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‘Queer Eye’s’ Bobby Berk offers dishy, celeb-heavy Q&A

Design guru in region this weekend for Belfort Furniture appearance

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Bobby Berk, gay news, Washington Blade
Bobby Berk of ‘Queer Eye’ fame says his new line for ART Furniture has already been warmly received. (Photo courtesy Gardner Group) 

Bobby Berk

‘Conversation on Design’

Sunday, March 1

2 p.m.

Free

Building 3

22250 Shaw Road
Dulles, VA

RSVP to [email protected]

belfortfurniture.com

Bobby Berk, one of the “Queer Eye” Fab Five, will give the regional unveiling of his new furniture collection Bobby Berk for ART Furniture this weekend at Belfort Furniture in Dulles, Va. He spoke to the Blade Tuesday afternoon by phone from his home in Los Angeles about his designs, his costars, his gal pal Taylor Swift, his Hollywood adventures and a whole lot more. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: How’s 2020 been for you so far?

BOBBY BERK: 2020’s been great, very busy. Just wrapped up shooting a podcast a few minutes ago, I’ve got your interview, then I’m running to do a live interview with Channel 9 in Sydney Australia. Been filming some additional shows, been doing a lot of stuff with “Queer Eye,” a lot of great things with my furniture lines, so 2020 already feels like it’s been a full year.

BLADE: Tell us what you’ll be showing at Belfort Furniture this weekend.

BERK: So my new furniture line with ART, it’s great because you know people ask me, fans from the show all the time, you know, “I wish you could decorate my house, I with you could pick out furniture for me,” and obviously I can’t with everyone so I wanted to create a line that was accessible to almost anyone. I think it would have been kind of a dick move of me to talk on “Queer Eye” about how changing your home and help change your life and then go out and make a super expensive furniture line that nobody could afford. So I wanted to make sure I partner with a company like ART who is really good at finding that perfect happy medium on price points to where you’re getting good quality furniture but you’re also getting it at a price point that most people can afford. 

BLADE: What was the production timeframe roughly?

BERK: I believe we started the process when I was filming season three and four so that would have been late 2018, I think. … We launched it by spring of 2019 … (which) that was for stores to be able to come look at it like Belfort. Then by the time fall hit, it was in a lot of stores. And now this spring … additional stores are getting it that we weren’t able to fulfill in the very beginning first order. We’re dong 10 in about two months, then we’re going to be launching the second collection as well.

BLADE: How has the reaction been so far?

BERK: It’s been a very great reaction. We have had to stage out when retailers like Belfort start to carry it simply because there was such a great response to it, that we couldn’t open up all the stores that were wanting it. When we launched online, back in the fall, a lot of items instantly went out of stock, so it’s been a really great response. You know, it was a line that inspired by things that I would want in my own home so nice, cool, clean aesthetic that can really go with anyone’s decor. When I design, I always try to make sure I think about the ways a piece can not just look good in a home where people like modern, but also a traditional home. My sofas, for example, can bridge the gap between traditional, transitional and modern. 

BLADE: To what degree do you curtail or adjust your creative impulses into something you think will sell? Is there conflict in your own head between art and commerce?

BERK: Uh, yeah, ‘cause for me personally, I would go very minimalist and modern, that’s more of my personal aesthetic, so I would always have to kind of find the happy medium between too modern and cold and still keeping it warm where more people will love it.

BLADE: Are you doing other markets?

BERK: I’ve already done a few in other markets, so Belfort will be my first one in the D.C. area, the only one. We’re very specific about only allowing certain retailers to carry it so we’re not competing against each other. I have another presentation in Orange County next week as well, then an event in Austin, Texas as well. I think it’s next week.

BLADE: How do you have time to keep all this stuff going with the TV show as well?

BERK: I don’t know (chuckles). I’m never home. I’m sadly gone probably 90 percent of the year the last few years so yeah, I’m just constantly on the road.

BLADE: Is this pace sustainable? What if “Queer Eye” goes another 10 years? Will you rip your hair out?

BERK: Uh, probably (laughs). No, this pace absolutely is not sustainable, I think all five of us feel that way but we also know that you know there’s not always a chance that things will be going this well, so we all need to, not take advantage of it, but utilize the recognition we’ve gotten from “Queer Eye” to do other things. Because of course “Queer Eye” could go on for 10 more years or it may go on for one more year. We never know, so we all want to make sure we’ve found those certain things in our wheelhouse that we’re able to continue to focus on. Before “Queer Eye,” I had a design firm and retail stores so, “Queer Eye” has just opened up more doors for me to be able to do more things with that like my collection at ART. So yeah, is this sustainable how much we travel and work? No, it’s not. But all five of us know that we’re not always going to have the amount of opportunities we have right now, so we need to take advantage of all the opportunities that present themselves and then, you know, in five years — I have a four-five year plan of moving to Santa Barbara and having kids and not working as much.

