Etheridge’s self-titled debut album was released to favorable reviews in 1988 and eventually went platinum. One of the most memorable songs on that album—and a song that nearly every lesbian has probably heard — is the sexy bar song “Bring Me Some Water,” which was nominated for a Grammy. While filming the video for that song, Etheridge met Julie Cypher, who was working as the video’s assistant director. Although Cypher and Etheridge felt an immediate attraction to each other, Cypher was then still married to Lou Diamond Phillips, and it wasn’t until 1990 that Cypher left Phillips and moved in with Etheridge.
The success of Etheridge’s first album was followed by the platinum-selling Brave and Crazy, and in 1992 her album Never Enough won her a Grammy for the song “Ain’t It Heavy.” The following year Etheridge came out publicly in an unprecedented arena — President Clinton’s Triangle Ball, the first inaugural ball especially for gays and lesbians.
Speaking to The Advocate in 1994 about her decision to come out, Etheridge said, “I always intended to do it, but I didn’t know when or where. I just couldn’t dodge it anymore. I felt like I was lying, and my music is so much about the truth.”
After she came out she released the album Yes I Am, which featured the Grammy-winning song “Come to my Window.” Although she has released several albums since then, including Your Little Secret (1995), Breakdown (1999), Skin (2001), and Lucky (2004), none have yet resulted in the chart-topping hits like those that came out of Yes I Am. Nevertheless, she continues to have an extremely dedicated fan base and regularly tours around the world.
Etheridge has rarely used her music as a political tool, but she has consistently been a vocal supporter of gay rights. After her two children, Bailey and Becket, were born to her partner Julie Cypher, Etheridge legally adopted both children in order to maintain parental rights, and she has continued to be an advocate for the rights of gay parents.
In 2000, Etheridge’s 12-year relationship with Julie Cypher ended, and the two worked out a unique child custody arrangement for the first year after their split, purchasing houses with adjoining back yards so the children could go back and forth between both mothers on their own. Her seventh album, Skin (2001), was largely a breakup album focusing on the pain of ending her long relationship with Cypher, but it also contains one of the happiest songs she has written, “I Want To Be In Love.”
Her wish was granted in 2001 when she met Tammy Lynn Michaels, then 26, at the L.A. bar Felt. Although Michaels had known she was gay since childhood, she had been largely closeted her entire life until she was outed to crewmembers on the set of her television series Popular. She explained to The Advocate in January 2004, “I was devastated that somebody else had to tell my friends, my guys that I work with 18 hours a day.…And so I was talking to some professionals, and they were like, ‘Look, baby, you’re depressed, and the only way you’re going to get out of it is if you start with the truth.’ I was like, ‘OK—we wrap at 4 in the morning. Why don’t we go to Felt that night? I hear it’s ladies’ night.’ I hadn’t been in a lesbian bar in forever; I was like, I need to own being gay again and quit being ashamed of it again. And then this one [Melissa Etheridge] comes in and I was like, Whoa! Jesus!”
After Michaels asked Melissa Etheridge out to dinner, they began dating, and agreed early on that they would not appear at public events together until they were sure their relationship was something that might last. Their first public appearance together was on the red carpet at the premiere of Alan Cumming’s film The Anniversary Party several months after they had met. Their debut as a couple marked the way they have continued to deal with the press: in a low-key but matter-of-fact way that allows them to maintain a certain amount of privacy while simultaneously providing enough photo ops to appease the masses.
They publicly announced their engagement in April 2003, drawing almost uniformly positive coverage, as did their marriage in September 2003, which was even featured on an ABC television special about celebrity weddings.
Etheridge’s happiness is apparent on her most recent album, Lucky, which she has acknowledged was inspired by her relationship with Michaels. In her website’s biography she notes, “Skin was the bottom, but since then I have met the most amazing woman ever, got myself together and found a center of a place to stand where I love myself and made my life good for me. I started writing and performing from a place of, ‘Oh, I feel good, this is fun, I feel sexy.’”
Etheridge’s seemingly charmed life hit a major snag when she was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this month, following a self-exam in which she discovered a lump. In order to quickly deal with the cancer, she cancelled the remaining 11 tour dates on the Lucky tour and went into the operating room the following week. In a message on her website after her surgery she stated, “the good news is they took out the tumor and a few lymph nodes, only one of which was positive…the centinal node (for those that know breast cancer speak). After that my margins are clean! I still have both of my breasts and whether I will keep them is a bridge I have to cross later. What an unexpected journey this is.”
She added that her next step to a full recovery is chemotherapy, and that she plans to continue working on an ABC sitcom pilot in which she plays a gay music teacher who is raising a child with her straight male friend.
Reflecting the degree to which Etheridge has been embraced by mainstream America, this week she is on the cover of People Magazine for a story on breast cancer survivors. For those of us who first came out while listening to Melissa Etheridge’s passionate rock and roll, the news of her recovery—and her acceptance by the mainstream press—is great news indeed.
Get tour and fan club info, photos and more at Melissa Etheridge’s official site.