A bra hits Melissa Etheridge in the face. A pair of ladies’ undies narrowly misses the neck of her guitar. “Stop it!” she tells a Rotterdam stadium full of 11,000 swooning, fainting Dutch rock fans. “Stop it. You’re scaring me, and you’re going to need these things later when you go dancing.”
Blatantly ignoring her, a young woman climbs on the shoulders of another woman and holds up a handmade sign that says, in English, "LET’S GET IT ON!" Clearly Dorothy isn’t in Kansas anymore—though she hasn’t forgotten being there.
Born 33 years ago in Leavenworth, Kan., the electrifying Etheridge has been packing European sports arenas and massive concert venues like London’s Royal Albert Hall as she prepares for her American headlining tour—as well as for several highly touted gigs with legendary ’70s rockers the Eagles and a prestigious appearance at this August’s 25th-anniversary celebration, Woodstock ’94. Etheridge’s passionate and unpredictably sexual live shows coupled with four platinum albums, four Grammy nominations, and one win for her 1993 single “Ain’t It Heavy” have catapulted her to the kind of worldwide popularity no female rocker has ever before achieved.
And with all this going for her, the tiny woman with the big, tattered, bluesy voice rolled the dice nearly two years ago (while celebrating President Clinton’s inauguration at the Triangle Ball) and came out. “I always intended to do it,” Etheridge says, “but I didn’t know when or where. I just couldn’t dodge it anymore. I felt like I was lying, and my music is so much about the truth.”
Etheridge’s personal growth is almost as fascinating as her blistering rise to stardom. She fell in love with her best girlfriend at 17, and the two carried on a secret love affair for years. Like a tornado out of Kansas, she soon fled to Boston’s Berklee College of Music; the school didn’t take, but the community did. “I met all these gay women,” she recalls. “I wasn’t alone. There were people just like me.”
Returning to Leavenworth just long enough to come out to her father (Etheridge didn’t become close to her mother until she was 24), she moved to Long Beach, Calif., where she began playing in local lesbian bars. In a fortuitous move that resulted in the securing of a manager at this early stage in her career, Etheridge passed a tape of her songs to a gay woman she’d met in the bars who played on a softball team with a straight woman married to manager William Leopold.
What followed was truly unprecedented in show business: After taking her on, Leopold (who managed the rock band Bread) refused to hide Etheridge’s lesbianism. Instead of making her perform before straight rock audiences who didn’t know her, Leopold brought executives from mainstream record labels to see his client where she was the most popular: lesbian bars. Several execs showed interest, but it was Island Records founder and CEO Chris Blackwell who walked into Long Beach’s Que Sera bar in 1986 and signed her on the spot.
Although Etheridge was originally discovered in a lesbian setting, her appeal is definitely universal. Men and women—both gay and straight—respond to her intense talent and sexual charisma with unabashed enthusiasm. “Frankly, I’d consider it a compliment to be linked romantically with Melissa Etheridge,” says actress and friend Laura Dern about the rock star’s “honest and sensuous sexuality. She’s got that lusty man/woman sound in her voice that I love and respond to on a raw level.”
“I want to be the biggest, most sexual star ever,” the rocker says. And if Etheridge’s record-breaking live shows are any indication, she’s well on her way.
The following interview with Etheridge and her girlfriend, filmmaker Julie Cypher, took place in three locations: the American Hotel in Amsterdam, Etheridge’s tour bus, and backstage at Rotterdam’s Ahoy stadium.
What was your biggest fear about coming out? Etheridge: You think there’s some big black hole you’re going to fall into and that all of a sudden people who have loved you all your life aren’t going to love you anymore. And I’m here to tell you that that does not happen. If it did change anyone’s mind about me, then that’s their problem—and they weren’t there for me to begin with.
And this fear extends professionally as well? Etheridge: Well, to put it in record business terms, my exact fear was that I had been embraced by rock radio—which was unheard-of for a woman of any sexual orientation. So just as a woman, I was already breaking ground. I was dealing with that and thinking, OK, if I come out, how many stations are going to drop me? It’s another version of the same fear: being dropped, being abandoned.
But you had k.d. lang as a successful model for coming out. Etheridge: Sure. But k.d., in my eyes, is a personality, an unusual chanteuse kind of androgynous something else. I have always been the working woman’s singer. I come from the Midwest. Mine is heartland music. My audiences are very mixed. So I worried, If I come out, will it make me strange?
But don’t you think people were already picking up something from your songs? Etheridge: I write from a genderless place. I don’t think I will ever write or sing “I love her.” I like that my music reaches not just gay but straight fans—men and women both.
But wouldn’t you like to write a song that expresses your love for Julie, where you would actually use her name? Etheridge: There could be a song that I’d write about Julie saying how much she means to me. Maybe not the next album, but maybe after that, when the dust kind of settles.
What dust? Etheridge: The dust is still settling about my coming out.
What was the weirdest thing that happened after you came out? Etheridge: Journalists! There were all these journalists who would come out to me. They’re not out, but they felt like they could tell me. Cypher: It’s so sad because they’re stuck in the closets of their little daily papers, and along comes Melissa talking openly about being gay.
Has your fan mail changed much since you came out? Etheridge: I was getting a lot of lesbian mail anyway.
Do you get hate mail? Etheridge: I’ve gotten letters from crazy people saying that I’m the devil and that they’re going to shoot me—but that happened before I came out!
Have you had unstable people interested in you since coming out? Etheridge: I’ve hired private policemen to watch over me if there’s a crazy person in some town looking for me.
What part did Julie play in your coming out? Etheridge: She was very, very supportive. We always knew that if I came out, she’d be coming out. See, she came from a straight…well, you know the story.
Well, I’d rather hear this story directly from you, Julie. Cypher: Well, I was straight. I was married to Lou Diamond Phillips. I’m originally from Texas, and he and I met there. I’d known lesbians as friends in college, but I’d never met a woman that I was attracted to, so lesbianism had never occurred to me—until I met Melissa. Then it occurred very strongly.