The real Rosie

365 days of amazing challenges and feisty decisions turned America’s sweetheart into the fighter she’s always been—and The Advocate’s leading lady for 2002

BY Judy Wieder

December 24 2002 1:00 AM ET

I know you were rowdier back then.
Then I got this job that required one thing: It
was a specific kind of canvas. It was afternoon TV. It
was Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas. It was
noncontroversial. It was happy, fun, light, mothers-at-home,
and “Relate to them, Rosie, in the best way
that you can.” To me, it didn’t mean
hiding my sexuality, but it also did not mean
flaunting my sexuality. I never once said, “Well, my
boyfriend and I went last night to the
premiere.” I would sit at the Emmys next to Kelli. I
just lived as though everyone knew it.

In addition to Lofton and Croteau, I’ve always
felt that something very personal kicked in and made you
say, “I can’t do this anymore. I
want out. It’s my turn at bat.”

I turned 40. I outlived my mother.

Ah, OK…
My mother died at 39. At 39, I was in the hospital with
a staph infection. They were going to amputate my
finger or my wrist. It’s the middle finger;
I’m the middle of five children. I don’t think
it’s by accident. And I felt that God was
saying to me, I gave you what you thought you wanted,
and I’ve shown you what you need. Where will you go?
Toward what I need, or toward what I think I wanted?

And?
Well, what I thought I wanted was salvation for
free, because Barbra Streisand made me feel emotional
and alive, and Bette Midler too. As a young person I
would listen to them and the emotions sung in Pippin
and the feelings from West Side Story, and that was
the only outlet I had to express all the stuff inside
me. And I thought that by becoming like them I would
feel what they made me feel as a child,
constantly.

But it didn’t work, did it?
No, that was a misunderstanding on my part. It
was a 20-year journey. It took a life-threatening
injury; it took Kelli sleeping on the floor in ICU.
The fame took a toll on my friends and family, on those
relationships that are most valuable and most important.
Finally I had a shift in perspective, and I’m
grateful for that. But when you let go of something,
you make space for something else to be there. And what I
have found I’ve been given as a result of the
letting go—not just of the show but the
magazine and the coming-out—are rewards that I
can’t even begin to explain.

Try.
When I went to opening night at Hairspray
and I heard those words and I saw those performances, I was
sobbing like I couldn’t believe. Because
everything came together for me at once.

Because you’re out? More vulnerable? Why were
you sobbing?

It had nothing to do with coming out. The
sobbing had to do with the fact that this was the
origin of my artistic essence: musical theater. It was
the reason I became a performer. It was always
Oklahoma! and West Side Story and every
musical my mother loved that we would sit and watch on
TV together. It was musicals that made me become a
performer, and when I saw Barbra onstage, I thought to
myself, Well, I love her, and look what she’s
giving me! But I don’t know where you go to
do that.
Hollywood was a vague and elusive
concept. When I came to see Clams on the Half
Shell
in 1974, I stood at the stage door and watched the
woman I had just seen perform miracles [Bette Midler]
walk out of the door sweating with a towel on her
head, stopping to sign my autograph—I was 11
years old. I knew there was a place to go where I could do
what I felt inside of me. And that was Broadway.

So you came full circle?
Yes, to be there that night, to have let go of
everything, to have it be my first public appearance
after my press conference with the magazine, to have
that be the first thing that I did. I felt that, again,
nothing happens by chance.

So many changes! You were the “Queen of
Nice,” and now you’ve become—

The devil incarnate. Right, but here’s
the thing: If you agree to being sanctified, you need
to agree to be vilified.

But did you agree to being this television goody-goody?
I never thought I was the “Queen of
Nice.” In fact, when that came out I remember
saying “You know what? Next year it’s gonna be
the ‘Queen of Lice’ and then the
‘Queen of Fried Rice.’” But at the time
that I came on the air, the number 1 show was Jerry
Springer
. People were beating each other up; guests were
killing each other. Compared to that, I was the
“Queen of Nice.” But in actuality, watch
my HBO special. My art form is not based in kindness;
it’s based in rage.

I’m glad to hear this from you. I always got
that from your comedy.

But you have to find a way to translate that in
your art, as every artist does, so that the message is
heard.

What about AIDS activism?
Now I understand the rage in ACT UP; I understand it was
righteous anger. When your hand is forced, you
don’t have a choice. But I don’t think
that going into St. Patrick’s Cathedral—those
kinds of overt acts of hostility—are going to
be productive for anyone.

Was it frustrating for you when certain huge
incidents happened to the gay community, like Matthew
Shepard or Brandon Teena being murdered, and you
couldn’t join the protests?

