Melissa’s Youngest Fan

Valerie became a fan the first moment she heard a Melissa Etheridge song on the radio, when she was barely 3 years old. Last year when she was 9, she got to meet her hero—not just once but several times. Here’s Valerie’s story as told by her mother.

BY Susan Dunn

April 01 2002 1:00 AM ET

About seven years ago, I was traveling cross-country by car with my daughter Valerie, whom I had adopted not long before, when she was 2 1/2. Valerie was in her car seat, and Melissa Etheridge’s song “Like the Way I Do” came on the radio. Valerie started bouncing and, when the song was over, kept saying, “Again, Mom, again.”

I kept switching stations to hear the song again, and after it played for the third time, I stopped at a Wal-Mart off the highway and picked up the cassette for Valerie.

That was how my daughter’s love for Melissa and her music started.

Valerie was born HIV-positive. Two years ago, I contacted the Sunshine Foundation, which is similar to Make a Wish, to see if they could help grant Val’s wish to meet Melissa. The foundation agreed to make it happen, and a year later we got a telephone call notifying us that it was Val’s turn to have her wish granted. Not only was Melissa going to meet Val, but she wanted to see her “one on one.”

Last May, Valerie and I flew to West Palm Beach, Fla., where Melissa was performing. There we were met by Melissa’s tour manager, Steven Girmant. He took us to Melissa’s trailer, where we met Melissa who also introduced us to her friend Tammy. We don’t get the WB network at home, so I didn’t recognize Melissa’s friend as Tammy Lynn Michaels from the TV series Popular--I assumed she was just a friend or maybe a hairstylist or makeup person! After all, she was very pretty, with flawless makeup and hair.

Melissa hugged Valerie and allowed her to ask all kinds of questions typical of a 9-year-old: “What is your favorite color?” “What kind of girlfriend do you like?” “Which do you like better--dogs or cats?" Melissa was kind enough to make a huge deal about a necklace and picture Valerie had made for her, and she autographed some pictures for Valerie and her friends back home.

When we left Melissa’s trailer, Valerie had a huge smile and said, “Mom, I can’t believe I got to talk to her!” She gave me a big hug. But the day wasn’t over yet.

Steven then took Valerie and me to two chairs he had set up for us on the side of the outdoor stage--we were going to watch Melissa’s concert from just offstage! It was a very cool, windy night, and Steven brought over a jacket of his for Val to wear. For the next hour she smiled more than I have ever seen her smile in her life.

When Melissa finished her last song, she came over to Valerie and hugged her again and asked if she had enjoyed the show. The next day, we headed back to Richmond, Tex. As soon as we got home, we went to the Melissa Web site to wish Melissa happy birthday and thank her for all she had done for Valerie.

Last September, I let Steven know that Valerie and I would be going to Dallas to see Melissa perform, and he was kind enough to bring Valerie and me backstage again to meet Melissa and Tammy--who we now knew was the famous Tammy Lynn Michaels from Popular.

Tammy came rushing in first and hugged Valerie. She and I spent about half an hour just chatting with Valerie, and then Melissa joined us. Valerie gave Melissa a cowboy hat to mark her visit to Texas. Tammy then told Valerie she wanted to give her something--her favorite necklace. She took off the beaded necklace she had on and placed it around Valerie’s neck. It is now one of Valerie’s most prized possessions.

That night onstage during the slow piano numbers, at Tammy’s suggestion, Melissa wore the hat Valerie had given her. (Melissa said she couldn’t wear it during the really rocking songs because it would fall off.) We had hoped to also attend the second concert the next evening, but it was canceled--that day was September 11.

Later, once the canceled Dallas concert was rescheduled, Valerie and I were surprised to find out that we were again welcome to see Melissa and Tammy backstage before the show. After chatting, visiting, and autograph signing backstage, Tammy came out with us to meet some members of Melissa’s fan club, with whom we had traveled to Dallas. Later, when the show was in full swing and we were sitting in the audience, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and it was Tammy handing me an armload of Melissa items for Valerie: T-shirts, necklaces, and a belt buckle from the Melissa fan club collection.

Valerie spent the rest of the show blowing kisses to Tammy, who was sitting on the side of the stage.

At the final encore, Melissa reached down from the stage and placed her guitar pick in Valerie’s hand. It now resides with the rest of Valerie’s Melissa souvenirs, which dominate her bedroom. We tease her that her room is a shrine to Melissa. One of her favorite things is a guitar that Melissa and Tammy both autographed for her.

Because of Melissa and Tammy, my daughter will always know how special and kind human beings can be. I will always be grateful for what they’ve done for my daughter and grateful that Valerie has such amazing “heroes” (her word) to look up to.

Recently, I was made aware of a negative article about Tammy. Full of misquotes, it ran in a popular tabloid. I was angry and immediately contacted the tabloid to tell them the truth about the way Tammy treats Melissa’s fans--the way she treated Valerie. It is a shame that people so kind can be so mistreated in the press. I hope my story can counter some of that negative publicity for Melissa and Tammy.

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