“Yes, I know why you made me The Advocate's Person of the Year,” says Melissa Etheridge, sitting in the back of her tour bus as it rushes her from one promotional stop to another on the rain-drenched streets of London. “I'm sort of a gay success story, a very inspirational one. What happened to me is exactly the opposite of what closeted people fear: They think they’ll lose everything if they come out. This did not happen to me at all. In fact, everything came back tenfold.”
What’s more, Etheridge is still counting. Since her now-historic coming out during President Clinton’s inauguration celebration, the Grammy-winning singer has watched herself sell 5 million copies of her 1993 album Yes I Am, duet with Bruce Springsteen on her VH1 special Unplugged, play before thousands at Woodstock ’94, grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, meet the president and—with her lover of seven years, Julie Cypher—become half of a sensuous poster couple for lesbians. What's more, she says these are only a few of the wondrous events she never saw coming when she spontaneously stood up and spoke the simple words “All my life I’ve been proud to be a lesbian” at the Triangle Ball in Washington, D.C., three years ago.
Person of the Year—and the emphasis here is on the word person—is the perfect award for the likable Etheridge. While her heartland rock music is predictably popular with the masses (her fifth album, Your Little Secret, debuted at number 6 in the Billboard charts in late 1995), it is Etheridge’s exhilarating humanness that ultimately sets her apart. Whether she’s worrying over a fan’s misunderstanding something she’s said or making sure that a band member gets just the right homeopathic treatment for the onset of a cold, Etheridge really is a nice person. Even after the high-velocity, pressure-infused year she just wrapped, her well-behaved Kansas roots prevail. “Well, you get what you give,” she says simply, referring to something her late father taught her. What’s truly revolutionary is that she still lives by his lessons.
“It’s great to see a strong woman in charge of her career,” says singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading, whose own career was visibly boosted when Etheridge recorded her song “The Weakness in Me” in 1995. Clearly inspired by the out lesbian rocker’s unstoppable rise to stardom, Armatrading concedes, “Melissa knows what she's doing!”
Another friend agrees. “Melissa’s career completely took off when she came out,” says tennis champ Martina Navratilova. “And you can’t say it was a coincidence. I think she’s better at doing what she does because she's so out. It's such a freeing experience, not only to be out but to be vocal about it. You can hear it in her voice when she sings."
Many have heard the call to freedom in Etheridge’s raucous vocals. From the lesbian bars in Long Beach, Calif., where she was signed in 1986, to the last rows of Madison Square Garden and the Royal Albert Hall, her leather lungs have roped in fans as diverse as actor Juliette Lewis (“Melissa sings like we all dream of singing”) and Janis Ian (“The first time I saw Melissa perform at the Bluebird Cafe, I said, 'I have just seen the first female stadium act.' ”)—to say nothing of Sting, Brad Pitt, and, of course, Springsteen.
“Melissa’s one of the leading women in rock because she exudes such pure, unadulterated honesty,” says David Geffen, whose various record labels have handled such mighty rock acts as Aerosmith, Nirvana, and Guns N' Roses. “She’s a first-class rocker with a huge heart. She’s as honest about her personal life as she is about her music. How can you not relate to sincerity?"
For Etheridge, honesty really is her guide. “I believe when you’re truthful and you put that out to others, there’s a spiritual karma that rewards you,” she says. “You clean yourself out to make room for other things.”
Are you amazed at how the world embraced you this past year? I’ve been learning all along this journey that the things we fear are so much bigger in our heads than in reality. Yeah, there’s a noisy conservative far right, but they’re not a majority. The majority of people—because I’ve been around the world and seen it—are good people who are not bringing down hellfire and damnation on anyone for loving someone. Besides, I think I’m really very nonthreatening.
Women in rock aren’t exactly nonthreatening. I’m not Courtney Love. I’m not spouting controversial things. I don’t dress different. I’m not piercing myself anywhere—all those things that are considered on the edge. I have blondish-brown hair; I’m 34; I could be the girl next door.
The gay girl next door! Yes. The people who have always felt that they didn’t know anyone gay all look at me and think, Well, I could know someone who is gay; she looks like ten people on my block.
k.d. is out too, but she hasn’t walked hand in hand with somebody into the Grammy awards. But I’m in a solid relationship and feel secure in it. I’m no longer in that single, sort-of predator stage. It’s very much “This is who I am. This is who I’m with. This is our life, and this is how it is.”
Why hasn’t your success been more comforting to people who are considering coming out? As you know from your celebrity friends, your success has not brought them out of the closet. Coming out is such a personal thing. So much personal baggage and issues go on behind it. Maybe if I hadn’t had such a good experience with my family, perhaps I would not have had as much confidence when it came to coming out to the world.
