The LGBTQ community collectively heaves a sigh of global disappointment at the cancellation of events during 2020 Pride season – no parades, no festivals, no booze, no fellowship, no Pride romances, and no mainstages with our favorite headliners. Without the pageantry of Pride, what is a gay to do? While a major upset politically, socially, and economically, it’s a moment that we can use to reflect on the history of Pride before the pop stars, the corporate sponsors, and the high ticket prices – back to the grassroots where it all began. Three women – two lesbians and one straight – took the stage in the early ’80s in Washington DC to make their voices heard, and they’ve never looked back since. How did they get the gig? Easy, no other bands would perform – it was considered career suicide. With friends dying of AIDS and closeted politicians deaf to equal rights, these women stood front and center and quite literally amped it up, and Pride has never been the same.
Meet BETTY – and you better capitalize it as bandmember Elizabeth Ziff told me, “Queen, BETTY is all capitals. Always. That’s how it’s trademarked.” They are not politically correct, they do not have background dancers, they do not care that they aren’t under a record label, and they do not care what you think – they DO care about equality. Made up of sisters Elizabeth & Amy Ziff and Alyson Palmer, they have performed at practically every Pride and have ridden the waves of change and continue to make their own tsunamis. Remember the theme song from Showtimes’ The L Word? Yeah, that’s theirs. And TV Guide called it out saying it was the most shockingly in poor taste theme song EVER for including the word “f*cking.” BETTY couldn’t have been prouder.
We know that BETTY must be capitalized, or Elizabeth will kick our ass, but what does BETTY refer to?
Amy: BETTY means all that is beautiful and bountiful and bodacious and best and brave and bold and bright and bedazzled and beguiling and beloved.
How did you come to meet Alyson and decide to form BETTY?
Elizabeth: My sister Amy and I were still living at home. We were basically prepubescent. We decided to start a band because Amy had a friend that played guitar, and I had a friend that played drums. We put an ad on the radio in DC at the time for a female bass player for our all-girl punk band and Alyson was the second person to come over to audition. We hit it off immediately and she could really play bass. But when the three of us sang harmony together, that’s when we knew it was magic. We formed that band Quiver in 1983. When that band imploded, the three of us stayed together and formed another band called On Beyond Zebra with 2 dudes and then we started our own group as a threesome in 1986 and called it BETTY.
Alyson, what have you learned most from the LGBT community as an ally from your time with BETTY?
Alyson: Lord, isn’t it obvious? The LGBTQ community is so much more colorful, more fun, more irreverent, and more artistic. You can let your hair down and relax, say and do more edgy things and find easy companions in the fight against what is most oppressive and repressive in our society. Plus, my dear, the accessories!
You chose to perform at some of the earliest Prides when other bands would not. Did you ever think that this would be damaging to your musical career or pigeon-hole you as “the gay band”?
Elizabeth: We lived in Washington D.C. at the time which was teeming with gays. Many were “undercover” and worked for the government, so being out was not an option. Our first pride was in DC in 1984, hidden away on P Street Beach. People were afraid to even go because if they were seen they could lose their jobs. No one would perform, but we were totally into performing. The band all three of us were in at that time was On Beyond Zebra. We made the guys play even though they were straight. We didn’t give a shit if it pigeonholed us or blacklisted us, which in many ways it did. Our friends were dying from AIDS and we were going to perform for our community… besides, it was fabulous.
What is your take on mainstream, straight musical acts headline Prides when they weren’t there to make a statement at the start of Pride history? Should headliners be strictly LGBTQ?
Amy: I think Prides should never forget the history/herstory of our struggles and celebrations AND the LGBTQ and ally artists who have supported from the beginnings. I would like to see all artists performing at Prides who have made contributions to our community. I think that is important.
What was it like hearing your song as the L Word theme for the first time? You are part of LGBT TV history!
Alyson: What is especially magical about that time was that we wrote and recorded that theme song while we were in Chicago touring our Off-Broadway hit “BETTY Rules,” I was nursing my new baby Ruby, and got pneumonia. So, it was all a blurry fever dream to me while it was happening. BETTY’s been a band for so long and we have such a wonderful fan family who have been on the journey with us every step of the way, that the most exciting part was their reaction. They went ape.
Does working with your sister have its challenges?
Elizabeth: Gurl, please. You can only imagine…but we have worked it out over the years. We still have huge screaming fights when creating. It is Amy’s fault mostly…
Amy: HELL YES!
What is your creative and collaborative process when writing a new song?
