Ellen DeGeneres is a very funny lady. She has charmed television audiences for decades, first as a guest on the late-night talk shows, and then as the star of her own primetime comedy series, and, for the past 17 years, as the host of her own syndicated talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show. She is charming, she is clever, and she is a lesbian who has been married to her wife actor Portia de Rossi since 2008.
We live in an age where there has been much made in both political and societal circles about how different members of the LGBTQ community are from the rest of the citizenry. How there should be laws to exclude “those people” from basic human rights as if they are freaks to be viewed, if not with contempt and disgust, at the very least pity. Yet Ellen (you can’t help but call her by her first name—she’s that close of a friend) seems to just rise above any controversy as if seeming to be oblivious to the turmoil that threatens to plunge this nation ever further into splinters of dissonance.
There is no denying that she has been blessed with a personality that is as wide open and loving as the slobbering tongue of a Mastiff. She is this nation’s favorite flannel shirt, its go-to down comforter of warmth and nurture, its chestnuts roasting by an open fire feel-good addiction. Yet, outside of her element in the studio, surrounding by cheering fans who gladly wait hours just to spend a few special minutes in her presence, she is a mystery to most—even to those who think they know her well.
She was born in 1958 in Metairie, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans. An early animal lover, Ellen spent her childhood planning on becoming a veterinarian, for it was in animals that she discovered unconditional love. Her father, Elliott DeGeneres was a devote Christian Scientist, and not only kept her from seeing doctors, and from getting vaccinated but also protected her innocence against the realities of life.
My dad and me. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/ovNJzOnOMs
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) January 12, 2018
Shy is hardly a word that seems to explain Ellen, but as a child, she was withdrawn and limited in her exposure to the world by a father who wanted only harmony in his life.
“He was a very fearful man,” she told the New York Times. “He couldn’t hear or engage with anything not pleasant.”
Yet Ellen adored her father, an insurance salesman. And when he divorced her mother Betty Jane in 1974 after 22 years of marriage, the 16-year-old teenager was despondent and certain that she literally would not live to be an adult. But she did survive, and soon found herself moving with her mother and her new step-father Roy Gruessendorf to Atlanta, Texas. The sleepy hamlet with cracked sidewalks and peeling paint provided a blank backdrop for Ellen’s creative energy to grow, pierced only by the trauma of abuse.
Referring to Gruessendorf as a “really bad man,” Ellen revealed publicly in 2005 that when her mother was hospitalized for breast cancer soon after they moved to Texas, her step-father told her he needed to check her breasts for lumps.
“He told me when she was out of town that he’d felt a lump in her breast and needed to feel my breasts because he didn’t want to upset her, but he needed to feel mine,” she said to David Letterman on his Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. “He convinced me that he needed to feel my breasts and then he tried to do it again another time, and then another time.”
When Ellen DeGeneres was 15 or 16, her stepfather would check her breasts for "lumps" and her mom didn't believe her: "I was too weak to stand up—I want other girls to not ever let someone do that." https://t.co/23EQCvBFQ2
— E! News (@enews) May 28, 2019
She also revealed that when he tried to break down her bedroom door to sexually abuse her, she climbed out of the window and escaped into the night. While at first she hesitated to tell her mother (“I didn’t want to ruin her happiness”), when Ellen did work up the courage to reveal what her step-father was doing, her mother didn’t believe her.
“I know now that one of the hardest things to do is speak up after being sexually abused,” Betty DeGeneres later told NBC News. “I love my daughter, and I wish I had the capacity to listen to her when she told me what happened.
“I live with that regret, and I wouldn’t want that for any other parent. If someone in your life has the courage to speak out, please believe them.”
For Ellen, it made her decision to leave home immediately after graduating from Atlanta High School easier. She bolted within days and headed straight back to New Orleans. For a brief semester, she was enrolled at the University of New Orleans, before dropping out to take various odd jobs which included waiting on tables at T.G.I. Fridays and a stint selling Hoover vacuum cleaners door-to-door.
And while she got her start in comedy at Clyde’s Comedy Club in New Orleans at the age of 22, she was already well known around the city for her sense of humor and patronage at a lesbian bar called Charlene’s in the French Quarter. It was there that Ellen met her first girlfriend, the bar’s manager, Kat Perkoff, with whom she lived for several years.
A runaway, underground drug dealer, Kool flip-top chain smoker and fast-living demimonde, Kat’s seductive good looks and husky speaking voice channeled Lauren Bacall. The combination made her a major catch in New Orleans. A year older than Ellen, Kat was said to be promiscuous which lead to the couple’s breakup.
On the evening of June 25, 1980, after temporarily breaking up, Kat and Ellen crossed paths during a concert featuring Ellen’s older brother Vance and his band. As Ellen later told the story on Oprah’s Master Class series, “Kat was trying to get me to come back home. I was planning on moving back in. I just was trying to teach her a lesson and I was staying with some friends. So I just acted like I couldn’t hear her and was being just dismissive of her.”
