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SPRING ARTS 2020: TV’s big paradigm shift and the queer consumer

Apple, Disney, others lock horns wth Netflix as streaming wars intensify — where will all the LGBTQ content land?

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Alexis Bledel as Emily, a lesbian character, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ on Hulu. (Photo courtesy Hulu)

Streaming content — whether we’re talking about music or movies/TV — is, of course, nothing new. But on the movie/TV side, it’s ramping up to unprecedented levels.

The New York Times compares it to the great entertainment industry disruptions of yore — silent films going to “talkies” in the ’20s, TV in the ’50s and the double whammy of cable TV and VCRs in the ’80s, which radically shifted the way consumers viewed content.

Netflix started streaming movies and shows in 2007 and dominates the field with 166 million subscribers worldwide and a $12 billion budget for new content. Until now, the main old school media conglomerates — Disney, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia — stayed out of it while Netflix (“Stranger Things,” “The Crown”), Amazon Prime Video (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Fleabag”) and Hulu (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Veronica Mars”) battled it out.

The old companies now realize they’ll have to adapt to survive. Disney Plus launched Nov. 12 for $6.99 a month offering content from Disney, Pixar, the “Star Wars” franchise, Marvel movies, reruns of “The Simpsons” and about 7,500 episodes of old Disney shows. WarnerMedia will launch HBO Max for $14.99 per month in May with 10,000 hours of available content such as “Friends,” “South Park, old Warner Bros. movies, CNN documentaries, “Sesame Street” and more. And Peacock, NBCUniversal’s imprint, will boast 15,000 hours of available content including reruns of “The Office,” “Frasier,” “Saturday Night Live,” Universal movies, a reboot of “Battlestar Galactica” and gobs more. It’s slated for an April 15 rollout.

Others are taking the can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em approach. FX on Hulu launched March 2 boasting its shows such as “Mrs. America,” “Better Things,” “Dave” and “Fargo” now available there. And Quibi, set to launch April 6, is focusing on short-form mobile video. Founder Jeffrey Katzenberg is said to have spent more than $1 billion for short-form episodes of shows like a Steven Spielberg horror series “Spielberg’s After Dark” and “Kill the Efrons,” a survival reality series starring Zac Efron and his brother.

Apple, of course, is no longer content to sit on the sidelines either. Apple TV Plus launched Nov. 1. That makes the likely big players Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max and Peacock, but that’s just for starters.

There are, according to the New York Times citing data from Parks Associates, 271 online video services in the U.S. some of the more obscure ones offering highly curated content. For every mainstream one, such as ESPN Plus or NFL Sunday Ticket for sports, there’s a bounty of niche options like Crunchyroll and Hidive for anime, Hi-Yah! for martial arts or GAIA for yoga-themed content.

Navigating the deluge

So much is now available, though, that consumers are overwhelmed. Although it’s changed some in recent years, one of the long-running complaints of cable TV or Dish satellite subscribers was having to pay for hundreds of channels they never watched. Well, now with streaming, the argument goes, they no longer have to. Just subscribe to the services you want.

But it’s not that simple. Say you subscribe to Netflix and Hulu but then everybody starts buzzing about “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” winning a bunch of Emmys and being must-see TV and you’re faced with major pop culture FOMO. And if you have cut your cable subscription, as 5.5 million did in 2019 alone, what do you do when there’s a major event like the Olympics, the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl that none of the streaming services have the rights to? (The presidential debates, for example, are easy to stream for free online.) And what if you have one of those deals where your phone, home internet and cable are all under one umbrella like Xfinity in the D.C. market and it’s not as easy to get out of?

At some point, viewers will have to make a choice, much as they did between VHS or Beta 30 in the ’80s, and not all the companies getting into the game will be successful as consumers are only willing to pay so much — $44 the Wall Street Journal reports citing its own polling — for about 3.6 streaming services (one in five plan to cut the cable cord within the year, the Journal reports).

streaming, gay news, Washington Blade
Felix Maritaud in ‘I Am Jonas,’ a Netflix original movie about a passionate gay teen romance. Netflix is not only the industry dominator, it has the most queer content overall. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

Gay entertainment writer/guru Greg Hernandez says it’s “a new frontier” for pop culture fans.

“There’s so much more content, the sky’s the limit,” he says. “And that’s why this seems unprecedented. It feels like the biggest beneficiaries are the consumers. They have so many choices now. They’re being courted with really quality content from all the top stars, the best actors are going for roles on shows that are being streamed, so I think the consumer is the biggest beneficiary. It’s nice to be courted and nice to have so much of the top talent flocking to this form.”

