Pop Quiz: You're a twenty-six year old actress with a largely teen fan base, a just-canceled show, and only a few new acting gigs in the pipeline — is there any worse time to come out as a lesbian?
Tammy Lynn Michaels is about to find out.
Don't know who Tammy Lynn Michaels is? To quote her former television alter ego: "Pull your floppy ears out of the dog dish and listen to the grapevine."
The actress exploded onto the television scene in 1999 as Nicole Julian on the WB drama Popular — a character so viciously witty that gay men around the country were memorizing her lines every week and teen magazines dubbed her the "Queen of Mean"
But Michaels has been making the news recently for an entirely different role — Melissa Etheridge's new girlfriend.
Shortly after the finale of Popular last summer (the show was canceled after two seasons due to poor ratings), Michaels was outed by girlfriend Melissa Etheridge in an interview with People Magazine. Prior to this, she was in fact very closeted, as she discusses in her lengthy interview with a staff writer of the website Television Without Pity:
"If you go back, you can read the interviews I did when I was in the closet and I was so terrified. Before I’d do them, all my managers and all my agents would be like [frantically], 'Don’t tell them you’re gay! You’ll be ruined! You’ll never work again! You’ll be working at McDonald's in a month!' I was so terrified….Also it’s weird because I was never out before and none of my girlfriends were out. When I was closeted, it wasn’t just hypocritical and un-PC, it was also killing me."
According to Michaels, her relationship with Etheridge was just the catalyst she needed to come out. "To be with somebody who is comfortable with their sexuality," she tells Television Without Pity, "because I’d never been with someone who was…was wonderful."
Michaels' coming-out is an interesting and hazardous career move for several reasons:
First, in the post-Anne Heche era, relatively unknown actresses who begin dating famous lesbians tend to be greeted with skepticism. But Michaels doesn't appear to be milking the situation, and the news of her relationship with Etheridge has made surprisingly small headlines despite a few high-profile appearances together (e.g. the 2002 Grammys) and a few mainstream articles about their relationship (e.g. TV Guide, People Magazine).
Second, her career is still in its very early stages, and this disclosure could undermine attempts at future roles. Since the demise of Popular last year, she hasn't yet officially signed on for any other roles.
Third, Michaels' fan base up until now has largely been teens and young adults, which makes her coming-out both potentially riskier (teens) and safer (young adults). At least, as a woman in her late twenties, Michaels is unlikely to be playing teen roles much longer, so she won't have to worry about homophobic casting directors refusing to hire her for teen roles.
At the same time, Michaels' teen fan base is also what makes her an even more powerful role model in terms of combating homophobia. Even before coming out, Michaels has been a positive example for girls — telling teens, for example, that as she is generally opposed to dieting and that she rarely wears a lot of makeup.
As a woman in a position with this kind of influence, Michaels's decision to come out as a lesbian is a gutsy move that sends the message to teens (and others) that you can be gay and successful, too. But it's only effective as long as Hollywood responds in kind.
And if it doesn't? Well, to paraphrase the late, great Nicole Julian, Michaels may find her glamorous career is suddenly "colder than Lauren Holly's."
September 2004 Update: Melissa and Tammy became engaged in April, 2003 and had a very public wedding in Malibu, CA on September 20, 2003, which was featured on ABC's InStyle Celebrity Weddings. Michaels has been cast in a supporting role in the new NBC sitcom Committed. She has also episodes of The L Word. Popular is now available on DVD.