Melissa Etheridge

The Advocate's Person of the Year on 1995's battles, triumphs, and controversies

BY Judy Wieder

January 09 1996 12:00 AM ET

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.

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