By Dana Kennedy
Updated March 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s showtime. Almost. In a millisecond, Melissa Etheridge will step onto a set in Brooklyn to perform on MTV Unplugged. More important, at least to Etheridge, she will be joined by her idol, Bruce Springsteen, for one song. She’s just left him in a dressing room. ”He says he’s nervous too,” she says. ”How can he be nervous? He’s a god.” She turns to Billie Jean King, a friend who has shown up for the concert. ”Did you ever play with your idol?” King nods. ”Yeah,” she says. ”I couldn’t breathe.” Etheridge, too, looks in need of oxygen. ”I am so so frightened,” she says softly. ”It’s like someone reached into your brain, plucked out your most secret fantasy, and gave it to you.” A half hour later, midway through her set, Etheridge pauses. Her normally seamless stage patter, honed by more than a decade of playing bars and small clubs, turns into a rushed torrent of words. ”I used to go home from school, plug my eight-track tape in, listen to Bruce Springsteen, and dream,” she tells the crowd. ”One of the things I dreamed about was someday singing with him. So when this came up, I thought, What would happen if I asked? So I did. And you know what? He said yes!” It’s one week earlier, and Etheridge is piloting her brand-new BMW 740i up a steep, curving street to the luxe mansion high in the Hollywood Hills where she moved last summer with her lover of six years. From earliest childhood in Leavenworth, Kan., she wanted to be a rock star. Now that her fourth album, Yes I Am, with its raw, whiskey-tinged anthems of love, loss, and all-American girlhood, has gone triple-platinum, it’s no longer a dream. She’s even been called the female Springsteen. ”I want to be able to enjoy everything-all my toys-right now,” says Etheridge, 33, caressing the car’s gleaming steering wheel and stroking the cockpit-like controls. ”I worked hard for this.” So, she’s got the car, the career, the house, her new Grammy-and the girl. Oh, did we mention that Etheridge is a lesbian? Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, for Etheridge, coming out almost seemed to help. Her popularity was slowly growing before she officially announced her sexual preference at the Triangle Ball, a gay and lesbian fete for Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, but her career has literally exploded since; VH1, the more mainstream MTV, rotates her videos so much she might as well be their official mascot. ”It’s been a long time since a female rock artist has broken through to this extent,” says Lee Chesnut, vice president of music programming at VH1. ”You almost have to go back to someone like Pat Benatar.” That talent, adds Chesnut, dwarfs what some of the audience might consider scandalous. ”k.d. (lang) and I have really broken through the gay thing in the music business,” says Etheridge. ”It didn’t hurt us. We’re lucky.” Not to mention optimistic. And stubborn. Etheridge got her start in 1982 singing in lesbian bars in Long Beach, Calif. But even after four years of industry flaks checking her out without offering a deal, she never allowed herself to believe that the lack of label interest had to do with her sexuality. ”I chose to believe that everyone who came down just didn’t hear a hit single. Period,” says the singer, who finally signed with Island Records in 1986. Etheridge drives through the gates of her new home. Inside, hardwood floors gleam; through the windows, beyond the pool, lies all of L.A. She kisses a cat sprawled on the table in the kitchen where Etheridge and her girlfriend, film director Julie Cypher, 30, spend most of their time. ”I’ve never been in the Enquirer,” Etheridge says with mock sadness. ”They never hunted me down because I’ve been totally up-front. What good is it if everyone knows?” Everyone didn’t always know. But that was a piece of luck too. Because Etheridge grew up in a loving yet ”totally noncommunicative” family-her father, John, was a high school athletic director and her mother, Elizabeth, is a retired computer consultant-Etheridge turned to music for self- expression. ”My parents never fought, but underneath there was a lot going wrong,” she says. ”I didn’t know how to tell them what I was feeling. That just wasn’t done. But I could sit down and sing ‘I’m so sad,’ and they’d say, ‘That’s just marvelous.”’ Etheridge used the same technique to deal with what was then a confusing attraction to girls. She wrote love songs in the family’s basement the way she does now, without identifying the gender of the beloved. Even though most of her recent hard-rockin’ love songs, including the top 10 singles ”Come to My Window” and ”I’m the Only One,” were inspired by a woman-Cypher-obviously they can be sung about a man. In fact, Etheridge believes she fills a void for straight women who want music with take-no-prisoners passion. ”I used to sing Springsteen songs at the top of my lungs when I was a kid because he was singing about a girl and I could relate. But I think not having female singers like him leaves out women who are strong and straight and feel those things too.” Up until she was 17, Etheridge says, she had boyfriends. ”But they were boring; there never was that heart-pounding thing.” Then one day, she realized, ”I don’t want to be with this guy. I want to be with this girl.” Still, she says, she felt as if she was alone in the world. ”A bunch of us lesbians were sitting around with some guys watching The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story on TV recently,” says Etheridge, referring to the story of the career Army officer forced to resign because she disclosed she was gay. ”Every time Judy Davis would give this look to Glenn Close-when they’re setting up that attraction-the girls would hoot and holler. The guys were like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ So we said, ‘Excuse me, we didn’t grow up with anything like this. There was never anything on TV, in books, in magazines, that depicted a lesbian affair. So now here we are 33, and we’re finally seeing it on TV. We’re going nuts.”’ Despite her ongoing work for gay, lesbian, and AIDS-related causes-she was part of the all-star Commitment to Life VIII concert in January and was honored with friend Martina Navratilova by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center earlier this month-Etheridge does not use her stardom as a soapbox. ”I’m a musician,” she says, ”who happens to be gay.” She’s also a gay musician who happens to have a lot of male fans. ”The men go crazy,” she says. ”They write me letters saying, ‘Gee, I love you. I think you’re sexy. I know you’re not into guys, but maybe someday you’ll change your mind.”’ Well, it’s not totally true that Etheridge isn’t into guys. First, there’s her buddy Brad Pitt: ”He’s so beautiful. That’s probably why I’m attracted to him. I find Steven Tyler of Aerosmith very sexy too. And Antonio Banderas! Hello! I wouldn’t kick him out of my bed.” But changing her mind appears unlikely once you see her with Cypher. The two, who engage in frequent hand-holding, are a study in opposites. Etheridge is tiny and blond; Cypher is dark, striking, and strapping. Etheridge says she believes that she’s always been a lesbian. Cypher was married to actor Lou Diamond Phillips when she and Etheridge met on the set of the singer’s 1988 ”Bring Me Some Water” video on which she served as assistant director. She had never been involved with a woman. ”We were just very attracted,” Cypher says. ”It’s been presented that Melissa broke up my marriage but that’s not true. She was just a symptom of the trouble we were having. My decision to get involved with her came out of very deep feelings. Love comes in surprising packages.” Having met Etheridge, Cypher says, she’s embraced the lesbian community and can’t imagine going back to straight life. The couple want children, at least three, but are not sure which one will bear them. ”I believe it’s the person you fall in love with,” says Cypher. ”Not the equipment they come with.”