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14 May 2006 @ 01:10 pm
Fair Portia  
Girlfriends Magazine - 2002

by CANDACE MOORE

Portia de Rossi's story may be typical of all super-feminine actresses with a queer second life. You didn't hear it from them, though; Candace Moore tells us why.

"A tight butt works wonders, wouldn'tcha say? Proving that Hollywood cliché was former Ally McBeal 'torney with 'tude' Portia de Rossi, walking her two black-and-white doggies‹with her gorgeous gal-pal, Francesca Gregorini (stepdaughter of Ringo Starr), by her side‹along the cool streets of Silverlake on an earlyish Sunday morn. Pretty Portia looked down to earth in army-green pants and a similarly colored tank top. The g-p went for the twin look in orange trousers and a skin-baring tank. Holding hands, with their hair loose and flowing, the two babes headed down the street toward a coffee kind of destination..." -Ted Casablanca, May, 30, 2002.

This spoonful of E! gossip reads like runway voice-over meets lesbian soft-core, although it describes a moment so ordinary and mundane, the sort we live out every day, semi-privately with our girlfriends. But it's hard to not be dazzled by the concept of Portia de Rossi (the vampy blonde who portrayed man-eater lawyer Nelle Porter on David E. Kelly's kooky, recently-canceled courtroom sitcom Ally McBeal) taking an openly loving Sunday stroll with her equally beautiful rocker girlfriend, Francesca.

And dazzled we are. The Star, World Entertainment News, the New York Post, The Daily Star and every other tabloid press and gossip columnist have been hot on the high heels of the long-haired lovers since snapshots of them enthusiastically groping each other in a West Hollywood back alley surfaced last November. When Portia and Francesca attended this May¹s opening night of the Andy Warhol retrospective at Los Angeles¹s Museum of Contemporary Art, the television actress was so badgered by a hack reporter as to who her ³friend² was, the couple decided to cut their visit short.

Numerous attempts to squeeze out a verbal confirmation of the lesbian nature of their companionship have met with "no comment." But de Rossi and Gregorini aren't exactly hiding out in their love nest with a year¹s rations either. The couple entered the Warhol show holding hands in plain view of cameras and lookiloos‹a public declaration, albeit a subtle one. The two women have also been spotted together at various Hollywood events and parties, including the 2001 Silver Lining Silver Lake benefit for the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic, where an attendee described them as "affectionate with each other," "obviously very much in love," and "sweet, natural, and unpretentious.

Femming it Up Without her formal consent, Portia de Rossi is fast becoming Hollywood's new femme poster girl. Often photographed in designer dresses and wraps (her faves being of the classic Chanel variety), with her long Goldilocks-style tresses coiffed in a variety of fashions, de Rossi is aiming for the ranks of the silver screen¹s famed lipstick divas, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Like them, she oozes a glamorous sensuality compelling to all genders, and she's flirty but coy about her own same-sex affairs.

In Fairy Butch's Dyke Identity Dictionary, sexologist Karlyn Lotney defines femme as a "dyke who embodies a typically feminine behaviors or characteristics or reclaims same through a queer perspective." Indeed, the image de Rossi portrays to the world at large is distinctly more sleek and glam than Rosie O'Donnell's or Ellen DeGeneres's comfy, tomboy-next-door look. Her arched eyebrows and insouciant pouts seem more like relics from Marilyn Monroe's time. At the recent Blood Work premiere, she wore a revealing black suit coat (sans blouse) designed to trace her cleavage down to her perfect belly. She also sported a huge diamond rock on her ring finger.

In her private life, though, the Melbourne-born twenty-nine-year-old can't be pegged down as pure girlie-girl. De Rossi unwinds by piloting helicopters, prefers hip huggers, and drives a sporty black Carrera. Instyle described the actress as "having thrown on a pair of black Puma track pants and an Iggy Pop T-shirtŠshe's nursing a coffee and sitting cross-legged on a funky seventies fur chair. Without make-up and with her blonde plumage pulled back into a ponytail, she seems naturally easygoing, the opposite of her nasty Ally McBeal character."

Like Garbo, who preferred to wear pants around the house (as well as to be left alone), de Rossi's high femininity is what it is for most actresses: a performance. Like Lotney's femme, she may even be "reclaim[ing it] through a queer perspective."

Much before acquiring the role of Subzero Nelle (nicknamed for the lawyer's cool veneer) on the Emmy-winning show Ally McBeal, Australian native Amanda Rogers (de Rossi's real name) was, oddly enough, a young, diligent law student at Melbourne University. She randomly auditioned for a local, low-budget film that gave her the role of an erotic muse, Giddy, and the acting bug for good. That film happened to be Sirens (1994), costarring Hugh Grant and Elle Macpherson, which did decently enough at the box office to coerce Mandy, as her friends knew her, to cross the Pacific in pursuit of more drama. Although her "G¹Day, Mate" accent largely dissipated, de Rossi admitted to Esquire that she misses her homeland¹s dishes: "I miss the big meat pies and the potato cakes. Oh, and I love the sausage rolls..."