BLADE: On “Queer Eye,” the other guys spend a lot more face time with the heroes because you’re so busy remodeling. Do you ever feel left out?

BERK: Yeah, yeah, you know. With the other boys, they’re part of the show, they’re literally physically with the hero. You know, Jonathan is cutting their hair, Karamo is having a great conversation and helping them with self help, Antoni is teaching them to cook, Tan is helping them with their clothes — they have to physically be there with them whereas what I’m doing the hero can’t actually see, it’s actually against the rules for them to see it, so I’m often kept away from them simply because they’re not able to see what I’m dong and we want to see a surprise. So we have, I’m sure you’ve noticed in newer seasons, I am with the heroes more, but season one and two, I was barely with them at all. When I would be asked by producers if I wanted to go on a shopping trip wth Tan and help with clothes, I’d be like, “No I’m busy, working, that makes no sense,” but then the show came out and it was like, “Oh, I’m so busy working I’m not on the show.” So, newer seasons, I have a bit more interaction with the heroes than in the past.

BLADE: How did you like Japan and what was challenging about taping there?

BERK: I loved Japan, I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan before, it’s one of my favorite places, especially Tokyo. I love it there just because it’s so organized and clean and it’s such a respectable society. Some of the challenges filming there was space. People would sometimes think it’s easier to design a small space than a large space but it’s actually harder, especially in Japan where in rental spaces, you’re not allowed to hang anything on the walls, you’re not allowed to paint, you’re not allowed to do anything to the floors, so we had to get really creative on building functional loft furniture that we were able to make the space look super different than before without even painting or hanging a piece of art on the walls.

BLADE: There’s obvious camaraderie between you and your co-stars. Were you concerned at first whether your personalities would jell? To what do you attribute that camaraderie?

BERK: You know, the five of us from the start in casting, in final casting, there probably was between 40-50 guys around the various different design, fashion, food — what have you, and at first Karamo, Tan and I we just kind of gravitated to each other and were always hanging out. Then Antoni and Jonathan kind of came into the fold and none of us really thought, “Oh this is the Fab Five,” we just kind of naturally liked each other and I think the casting directors and executives from Netflix and Scout and ITV kind of saw that we had a natural chemistry, that we really naturally enjoyed each other and instead of it kind of being a competition, we were always in there telling each other what was going on and helping each other. So I think our camaraderie definitely helps. It’s not always a natural thing, you put five perfect strangers together who are with each other 24-7, but it’s grown definitely into kind of a sibling relationship. We’re brothers, we’re best friends, there are some moments where we want to wring each others necks, but the great thing about it is, we’ve spent so much time together, we really have developed a feeling of a sibling with each other. We can get mad at each other, but at the end of the day, we’re family, we’re brothers so we get over it and we’re very protective of each other. Sometimes it’s easy, most of the time it’s easy, but sometimes it’s hard. But I think that’s the thing with every relationship.

BLADE: Are you going to Karamo’s wedding?

BERK: Of course.

BLADE: You helping with any of the design?

BERK: Uh, a little bit, but I definitely can’t share what he’s shared with me. 

BLADE: What did you think of Jonathan’s decision to come out as HIV-positive? Had he shared that with you previously?

BERK: I was the first one that he told even before we started filming “Queer Eye,” he and I both lived in L.A. at the time and so after casting, we became very close very quickly and he was over at my house all the time and he shared it with me even before we started filming, so I’ve known about it for probably a couple years before he publicly came out about it, so it wasn’t a shock to me. I was happy that he had the strength to do that and that he’s able to help other people by being very public about his status. 

BLADE: Have you had many chances to get to know the original “Queer Eye” cast?

BERK: Yeah, I was actually out with them all of them in L.A. two weeks ago. I’ve known Thom Filicia for years, again, before I was on “Queer Eye” as a designer, I really am a designer, so he and I have been in the same industry, we’re always at the same events, we’re always at the same trade shows. And then Carson (Kressley), I’ve known for years. All the others I had met throughout the years, but I’m definitely closest to Thom simply because we’re in the same industry and we’ve known each other so long. But they’re all so amazing, they’re all so lovely, it’s amazing hanging out with them and seeing just how individually unique they all are, just like the five of us are, and how no matter how many years they’ve been apart since the original, when they get together, it’s like they’ve never skipped a beat, it’s cute. 

BLADE: So you’d be totally down to do a crossover special of some kind?

BERK: Oh absolutely.