So it’s really about earlier coming-out experiences? Yes. Some of my friends won’t talk about their personal lives—at all. There are questions that they have about their lives; they might be in tumultuous relationships that aren’t working out. Turning the media light on a personal life is frightening!
You would know. Yes, it’s a huge light. If you are thinking, I don’t know if this person really loves me or if we're going to stay together, or if you're wondering, Am I happy? you don’t want to shine that light on such a fragile situation.
So you probably wouldn’t have come out if you had not been with Julie? Oh, I might have anyway. But I’ve had good coming-out experiences.
How did being out help you to enjoy this triumphant year? I could really be 100% there for my success. I wasn’t closeted, and I didn’t feel like there was stuff that wasn’t being acknowledged. I didn't have to constantly worry and think, Well, but if they knew this other stuff about me, then it wouldn’t have happened.
Was there a low point this year? Yeah, a little loss of personal freedom—a very small price to pay.
You go outside and people mob you? Yeah, and it’s changed from being just the people who love my music to being people who want my autograph because I’m someone famous. All of a sudden you feel very detached. I have had to really pull back.
How do you make contact with them? I went online last August. I had the anonymity of doing it from the studio where I was finishing my album. It’s a nice way to communicate with fans without crossing personal boundary lines that I now need to set up for myself physically.
How did you prove it was you? I did two things: I had one of the people online give me a phone number, and I called her, and she said, “Oh, my God, it is you!” because she recognized my voice. The second thing I did was tell them that I was going to be The Advocate’s Person of the Year, and I told them I would put something about being online in the interview with The Advocate so that they could think back and realize that it really was me.
Let me ask you about the PETA ad you and Julie did and the controversy that followed. What happened? Julie is the vegetarian in the family; I am no longer a vegetarian. Julie’s an animal lover and quite vocal and heartfelt about it. I wear leather, I eat meat—chicken and fish—but I do have compassion for animals in the fur trade and how they are treated. PETA contacted Julie and said, “We’re doing a series of photographs of couples. We think you two are a great couple, and we want to put you in this campaign.”
So it started with Julie? Yes, Julie came to me and said, “I would like to do this.” I said, “Well, I will do it if they understand that I wear leather and I eat meat.” They assured me that Kim Basinger did a PETA photo and she’s not a vegetarian and that there were other models who’d done it who wear leather. So I agreed. Once we got into taking the pictures, Julie said, “Gee, I thought we were going to have a sign in front of us or something.” She didn’t realize that we were going to be totally nude. But a couple of glasses of wine, and we were OK with it.
Then the ad came out and…? There was such serious controversy because there are so many gray areas. I was contacted by people looking for cures for AIDS who were saying, “I can’t believe you helped PETA, because they don’t support animal testing.” I got impassioned letters about this from people in the fur trade, saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I got letters like I’d never received before.
You—the person who never gets attacked? It was my mistake. I was simply protesting cruelty to animals in the fur trade. The ad read, “I’d rather go naked than wear fur.” I have never worn fur, and I never would wear fur. But the issue isn’t that clear; it bleeds into all sorts of things. So I’ve made a decision not to do any more visible work for PETA. Julie will do what she feels she needs to do, and I will support her in that.
The animal-testing crisis seems to turn on the question, What do we test possible cures on? Exactly! My father died of cancer, and I’ve lost too many friends to AIDS. So I do believe in animals losing their lives to eradicate cancer and AIDS from our lives; I believe in that.
You told Rolling Stone that you and Julie plan to get married. Do you? What I said and what was written were two different things. My point was: I want to be legally recognized as married. I want all the benefits that a legal marriage has. I get crazy when so many heterosexuals take it for granted yet it’s still something that Julie and I cannot have. There are situations that people don’t even think about: my huge tax situation, for example. I’ve got to spend so much in accounting fees every year to solve it. Believe me, the first state that legalizes same-sex marriages, I’m there, Julie’s there, and we’re getting married. We’re first in line.
I know you and Julie plan to be parents in the near future. Do you think that being a parent will make you more cautious and protective of your personal life? Yes, because I talk to famous couples who have children, and I can see how very protective they’ve become. The celebrity issue is one thing when you’re an adult and you understand it. But to be a child and have people run at you and take your picture when you have no idea why—I think that would be a situation I’d feel very protective about.
But you’re still going to do it? Yes, but it’s a very private matter. I’m not going to say how, who, when, or where—not while this tape recorder is on. It’s just not going to happen. I have let the world in on so much of my private life, so this is the one area that's going to remain private. Although at some point people are going to know.
Because one of you will be pregnant? Yes. It’s going to be obvious when it happens. But we need to be in total control of it.
That’s going to be hard. Yeah, there’s going to be a lot of serious focus on it when it happens. People who have been going “Fine, fine, they’re gay, that’s great” are suddenly going to be going “Wait a minute—they’re raising children?”