Starved of her sausage rolls, de Rossi landed a role in the tongue-in-cheek teen horror spin-off Scream 2 (1997) as a sorority sister caught up in the hack-fest. After dabbling in some marginally successful TV shows, de Rossi finally found one that suited her‹literally, in Armani‹when she joined the ensemble cast of Ally as a litigating sex kitten with claws, smarts, and an odd soft side. Toeing the line between anti-feminist glee and a ribald skewering of straight stereotypes, the show was packed full of silly, magic-realist moments. At times the quirky stuff invigorated Ally's five-year run, and at times grew worn. The show's creators played shamelessly to sweeps weeks‹in one instance hyping a random lesbian screen kiss between lead Calista Flockhart and Lucy Liu's character Ling (with no real place in the plot arc) for ratings.

Meanwhile, McBeal's blonde bombshell wasn't advertising her offstage kisses. A budding romance between de Rossi and Guinevere Turner, the writer, producer, and costar of Go Fish, hit rumor mills in early 2001. Performance artist Vaginal Davis gossiped that "career dyke heartthrob Gwyn Turner (American Psycho) and her love interest Portia de Rossi from Ally McBeal" were lively guests at the drag queen's birthday bash.

Enter Ms. Gregorini

Thirty-three-year-old, dark-haired Francesca Gregorini must have promptly swept Portia off her feet and away from Turner sometime in the middle of 2001. Born in Rome to Bond girl Barbara Bach, and raised between Italy, England, and Los Angeles, the Brown University graduate (and step-daughter to Beatles' drummer Ringo Starr) has played piano, guitar, and bass most of her life. Her solo efforts have been garnering radio airplay on member-supported L.A. indie station KCRW and two of her songs can be found on the soundtrack to See Jane Run (the latest Clea DuVall vehicle). Gregorini also co-owns a Los Feliz clothing boutique called Steinberg and Sons with Tatiana von Furstenberg that specializes in the color pink. Waif-thin, feminine and bohemian, Gregorini has a contemporary, art school look that compliments de Rossi's precisely.

The starry-eyed duo was soon spotted entangled all over town, eating sushi, sipping cocktails, taking walks, and friskily petting throughout Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. By most accounts they weren't at all camera shy. Besides the steamy alley photos, which were obviously taken on the sly, the lovers "seemed happy to let photographers snap them feeding each other and embracing in a trendy Los Angeles eatery, Sushi Row" reported Womonspace Newsletter. A Swedish newspaper, Aftonbladet, describes them as "not at all distracted by (celebrity photographers), quite the opposite really."

Possibly all this fuss has lead to more discretion from the pair, said to be comfortably out among family and friends. In fact, they just closed escrow on a $2.1 million Los Feliz Spanish villa this summer. But when news spread of an engagement announcement at Portia's twenty-ninth birthday party, De Rossi's publicist Heidi Shaefer outright denied that actual wedding vows were exchanged: "There was no ceremony. There was a cake, Portia blew out the candles. She [Gregorini] was there, but there was no marriage." (Notice how she still stepped around the engagement question.) When asked if Portia and Francesca are partners, Shaefer gave her answer a sly, Clintonesque twist: "they are friends, yes."

The coming-out sagas of comic actresses Rosie O' Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres were fraught with opposition, frustration, and enormous backlash. It remains to be seen whether their honesty has profoundly sabotaged their careers. But the fact is that O'Donnell and DeGeneres are struggling to keep afloat careers‹comedian, talk-show host, editor‹that are comparatively unbridled by the feminine mystique. Like their openly-gay celebrity comrades, Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang are in creative corners where androgyny and butch-of-centrism are tolerated.

For lesbians who are competing with straight women for romantic or dramatic roles in an industry still run by and for straight men, the story is very different. Look at what happened to Anne Heche when she was selected to play Harrison Ford's love interest in the romantic comedy Six Days, Seven Nights: the industry didn't feel a gay girl could play a straight one, and the film's producers doubted audiences' ability to respond to her as a viable object of male desire. (Her case is funny now in retrospect.) Ford actually had to demand her as his costar and threaten to pull out if she was not.

The roster of out femme actresses in the entertainment industry today is so short it's unsubstantial. Cutie-pie Tammy Lynn Michaels, Melissa Etheridge's young girlfriend, who played mean-spirited Nicole Julian on WB's canceled Popular, and who has been quoted as saying "I've never been with men, ever... I'm gay blooded," is one of the few who comes to mind.

Alas, we used to have wiry, flirtatiously eyed Heche on the list before she married Ellen's documentary cameraman and told us to call her crazy. Before that there was the dangerously seductive Angelina Jolie, who's mentioned having "beautiful" love affairs with women as well as men, but has mostly been obsessed with now ex-hubbie Billy Bob. Ione Skye too proclaimed love for CK model Jenny Shimizu on The Howard Stern Show in the late nineties before she became interested in architect David Nettis. So of the few femme idols who have been candid with the media about their proclivities, three of four have gotten boyfriends fast.

"Bisexual" might slide by as kinky to the moguls, idiotically lumped in the same experimental category as drugs, something a star keeps quiet and hopefully grows out of‹heck, it may even extend their star power by making them a bad girl, controversial. But a "lesbian"? She is more than frowned upon, she is quarantined from being cast in heterosexual romantic leads because it is feared her "otherness" will disrupt the viewer's comfy illusion. Why else have het-looking stars gotten sue-happy lately to keep their straight status intact? It is an essential part of their commodity. Portia de Rossi is by all estimations settling down with another woman, possibly considering same-sex matrimony, if the bauble on her finger or the big step of buying a pricey piece of real estate together is any indication. Yet her livelihood hinges on her refusal to make her preference public.