BLADE: Do you like Thom’s design aesthetic? (Filicia, too, has presented at Belfort Furniture.)

BERK: I think it’s beautiful. I think we have a very different design aesthetic. He’s definitely more transitional and traditional, I’m definitely more modern and minimalist, although I would say that both him and I design for the client or for the home. So where my home is very minimal and there’s not a whole lot of stuff in it, for heroes on “Queer Eye,” I can be maximalist for people who want a lot of stuff. So his personal aesthetic is beautiful, he’s done some amazing homes, some amazing condo buildings. But yeah, I love it.

BLADE: Did it bother you that Taylor Swift was, some would argue, rather late to the game in terms of being an LGBT ally?

BERK: You know, of course we always wish somebody would be vocal from day one but I also can very much understand the pressure that she’s been through being basically owned by a record label and being told by a publicist and record labels what you need to say and shouldn’t say, what you shouldn’t get involved in. You know as quote-unquote celebrities, we’re always told, “Oh be as neutral as possible, you don’t wanna offend people on the left or the right, stay out of politics, stay out of issues,” which some of us find much easier than others. You know, I often get myself in trouble because I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut. Jonathan’s the same way and so I can understand why she felt pressured to not be an ally, to not get involved publicly, you know what I mean? … I don’t hold it against her, all I can do is be as very happy that she is using her power to make a difference now and I couldn’t love her more. She’s one of the most sweet, humble, down-to-earth people I’ve met. … You never really know what to expect when you meet somebody like her because a lot of people I’ve met in Hollywood and entertainment come across as one thing and then you meet them in person and they are not at all that thing and it can be very sad and disappointing, so it was a great feeling when I got to meet her and hang out with her and realize that she really is what she portrays out there, she really is this sweet, loving girl who just wants to make the world a better place. 

BLADE: Who’s somebody you met who’s markedly different from his or her public persona?

BERK: Hmmm, so yes. So RuPaul, I actually met in 2003, I was a manager at Restoration Hardware in New York and she came in looking for some knobs for some dresser she was doing and he was just the kindest, sweetest most lovely person and then after I had my own stores, he started coming in and shopping in my stores and he would come in and just the sweetest, warmest person. And again, on the show he’s the same way and I’m not saying that he’s not sweet and warm, but one thing I was surprised about when I see him for example at the Emmys, the first time I saw him at the Emmys, he wasn’t very warm, and I was like, “Huh, fame has changed him.” But our publicist at Netflix used to work on “Drag Race,” so he’s very close to Ru, he knows Ru very well, and I mentioned it to him I was like, “Wow, you know, I’ve met Ru multiple times and he’s always like the sweetest, kindest person, I don’t get that from him anymore.” He was like, “No, he just doesn’t like being in the spotlight at events like this so he gets very shy and quiet,” so sometimes you think somebody is some way and they’re not and like. … I thought Ru had gotten cold, ‘cause this industry can do it to you, but then I find out that no, Ru is just as shy and terrified as the rest of us.

BLADE: What was it like filming (Taylor Swift’s) “You Need to Calm Down” video? Surely all those celeb cameos — you were not all there at the same time I imagine?

BERK: All of us were but Tan. He was filming the season finale of “Next in Fashion” that day, so Jonathan and I went from watching the runway show of Tan’s finale directly to Taylor’s set and we met Antoni and Karamo there, so four of us were there together but Tan filmed his separately.

BLADE: Was Ellen or Adam Rippon or any of those people there that day?

BERK: Adam was there, he and I are actually friends. Hannah Hart was there, um — who else was there that day? They’re the only ones I remember being directly around us. The set was so massive and they filmed it over I think a week, so different celebs would come in at different times. Some would film in a studio in front of a green screen, for example Tan’s was shot in a studio, so yeah, we weren’t always there at the same time, that would have been chaos. Oh Todrick Hall was there as well.

BLADE: How is (husband) Dewey? Do you guys get enough time together?

BERK: No, we never get enough time together. He is definitely a very private, very introverted, shy guy. He couldn’t care less about any of the Hollywood stuff, which is actually great. I actually prefer it that way because when I’m at home, I’m back in my normal life. But yeah, no, we can never get enough time together. He’s a surgeon. We’ve been together for 16 years and since “Queer Eye,” he’s just started working less. He’s in private practice, so luckily he’s been able to take a step back a little back. He usually only works about two days a week then meets me wherever I’m filming. 

BLADE: Do you know Nate Berkus? Do you like his stuff? 

BERK: I love Nate Berkus. His stuff is great. Both he and Jeremiah. Their taste is impeccable, they’re handsome as hell, they’re the best dads. Yeah, I like them a lot. 

