Almost 20 years ago, Linda Wallem, the showrunner of “That ’80s Show,” had a big casting idea. She wanted Melissa Etheridge — the rock-star crooner behind such hits as “Come to My Window” and “I’m the Only One” — to play a record-store owner on the 2002 sitcom. Etheridge had considered acting, and she came in to talk about the comedic role. “I thought somebody like Melissa would give levity to the part and legitimacy,” Wallem says. “I couldn’t believe she hadn’t been on TV before.”
The part didn’t work out, but they became best friends. In 2010, after Etheridge got a divorce from her first wife, she invited Wallem — by then the showrunner of “Nurse Jackie” — to live with her and her four kids on platonic terms. (This interview was conducted before Etheridge’s son Beckett Cypher died of a drug overdose on May 13.)
“She helped me so much during that time,” Etheridge says. “We were in separate rooms, but every morning, we would get up and feed the kids and make them lunches and breakfast and take them to school. I mean, dating your best friend is crazy. But finally, we just …”
Etheridge blushes. “This is hilarious,” Wallem says. “We were here at the house together, and she’s going through the breakup — that’s hard on everybody. I love the family. There was a little bit of ‘Parent Trap’ too.”
“Oh, that’s true,” Etheridge says. “The kids wanted me to date.” Etheridge and Wallem finally took the plunge, and it worked out so perfectly, they tied the knot in a 2014 wedding in Santa Barbara in front of 100 guests. They’d asked each of their friends to bring a poem or to deliver a performance. “She sang her vows to me, which is pretty hard to follow,” Wallem says. “It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.”
Even talking to them on the phone, you can feel the love between Etheridge and Wallem. They laugh at each other’s silences and finish one another’s sentences. At one point, Wallem sounds like she might cry talking about what makes Etheridge so strong. In addition to sharing so much, they have the same birthday — May 29, 1961. “We’re five hours apart,” Etheridge says. “It’s a little weird.”
Can you tell me about how you first met each other?
Melissa Etheridge: Oh yeah. My wife, who was showrunning “That ’70s Show” and was starting a new show called “That ’80s Show,” had this idea that I would be perfect for a part. We had never met before that, so she called me in. I couldn’t do the part; it didn’t work out, but we remained best friends for 10 years.
Linda Wallem: It was the owner of a record store in the ’80s. And when her people said she’d come in, I was like, “That’s awesome.” I was sad it didn’t work out. But what was great is I got a best friend out of it. And ended up happy.
How did you start dating?
Etheridge: How did we start dating? You might say, when she was doing “Nurse Jackie,” she was living in New York and I missed her very much and we’d go see her. And I was going through a terrible divorce, and she was about to be on hiatus and she was selling her house [in Los Angeles] because she wasn’t in it very much. And I said, “Hey, why don’t you come live with me?”
Wallem: Your life was crazy.
Etheridge: I had four children. The ex took the housekeeper, all kinds of things. It was crazy. And so we dated in the home.
Wallem: She’s getting all flustered!
Etheridge: I know I am. I get very flustered. You know, she helped me so much during that time. We were in separate rooms but every morning, we would get up and feed the kids and make them lunches and breakfast and take them to school. I mean, dating your best friend is crazy. I’m butchering this. You tell your side.
Wallem: O.K. …
Etheridge: One day, I realized, “Oh my gosh. She is my partner. She’s doing everything you would want in a partner. Why not?” But I fell in love with her in a very different way. That’s why it’s really kind of hard to explain, more than I’ve ever fallen in love with anybody.
Wallem: Part of you always wants to fall in love with the people that you love, your friends. And I remember this moment of going, “Oh wow.” This is the funniest interview I’ve ever given.
Who proposed to who?
Wallem: She proposed to me.
Etheridge: The beginning of 2010 was the courtship. We finally consummated our relationship in the middle of 2010. And then we got married in 2014.
Wallem: I think you’re out on timing. That’s how old we are.
Etheridge: No, I know I have it right.
What do you love most about each other?
Etheridge: You go first.
Wallem: I don’t want to cry during this, but it’s her unbelievable ability to always start fresh from such kindness and love. Whenever there’s a question, she goes: “The answer’s love.”
Etheridge: I would say my wife’s kindness. Her deeply sensual energy, her strength and unwavering support and love, period, like nothing I’ve ever known before.
Melissa, how much has society changed for the queer community since you first came out?
Etheridge: When I came out — 27 years ago, it was ’93 — I had always hoped that the future would look like this as far as our community went. That it would be like a rainbow. It would be filled not just with the duality of gay or straight, but that there was so much space in between that defies definition. And that’s what I think is the best part of this whole sexual movement. Labels aren’t working. You can’t fall into one category or another. There’s fluidity. There’s beauty and gender and sex is very different. And our kids know that there’s a range of sexuality that people fall into.
Did people tell you it would hurt your career?
Etheridge: Nobody really talked to me like, “No, you can’t do it.” That happened with my wife, because she was also an actress and she was told under no circumstances can you come out.
Wallem: That’s why I shifted from acting to behind the camera because I remember being in New York. It was like, “Oh no. Don’t share that.” And that’s why it’s so nice. It’s not even an issue anymore for actors.
Etheridge: I remember Chris Blackwell at Island Records saying, “Just don’t flag wave.” And four years later, I was flag waving.
Was he speaking metaphorically?
Etheridge: Like, “Oh, I’m gay, I’m gay.” Don’t be militant about it, I guess.
What do you think was the biggest turning point in culture for LBGTQ rights?
Etheridge: I think the thing that really opened the door, even though it was very slow, was the 1992 election of Clinton and Gore. Going from the 12 years of conservatism of Reagan and Bush and we finally had a president, had a candidate on the campaign trail who said the words “gay” and “lesbian.” I remember hearing it on TV, going, “Oh, I’ve never heard that.” Even though his track record was horrible trying to implement it, his acknowledgement that we were a community — and, of course, that was spurred on before by the AIDS movement. In the ’90s, we finally had political representation. And I think that opened the door, certainly helped me come out and everything after that.
Wallem: It’s A memory that is coming to mind was sitting in New York in a movie theater. What was that movie with Susan Sarandon?
Etheridge: “The Hunger?”
Wallem: I remember sitting there with some friends, and all of a sudden, she’s kissing Catherine Deneuve. It was like, “Is this happening — in New York?” And for me, coming to Hollywood and knowing, “Oh, there’s others.” There were so many gay women behind the scenes. That gave me a lot of encouragement.
Do you think we’ll have a gay or lesbian president in your lifetime?
Etheridge: Wow! I think the possibility is absolutely there. I love seeing that people really took Pete Buttigieg seriously. He was a serious contender and so intelligent and what a great leader. I think it’s totally possible, especially our children’s generation. They just don’t see any difference.