Ellen DeGeneres: Social Star
Fearless and fun-loving, Ellen DeGeneres has cemented her spot in America’s heart with side-splitting wit and a refusal to quit.
As a curious, young girl growing up in a lower middle-class home in New Orleans, Ellen DeGeneres became hooked on movies, feeling enthralled as she watched Bob Hope and Johnny Carson host the Oscars. Fast forward twenty-eight years to 1986: DeGeneres is a rising stand-up comic trying to break into a male-dominated world when she makes her first appearance on The Tonight Show. Wowing not just the crowd but also Carson himself, he invites her over for an on-camera follow-up after her act. It’s the first time a female comic has been asked to join Johnny for a post-performance chat.That was a milestone moment for DeGeneres, a kind of endorsement from one of the gods of showbiz. But even after establishing herself as a sitcom star on Ellen, and later as the host of her own daytime talk show, DeGeneres never dared imagine that one day she would host the very same Oscar ceremonies as her revered predecessors—much less do so twice.
“It’s not the easiest job in the world, and it was scary to go back, but if you want to succeed in life, you have to be willing to scare yourself sometimes,” DeGeneres explains.
She is chronically aware that not everybody accepts her lifestyle or is necessarily a fan of her earthy style of humor. Joining some of the world’s greatest movie stars and taking a selfie, as she did on last year’s Academy Awards telecast, was a brazen act in the eyes of some, but DeGeneres has never pretended to be anything other than herself.
“I can’t expect everybody to love me and like everything I do,” DeGeneres explains. “I just want people to understand me and to get me and know what my intentions are. And my intentions are to make people happy…to have compassion, and to spread that a little bit every single day.” That pretty much sums up the philosophy that guides the vivacious actress, comedienne, and talk-show host in both her life and work. She’s always been willing to take risks, break taboos, and go against the grain.
Her comedic gifts were sparked by the sight of her mother suffering in the wake of a divorce when DeGeneres was thirteen. She used jokes and impromptu comic routines as a way of lifting her mom’s spirits.
“My mom had some really bad things happen in her life, and she’s a trouper,” DeGeneres proudly recalls. “She’s tougher than I am, I’d say. When my parents divorced, it was my mother and me, by ourselves in an apartment. At that point, we kind of became roommates. I was thirteen years old. She’d been married for almost twenty years, and I watched her go through a tough time, trying to date, trying to figure things out. She dated some horrible men whom I had to kick out of the house…I kind of became an adult and was taking care of…watching her struggle. It made me go, ‘Oh, you’re my mom, but you’re just a human being.’ I saw her in a different role all of a sudden.”DeGeneres became one of the most popular women on TV when her eponymous sitcom debuted in 1994. Within a few years, she was America’s darling if not exactly its sweetheart. But she also had a secret. Her family had taught her to be proud, to be fearless, and to stand up for herself. So in 1997, she announced to the world that she was gay.
Controversy ensued, and when Ellen was cancelled in 1998 DeGeneres’s career was in shambles. Many predicted she was finished. Yet she resurrected herself in 2003 with a talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, earning the laughter and love of daytime audiences with her feel-good, fun-loving approach. She would go on to serve as a judge on American Idol, spokesmodel for American Express, and become the face for a CoverGirl beauty campaign.
Many people might not realize from her accent today, but DeGeneres grew up in the southern confines of New Orleans, Louisiana, together with her brother Vance, her speech-therapist mother Betty, and insurance agent father Elliot. At the age of six, her parents took her and her brother on an eventual cross-country train trip to Hollywood where they toured the very Universal Studios and Warner Bros. lots where she now films. “That was the only vacation my family ever took, and it was a big deal. My family was, as most are, very impressed and enthralled by celebrities.”
When things began to fall apart after her parents divorced, she and her mother pulled up stakes and moved to Atlanta, Texas. Her older brother stayed in Lousiana. It was the kind of upheaval that makes or breaks children, but in this case it was her mother who was suffering the most. Like Jim Carrey, that other famous comedian who would develop all his manic faces and body movements in an attempt to cheer up his clinically depressed mother, DeGeneres saw that humor was the only way to alleviate her mother’s distress.
“My mother was going through some really hard times and I could see when she was really getting down, and I would start to make fun of her dancing,” DeGeneres remembered. “Then she’d start to laugh, and I’d make fun of her laughing. And she’d laugh so hard she’d start to cry, and then I’d make fun of that. So I would totally bring her from where I’d seen her start going into depression to all the way out of it.”
Once she graduated from high school, DeGeneres decided to leave Texas and make her way back to her beloved New Orleans where she worked various odd jobs, waiting tables, bartending, and even serving as a legal assistant.
Still searching for a goal in life, it dawned on her that she had a way with words and could talk people to death in addition to getting them to laugh. In 1982, she entered and won top prize on the Showtime cable network’s Funniest Person in America contest. This set her off on the comedy circuit where she caught the attention of other famous comedians, eventually working her way onto the popular HBO comedy specials that featured legendary acts like George Carlin, Chris Rock, and Larry Sanders.
When she landed her show Ellen in 1994, DeGeneres had reached the kind of pinnacle that comedian dreams are made of—a career beyond the grind of life on the stand-up circuit. The series turned her into an instant star, but as her spotlight shined ever brighter, she grew increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of hiding her sexual orientation.