Alyson: It changes from time to time, but generally someone will have an idea and bring it to one or both of the others. Sometimes it’s just one hooky line – for instance, Elizabeth had been walking down the street singing to herself about one of all of our favorite desserts, “sticky sticky rice sticky rice and mango…” and told us about it as a joke. Amy and I lit up and we wrote the whole song that afternoon! I have a tendency that drives the two of them nuts. I don’t think a song is ever actually finished. I love to keep tweaking and changing and trying new things to keep it interesting for myself. That used to be a source of friction but the great thing about collaborating with anyone for over 30 years is you begin to finally recognize what makes people tick.
How has the music industry changed the most from your early days?
Elizabeth: Well, for one, it died. Or basically, committed suicide. So, a new and independently oriented one has taken its place. When we started out, women (independent women/girls) did not get signed a lot or pushed on radio etc. and the LGBTQ population wasn’t supported. It was catered to, but if you were queer, you stayed in the closet. That is why artists like Sylvester and The Communards were so important! Times have changed, but not easily. We all fought for those changes! BTW I have never been in the closet. Except to get more sparkly tops to wear on stage.
How have Prides changed the most from your first performance?
Amy: Much bigger. Much more commercial.
New York has been majorly affected by the pandemic, how did you get through it mentally and creatively?
Elizabeth: New York is incredibly lucky to have Cuomo and such amazing front line workers. We love New York. Creatively we have made it work even though we have been separated. Alyson has been editing and directed new videos we have done in shelter. (You MUST binge-watch their YouTube channel.)
Alyson: I cannot stop creating. It is like I am suddenly in a cauldron of bubbling ideas and I can’t capture them fast enough. I think it is finally being focused within my four walls, even with my kids and partner here. NYC is so glorious, enticing and ridiculously distracting, that all the energy you spend going to see this fabulous new play or that incredible new show or even to taste the amazing dish you’ve been hearing about, all of that energy is just pinging around you from the minute your eyes fly open until you drop back into your big ol’ bed. Being so present and not thinking about the future has been a glorious indulgence. I guess that all boils down to denial. But Honey, it works!
Amy: It is challenging. Especially with a little baby.
What do your fans tell you the most?
Elizabeth: That they love us and support us.
Alyson: Hands down, my favorite comment ever is the one I hear the most, and that is how inspired people feel after our concerts. It’s magic that never gets old.
Amy: Mostly, I find, people always want to thank us for all the years we have been performing and the commitment to our art that we have maintained.
Your onstage energy is infectious. What is your backstage ritual to ramp up for a show?
Alyson: Thanks! It’s playing dress-up. Every aspect of the clothes, the hair, the makeup, the jewelry selection, the three of us chat and tell stories. Then one of us remembers that we probably should warm up, so we do some vocal exercises and then make sure we have one conscious, connected moment together before we hit the stage. The more relaxed and content we are slapping on the greasepaint, the more we play around on stage, egging each other on to make each other laugh and digging more deeply into the passion of the songs. Those are the best shows. They all boil down to a comfy dressing room with great snacks, lights, and mirrors. I will never understand why venues do not understand how powerful it can be to provide that one simple thing.
What is your after-show ritual?
Elizabeth: well…it used to be booze and drugs and sex. Now it is only the occasional drug and sex.
Alyson: Meet and greet! I love it so. Hugging certain folks, someone bringing me a dry vodka martini straight up with five fat olives and then a late bite with my gal pals. That, my friend, is a life well-lived.
Amy: I like to have a drink and take some time to regroup and of course reapply before talking to friends and fans.
Dream celebrity musical collaboration?
Elizabeth: Gal Gadot and us doing anything.
Most overdone song during Pride?
Elizabeth: BETTY’s happy pride song: https://youtu.be/qp30XBXtbss.
Alyson: There is none. They all mean so much and need to be sung again and again.
AMY: “It’s Raining Men”, but I love the song.
Who would play you in the movie version of BETTY?
Elizabeth: Gal Gadot.
Amy: Gal Gadot. We’ve talked about it. She has been studying me for the role.
Biggest onstage mishap?
Elizabeth: Doing a stage dive at San Diego pride and the audience parted and I landed flat on my face.
Alyson: Running to the front of the stage after an incredible final song to take a bow, I slammed my bass into its stand, twirled back around, tripped over my monitor, and landed flat on my hands and knees. I crawled to take a bow.
Amy: Going too far. And I must leave it at that.
Having shared the stage with them at Palm Springs Pride, I can personally attest to their strength both backstage and onstage, these girls kick ass and they are not finished. BETTY has a place in Pride history and a place in our hearts.
You can hear more stories and opinions from BETTY on their podcast, BETTY: Girlband, that is certainly binge-worthy.
Last modified: June 27, 2020