Cutting the cable cord?

For Matt Chun, a gay Washington man who early in his career worked at ABC, the current system is both a blessing and a curse.

“Digital and social media trends have changed just about everything in terms of the way we consume our content,” he says. “In some ways, we are more than ever in the driver’s seat with TV executives and music artists catering to our short attention spans, our schedules and our price points. In other ways, we’re spoiled brats imprisoned by our voracious appetites. And if not us, certainly the next generation of iPad-trained kids.”

Chun canceled cable about three years ago because it was simply cheaper to pay for streaming. He had Xfinity internet and cable and got tired of the hikes — it started at $75, jumped to $116, then $139 and he said, “Enough.” Similarly, his parents’ Xfinity bill in Philadelphia hiked from $150-187.

He now subscribes to AT&T TV, which comes with HBO GO, and Amazon Prime. The latter two are $63.60 per month (higher because they offer more of a hybrid experience with live TV and On Demand). Amazon Prime is $13 per month. He used to have Netflix but not currently.

And yes, he says there are times there’s something he wants to watch on another service.

“Often you’ll hear buzz about a show on social media but then realize it’s on the one you just cancelled,” he says. “For example right now, I’m curious about ‘The Circle’ on Netflix. There was a time that I would switch my services on and off, chasing the premiere of shows such as ‘Game of Thrones’ on HBO or the return of ‘Love’ on Netflix. But now there are just so many good shows that I just end up choosing one that I’m interested in on one of the services I have.”

There are ways around the dilemma, too.

“If there’s a show I really want to watch and don’t have paid access to, I can often find a streaming site — likely illegal — to binge watch it. Sometimes the quality suffers or the streaming lags, but it’s good enough. Or I’ll binge watch in spurts when I’m at my friend’s house who has different streaming options. It seems like I’m never without options … and someone is always entering the market with lower costs.”

“People share passwords with friends,” Hernandez says. “There are ways to see what you want to see.”

Kenya Hutton, another gay Washington TV fan, subscribes to Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime in addition to his $165 monthly Xfinity bill, which he plans to keep. He says despite all that, there’s still a dearth of representation.

“It would be great to see more quality LGBTQ programming from people of color,” Hutton says.

Where are all the queer shows?

There’s voluminous queer content on the major platforms. Four years ago, GLAAD started gathering data on streaming original series for its annual “Where We Are on TV” survey and the numbers have mostly gone up every year since then.

For the most recent survey, released last November, GLAAD found 109 regular LGBT characters on original scripted series on Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, the three platforms it monitors. That was an increase of 34 from last year’s tally. There are also 44 recurring LGBT characters, up from just seven the previous year.

Gay male characters make up 42 percent, lesbians 30 percent, 14 percent bi women and nine percent bi men. The one dip was in trans characters at seven percent, down four percentage points from the previous year. That’s likely a hiccup, GLAAD’s Megan Townsend, lead author of the report, says as shows such as “Transparent” and “Orange is the New Black” have ended and some shows she knows of in development with trans characters haven’t yet launched.

“I think maybe that was just a one-off year,” Townsend, who’s bi, says. “The bigger problem will be if this becomes a trend.”

The 109 LGBTQ characters on the streaming platforms compares to 90 on scripted shows on broadcast TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and The CW) and 121 on scripted primetime cable shows. So while it’s not as if there’s a deluge of LGBTQ characters and storylines on the streaming shows, it’s right up there in the same league as the network and cable shows. Some might even argue it’s a tad underwhelming when you consider streaming has unlimited volume potential whereas network and cable have limited daytime/prime time hours to program.

Of Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, Netflix had the most LGBTQ characters as has been the case every year streaming has been included in the GLAAD survey. So if queer representation on original streaming shows is your main interest, Netflix, home to “Grace and Frankie,” “Tales of the City” and the new RuPaul series “AJ and the Queen,” not to mention reality juggernaut “Queer Eye” (not counted in the GLAAD report) is your best bet.

So how did Netflix end up being the industry leader and also the best at LGBTQ representation? Brian Wright, Netflix’s vice president of original series: young adults/family, says the GLAAD report and other industry report cards are important, but the representation just happened on its own.