The RevelationShe made history by being one of the most high-profile Hollywood personalities ever to come out when she famously declared in April, 1997—on the cover of Time magazine no less—“Yep, I’m gay!” It was an act of courage in an entertainment industry still not completely comfortable with the fact that a certain percentage of its performers are, as it happens, gay.
Though that kind of admission is hardly startling today, it was a bold statement back then, especially when virtually no one of her stature had ever been willing to out themselves.
She paid the price for her revelation when ratings for her TV sitcom Ellen suffered when her character similarly came out. Advertisers pulled, ABC network executives ordered warning labels attached to episodes involving gay kissing or similar sexual innuendos, and the series was cancelled after the 1997–98 season.
“The phone didn’t ring for three years, and I was furious and frustrated,” she observes of that period.
That was the most difficult time of her life as DeGeneres suffered from the fallout—some would say backlash—over her announcement. Maybe America wasn’t ready to accept a gay TV star; maybe she had committed career suicide by misjudging the mood of the don’t-ask–don’t-tell era.
“It was probably a necessary time for me, though I would not have wanted to hear that at the time,” DeGeneres recalls. “I had been on a track where I kept telling myself, ‘I’m going to be successful, I’m going to be famous.’ And then it stopped. I had done a sitcom and a movie and hosted the Emmys, and all of a sudden, I lost everything.”
Perhaps naively, DeGeneres was unprepared for the cooling in America’s love affair with her. She had expected public opinion to be more accepting of her sexuality. Instead, she was left twisting in the wind.
DeGeneres explains her thinking at the time: “I went through a phase, whether it was true or not, where my perception was, everyone hates me now, and it felt horrible….It was just a huge dose of reality for me.”
Today she has a much different perspective on everything, however. “Losing it all really gave me time to realize that all this stuff is very fleeting. If success is really dependent on someone liking you or not liking you, and you have to teeter on that kind of tightrope of how you’re supposed to act and how you’re supposed to look and who you are, it’s just not a healthy way to live. Now I get to be me every single day and not have to worry about hiding anything at all.”
With no prospects of another TV series in sight, DeGeneres went back on the stand-up circuit and at least found very vocal and supportive audiences wherever she went. “Thank God for the fans who were so proud of me—at least they weren’t disappointed,” she recalls.
In the meantime, she found a good supporting role in EDtv, the 1999 Ron Howard film starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. She even managed to win the part of the reality-TV show producer in the face of stiff competition from none other than Jennifer Aniston. “Jen is my friend, and she recently reminded me that I beat her out of that. I got the part and Jen Aniston didn’t! That’ll probably be the only time that happens.”
Still, no one was beating down the door to offer DeGeneres work. In 2001, she starred in the critically acclaimed sitcom, The Ellen Show, but it bombed with audiences.
She remained undeterred, however, despite having suffered from a siege mentality at times that often made for lonely days and nights. She never gave up on herself, however, and her faith would be rewarded. There was indeed a second act in her life.
Return To Grace
On November 4, 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that had shattered American pride and shocked the world, DeGeneres hosted the Emmy Awards. True to form, she remained defiant in the face of any lingering fear and loathing that might still have tainted public perceptions of her and her sexual preference. That night, she made sure everyone knew she wasn’t giving in to fear and neither was the country.
“We’re told to go on living our lives as usual, because to do otherwise is to let the terrorists win, and really, what would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?”
Within a matter of years, DeGeneres was back on top and it took a fish—an animated one at that—to accomplish the trick. “Out of nowhere Finding Nemo came along,” DeGeneres observes of the immensely successful 2003 film that earned her a hefty paycheck and reestablished her as a viable performer. But Nemo was merely a preface to the next great chapter in her life.
That fall, The Ellen DeGeneres Show launched on nationwide syndication in the US, and it quickly became one of the most popular daytime talk shows on TV.
Not only did audiences flock to DeGeneres’s earthy charm and candid interviewing style—one need only recall Lindsay Lohan’s appearance a few years back—but critics adored the show from the start. It earned a record twelve Emmy Award nominations in 2004, the most ever for a daytime show of its kind, and won the Emmy for outstanding talk show. It was as if it was time to reward DeGeneres for being courageous and uninhibited.
“This show came along and just kind of took off….It’s the best job I ever had,” she says. “It just reminds me that no matter how much we think we have control over things, and we think we can guide our lives, that we have some control over it. We can choose to do things rather than not doing things. I used to care whether people liked me—and I want people to like me, I still care about that—but I know I have no control over that. I can be myself. I’m a good person, I’m a kind person, I’m a gentle person, I live my life in a kind way and that’s all I can do. And if I go to sleep knowing that I’ve done the best I can, that’s the best I can do.”
She adds, “I’m really happy and I’m really grateful. I have accomplished more in my life than I ever could have dreamed.”
Married to actress and author Portia de Rossi—“I love her so much it kills me,” says DeGeneres of her feelings for her longtime companion and now wife—DeGeneres is secure in knowing that she has found a modicum of personal grace in the fractious showbiz world.
“The truth is, and this is corny, I fall more in love with Portia all the time. I really do. She surprises me all the time. It’s what anyone experiences when you find that person that gets you, wants to take care of you, wants the best for you. We’re really lucky because we know how rare it is.”
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