“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.