“I’m happy to report that it all truly comes out of an organic process,” Wright, who’s gay, says. “It’s about finding incredible storytellers and letting them do their best work. There’s no additional layer of, ‘Well, can you make this person this or that person that?’ We don’t have to do that because it’s already there in the storytelling, in the fabric of these shows. I would say that this great result we’re seeing with GLAAD is just a result of us attracting incredible talent to reflect the world back to the world.”

Wright has been with Netflix for six years and says there’s strong queer representation among its employees. Comparable, he says, to what he experienced at previous jobs with Viacom, Disney and Lifetime — “I’ve bounced around the Hollywood gauntlet,” he says. He oversees shows such as “Stranger Things,” “13 Reasons Why,” “Fuller House,” “The Umbrella Academy,” “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and the Ryan Murphy Netflix shows, the latest of which, “Hollywood,” launches in May.

He says the industry gatekeepers at Netflix — those with the power to greenlight a pitch — are more unencumbered than their counterparts in network.

“We don’t have a lot of handcuffs,” he says. “We’re not handcuffed by advertising considerations, we’re not handcuffed by a conservative standards and practices group. … We hear pitches all day long and we go toward the ones that are the most pure in vision and where we feel like, ‘Wow, this person has a story to tell and they totally understand what it is in their bones.’ It’s just not uncommon that there’s a gay person or people that are central to the story.”

There are, however, even gayer (albeit smaller) options.

Dekkoo, which started in late 2015, offers movies and TV — both original and non — geared toward gay men for $9.99 per month.

“When we launched, we had no delusions of grandeur or trying to beat Netflix or even pretending we could play in that field,” says Brian Sokel, Dekkoo president who, ironically, is straight having started the platform with his gay business partner Derek Curl. “But what we realized is that we could fill a void that was missing in the marketplace and probably do it very well and operate as a complementary service that’s all-inclusive for one type of audience.”

He says the big platforms are analogous to Blockbuster Video 20 years ago.

“I remember going there years ago and being bummed out because the selection was one geared to the largest, most homogenous audience possible,” he says. “You wouldn’t find any really deep selections of any genre, you really were just scratching the surface. That’s what made On Demand and Netflix, back when it was DVD by mail, so great was that suddenly you found this individual, independent content and all this incredible stuff you didn’t even know existed.”

Don’t go to Dekkoo looking for major titles like “Moonlight” or “Love, Simon.” Dekkoo, which is about 10 percent original content, Sokel says, is for the “queer independent fare that is really driving the queer cinema universe.”

“You can find gay stuff on all the main platforms,” he says. “It just depends on the user and what they’re looking for. The casual viewer could go on Amazon or Netflix and say, ‘Oh great, there’s a gay movie to watch.’ But for the person who’s really passionate about queer cinema where that’s not gonna cut it for them, that’s why we exist.”

Sokel declined to share how many subscribers Dekkoo has.

WOW Presents Plus (World of Wonder) is $3.99 per month after a seven-day free trial and offers “all things drag” with “UNHhhh,” “Werq the World” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 12” (also on VH1).

WOW Presents Plus media department did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week from the Blade.

Looking ahead

So where’s it all headed? Is network dying a long, slow death? How does Netflix plan to stave off the competition?

Wright says the beauty of the new paradigm — Netflix is seven years into its original content creation — is the chance for non-U.S. content to take off and have a global impact. He cites “Money Heist” (“La casa de papel”), a crime drama/thriller from Spain (part four with eight new episodes drops April 3), as a strong example.

Netflix headquarters in Hollywood. The company dominates the streaming industry and has more LGBT representation than its rivals, according to GLAAD. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

“It’s become massive,” he says. “I don’t believe in a pre-Netflix world that would have connected with millions of joyful fans all over the world. I think that’s a trend that we’re gonna see continue.”

He says his company always knew competitors would emerge in time. As for how long streaming and broadcast can co-exist, he says it’s “anyone’s guess.”

“I think that streaming is absolutely from a behavioral and technological perspective, it’s so good for the consumer and consumer control is something that’s more and more gonna be considered as the stakes keep moving forward. There are gonna be a lot of different choices out there and we just want to be the that people continue to feel is a must have.”

Chun enjoys all the options and still binge-watches certain shows, but says as a consumer, he has no strong opinions about streaming usurping traditional TV.

“I’m a bit numb and agnostic to it all,” he says. “Mergers are happening and Emmys are being won and I’m just like, ‘Alright, maybe I’ll check you out but I’m already bored thinking about the effort it would take and all my funds are tied up with multiple ‘cheap’ subscriptions. Oh yeah, and we haven’t even talked about porn yet.”

