to open that up and see my name there,” like at Number One. I opened it up today and went to the Dance Club Charts because someone told me I was up on them because “Somebody Loves You” and the remixes of them get played a lot in clubs. So I opened it and I was Number 5! It was pretty crazy to only scroll down that far and see my picture!
Congratulations! Were you freaking out?
Thank you so much! And yes. This just happened like two minutes ago. I opened my computer and I was like, “Holy shit!”
You have to celebrate that!
Yeah well too bad because after this I’ll probably work. There’s no big moment for me where I can go out and get shitfaced in the middle of the day. But that’s neither here nor there [laughs].
No liquid lunch. When you first put the single “Somebody Loves You” together, did you think it was going to be a hit?
When I heard the first demo of it where it was all flushed out and my producer called me and was like, “I figured it out! Oh my God, I’m freaking out! Let’s do this right now!” I remember leaving class early to go listen to the demo he had sent me and being like, “This is special!”
Then when you saw it in the viral video, were you like, “Oh shit”?
My mind was totally blown. I was just so emotional.
That video is like so crying for days.
Absolutely. I was just talking to my boyfriend’s dad actually. He of course tells his friends that his son is dating Betty Who! So he showed all of his friends the viral video and he told me last night that every time he shows one of his friends the viral video, he’s like, “You guys watch this video! I’m going to run to the bathroom!” because every time he watches it, he cries.
He’s like, “I’m in the bathroom doing push-ups.”
Right! He’s like, “MUST. BE. MANLY!”
Were you scared to release a second single after that?
You know, I’m not too worried about it because I believe so much in my music and I’m so excited about putting more music out because of course when the “Somebody Loves You” video went viral and everyone was like, “Okay, now we have to redo everything. We are focusing on ‘Somebody Loves You’,” and I was like ready to put out another single, you know what I mean? So it was kind of sad because I was like, dying to do this new thing and then everyone was like, “Nope! We’re postponing everything.”
Well “Heartbreak Dream” is a damn good song too.
Thank you very much. I’m super excited about it and I’ve just been waiting to put it out since September, so I’m kind of looking forward to doing that and putting out a whole new EP, because I’m really, really confident about music from the second EP and I really hope and think that people will like it.
You obviously weren’t around for the 80s, but it feel like there’s such an 80s influence in what you do. How did that happen?
I think I was super into the early 90s when I was a kid, as I should have been. I was born in 91, so I was very much up with the times and then I think once I got old enough to start discovering new music of my own. My brother had the Bad album and I remember listening to the whole thing and being like, “This is amazing!” You know, I never went through the phase where I was like super edgy and listening to Hendrix. I was like, always finding new pop music.
What was it like attending a performing arts high school?
They’re like, so weird and everyone’s so horny and like, everyone’s having sex with everybody and it’s the most insane thing in the whole world.
Is it really?
Yeah, you know like band camp in American Pie? That’s like basically accurate.
Are you serious?
I mean, except for the flute in the pussy thing, everything else is pretty much accurate. Yes, it’s crazy.
I guess it would be more on the side of like being hot and artistic than it would be like being a dork or something, right?
Yeah, because everyone is so passionate and emotional and artistic and figuring themselves out and like, in a place in their lives where they “Just need to experiment.” It’s so funny! Everyone is so interesting and some of the friends I made there are going to be my friends for forever. Even now, I have someone who works on my team is someone who I went to high school with! So it’s like, because you grow up together in such an interesting way, you know those people have kind of been bonded for life.
How about Berklee? Is that when shit gets real?
Berklee is so interesting because so many people are trying to do the same thing, but in a lot of cases, no one really knows how to do it. Like, I didn’t either. No one knows how to go, “Okay, this is the kind of artist I want to be. Here’s how I’m going to do it.” No one knows what the next step is after Berklee, and I think that step is the hardest part about it because everyone is like hanging out and making music and doing they’re thing. Then all of a sudden, everyone’s like, “Wait! How do I get anything done? Do I just put this on the internet? Like what do I do with my music?” If I taught a class at Berklee, I would probably teach like a “Getting Your Start” class or something. Like, how artists went from being in college to performing at House of Blues or performing at Madison Square Garden, because I think that that’s the part that a lot of kids miss—not just at Berklee, but I think my age group in general.
Did you go to school with Karmin?
I did not. Karmin were a couple years ahead of me, but I had a couple friends from Berklee who were friends with them.
It seems like it must be a lucky school for getting viral video hits.