Well, I know all of those stories because of
your magazine. But I’ll tell you why I
didn’t feel the need to attend the vigils for Matthew
Shepard—his death was horrific; it is the worst in
us, but that doesn’t mean gay people should
only stand up when it’s a gay person murdered. It
also means when a man is dragged to death because
he’s black in Texas—it means all
injustices.

Of course, but the problem with hate-crime laws is
that while they cover James Byrd’s atrocious
death, most states refuse to add gays to their
list of those protected by law from hate crimes.

Oh, true, I agree.

Did people ask you to come to any of the vigils or marches?
When Ellen [DeGeneres] called me and said, did I want to
go to the vigil—and I love Ellen, and
I’ve known her many, many, many years—I said
no. And she said, “Why?” and I said,
“Because you didn’t call me to go to
James Byrd’s. And if you had called me to go to James
Byrd’s, I might’ve gone with you to
Matthew Shepard’s.” That’s my
philosophy.

Judy Shepard told me she had spoken to you about
Matthew early on.

I was in an elevator with Judy Shepard right
before I hosted the Grammys four years ago. I got on
an elevator with her, and she looked familiar, and I
said, “Are you Ryan White’s
mother?”

Close…
She was in my Filofax somewhere. And she said,
“No, I’m Matthew Shepard’s
mother.” And I was like [gasps], “Could
you come with me to my room? I would love to talk to
you.” And she said yes, and I talked to her and
I told her about myself being gay and what a horrible
thing had happened to her son and how I felt the presence of
God in her husband’s speech. That speech
changed the world because he came from compassion and
love. He said that his son would not want the boys to
die. And there are moments like when I heard his speech on
the radio, where I have to pull off the road because I
am crying too much to drive the car. And what I say in
those moments is “Thank you, God.” We need
this compassion and godliness in each other.

Don’t people treat you with compassion?
The gay community needs to stop pointing fingers
at their brothers and sisters and saying “Not
gay enough.” It’s not as though gay people
didn’t know I was gay; it was the people in
Iowa.

Yes, but the people in Iowa need to know.
But look, I’m sitting on a plane and the
flight attendant goes, “Hi, Rosie—oh, my
God, my partner’s name is Frank, and I just love you,
love your show.” I’m sitting next to
Kelli, and we both wear matching
rings—it’s pretty obvious to everyone
who’s gay.

Yes, of course a gay flight attendant would know, Rosie.
OK, OK.

Everything has changed for you now, Rosie.
And it’s like being on the space shuttle.
I was in intense fame for six years. When astronauts
come down from being in space, they have to go to a
decompression chamber. They need to have therapy and hear
someone say “I know you keep saying,
‘Oh, my God, I walked on the moon.’ But
you’re back on Earth now—shift!”
They have professionals to help them do that.

Don’t you?
There’s no one to help you do that when you let
go of fame the way I did. Also, society likes to think
what I thought, which is, It’s better over
there.
And when somebody “over
there” says “You know what? It isn’t,
and I’m coming back to where you are,”
it changes everyone’s belief system. It forces them
to look again at their own values in life.

Just like you had to?
Yes, and that’s a gift. It’s a
gift that I got by being sick enough and trusting
enough and having the most amazing, heart-opening experience
with the children in my life. These kids came in and broke
the cement around my heart and made a space for Kelli
to enter. And what has grown as a result is an
unbelievably beautiful garden. And the stuff that I
won’t do anymore is pretend.

You were pretending before?
It’s part of why the magazine situation
came apart. I finally said no. I can’t pretend.
I didn’t [tell G+J I would] want it to be a militant
magazine—I just wanted it to be me. If I tell
Christopher Reeve “You’re on the
cover,” he should end up on the cover. He
shouldn’t get cut down to a book excerpt. His
life shouldn’t get reduced to the headline “My
Adventures in Scientology” because Scientology will
sell. That is not all right with me.

I can’t believe this happened to you too. I had
to cancel an Advocate cover with Christopher
Reeve when he directed In the Gloaming.
Someone above me thought our readers would think we were
equating homosexuality with disabilities.

A-a-ahhh! So you know what I’m saying!
It was just ridiculous. I was on a roller-coaster ride and I
kept thinking, It’s gonna get real soon.
And when I got off the ride, I said to the ticket guy,
“Oh, my God, you’re not gonna believe
what just happened to me.” And he said, “Yeah,
I know, everybody says that when they get
off.”

So it’s a big relief after being bound up…
The best part about coming out was the weekend
after. I went to the mall, and people nodded at me,
they winked at me and gave me the thumbs-up, but they
did not come over to me when I was with my children. That is
a profound change. It was as if by saying “I am
gay too—I am what you believe and also
this,” it forced them to see me as a
real, full person; three-dimensional. When they see me with
Kelli, they know: “Wow, that is who she has chosen.
She loves that person.” When they see me with
my children, they say, “There’s a mother
with her children,” and that moment is more real than
the image of Rosie. And it took me a long time to find
it out.

