Shedding her skin

As Melissa Etheridge prepares her new CD, Skin, for its summer release, she talks for the first time about her split with Julie Cypher, the revelations in her upcoming book, and how she makes no apologies for turning her life into her art

BY Dennis Hensley

April 21 2001 11:00 PM ET

In spite of these early experiences, you’ve
always seemed to have a healthy attitude about sex, like
you were never uptight about it.
No, no. It was a way out. I definitely took it the other
way. I did not want to close it up. It was power. It
was part of me that was very alive and very, um,
awesome.

I think that’s part of why gay guys dig you. We
wish we could be sexual in the way that you are onstage.

Come on!

I’m serious. Do you notice a lot of gay guys at
your shows?
In the last couple of albums, yes. At first, I
didn’t.

Because they’d rather blow their CD money on
The Best of White Party, Volume 8. What can
you do?

[Laughs] The ones that I do get in my
audience are into it all the way. The biggest compliments
are when I see myself done by a drag queen, which is
really difficult [for them to do] because I’m
so not drag-queeny.

For starters, there’s no heels.
They put on a leather jacket and sing “Bring Me
Some Water.” It’s barely being in
drag.

Did you ever go backstage afterward and say hello?
I did once in Chicago. He didn’t know I was
there. [Laughs] He’s like, “Oh, my
God!”

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever autographed?
I’ve been asked to autograph undergarments, but I
don’t.

Much has been made about the bras that fans throw
onstage. Where do they end up?

I never see them. My crew takes it, and they
have to permission to do with it what they like.

That would be a cross-dresser’s dream job.
[Laughs] Right. I want the people that
throw things to know that I do not receive it. That
some sweaty guy gets it for his collection.

Do you high-profile gals ever feel like the male
half of our movement isn’t pulling our weight?
You can tell me.
No, we don’t. People either ask me that question
or they ask, “What about the other celebrities
you know that aren’t out? Doesn’t that make
you angry?” No. It’s such a personal
experience. There are people, straight and gay, that
don’t even want to talk about their personal life,
period. When you come out, half of your interview is gonna
be about your personal life, so if you don’t
like talking about your personal life, then coming out
terrifies the hell out of you.

You seem to have a very positive outlook on life.
Do you have a dark side?

We all do. I struggle with my own self-image and
really feeling comfortable in my skin. I was always
attached to somebody else, so it was, Well, the two of
us together make a good thing and not being
comfortable in me.

What have you learned about yourself in the last
couple of years?

That what doesn’t kill you doesn’t
kill you. And that I’m stronger than I thought
and I have more power than I thought. And that I like myself
more than I ever have.

The pop music landscape has changed a lot in the
last few years. Do you put a lot of thought into, How
can I fit in in the world of Britney?

I’ve always tried to make radio come to
me. Nowadays, you can’t do that so I’ve
agreed, to give my single a chance, to remix it for radio.
My album is a different entity.

I think you should do a duet with Christina
Aguilera on “What a Girl Wants”
onMTV’s Total Request Live.

There you go. [Laughs] I know what a girl
wants! Don't think I didn't laugh when I first heard that
song.

Where were you the first time your heard one of
your songs on the radio?
It was in ’88. I was late for a train, riding in
this car with a record company guy in London, and I
heard the beginning of “Similar
Features.” I said, “God, that sounds
familiar…Wait, that’s me!” The
feeling was so strange because the radio had always been
that other land.

What are the musical milestones you still look
forward to?
I think I’m entering a different phase.
I’ve been around for ten years now. I’m
sitting there with Aerosmith, and we’re going,
“OK, we’re the old folks here.”
[Laughs] I always hoped that I’d have a
career that has ups and downs, but that stays around,
like Elton John’s. I’m starting to feel that
change over now and it’s very
interesting.

When things were breaking wide open for you, was it
fun or was it insane? Do you look back and go, “I
wish I had enjoyed that more”?

I wish I knew I was in it when I was in it
because I didn’t know until after it was over.
But I’m glad that that sort of thing doesn’t
sustain, because it’s intense. I’ve met
people that want that all the time and you
can’t have it. The world just goes on.

I’ve interviewed stars whose journeys were so
about, “I’ll show you, I’m going to
make it” and then once they do, they
don’t know who they are anymore. Did you
experience anything like that?

The thing for me was if I could be a big famous
rock star, then I wouldn’t have my problems so
all my energy focused towards that.

“If I could just get a number one record, then I
won’t have to deal with this shit.”
Right. And you have a number one record and
there’s so much shit. So then I had to grow up.
You can’t run away from it anymore. It becomes
about, “OK, I’m here and now. How can I be a
better person?” But I like performing, that
energy, that connection, and fame is part of that. But
if I had to choose between being famous or doing my music,
I’d do my music.

But you don’t have to choose so serve it up.
Serve it up! And because I am a hundred percent
myself, I don’t have to put energy into
creating an image. It’s just me.