After Kat left, a group of Ellen’s friends drove her home. And along the way, they passed a major car accident in which a white Mercedes was split in two.
“We heard sirens behind us so it had just happened — nobody was [on the scene] yet — and we just kept going. I found out the next morning it was her in the car,” Ellen said.
“That, of course, made me feel like I should have gone home with her that night. She wouldn’t have been with that person [who was driving]. I should have stopped. … All kinds of things. A lot of guilt. I think it made me realize how fragile and how easily you can lose somebody. Literally in an instant, she just was gone. It was really hard, but it shifted my entire focus and my life.”
In an ironic twist of fate, because of that accident and unable to afford Kat’s rent, Ellen was forced to move into a basement apartment, with only a flea-infested mattress on the floor. In lonely desperation, she began to write.
“I thought, ‘Why is this beautiful, 23-year-old girl gone and fleas are here?’ And I just thought it would be amazing if we could pick up the phone and call up God and ask questions and actually get an answer.”
Rereading what she had written, Ellen realized how funny the conversation actually was, and she turned into a comedy routine called “Phone Call to God” that she took on the road to comedy clubs across the country. It was because of that routine that Showtime named Ellen the Funniest Person in America in 1982.
Four years later, in 1986, she got her big break by performing the same routine on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on NBC. The stand-up routine impressed Carson enough that he waves Ellen over to join him on the sofa, a first in Tonight Show history.
The bounce in her career saw Ellen cast into guest-starring roles on a slew of comedy shows as she slowly crept toward what appeared to be an overnight success in March 1994 when Ellen, now 36 years old, was cast as the lead in situation comedy titled These Friends Of Mine. Her character, bookshop owner Ellen Morgan, was so popular with audiences that in season two, the series was renamed Ellen and became one of the highest-rated comedies on television.
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The bright light of stardom is a double-edged sword. While the fame and fortune made her a household name, Ellen also began to be scrutinized by the tabloid press.
“I was very insecure and depended on the validation of people who watched my show or my stand-up – validation I felt I’d lose if everybody knew who I really was,” she later said.
While the series continued to grow in popularity, Ellen continued to feel the need to reveal her sexual identity—both on the show and in real life. In the summer of 1996, negotiations with ABC and its parent company Disney Studios began in earnest with Ellen now eager to announce to the world that she was, indeed, gay. Later, when Oprah Winfrey asked her why it was suddenly so important to do, Ellen answered simply: “Because it is okay.” It would be a moment that made television history.
In March 1997, midway through the fourth season of Ellen, production began on the two-part “Puppy Love” episode in which her character Ellen Morgan would announce to guest star Laura Dern that she was gay.
Although there were more than two dozen gay or lesbian regulars in primetime series at the time, Ellen became the first openly homosexual series star, which was a breakthrough. Caught up in an avalanche of publicity, Ellen DeGeneres found herself on the cover of Time magazine, with the caption “Yep, I’m Gay” with a headline that screamed “Exclusive: Ellen DeGeneres Explains why she’s coming out”.
She made it look so easy. However, coming out to the world in 1997 was anything but. Part curiosity, part celebration saw 43 million viewers turn to ABC on the night of April 30 to witness what was a life-changing experience. It cannot to overstated how monumental the moment was when Ellen said on national TV, “Susan, I’m gay.” Three words; media history.
As for Ellen the comedian, she appeared on Oprah, the cover of Time magazine and did an interview with Diane Sawyer. The size of the controversy that followed, few could have predicted.
In Marie Claire, Trish Bendix, the one-time editor of AfterEllen.com, labeled it “’a watershed moment.’ It challenged viewers to consider that someone they loved and respected was doing something they assumed was morally wrong. For many people it was the first moment they ‘knew’ someone was gay.”
What began as a celebration suddenly turned angry. Detractors labeled her ‘Ellen DeGenerate’. Advertisers like Wendy’s and Chrysler pulled their sponsorship of the program, and even ABC, who had encouraged its star to stand proudly in her truth, began to air parental advisory warnings before each episode.
“Initially [my coming out] was celebrated and I thought that this was the greatest thing, because finally I was free too,’ said Ellen. ‘But then it just turned, and I mean turned.”
Article after article analyzed the reasoning behind the exposure, until so much had been written and rewritten that even Elton John felt obliged to speak out.
Ellen was nearing a breaking point: “Elton John, who I’ve never met in my life, Elton John said, ‘We know you’re gay. Now shut up and be funny.’”
And when the reality of just how big this fuss-up was playing out, ABC announced Ellen, the show, had been cancelled.
“Then it was a lesson on what it is not to be loved, and to be the butt of everybody’s joke on television and magazines,” Ellen said, as she fought off depression and went back into stand-up. “I never wanted to be an activist. I just wanted to entertain people, I just wanted to make them feel good. But since I’ve witnessed the discrimination and the double standards, and heard about the statics for gay teen suicide, I had to rethink that. So if by standing up for what I think is right makes me an activist, then I’m an activist,” she admitted.