BLADE: Do you miss your anonymity?

BERK: Absolutely (laughs).

BLADE: Give me an example.

BERK: I miss just being able to go to the grocery store. Or to Starbucks. You know, I miss being able to just roam around and just do regular things. There’s so many positive things about this and I’m not complaining about the loss of it at all, but, you know, sometimes I wish I could just go to the grocery store and go through all the fruit and shop around but I can’t really do that without getting stopped over and over, so I just pretty much order everything online. Sometimes I’ll go into a Starbucks and a fan will be there and there’ll be a moment of the show that’s really touched them or helped somebody in their family, so they’ll start telling me a story in Starbucks and then be crying, then I’ll be standing there in line holding them and hugging them thinking in my mind, “Oh this is amazing, this is so wonderful, but I really just wanted to get my coffee.” You know, it’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes I wish I could just run in, run out like I used to be able to.

BLADE: Please don’t think I’m asking this because I think you look fat — I truly do not. This is just something I’ve been meaning to ask someone who’s done a lot of TV. Does the camera add 10 pounds?

BERK: The camera adds 10 pounds of gay (laughs). Um, sometimes, yeah. But also when I started filming season five I was 210 pounds and now I’m like 183 so I went from being in very good shape before the show, to putting on a bit of weight during the show because our lives have just been so crazy to now really doubling down and focusing on fitness and not letting myself eat crap on set all the time and not work out.

BLADE: What did you mean 10 pounds of gay? Are gestures magnified?

BERK: Oh yeah, I’m always like, “Damn, do I sound that gay?” Yeah, and I also think it’s because the five of us together, we’re so comfortable together and able to be our true selves that sometimes we really queen out and not give a damn. It’s funny watching yourself.

BLADE: Was it hard to summon the courage to be so open about your past? Leaving home at 15 and all that.

BERK: It was hard because, you know, for quite a few years, I didn’t have a good relationship with my parents …

BLADE: It’s better now?

BERK: Oh yeah, it’s great now. But that’s why it’s a little hard because publicly talking about it, you know, it definitely made my mom sad, it definitely opened up old wounds, it took me a while to be OK talking about it. Sometimes I’m still not OK. Sometimes I’ll get asked about my relationship with my parents in interviews, not in this, but people will really pry and they’ll be like, “Oh well you know, on the show you talked about how horrible they were to you and blah blah blah blah blah, why are you talking to them now?” I’m just like whoah — if I’m able to say I’ve been able to reconcile with my family and we have a good relationship now, why would you try to open those wounds? Why would you try to hurt my mama?

BLADE: Thanks for your time and good luck with your line.

BERK: Thanks! 

Bobby Berk says loss of anonymity, old family wounds occasionally haunt him. (Photo courtesy Gardner Group) 
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Melissa Etheridge shares Q&A in advance of April 26 Tysons tour stop

Rock pioneer finds inspiration in the past — from revisiting old demos to reconnecting with celeb pals like Ellen

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Melissa Etheridge brings her ‘One Way Out Tour’ to the D.C. region next week with a show at the new Capital One Hall in Tysons. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

Melissa Etheridge
‘One Way Out Tour’
Tuesday, April 26
Capital One Hall
7750 Capital One Tower Rd.
Tysons, VA
7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $55
ticketmaster.com
capitalonehall.com
melissaetheridge.com

We caught up with rock legend Melissa Etheridge on April 8 by phone from Snoqualmie, Wash. — it’s about 26 miles east of Seattle —where she was playing the Snoqualmie Casino on her “One Way Out Tour,” which plays our region on Tuesday, April 26. 

It’s named after her latest album, released last fall, which found Etheridge, who’s been out since ’93, revisiting demos from early in her career.

Her comments have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: “One Way Out” sounds like such a cool project. Was it all re-recorded stuff of old songs or were some of those vintage takes on the record as well?

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: The last two songs, the live songs, were from where? From 2002? OK, but the other songs were newly recorded. 

BLADE: And how many of them did you remember?

ETHERIDGE: You know, when I found them again, they all came back very clearly. And I was like, “Oh, this is — why did I throw that away? That’s weird.” And I really enjoyed, you know, hearing them, they were just old demos. I’d never done full-blown recordings. So I thought, “This is great, I want to do these songs.”

BLADE: We have a relatively new venue you’re going to be playing, Capital One Hall. I’ve only been there once. You excited?

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it’s always fun. I love the D.C.-area crowd. It’s just really, really nice.

BLADE: And how do you decide where you’ll be? Or do you have any say in it? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, it’s not necessarily me. I do have a say in it, in what I want the whole tour to look like. But it is really up to William Morris, my agent, to find the right venue that understands what we need and the kind of atmosphere we’re looking for that and the amount of people and, you know, that sort of thing.