Netflix’s dark side?

Huge industry behemoths often have well-documented dark sides from Walmart’s predatory pricing, Facebook’s shady information sharing, Amazon’s anti-competitive/monopolistic behavior and Google’s recent wave of firing employees — a few of whom are transgender — who dared to call the company out on what they considered unethical practices, as the New York Times reported last month.

So surely Netflix has a dark side too, right?

Brian Wright, Netflix’s VP of original series, insists not.

“I’ve worked in so many places in Hollywood and this is by far the most collaborative group of people I have ever come across,” he says. “It’s a place where that kind of palace intrigue and backstabbing is not tolerated and honestly is called out. … It’s absolutely a high-performance culture here, but we like to avoid the brilliant jerks. One of our key tenets is selflessness.”

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Daisy Edgar-Jones knows why ‘the Crawdads sing’

Actress on process, perfecting a southern accent, and her queer following

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Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya Clark. (Photo courtesy Sony/Columbia)

Daisy Edgar-Jones is an actor whose career is blossoming like her namesake. In recent years, she seems to be everywhere. LGBTQ viewers may recognize Edgar-Jones from her role as Delia Rawson in the recently canceled queer HBO series “Gentleman Jack.” She also played memorable parts in a pair of popular Hulu series, “Normal People” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Earlier this year, Edgar-Jones was seen as Noa in the black comedy/horror flick “Fresh” alongside Sebastian Stan. 

With her new movie, “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony/Columbia), she officially becomes a lead actress. Based on Delia Owens’ popular book club title of the same name, the movie spans a considerable period of time, part murder mystery, part courtroom drama. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Blade.

BLADE: Daisy, had you read Delia Owens’s novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” before signing on to play Kya?

DAISY EDGAR-JONES: I read it during my audition process, as I was auditioning for the part. So, the two went hand in hand.

BLADE: What was it about the character of Kya that appealed to you as an actress?

EDGAR-JONES: There was so much about her that appealed to me. I think the fact that she is a very complicated woman. She’s a mixture of things. She’s gentle and she’s curious. She’s strong and she’s resilient. She felt like a real person. I love real character studies and it felt like a character I haven’t had a chance to delve into. It felt different from anyone I’ve played before. Her resilience was one that I really admired. So, I really wanted to spend some time with her.

BLADE: While Kya is in jail, accused of killing the character Chase, she is visited by a cat in her cell. Are you a cat person or do you prefer dogs?

EDGAR-JONES: I like both! I think I like the fact that dogs unconditionally love you. While a cat’s love can feel a bit conditional. I do think both are very cute. Probably, if I had to choose, it would be dogs.

BLADE: I’m a dog person, so I’m glad you said that.

EDGAR-JONES: [Laughs]

BLADE: Kya lives on the marsh and spends a lot of time on and in the water. Are you a swimmer or do you prefer to be on dry land?

EDGAR-JONES: I like swimming, I do. I grew up swimming a lot. If I’m ever on holidays, I like it to be by the sea or by a nice pool.

BLADE: Kya is also a gifted artist, and it is the thing that brings her great joy. Do you draw or paint?

EDGAR-JONES: I always doodle. I’m an avid doodler. I do love to draw and paint. I loved it at school. I wouldn’t say I was anywhere near as skilled as Kya. But I do love drawing if I get the chance to do it.

BLADE: Kya was born and raised in North Carolina. What can you tell me about your process when it comes to doing a southern accent or an American accent in general?

EDGAR-JONES: It’s obviously quite different from mine. I’ve been lucky that I’ve spent a lot of time working on various accents for different parts for a few years now, so I feel like I’m developed an ear for, I guess, the difference in tone and vowel sounds [laughs]. When it came to this, it was really important to get it right, of course. Kya has a very lyrical, gentle voice, which I think that North Carolina kind of sound really helped me to access. I worked with a brilliant accent coach who helped me out and I just listened and listened.

BLADE: While I was watching “Where the Crawdads Sing” I thought about how Kya could easily be a character from the LGBTQ community because she is considered an outsider, is shunned and ridiculed, and experiences physical and emotional harm. Do you also see the parallels?

EDGAR-JONES: I certainly do. I think that aspect of being an outsider is there, and this film does a really good job of showing how important it is to be kind to everyone. I think this film celebrates the goodness you can give to each other if you choose to be kind. Yes, I definitely see the parallels.