The gay community—whatever that is—has been…?
Right—on the whole, aside from those few
I call the gay Nazis—has been unbelievably
supportive of me.

I think I remember that when Ellen DeGeneres came
out, you were critical of the circus that went on around
her [and Anne Heche].
Well, I knew she was gonna come out because she had told
me for a long time. She came on my show, and we did
the “Lebanese thing”; I wanted to go
there because I wanted people who were smart enough to get
it to hear what I was saying: I’m one of you.
That’s why I did that.

Yes, and the people who knew about both of you,
knew. And those watching the show who didn’t
know, still didn’t know.

I’ve been friends with Ellen for 15
years. I like her a lot. I’ve known Ellen
through many partners, and she has known me through many
partners. When you think you find the person for your
whole life and you’re gonna announce it to the
world, you’d better be sure.

Well, that was a pretty devastating event for her.
For everyone. For everyone.

And the fact that Melissa and Julie blew up at the
same time was unbelievable.

Right.

But again, now that this media circus has happened
to you, do you feel more understanding—

Empathy, yes. But I don’t think the same
thing happened to me that happened to Ellen. I made a
decision to speak up against an unjust law in Florida
because I was victimized by that law. Now, all of this stuff
that’s happened to Rosie the magazine,
that’s something else. They decided it was no longer
gonna have my personality—it was gonna have
someone else’s. All the huge media came over
that. I don’t think it’s because of the gay
thing.

How can you separate any of it?
Let me tell you why: We didn’t lose one
corporate sponsor when I came out on my TV show. We
didn’t lose one page of advertising in the magazine.
It was only after the magazine, people started saying,
“She’s crazy—look at her,
she’s changed.”

Have you changed?
I had a meeting with Warner Bros. eight years ago, at
the age of 32, before starting the show, and said,
“Before you invest money in the show, I want
you to know I’m gay, and I want you to be OK with the
fact that I’m gay. Because what would be really
bad for me would be if the show is successful and I
become tabloid fodder like Oprah, and they put that
I’m gay on a tabloid cover and you are
horrified—then I don’t wanna take this
job. So I want to be up-front in the beginning.” I
said the same thing at G+J. “You realize I am
doing the ACLU lawsuit with the Loftons? You realize I
am a lesbian and letting go of my show? You realize I want
social issues? You realize I am not about beauty and facade?
Do you realize this?” “Yes, we realize
this.”

When did you say this?
At the very beginning. Before we signed the
contract. That’s why I said to them, “Do
you realize that if you do this, I will quit the magazine?
It will cost you millions of dollars and will drag your name
through the mud. You cannot have my name—I
worked 20 years to find it. You do not get to say what
it means.”

Your name is all you’ve got.
Yeah! So I don’t believe what happened to Ellen
is what happened to me. I think if I went to the White
House like she did, a press dinner at the middle of
this blitz with my arm around Kelli, maybe. I think if I
had met Kelli three weeks before and then had a big
announcement that we’d be together for our
whole life, maybe.

Well, she was madly in love.
Look, Judy, I was sure when I made this
announcement about my family. I was sure this was my
family forever. Maybe Ellen was sure of that too, but
it felt to me a little haphazard to stand up for such a big
issue so soon… I mean, you better be sure. I
know that Ellen thought she was sure, and I know that
Ellen is a good person.

You are a much bigger tabloid fave than Ellen’s
ever been.
I have a great tabloid story; I haven’t told it
anywhere else. I take my son to the mall; bad timing
for me, tabloidwise—the kid can now read.
We’re at Target, we’re getting stuff, and
Parker says, “Mommy, you’re 300
‘libs.’” I go, “Where do you see
that?” “Right there—you’re 300
‘libs.’” I go, “Oh, honey,
that means ‘pounds.’ Here’s the
thing—these magazines by the cash register,
they’ve got a little bit of truth and a lot of
lies. Let me explain it to you: Mommy is 200
‘libs.’ Some people think women should
only be 100 ‘libs’ and men should be 200
‘libs’ and nobody should be 300
‘libs.’”

The next week we
go back: “Mommy, are you gonna become a man?”
“No. Mommy got a haircut, and some people think
that people with short hair look like boys and people
with long hair look like girls. I don’t want to be a
boy; I never wanted to be a boy. And there are some people
who are born feeling that they were born in the wrong
body and they want to change their body.”

The next week he
says, “Mommy, is our family breaking up?” I
say, “No. That one, Parker, is a pure lie, and
Mommy’s going to call the man who wrote it and
give him one chance to fix it and tell everyone the truth
about our family.” So on the cover of the
Enquirer, there was a photo that I provided of
me and Kelli and a story that says they lied and they
made up the whole thing.

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