BLADE: Tell me about Etheridge TV. I just wonder, when we were in that acute phase of the pandemic, wasn’t it even remotely tempting to you to just take a break?

ETHERIDGE: No, because since I was 12 years old, I sang all the time for people, like five days a week and it’s just been what I do. And so when it was like, I was looking at a massive, cavernous amount of time that I was going to be home, I still needed a way to pay the bills, so we put our heads together — I’ve got one of the greatest television minds with me, you know, my wife (TV producer Linda Wallem), so I had the space and I had the equipment, and I was like, “Let’s do it.” And it was really fun to learn new things. It was fun to learn about computers and sound and streaming and lights and cameras and all these things that I didn’t know. … I feel a little smarter.

BLADE: When did you start back on the road?

ETHERIDGE: We went out last fall. We went out September, October, right around there. And you know, it was a little different, Now things are things are loosening up … but some places still require masks. But people are starting to get back out and it feels good. It’s not the overwhelming thing that it was a few months ago.

BLADE: And what was it like being on ‘Ellen’ again for her final season?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, I love her. She’s such an old friend. You know, I say that about myself, too. (chuckles) But, you know, she’s just a relationship in my life that I have treasured. We’ve watched each other grow and the changes we’ve made and the successes and what we’ve gone through and I love that she had me on and just it was just a really — she’s a dear friend. And she showed an old photo there, and we both said, “Oh, that was before we were so busy.”

BLADE: Do you talk to her often?

ETHERIDGE: I would say we see each other socially once or twice a year. It just seemed like once we started having children, all my friends from my 20s and 30s when we were not as busy — it just gets harder to stay in touch and life got crazy. 

BLADE: So when you were hanging out back in the day with Ellen and Rosie and everybody, how was it that Brad Pitt was in that group too? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, my girlfriend (Julie Cypher) had been married to Lou Diamond Phillips and we were all very good friends with Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener and Catherine Keener did a movie with Brad, like a movie nobody saw, like Johnny Dangerously or something (1991’s “Johnny Suede”), some really weird movie. So I met Brad before he was terribly famous. He was a part of that group. There was a whole group of all of us that just hung out, and we were all totally different. We were just like young, hungry Hollywood and we’d talk about, “Oh, I had this audition,” or “I went and did this,” and we were just all trying to make it in that town. So we’d get together and have fun. 

BLADE: I was so terribly sorry to hear about Beckett (Etheridge’s son, who died in 2020 at age 21 after struggling with opioid addiction). How are you and the rest of the family, especially (Beckett’s twin) Bailey, dealing with it now?

ETHERIDGE: There are many, many families like us that deal with a loss like that. It just blows a family sideways. But we have a deep love and connection, all of us. We all knew he had a problem and it’s a problem that starts way before he actually passes, so it was not a surprise. So now we’re just living with the missing aspect. You try not to think about what could have been and you try to think about him in a happier place and that he’s out of pain, so that helps us.

BLADE: Had he and Bailey been as close in recent years?

ETHERIDGE: They were very close, but in the last couple of years as he made worse and worse choices, we couldn’t support that, so they were less close, but of course in her heart, it was her brother, he was very dear to her. 

BLADE: Did you watch the Grammys?  Was there anybody you were particularly rooting for?

ETHERIDGE: I watched bits and pieces of it. I had a show that night, so I didn’t get to see the main thing, but I have seen pieces and I just love the crazy diversity and you know, the TikTok people winning stuff, it’s like, “Wow, this is so not the Grammys I remember from the ’80s,” but that was what, 30 years ago? So it’s all good.

BLADE: You were such a perennial favorite back in the day in the best rock female category. Were you pissed when they eliminated it? 

ETHERIDGE: It’s sad because I felt like the criteria they were using to judge what is female rock, they just really dropped the ball. I still think there are some amazing musicians that could be considered, you know, rock, but it feels like we’re having a hard time even defining what rock and roll is now anyway. There’s a whole bunch of strong women out there playing, rocking, you know, playing guitar, being excellent musicians and songwriters. If you can’t call it best rock female, OK, call it something else. 

BLADE: I remember so vividly when you were on the Grammys in 2005, in the midst of chemo, when you sang “Piece of My Heart.” I remember you saying you were wondering how people would react to seeing you bald. Having been through that, any thoughts on the Will/Jada Oscars situation since her baldness, too, was due to a medical condition? 