What I like about you is that you’re
down-to-earth and a big show-off at the same time.

[Laughs] I’m a big ham. I love
what do and I love that I get to meet the most amazing
people.

And sing at their wedding, as in the case of Brad
Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.
Love it!

When the possibility of singing somewhere is first
mentioned, how long do you act embarrassed and hem and
haw before going, “OK, I’ll do it.”

I don’t. When they said they were getting
married, I said, “Oh, I’ll
sing!”

You’re like, “‘Come to My
Window’ in E flat. Hit it!”

Exactly. [Laughs] Sheryl Crow said
I’m just a little show business whore because
I’ll sing for anybody anywhere. I’ve
played bowling alleys, supermarkets, the Kawanis Club. But I
have to say, there’s something scary about a
room full of people in the same hats.

Were you always a ham?
As a child, that was the place where I could
express everything. Couldn’t do it anywhere
else. It was OK to sing angry or sing sad and then started
to realize people like to see that, and I thought,
“Oh, that feels good.” Now I’m
making a darn good living at it. Laura Morton, the woman
writing the book with me was like, “Do you
realize that your perfect safe place is on the stage
where most people are scared to death to be?”

Have you learned to express your emotions more in
real life as you’ve gotten older? Can you be the
bad cop when necessary?

Yeah. I’ve been in a lot of therapy to
learn how to do that. I insist on it for my children
so that they will learn by example how to express
one’s emotions. I have to consciously do it, or else,
it’s “Everything’s
OK.”

What about your work relationships and with the
press, are you able to draw lines?

Yeah. I truly am the boss. But I am pretty
accommodating because there’s nothing that I
haven’t talked about. I know that this is part of it
and I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing
any part of myself.

Have you ever looked back at an interview and
thought, God, I was too open. I should have shut up.

No, I’ve looked back and said, God, I
wish I was more open. That’s one of the reasons
I came out. There were a couple of interviews that I did for
Never Enough that were just were ridiculous.
It just seemed like I was trying to not say
everything.

When you’re part of a couple, do you draw lines
about the press together, like, “OK, we
won’t talk about B & C, we’ll
talk about A, B & D,” or do you just play it
by ear?

We played it by ear. When we had children, we
agreed we were not going to do is say who the father
is. But then that line becomes what everything’s
about. To truly be as empowered as I can be, I can’t
make my little boxes that no one can talk about
because those become the only thing that anyone wants
to talk about.

And you and she were on the same page about that?
Yeah.

Have you ever been accused of using your personal life to
promote your work, like, “Let’s
announce who the father is when my new album comes out.”

I’m sure some people have thought of
that, but I’m not that clever. If I’d
have been that clever, I’d have broken up this month.
[Laughs]

Do you think you, as parents, are going to have different
set of problems than heterosexuals?

You know what’s funny? I used to think
the world was split between men and women. And then,
gay and straight. And now I know the world is truly
split between parents and non-parents. No matter what kind
of parent you are--single, straight, gay, divorced,
together forever--you love your children the same way.
Yes, I believe there will be that my children will
have to deal with any prejudice of their mother’s
lifestyle. But if preschool is any signal as to
what’s coming, the kids get it. “Oh, Bailey
has two Moms.” Easy. Simple. My kids know that most
kids have a Mom and a Dad. They also know that they
have a Dad who doesn’t live with them. You give
them those tools of knowledge and truth and love and they
can answer to it at any time.

You host the Lifetime show Beyond Chance.
What’s the coolest thing that’s come
out of that for you?

I’ve reached a new audience. There are
people that watch that show that don’t know
I’m a musician. I got this letter from an elderly
woman that was addressed to Melissa Eldridge and it
said, “I watch your show every week. I’m
sorry to hear about the break up with your best
friend.” It was how she was able to say it.
I’m sure in her life she could never say that
“l” word, but it really meant a lot to me that
she acknowledged my “best friend.”

You were attached to the Janis Joplin movie for ages. Do
you still want to make a movie some day?

Yeah but I don’t have a dream of being a
movie star. I’m actually working on something
with HBO right now.

“If These Vaginal Walls Could Talk III”?
[Laughs] I will say that it’s gay
and HBO loves gay.

What movie stars did you have a crush on when you were a kid?
Anne Bancroft. I’m so into the strong
woman thing.

I take it you didn’t have a Farrah poster.
No. It was all about Kate Jackson. Another signal I was
queer.

You’ve said that before you all came out, there
were many drunken nights where both you and Ellen
sat around and talked about coming out. What did
you talk about after?

What we’d like to do, because it opens up
a lot of doors. And we talk about our experiences with
people. I remember being at a thing for Ellen, and we
were onstage answering questions and this fifteen year-old
girl thanked Ellen in a way that just brought tears to
our eyes. It comes down to that. It’s really
quite powerful.

Have you talked to each other about dating?
Ellen and I have completely different personal
relationships. We couldn’t be more different,
except we like gals. [Laughs]

Is there any truth to the rumor that you and Ellen and
k.d. lang are going to do a lesbian First
Wive’s Club?

