Vp Issue 9: “Rachel Maddow Before the Big Time”

[Originally published in Vp issue 9interview by Alix Olson (2005)]

[Originally published in Vp issue 9interview by Alix Olson (2005)]

I pull up in front of a charming Massachusetts country home, with a black Subaru and a red pick-up truck parked in the driveway (lesbian home, anyone?), overlooking a flooding river. Rachel bounds out in mud boots to greet me and direct my parking. We settle in front of a roaring fire with mugs of coffee and have a chat.

Obligatory coming out story—this is for a lesbian magazine, after all!

I started to figure out I was queer in high school. I was a jock and lettered in three sports (volleyball, basketball and swimming). I had the choice to go to Stanford, or to play sports at a few colleges on scholarship, but I had a shoulder injury and would have had to stay at home for another year to recuperate. I decided I couldn‘t stay at home for another year during my coming out process! 

rachel maddow by angela jimenez
all photos by Angela Jimenez

So, was Stanford a worthwhile experience in that regard?
Yes! I definitely started sleeping with girls and that was a nice confirming experience. I was like, ‘oh, that’s what’s going on below my chin.’ I wrote a coming out letter and posted it in all of the dorm bathrooms. I wanted to get it over with, to have everyone know at once, and also to provoke people who couldn’t handle it. But, I graduated early. Stanford was all bright-eyed and bushy tailed and into inline skating and (grimaces) jogging and e-mail. I moved to a queer house in San Francisco and worked at Espresso Bongo. Growing up as a queer kid in the Bay Area, you know, Act Up was going on and there was all of this deep important resonance for me. I was particularly drawn in by the chapter informed by the radicalism of the 1970’s. I realized, then, that we couldn’t have a true AIDS movement until HIV folks were not quarantined in prisons, not dying alone. This was the real deal. These prison issues became clear things, things that needed to be done, and nobody was putting pressure on the prisons to make it better. The sexy, connected, activist types, I think, felt like these prison issues were a big black box. Like, how do you make a difference there? I decided to make it my mission to make prison politics understandable, less mysterious, less hopeless, to the sexy folks in the AIDS movement.

And then you became the first openly out gay U.S. citizen to win a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford where you began your dissertation work on HIV and prisons?
Yeah, I lived in London with this Trannie photographer, and had a bar life… crazy, like Shane on The L Word.

Did you leave a trail of broken hearts like Shane?
No, a trail of happy hearts, hopefully! Then I decided the only way to finish my dissertation was to live somewhere I’d be unhappy so I could focus. It was between living in an Orange County, CA room of one of my dad’s Air Force friends or moving to the Massachusetts countryside. Finally, I moved into a hovel in Northampton with a friend, where we lived like monks and our apartment was full of skunk cabbage. Our heating system was an open flame in one room and we had to sleep in hats. I finished my dissertation.

And from there you started out in radio on Northampton’s The River. How did you get into that?

My friends told me I should go to the open audition, and I was hired on the spot. (Rachel stokes the fire.)

Well, you’ve got a great radio voice. Are you ever recognized by your voice?

(Laughs) Well, you’ve seen Susan (Rachel’s partner) and me, very different women! A butch-femme thing going on, which I love! I was in a diner recently, in a booth with Susan. There are these two guys with baseball caps and Susan’s back is to them. They stop talking and are obviously listening to us. One guy finally comes over and says “I recognize you by your voice,” looking at Susan. I said “That would be me. Thanks for listening!” The blood rushed out of his face. He associated pretty voice—pretty girl, and here was this butch dyke!

Speaking of which, I’ve seen you on mainstream TV, Scarborough Country and recently on CNN. What’s it like to actually confront the ‘white boys’ that so many of us refer to in our work?
They see me as a novelty. I’ve slipped through the cracks, this butch dyke. They always try to bring up gay marriage with me. We’re talking about Syria, Bosnia, Rwanda refugees on CNN and they’re like “Rachel, now how does this relate to gay marriage?” It’s also an interesting challenge to have to be so concise on TV, using language to bring people along with you and also to provoke them. People say, “Isn’t it hard to only have three minutes to argue against the death penalty?” But, you don’t rebel against the restraints, you work within them.