Here’s a touchy subject for you... [Laughing] Oh? How unlike you!
The Los Angeles Times reviewed one of your 1995 concerts by questioning whether you were ever going to reveal yourself in your music. The reviewer said, “Springsteen had his Nebraska, can Etheridge give us her Kansas?” What do you think he meant by that, and is Your Little Secret giving him what he wanted? That kind of reviewer always wants to know where you’re going; they never trust where you are right now. They’re like a parent you can never satisfy. They always say, “That’s great, but can you do this?”
Is Your Little Secret a departure? There are pieces of Your Little Secret that go deeper into me, into my past, and into the things I’m made of. Songs like “Nowhere to Go,” “Shriner’s Park,” and “I Could Have Been You” pull out parts of me that I have not examined before. No, I didn’t sit in my room and record it on a four-track TEAC tape recorder like Bruce did with Nebraska, but maybe someday I will.
Naturally, I listened very carefully through Your Little Secret to hear if you sang a love song to Julie or if you used the words "she" or "her." You didn’t. True, but without being gender-specific in my songs, I think I’m becoming more sensual. Whereas before I might have shied away from using feminine descriptions, I feel freer in my writing—even though I’m not saying “I love her.”
Why not? I don’t want to cut anybody out. I don’t want to alienate anyone.
Melissa, I hear the words you say, but I still sense you long to address a woman in a love song. [Sighs] Yeah, I would love to pretend that I’m the kind of artist who writes and writes and doesn’t give a damn about anybody else. But it’s obvious that I’m not a Dylan type, who’s all involved with his art and the listeners feel like they’re just looking in on him when they hear his songs.
Obviously you are afraid that some of your listeners will stop listening to you if you write a love song that’s about another woman. Isn’t it possible that these listeners have been waiting all along to hear from you about this? Sure. There are enough straight people that know about Julie and me that if I wrote a song called “Julie,” they would totally understand.
So? OK, I realize that. It’s not that it’s never going to happen; it may very well happen. It probably will happen. I just haven’t done it yet.
Are you afraid? After years of doing it one way, it’s going to be awkward for me to do it the way you’re talking about. I will have to do an album just for me. Then if anyone wants to look in on it, they can. But, yes, it will probably be a big release. It will probably be very freeing. [Groans] Oh, you’re right.
Well, it’s not as if you haven’t been addressing this issue at all. Isn’t “I Could Have Been You” about being gay? Yes. That is the basis for the song. It’s about confronting someone who lives with that sort of intolerance. In a way, though, it could also be about racial intolerance.
But you're not black. I know. I know. But you could stick religion in there or anything. I was just writing from my experience.
And you’re gay. Please don’t say, “Oh, no, no. It’s about being a vegetarian.” [Laughing] Well, it could be.
[Laughing] Yes, indeed, it could. OK, you told me in the past that if you were a major romantic lead in film or television—rather than a rock singer—you would think twice about coming out. Do you still feel that way? No. I would change my answer. I think if a person’s work is good, that’s ultimately all that matters. Obviously, had my album not been very good, I would not be where I am today after coming out. There would have been a little flash instead of this great leap. If someone comes out and then makes a bad movie, it’s just not going to work. I don’t believe there is going to be any problem if the work is good.
Do you think the public will believe a lesbian actress kissing a man on-screen? Absolutely. If an actress can go inside herself and pull up that part that’s in love with a man at that moment, then she has done her job. She has done it well, and it will be believed.
And if she’s a closeted lesbian actress, do you think people will pick up on that fact when they see her on-screen? Yes, I do, because her sexuality is all locked up. But I tell you, once you free it up, all of a sudden you are open to so many feelings. I stood there onstage with Bruce Springsteen, looked at him, and thought, This man is just gorgeous!
What was the reaction to the interview you did with Janis Ian for us last spring? People loved it. It was tough being the interviewer.
Finally, some respect. [Laughing] No, I mean because I didn’t want to ask her things that are difficult to answer. I know how it is.
Are you still interested in film acting? Oh, yeah. I have an agent, and I’m reading scripts.
You said that one of your goals was to help out your hometown of Leavenworth, Kan. They contacted you after your father died, but you were still grieving. Has that changed? Oh, yeah! I went to my hometown. They had Melissa Etheridge Day. I went into my old music store, and my old guitar teacher was still there!
Did going home like that stir up things that you wrote about? I remembered the young girl with such huge dreams. I remembered what I was like and what was driving me, and it was painful. It allowed that part of me to come back up, and I wrote from it.
Did you see the roots of your nice-girl personality back there? [Laughing] Oh, yeah. A lot of that came from my dad. When he first saw me perform, he said, “You should always thank your audience.”