Some of the world cheered–among them actor Anne Heche, who at the time was best known from her role as Johnny Depp’s girlfriend in the undercover Mob movie, “Donnie Bresco.” But her notoriety was about to be given a big boost where she started to appear in public on the arm of Ellen DeGeneres.
In what seemed like a seamless transition, Ellen had moved from America’s Funniest Person to America’s role model for fabulous and glamorous same-sex female couples. She sat holding hands with Heche on Oprah’s couch; they hugged each other on red carpets; they strolled along the beach in open happiness, pretending not to notice all the stares.
For every Jerry Falwell espousing hate, there was a thank you note from a gay teen expressing love. The “Puppy Love” won an Emmy Award for Ellen, and Emmy’s for her writers and producers. GLAAD got into act by acknowledging the story, and it received the Peabody Award for what the association called “groundbreaking humor.”
“The Puppy Episode” paved the way for what, today, is a TV landscape with more LGBTQ characters than ever with Will and Grace debuting the following year. And it also paved the way for career suicide. Laura Dern was unable to find work for a full year-and-a-half after the episode aired. And when Anne Heche brought Ellen as her date to the premiere of what was supposed to be her big-break movie, Six Days and Seven Nights, she later said: ”We were tapped on the shoulder, put into her limo in the third act, and told that we couldn’t have pictures of us taken at the press junket. And both she and I were fired that week.”
The stress of being a same-sex couple in the media spotlight took its toll, however, resulting in Anne Heche walking out the front door of Ellen’s home and life in 2000, and ending up on the doorstep of a complete stranger. By the time, the police arrived, Heche was certain she was waiting for an awaiting spaceship, and eventually admitted to having a nervous breakdown from the pressure. Ellen too went into a deep depression saying that it was the first time in her life that her heart was completely broken.
It took until 2001 before Ellen returned to TV on CBS in what would be the short-lived The Ellen Show. Yet, as fame went, Ellen still found the courage to face her future and her comedy fans in stand-up, mixing and match gay and straight as if equality was never an issue.
It was then that a little blue and yellow fish came into her life in the form of an animated movie script called Finding Nemo from Pixar and screenwriter Andrew Stanton, about a father blowfish looking for his missing daughter. Stanton was struggling to develop the dad’s sidekick, Dory, rerun of Ellen. “Her character tended to ramble, and when she changed the subject matter five times in one sentence, a lightbulb went on,’ said Stanton. ‘I wrote Dory with only Ellen in mind.”
Finding Nemo was the second biggest-grossing film of 2003 (after Lord of The Rings: The Return Of The King), taking $867 million at the box office worldwide.
Also in 2003, Ellen launched The Ellen DeGeneres Show—not for a network, but rather it was syndicated; and not on primetime, daytime was now her moment to shine. And the rest as they say is history.
Combining A-List celebrities with everything from children to animals, this mishmash of fascinating entertainment hit paydirt, being nominated for 11 Emmys its first season and winning four—including Best Talk Show. The show is now in 17th season and has been renewed until 2020, and has won 38 Emmys along the way.
Romantically, Ellen managed to reassemble her heart, dating photographer Alexandra Hedison (now the wife of actor/director Jodie Foster) from 2000-2004. In later 2004, she met Australian actor Porcia de Rossi, and four years later the pair got married, and recently celebrated their 11th anniversary.
The pair live in an estate on the beach in Carpinteria, 85 miles from Los Angeles but a lifetime away from showbusiness. Her neighbors are the like of George Lukas, Conan O’Brian, and Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. (Yes, she owns a place in the city as well as a nearby farm, but the Carpinteria house is her home.)
She’s got a private chef and art by Richard Serra, Tracey Emin and Basquiat on the walls. America’s Funniest comic has made it into the bigtime. According to Forbes magazine, she is the highest earning TV female talk show host on US TV, even out-earning Oprah. She is the highest profile lesbian in the world. And was awarded the Medal of Freedom – the country’s highest civilian honor–by President Barack Obama in 2016 for her influence on the gay rights movement.
Last year she ranked number 15 on Forbes Highest Paid Celebrities, taking home $87.5 million to add to her estimated $275 million net worth. She contributes to over 50 charities on an annual basis, many dealing with animal rights and LGBTQ equality. For a woman who started out wanting to make people laugh, she ended up getting the last one.
Yes, Ellen DeGeneres is a very funny lady. But she is so much more. Last year, the Hollywood trade paper Variety named her as the person who has done more than any other celebrity or public figure to influence Americans’ attitudes to gay rights.
— The Trevor Project (@TrevorProject) March 26, 2015
“Her impact on modern culture is immeasurable. Her coming out and her success as a person and a TV personality have directly contributed to how the world sees gays and lesbians,” Trish Bendix told Marie Claire. “She’s often cited, mentioned and thanked by other out celebrities and public figures who praise her for having done so when it was at peak difficulty. She blazed a trail for others to be able to do so with less fanfare and negative focus. She’s a hero for LGBT people.”
And she is our Advancing Equality Hero as well.