And then, you get to have them on your show!

Yes, like there’s a Republican legislator in Maine who has a purportedly ‘pro-gay’ law that disallows women to abort fetuses who are tested positively for the gay gene?! I get to say “Dude, let’s talk about this on air. How are you going to test for the gay gene? What if it changes its mind?” (laughs) I’m all about bringing the bad guy into sharper relief.

I know when I’ve been on TV they force you into the makeup room and pressure you to coat your face.
At first, I said no make-up, but then I saw myself on TV and it was like Nixon debating Kennedy. Now, I say “Okay, do me up like you’d do a dude.” And they’re like “But you’re so pretty, why would you want to look like a man? How about a little lip gloss?” And I’m like “Hey, look. I look this way on purpose!”

Rachel Maddow, Janeane Garofolo
Janeane Garofalo and Rachel Maddow

So, Jerry Springer… People seem kind of angry about that…
Yes, they cancelled Unfiltered on the first anniversary of the show, but my new show is in a good time slot. It has been cleared in LA and NYC, and we’re in 8 of the top 10 markets in the country. I’m really excited about it!

(Susan comes in: “Do either of you want orange-cranberry bread with cream cheese? She pauses. “You know, the one thing I never thought I’d say was that my girlfriend has been replaced by Jerry Springer!”)

I recently heard a right-wing talk show host say that the problem with social security is abortion because we’ve killed 40,000 potential tax payers. It makes me crazy. Do you listen to those guys?
Yes! I don’t enjoy Rush [Limbaugh] because, even though he’s the originator of right-wing talk shows, he has almost become the past. I don’t like [Sean] Hannity because he’s too self-righteous. Glenn Beck, Lars Larson, I listen to them. 

Do you laugh out loud and yell at them like I do?
Oh yeah, I’m a total radio talk-backer. But it’s interesting. Republicans think things out at an academic level. They refine the talking points with political consultants like Karl Rove, then those talking points go straight to the media ie. talk show hosts, from there to the populace and from there to the candidates, who are the last in the chain.

Hmmm. Do you think those radio hosts are aware of their pivotal role in that chain?
Oh, yeah, definitely. There’s no confusion about peoples’ political roles on the Right. And the candidates are interchangeable. They don’t matter. We don’t have that kind of party structure on the Left. The Right is all about building up its base; they see the Religious Right base and say “Hey, why not?” Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is at sea because there is no movement. The Left has not been about electoral power.

Now, many of us performers get our fact fodder from places like Air America. What are your sources?

Truthout, Buzz/Flash, blogs, but mostly newspapers. You find your favorites — The Denver Post or other obscure newspapers. I’ve just learned how to filter, how to read through the mainstream media. I also read the Wall Street editorial page because it’s just so right wing!

So, do you have a team of assistants, like Michael Moore, or is it little Rachel burning the midnight oil at her desk?

Maybe that’s one of my quirks! Some people have staff, but I need to do all of my research, write all of my questions by myself! We do have a daily briefing by the network. It’s one guy’s job to do that. It comes out at about 3 am. Also, ABC’s The Note, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian—those are pretty much understood required reading for all of us on the staff. My rule of thumb is one hour of research for each hour on air. So, I start my research at five am. And then I do a few more hours after I‘m off the air. For my new show at 5 am, I‘m going to have to start a little earlier!

Alright, Rachel, finally, do you consider your work activism?

No. No. Activism is picking a goal and figuring out what you need to do to reach that goal—choosing allies, running campaigns, getting the Alabama prison to stop segregating HIV prisoners. Being on the radio is not activism, and I’m kind of torn up about it. Right now, I’m riding the radio thing. It feels like a different ‘to do’ list. Like, ‘Get self more exposed on the covers of magazines and on TV.‘ Or get Beverly Harris out of prison… That’s activism. Does that seem crazy?

No. It seems like you have a very black and white sense of what activism entails.
Yeah, I don’t know the best use of my time and talents.


Velvetpark Magazine, Issue 9 (Summer 2005), 23-25.