ETHERIDGE: You know, it’s funny, I did feel a little remembrance of (thinking), “I just hope people don’t make fun of me.” That was kind of the first thing because to go out there bald, that was so different for me as an artist whose hair had kind of defined her. I was thinking, “How am I gonna rock without my hair?” I thought people might make fun of me, but I got over that. I just thought, “Well, if somebody makes fun of me, that just makes them look bad.” So I just walked through it. And you know, it’s hard to draw the line between what’s funny and what’s painful and how to look at something. I feel for all parties involved. 

BLADE: When you go on these cruises, do fans give you some space or do they swarm around the minute you walk out? Is it even enjoyable for you? 

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it is. You know, we did our last one, now we’re doing Etheridge Island, we now have a destination in Mexico, outside of Cancun, it’s just this island that we’re going to that is really fantastic. But I do I make myself available, I don’t run away. When I have to be somewhere, I have a great company we work with called Sixthman that knows how to get me from point A to point B without being bogged down. But I do my make myself available. Everyone gets a picture with me. It’s my work, but I love it. I try to make myself available but also have some time just for myself too.

Melissa Etheridge says slowing down wasn’t an option for her when the pandemic hit. She’s glad to be back on the road now, she says. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

BLADE: You Tweeted a few nights ago about having a tight curfew of just 90 minutes at a casino but then it worked out and you got to do a full set. Why are the curfews so tight at casinos?  

ETHERIDGE: Why do you think? They want people at the tables. Like for tonight, we we settled on 100 minutes. They’re giving me 10 extra minutes. I don’t like it, but in some areas, the only really good venue is a casino, so if you want to reach your folks there, you kind of have to meet them half way. 

BLADE: Yeah, but it seems like in concert halls, the curfews can sometimes be really tight too. Even Madonna got her lights shut off a couple years ago. Of course, she’s notoriously late, but why are they so strict with these things nowadays? 

ETHERIDGE: There are all different situations — concert halls often have union crews that will absolutely shut you down if you go one second over. There are also sound curfews, noise curfews, mostly with outdoor venues, but sometimes indoor as well. They have an agreement with the neighborhood. So you have people in the neighborhood standing by with their phones ready to pounce the minute it goes over one minute, they’re gonna call the police. As a performer, you just realize, “OK, it’s not just about me.” When I don’t have a curfew, I usually land at about two hours and some change. That seems comfortable to everyone. Any longer and I think I’m wearing my audience out. When I’m at a place with a shorter show, I just do my best. 

BLADE: I know you’re a big Chiefs fan. Did you watch that game back in January all the way to the end? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, at the end of it, I was on the floor. My wife was like, “Honey, honey, there’s still 13 seconds,” and I was moaning and sort of getting my feet on the floor and, you know, laying down and throwing a fit. And she’s like, “No, there’s still 13 seconds.” I dragged myself back to the television. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wait a minute. Did we just win?” You know, just really crazy, really crazy stuff. … When you’re a fan like that, it’s a ride you can’t fully explain.

BLADE: Are you in a cordial or good place with your exes? Does it get easier when the kids are starting to grow up?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And you realize that it’s best for the kids if you can really get along and that any sort of conflict that can’t get resolved, that gets emotional, does no good for anyone. And absolutely, I have, I’ve gotten better at that as the years have gone by.

BLADE: Do you have the slightest inkling yet what the next studio album might be like?

ETHERIDGE: Well, I’ve got some interesting projects that I’m not ready to talk about just yet. But they have to do with my life story. There’s a lot of digging up of my past and really telling the story. So I imagine the next series of music you’ll get from me is going to be very focused on my journey. 

Melissa Etheridge, gay news, Washington Blade
Melissa Etheridge (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)
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New Cranes sommelier brings spirit to wine and sake program

Stewart-Woodruff curates eclectic list for Michelin-starred restaurant

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‘I bring my whole self to work,’ says Eric Stewart-Woodruff. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

Outfitted in a blue damask dinner jacket with satin lapels and an energetic smile, Eric Stewart-Woodruff carves an impressive figure when chatting about his favorite vintages. Stewart-Woodruff, who’s gay, is the new sommelier at Michelin-starred Cranes in Penn Quarter.

Stewart-Woodruff curates an eclectic wine – and sake – program focusing on pairings with celebrated Chef Pepe Moncayo’s innovative, global flavors. Cranes, which explores intersections of Spanish and Japanese cuisine, opened just before the pandemic, and received a coveted Michelin star in 2021.

Stewart-Woodruff did not start off in the wine industry. In fact, he does not have any formal training in wine. Instead, after a career as a professional photographer, he pivoted to the restaurant industry, where he developed his love of wine. While working for a distributor, he connected with D.C.’s own District Winery. This opportunity allowed him to express his truest self, as a lead tour guide, wine ambassador and sommelier. He credits his identity and personality as his reason for thriving.