BLADE: Do you have an awareness of an LGBTQ following for your acting career?

EDGAR-JONES: I tend to stay off social media and am honestly not really aware of who follows me, but I do really hope the projects I’ve worked on resonate with everyone.

BLADE: Are there any upcoming acting projects that you’d like to mention?

EDGAR-JONES: None that I can talk of quite yet. But there are a few things that are coming up next year, so I’m really excited.

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CAMP Rehoboth’s president talks pandemic, planning, and the future

Wesley Combs marks six months in new role

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Wesley Combs took over as president of CAMP Rehoboth six months ago and is now focused on searching for a new permanent executive director. (Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

June marks half a year since Wesley Combs stepped into his role as president of CAMP Rehoboth. In a conversation with the Blade, Combs recounted his first six months in the position — a time he said was characterized by transition and learning.

Since 1991, CAMP Rehoboth has worked to develop programming “inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities” in the Rehoboth Beach, Del. area, according to the nonprofit’s website. As president, Combs oversees the organization’s board of directors and executive director, helping determine areas of focus and ensure programming meets community needs.

For Combs, his more than three decades of involvement with CAMP Rehoboth have shaped the course of his life. In the summer of 1989 — just before the organization’s creation — he met his now-husband, who was then living in a beach house with Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald, CAMP Rehoboth’s founders.

Since then, he has served as a financial supporter of the organization, noting that it has been crucial to fostering understanding that works against an “undercurrent of anti-LGBTQ sentiment” in Rehoboth Beach’s history that has, at times, propagated violence against LGBTQ community members.

In 2019, after Elkins passed away, Combs was called upon by CAMP Rehoboth’s Board of Directors to serve on a search committee for the organization’s next executive director. Later that year, he was invited to become a board member and, this past November, was elected president.

Combs noted that CAMP Rehoboth is also still recovering from the pandemic, and is working to restart programming paused in the switch to remote operations. In his first six months, he has sought to ensure that people feel “comfortable” visiting and engaging with CAMP Rehoboth again, and wants to ensure all community members can access its programming, including those from rural parts of Delaware and those without a means of getting downtown.

Still, Combs’s first six months were not without unexpected turns: On May 31, David Mariner stepped down from his role as CAMP Rehoboth executive director, necessitating a search for his replacement. Combs noted that he would help facilitate the search for an interim director to serve for the remainder of the year and ensure that there is “a stable transition of power.” CAMP Rehoboth last week announced it has named Lisa Evans to the interim director role.

Chris Beagle, whose term as president of CAMP Rehoboth preceded Combs’s own, noted that the experience of participating in a search committee with the organization will “better enable him to lead the process this time.”

Before completing his term, Beagle helped prepare Combs for the new role, noting that the “combination of his professional background, his executive leadership (and) his passion for the organization” make Combs a strong president. Regarding the results of the election, “I was extremely confident, and I remain extremely confident,” Beagle said.

Bob Witeck, a pioneer in LGBTQ marketing and communications, has known Combs for nearly four decades. The two founded a public relations firm together in 1993 and went on to work together for 20 years, with clients ranging from major businesses like Ford Motor Company to celebrities including Chaz Bono and Christopher Reeve. According to Witeck, Combs’s work in the firm is a testament to his commitment to LGBTQ advocacy.

“Our firm was the first founded primarily to work on issues specific to LGBTQ identities, because we wanted to counsel corporations about their marketing and media strategies and working in the LGBTQ market,” he explained. By helping develop communications strategies inclusive of those with LGBTQ identities, Combs established a background of LGBTQ advocacy that truly “made a mark,” Witeck said.

Witeck emphasized that, in his new position, Combs brings both business experience and a renewed focus on historically underrepresented in LGBTQ advocacy — including people with disabilities, trans people and people of color.

Looking to the rest of the year, CAMP Rehoboth hopes to host a larger-scale event during Labor Day weekend. In addition, the organization will revisit its strategic plan — first developed in 2019 but delayed due to the pandemic — and ensure it still meets the needs of the local community, Combs said. He added that he intends to reexamine the plan and other programming to ensure inclusivity for trans community members.

“CAMP Rehoboth continues to be a vital resource in the community,” he said. “The focus for the next two years is to make sure we’re doing and delivering services that meet the needs of everyone in our community.”

Wesley Combs, gay news, Washington Blade
Wesley Combs (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)
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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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