[Laughs] That would be funny! You know
Ellen, k.d., and I, we all just went through breakups.
There’s an opportunity here that someone’s
not taking advantage of! C’mon!

Should I get [First Wives producer] Scott Rudin on
the phone?
C’mon, get him on the phone.

Do the three of you hang out?
Ellen and I do. kd has a tendency to hide out,
but Ellen said she just to talked to her last week, so
I think I might see her soon.

You’ve said that coming out was only a positive
thing for you professionally. Ellen seemed to have
a different experience, a lot of positive reaction
and then a backlash. What was it like for you to watch
that happen?

I went ‘ouch’ to some things every
now and then, but also could kind of see the set-up. I
think if you talk to Ellen in the next year or two,
she’ll have a different insight on what that whole
thing was, and the experience of it.

Speaking of famous friends, I understand there’s
an interesting story about your background singers
on one song from Skin.

[Laughs] Well, when we got to the song,
“Heal Me,” David was like, “You
need backgrounds in the end. Why don’t you just call
your friends?”

Which friends are these?
Laura Dern and Meg Ryan.

Who I would guess can relate to the theme of “Heal
Me” in their own special ways.

[Laughs] We feel like we’re part
of a club now or something. We’ve all gone
through this huge public change so we could all get together
and help each other. It was just a fun, good,
cleansing experience.

[Melissa hits
play and “Heal Me” begins:

Ain’t it
crazy? For a moment there, This felt
just like dying But now I see that
Something inside is coming alive…]

Meg and Laura sound great. Did they work for scale?
[Laughs] It was so funny. I was like,
“Are you OK with me telling people that
it’s you?” They were like, “Are you
kidding? This is one thing we want credit
on.”

Did they show up in rocker outfits?
Oh no, but it was funny. I said to David before,
“I’ve not really ever worked with
background vocalists.” He goes, “Background
vocalists always show up a half hour late and when
they come in, they’ll immediately start talking
about their clothes or their shoes.” It was a
joke between us. And then when Laura and Meg got there, they
were half an hour late and immediately they start to
say, “Oh, look at your coat.”
“Oh, look at your coat.”

Your straight women celeb friends must feel pressure to
be young, and thin and hot in Hollywood. Do you,
as a lesbian, feel that kind of stress?

I’ve never thought about it that way. I
just think I have less of a talent at looking good
than they do. Hanging around with the people I do hang
around with, I have to find my own confidence. Some of them
can put something together and look just head to toe
“Pow!” and I’m fashion impaired.
But they’re not the type of women who struggle with
their age or that they have to look beautiful. They
struggle with how beautiful they are and sort of
accept it. I see the energy that I get from people is
completely different when I hang around with someone like
Meg. It’s just a whole sort of straight male
energy she picks up on. It’s a big
burden.

Now what about this one-woman show you were going to do?
I pushed that back. We’re basically going
to adapt it from the book so it’ll be like
2002.

Do you plan to tour with the CD?
I just ache to be performing. It’s such a safe,
healing place. But also I don’t want to be away
from my kids. I refuse to be away from them for more
than ten days.

Vegas is just a plane ride away. You could be the new
Wayne Newton!

[Laughs] Bruce Springsteen and I were
talking about how jealous we were that these country
artists can have a Branson or Vegas where people come
to them. Why can’t we have our own little rock
n’ roll place?

Is it going to be different touring as a single woman?
Oh yeah. Before it’s been, “Yeah,
this is very sexual, but I’m going home to
that.” Now it’s like, “This is real
sexual, and—possible.” It’s really
gonna be different. Talk to me in a year.

It kills me that I missed Equality Rocks. What was it like?
It was such a perfect moment in time. Normally,
I’m all about inclusion in my music. This was
the first time that I really felt like I was walking
out in front of a gay audience. This was a big gay thang.
And that was a different feeling. I felt I
didn’t have anything to prove so I just jumped
on it and flew more than I ever ever have. I didn’t
have to win. I’d already won. It was the
victory lap.

What was it like to sing “Scarecrow,” your
song about Matthew Shepard?

I’d never sung the song before and I was
a wreck. I lost it. I basically spoke the song, the
parts that I could. I was completely raw.

Writing that song, did it just pour out?
Yeah. I was supposed to be writing a song for the
women’s soccer World Cup but I kept going back
to “Scarecrow” and it just
happened.

What’s something you’ve seen recently that
made you think, The world’s changing for
the better?

Any time a young person comes up and asks me for
my autograph, I’m surprised. The big thing
about the Grammys this year was this big, out,
homosexual guy singing with a guy that has homophobic
lyrics. That’s it, Elton. Wear a big pink,
polka-dot thang, and heal it, man!

The last line of the CD is, “Let everyone know
that I’m comin’ home again.”
Is that the message that you wanted to leave with?

Yep. That’s the way I leave it.

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