“I bring my whole self to work,” he says, “offering a level of humanity and approachability.” 

After the pandemic temporarily shuttered District Winery, Stewart-Woodruff found himself interviewing at Cranes, enamored with Moncayo’s “creative vision,” he says – and was sold. He began in late summer of 2021.

Through his work in hospitality, Stewart-Woodruff notes that the industry can be hetero-male dominated. He has been able to break through by not holding back on his identity.

“I tend to play with expectations of what a sommelier may look or act like,” he says. “I move away from what one may stereotypically look like, but still present like one.”

For him, that means talking about wine and wine education “as if it were gossip,” he says. “I like to view wine like we are at brunch. Wine has personality, it’s performative, and it has stereotypes.” He is seeking to break molds of specific likes and dislikes, exploring the depth that wine has to offer, in the context of the Spanish-Japanese Cranes menu. In fact, he says, Moncayo is supportive of his innovative, certification-less angle. “I become more relatable,” he says.

He also presents original events. He paired with local guest sommelier Andrew Stover (also a gay man) on Tuesday, March 29 for a springtime showcase of specialty rosé wines paired with Moncayo’s dishes. The duo poured tastes of specialty, small-batch wines from Brazil, Italy, Spain, Uruguay, and Maryland.

Leaning into the innovative spirit, the wine-by-glass list is not split by color. Instead, it is divided into evocative categories. For example, both a chardonnay and a pinot noir fall into the “Elegant, round, and mellow” category.

As a Spanish-Japanese restaurant, Cranes not only possesses an extensive wine cellar, but has consistently expanded its sake program. Sakes by the glass are split into the same exact categories. The very same “Elegant, round, and mellow” list includes Ginjo Nama Genshu and junmai daiginjo.

Stewart-Woodruff explains that wine and sake should be attended to similarly. “Sake is something you can think about like a beer in terms of production but treat like a wine,” he says. Sake is a fermented polished-rice beverage, dating back more than two millennia in Japan.

“Sake has aromatics, texture, body, and finish.” He takes pride in discussing customers’ palate preferences, and turning them onto a specific sake, for their qualities of earthiness, acidity, or others.

“Many people don’t experience sake outside of college or bars. Now, I can be a sommelier for sake, and for the marriage of Eastern and Western cuisine and beverage.” He expresses excitement at being innovative in his sake beverage pairings, occupying a niche space. When discussing both wine and sake, he aims to bring an artistic flair and tour-guide enthusiasm to the table.

Woodruff credits his identity and background for his success. He aims to bring a level of humanity and approachability to what has been a formal, stuffy area. He has high ambitions to portray sake as sophisticated as wine in the customer’s mind, “but it pairs well with Moncayo’s conceptually ambitious menu,” he says.

“Wine and sake are as eclectic as humanity. I want people to accept experiencing wine like the world has accepted me.”

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Legalization trend continues as Nat’l Cannabis Festival kicks off

D.C.’s 420 Week runs April 16-24

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National Cannabis Festival (Photo by Doug Van Sant; courtesy NCF)

The sixth annual National Cannabis Festival kicks off in D.C. on April 16 as the nation continues to see advances in legalizing cannabis, particularly for medical uses. 

Just this week, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed HB 933 and SB 671, to provide numerous operational improvements to the state’s medical cannabis program, including eliminating the requirement that patients register with the Board of Pharmacy after receiving their written certification from a registered practitioner. 

“These legislative improvements will bring great relief to the thousands of Virginians waiting to access the medical cannabis program,” said JM Pedini, NORML’s Development Director and the Executive Director of Virginia NORML. “We hear from dozens of Virginians each week who are struggling with the registration process and frustrated by the 60-day wait to receive their approval from the Board of Pharmacy,” Pedini added.

There are more than 47,000 program registrants, with an estimated 8,000 applicants still awaiting approval. 

The new laws will take effect July 1. Until that time, patients will still be required to register with the Board of Pharmacy in order to shop at one of the state’s ten operational dispensaries. After July 1, patients who would like to receive a physical card will still have the option to request one by registering with the Board of Pharmacy.

The changes in Virginia law reflect growing support nationwide for reforming marijuana laws. Most Americans favor the enactment of a broad array of legal reforms specific to marijuana policy, according to new nationwide polling data provided by YouGov.com.

Specifically, six-in-10 Americans say that “marijuana should be made legal in the United States.” Majorities of Democrats (72 percent) and independents (60 percent) back legalization, while most Republicans (46 percent) do not.