For a big star, you are very caretaking of other people. Everybody notices this. How many stars have you seen come and go away quickly because they have nasty attitudes? My dad taught me differently. I could see him treat other people in a kind way, and when I tried it, it worked.
I heard that you called your new album Your Little Secret because a gay fan hassled you for having gotten so big and commercial. She said, “I can see you’re not our little secret anymore.” To me that just says that it’s not about my music. It’s about being into unknown music. I hope that people will allow me to grow and make the music that is in me, no matter how many people are listening to it.
If people are overidentifying with you and you suddenly go off in unexpected directions, it’s scary for them. Oh, I know! Some people didn’t like the way I looked on my third album: a little too blond, a little too pretty. What’s up with that? I was feeling blond and pretty!
That must have made you angry. Is expressing your anger still your biggest personal struggle? Oh, yeah. I was not shown as a child how to be angry, my parents kept their anger in, so I never grew up with examples of how to do that. I always thought, Well, that must mean that if I get angry, the world ends. I got in trouble for saying in my last Advocate cover story that I believed that my father kept his anger in and that it led to his cancer.
People wrote to you about that? Yeah, I got a letter saying that people were tired of hearing people blame cancer on the victim. It is my belief, that’s all. Julie still doesn’t believe that I have ever gotten really angry around her, because it seems like nothing to her. But to me it’s scary, walls-falling-down horrible.
Do you think any of your rage is released in your music? Absolutely. I started doing music as a child, so I can put my feelings into words much better in a song than I can in speaking to someone. So, yes, I get onstage, and I scream the scream. I am released every night.
Do you ever worry: If I get healthy I’ll have nothing to write about? In my opinion, pain never goes away. There is so much light and dark inside of me that I do not fear I will become too happy to write. I might not write, “There is someone sleeping with the person I love.” That’s obviously not as big a part of my life anymore as I go into my seventh year in my relationship with Julie.
When the Advocate cover story you and Julie did in 1994 came out, I heard you thought it was too sexy. No, I knew the angle was always going to be about a sexy lesbian couple—“dangerous lesbians.” The only thing I regretted doing was quoting that thing about lesbian women being the highest and heterosexual men being the lowest on the evolutionary scale. All my straight male friends were like, “Excuse me!” But, yes, I expected the sexy stuff.
Traveling the world last year, did you realize how important it was to have been a part of something that showed a sexy lesbian couple to the world? Oh, yeah! I am still signing the magazine! They save them and wait for me to come to their towns.
I’ve heard people object to the sexiness you and Julie showed both in the Advocate story and in the PETA ad. They felt it would be misused by straight men—the old “Ooh, two girls together!” But what’s the answer? To hide lesbian sexuality from the world? No! It is like the age-old argument about pornography in general. We have to say, “Yes, this is sexual too.” That’s why a lot of feminists actually embrace pornography, because in that way you free the whole machine.
Have you ever heard the expression “lesbian bed death”? Yes. [Pause, then uprorious laughter] It is untrue. It’s a mean myth! Where did that awful idea come from?
That awful idea comes from the theory that when lovers get to know each other well, they become like best friends or relatives and they stop desiring each other. Oh, no, this is not my experience! Why, just last night…! We’re learning things all the time. It is like an adventure. After seven years it’s better than ever. Look, I know that, sexually, you have dynamics in a relationship. There will be times when I am in more of a crisis professionally, or maybe I’m dealing with something with my family—anything where you have to close down. You can’t really open up physically. But just as that comes, it goes away, and on with the healthy sexual relationship!
Has your relationship with your fans changed because you’re a part of a solid couple? Yes, but I think that change is a part of my whole maturing. I think what I was looking for in my 20s is different from what I’m looking for in my 30s. Yes, there was a difference when I was available—meaning emotionally and physically—when I was looking, searching. This only lasted for about a year into my first record, because I started realizing that it wasn’t very healthy; one can’t spread oneself so thin. I’m glad I’m not still there. Now I am discovering the joys of believing in one person and not trying to gather it all from a host of others. I don’t think it takes anything away from the fans. I put out as much energy onstage as I ever did. It’s just that that’s as far as it goes.
Melissa, your manager said that ever since we printed the words "A bra hits Melissa Etheridge in the face" at the beginning of your last cover story, the bras have been flying hard and wild at your shows. Yes, it’s crazy.
Well, what do you want thrown at you? My band was suggesting maybe diamonds! Or what about annuities? It’s just that the bra thing is hard on me. During one show I watched this woman take her bra off right in front of me. I kept shaking my head, screaming, “Don’t do that! Don’t do that!” The security guard was no help. He moved so that she could throw it at me. Now they’re actually bringing extra bras to my shows; they are not just wearing them. I guess soon they’ll be selling bra launchers for the people in the back rows.