Melissa Etheridge isn’t wearing much. Just ragged boxer shorts. A worn T-shirt. And some biodegradable slippers. Tammy Lynn Michaels gazes from the bed, pretending to blog about something other than the front-row show she’s getting as Etheridge soulfully rehearses Gladys Knight’s “Neither One of Us” to honor the legend at a Sept. 10 ceremony. She’s swooning over her wife like Etheridge’s biggest fan – “This is free, with a no-drink minimum,” Tammy writes. “Love, love, love it.”
“As far as I knew, she was just blogging. But I didn’t know she was blogging about me singing – ” Etheridge pauses, breaking into a throaty laugh, “in my pajamas!”
Once the couple, which live in Los Angeles, finally drift into dreamland, they’ll awake early. Sometime around 5:30 a.m. Not by an ear-piercing alarm clock, but from the crying of twin babies down the hall: Miller Steven and Johnnie Rose.
This means their current digs, where Etheridge talks to us from, won’t suffice once the nearly-1-year-old kids start roaming around, wanting their own walk-in closets and inviting romantic interests over. So, they’re moving.
“When we got this house, we thought we’d have one more child,” Etheridge laughs. “And we have two more children, and they’re a boy and a girl – so we can’t ask them to share a room.”
On this particular Friday, her 8- and 10-year-old children will visit, spending seven days away from Etheridge’s ex, Julie Cypher, whom she swaps with weekly. In the morning, after the early wake-up cries, she’ll get them up, they’ll prep for school and eat breakfast. Then, she or Tammy will take them to school. It’s a manic morning with four kids, but luckily there’s help: A housekeeper and a couple of nannies.
“We don’t want people to raise our kids, so we try to do all the stuff and they do all the making of the food and the cleaning of the plates. I have big respect for mothers of multiple children. I’m grateful that I have so much help.”
Etheridge’s house is a musical circus crammed with drums, guitars and pianos. It’s a musically-hooked child’s Chuck E. Cheese. And her kids treat it as one. “They bang on all of them,” she says.
Even pots and pans.
There’s a naked man in Etheridge’s bedroom. The only one there will ever be, she repeats to us – it’s the same zinger she used during a press conference immediately after accepting her Academy Award in January. Oscar rests on a mantle above a fireplace, and she’ll eventually move him into her office at the beginning of next year.
“It’s kind of fun to look up and go, ‘Oh, yeah, that happened!'” she says, still surprised she took the gold despite the odds: With three nods, “Dreamgirls” had triple the chances.
Etheridge’s powerful global warming theme “I Need to Wake Up,” from Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” scored her the Academy Award for Best Original Song. And her new concept album, which she’ll support on tour in 2008 on “one big bus” for the whole family, takes off where that tune left off. Her fifth disc, “The Awakening,” is a politically-charged piece, where Etheridge tackles the Iraq War, the upcoming election and looks to the future.
“I am concerned about humanity, and I think that choices that we’re making right now in our public policy and in our politics are extremely important for the future – for my future and, of course, the future of my children.”
It only seemed logical, then, that someone so concerned, universally-known and, well, gay, pick politicians’ brains – including those of Hillary Clinton and Obama Barack – last month on MTV Network’s Logo cable channel for gay viewers. Some were leery of Etheridge. Others responded positively to the choice of an unprofessional political commentator.
“I didn’t know that forum and what I should and shouldn’t say,” she confesses.
She used that to her advantage.
“I just got right up there and said, ‘Hey, uh, what’s going on?’ I’m not afraid of them and I don’t think they’re any different than I am. They’re just as meaningful as every human being on earth, no more or no less.”
Etheridge is convinced one of the Democratic presidential nominees will be our future president. And another, the vice president. She’s also well aware that those debates likely will be the first and last time for a while that they’ll talk about LGBT issues. In that sense, the debates were groundbreaking, she praises.
“They were productive just because they happened.”
Bald and brave
Three years before Etheridge hosted the Logo debates, she added yet another title to her repertoire: Survivor. While Etheridge’s wife drove her to chemo treatments in 2004, as the performer was battling breast cancer, she played Patty Griffin, a singer-songwriter known for soul-stirring songs. One of those, “When It Don’t Come Easy,” became, among other things, Etheridge’s lifesaver as she tried to beat the malignant lump in her breast. Just the mention of Griffin’s name, and she gushes.
“Ah-ah-ah! Oh, my God, I mean, not only do I get to make music and it’s my life and love and my livelihood, but I love to listen to music,” Etheridge says. “When a song – the words and the melody – can lift you up, can take you somewhere, can excite your soul, can sing to your spirit inside of you, that’s what it’s all about; that’s how magical life can be. And I look for that.”
When Etheridge performed on the 2005 Grammys, the cancer was gone. And so was her hair. She belted bald – ripping through Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” like a chainsaw through a block of wood, capping the already moving moment with a raw, gruffly wail. Not only did she become an inspiration to millions of women that night, she also eventually became a national breast cancer awareness spokeswoman. Then, during a Lifetime Television special airing later that year, a more subdued Etheridge sang “When It Don’t Come Easy” with Griffin. Etheridge is worried, though: She might’ve freaked the little lady out.
“As an artist, she’s like a quiet artist, kind of, and I – I chew up the scenery,” Etheridge laughs. “I just take a song and wrap it up in a fiery ball and I just throw it out.”
Sure, pouring out her soul in a song comes easy, but resisting some dessert? Eh, not so much. “I am the person who always wants to be skinnier,” Etheridge ‘fesses.
She tackles weight issues and the superficiality of Hollywood in tune “Map of the Stars,” which could easily be Lindsay Lohan’s biography. “It’s easy in this town – it’s so easy to get hooked and get pulled under into, ‘You need to be thinner and forget about your health.’ Hell, it’s not about health, it’s about how skinny you are.”
And Etheridge fell into the underweight rut right before recording her 2001-released painful break-up disc, “Skin,” which chronicles her scarring split with Julie Cypher.
When she met Tammy – an actress who dealt with image issues, according to the performer – she asked Etheridge: “Why are you torturing yourself? Why are you comparing yourself to those impossibly, impossibly skinny women who are killing themselves?”
Now, when the family hits the ice cream parlor, she won’t resist ordering a hot fudge sundae. “Health and happiness is not worth looking skinny in Us Magazine,” she says.
And, after surviving breast cancer and a much-publicized split, Etheridge knows happiness doesn’t come as easy as those calories. But she’s found it. Just listen to “I’ve Loved You Before” or “Threesome,” in which she insists there won’t be a third in the bedroom. “Ever again” – she sings to us, mimicking a line from the twangy-rock tune.
Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, while living in West Hollywood, Etheridge fell into some intense drama and unintentionally hurt people while trying to find her big break, as revealed on the apologetic “An Unexpected Rain.”
“We were ‘The L Word,'” she laughs. “And I thought that that’s where I was going to find some sort of happiness. That somehow, I would be James Dean if I slept with enough people.”
Now, though, Etheridge only has eyes for her wife.
“She wears me out!” Etheridge hoots. “I don’t have energy for anything else.”
Or anyone else, really.