Right? Well I think the thing about Berklee is that it’s one of the only schools in the country that teaches what it teaches, which is pop music! Everywhere is like, “You need a classical background,” and it’s like, I kind of agree because I went to a classical high school and I studied classical cello my entire life. I started playing when I was four, so I got my classical music training. I think once I got to Berklee, it was like a relief to be talking about relevant music! Like, I studied the song form of a Lady Gaga song, and I was like, “This is amazing! Finally, because this is what I’ve been needing!”
You taught yourself the guitar and piano as well, right?
I did, yeah. Which I probably mostly attribute to my classical music training, because I think without it, I wouldn’t have been able to hear where everything was, you know?
So you literally got your diploma and jumped on the stage, because “Somebody Loves You” was taking off.
Right, I like left Berklee and walked into my new apartment in New York and into the Sony offices.
How did you take that all in?
I feel like I have totally processed it, and in some other ways, haven’t processed anything at all and I don’t even know what I’m doing. I think it’s kind of a blessing and also a curse to have no time to sit and dwell, because at this point I’m like, “Go, go, go!” Like, I don’t remember the last day that I had a day off or someone left me alone all day, when I didn’t get 10 texts from my manager asking for things. But it’s a good problem to have. I’m not complaining.
Fashion-wise, who are some of your inspirations?
It’s probably a little tacky to say it, but Marilyn Monroe for me! I remember reading her biography when I was like 19, because I struggled a lot with the idea that fashion—especially recently so much, that it’s for really thin women. It’s like, made for girls that are 5’10 and weigh 110 lbs, and I’m 6’1 and weigh 175 lbs, so it’s like, how am I supposed to look good in anything that’s high fashion? How am I supposed to keep up with trends? So it was all this kind of thing where I was like, “Fashion will never accept me for who I am and what I look like!” So I read the Marilyn Monroe biography and she was a size 12, you know? So it was like this moment of being like, “Oh man! It really doesn’t matter! I love my body type, I’m so happy with it!” That was like a huge deal for me, so I think when I figured out that there was a way for me to wear clothes that expressed who I was and not wear clothes that made me look like somebody else, that kind of changed my mindset a little bit. A lot of that had to do with Marilyn Monroe.
How would you describe your own personal style right now?
Currently a mess. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the last two months. When I’m home in New York, I’ve always taken it so much for granted because my first tour happened in January, and now I’m in Los Angeles and still living out of my suitcase because I don’t live here. I only have a couple t-shirts, a couple pairs of pants, and maybe a dress. I’ve been rocking my boyfriend jeans a lot and I have this red Ralph Lauren flannel that I got from Goodwill when I was like 14 that I think I’ve worn like four times a week for the last six weeks.
Do you feel like pop music is stylistically leaning more toward self-expression now and not so much of a cookie cutter image?
For sure. I think that for me at least though, I have trouble. People want you to be so original. People want you to be something they’ve never seen before, and I try to do that with my music. I try to have it be reminiscent and safe for people because I want people to hear my music and go, “Oh my God! It reminds me of this, which I love!” but still be like, “But it’s so new and fresh!” That is such a hard balance to get and then, you know, of course the way I look. I have short, platinum-blonde hair and the number of people who have cyber-bullied me about looking like Pink and being unoriginal? I’m like, “What are you talking about? I don’t look anything like Pink!” But it’s because we have the same color hair and we both have short hair.
Do you think that speaks more to gender?
Absolutely! Are you kidding? Men have been wearing the same 5-piece suits for the last 60 years, and having the same short-on-the-sides, long-on-the-top, slicked back hair cuts at every event ever since like, 1962. I’m like, “Who’s going to comment on the fact that Brad Pitt looks like George Clooney 10 years ago? Why is no one saying that?” But it’s because like, men’s style is so much about simplicity and elegance and with women, it’s like, “Well, you look like this and you’re a slut and you’re fat,” and it’s like, “What’s happening?”
It’s almost like the more things change, the more they stay the same… especially on the internet.
Oh my gosh, the internet is a crazy place! The thing that my dad has been saying to me a lot as of late, but he also said to me a lot when I was a kid is, “If there are 100 people watching you perform, 90 people are going to like you or at least listen to you and form an honest opinion. The other 10 are going to hate you just because they can. Why waste your time trying to get the 10 people who are always going to hate you to pay attention to you, when you should be spending your time on the 90 people who are going to listen to you and pay attention honestly?”
I love that. Lastly, I have to ask, is Vegemite good?
Ah I love Vegemite! People hate it, my friend hates it! I didn’t like vegemite when I was a kid but then as I grew up a little more, nothing is better than a piece of toast with some butter and some vegemite on it! And I stand by that!
Kathy Iandoli made a deal with Betty Who that she would try Vegemite. Wish her luck, and follow her on Twitter - @kath3000.