Last week, members of the United States House of Representatives voted 220 to 204 in favor of The MORE Act, which removes marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act thereby allowing states to legalize cannabis markets free from federal interference. Most Democrats (217) voted for the bill while all but three Republicans voted against it.

A majority of Americans also support amending federal law so that banks and other financial institutions can explicitly partner with state-licensed marijuana businesses. Support for the policy change is strongest among Democrats (66 percent) and weakest among Republicans (38 percent).

Under existing federal law, financial institutions are discouraged from partnering with state-licensed cannabis businesses. According to the most recent financial information provided by the US Treasury Department, only about ten percent of all banks and only about four percent of all credit unions provide services to licensed cannabis-related businesses.

House members have voted on six separate occasions to pass federal legislation (The SAFE Banking Act) to reform this policy, but Senators have never taken any action to advance it in the Upper Chamber. Most recently, House members voted in February to include SAFE Banking provisions in HR 4521: the America COMPETES Act. Senators failed to include similar language in their version of the bill. (Courtesy NORML)

420 Week arrives in D.C.

D.C. is gearing up for a blazing 420 Week, featuring several days of exciting panels, art and community-building events and parties culminating in the National Cannabis Festival on April 23, featuring Wiz Khalifa, Lettuce, Ghostface Killah, Backyard Band, DuPont Brass, Shamans of Sound, Cramer, and more. 

This year, the sixth annual National Cannabis Festival, which celebrates progress on cannabis legalization, is expanding to a full weekend of epic cannabis-related events, including the National Cannabis Policy Summit April 22 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center and the National Cannabis Championship, presented by Gentleman Toker and slated for April 24 at Echostage with Slick Rick. The weekend is the capstone of 420 Week, hosted by the National Cannabis Festival organizers in partnership with the Eaton Hotel and DC Brau. The week kicks off on Saturday, April 16, with movie screenings, evening parties, a beer launch and more. Read on for the week’s highlights, courtesy of Festival organizers:
 

420 Week

Saturday, April 16 – Sunday, April 24 

Eaton Hotel + DC Brau

From the Hemp and Hops Panel and launch of NCF Legalize It! Lager at DC Brau (3178-B Bladensburg Rd. NE) on April 16 to the 4/20 Kickback Party featuring Khalifa Kush and panel with artists discussing cannabis’s role in their practice at the Eaton Hotel (1201 K St, NW), 420 Week promises something for everyone with an interest in cannabis culture. Take a tour with Luckie Chucky tours, participate in a “Plantwave Soundbath” and more. Nearly all events are free; RSVP required. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com for details. 
 

National Cannabis Policy Summit

Friday, April 22, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Join a who’s who of activists, industry pioneers, government leaders, journalists and more for an electric and illuminating day looking at the era’s most pressing cannabis policy challenges and opportunities. U.S. Senate candidate and Civil Rights activist Gary Chambers; Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; Portland Cannabis Program Manager Dasheeda Dawson; Aamra Ahmad, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and many others will be on hand to discuss environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation, banking legislation, decriminalization and more. Afterward, stay for a reception sponsored by Weedmaps. All events are free; registration is strongly recommended. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com/ncf-policy-summit for details. 
      

National Cannabis Festival

Saturday, April 23, 12 p.m. 

RFK Festival Grounds

2400 East Capitol St., NE, Lot 8

 The highlight of 420 Week events is the East Coast’s largest ticketed cannabis gathering, which returns to Washington’s RFK Campus with performances from Wiz Khalifa Lettuce, Ghostface Killah and many others. Also on tap: a wide range of exhibitors, five pavilions on topics from wellness to agriculture to education, and a brand-new culinary pavilion featuring top chefs from Maydan, Maketto, Moon Rabbit, as well as the Munchies Zone, with 75 of the region’s most popular food trucks including Peruvian Brothers, Jerk at Nite, Reba’s Funnel Cakes and more. (Note: No THC infused foods are permitted to be sold or sampled at NCF; festival-goers must be 21 and up.) Tickets range from $75-$375 for one or two-day admission to the festival and National Cannabis Championship. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com/tickets
 

National Cannabis Championship Presented by Gentleman Toker

Sunday, April 24, 12 p.m.

2135 Queens Chapel Rd., NE

Slick Rick and DJ Footwerk are giving festival-goers a sendoff to remember on the final day of 420 Week and the festival weekend, at the National Cannabis Championship at Echostage, new this year. Presented by Gentleman Toker, this awards show and bash celebrates the incredible cannabis cultivation taking place in the Washington area and across the Mid-Atlantic. Expect exhibitors, comedy, munchies, drinks and a chance to chill with some of the biggest names and brands in cannabis cultivation. Tickets are $55. Visit nationalcannabisfestival.com/tickets.

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