By Joyce L. Arnold
She’s one of those people for whom a first name is all that’s required to be recognized: Ellen.
DeGeneres, of course, is the last name. At least parts of her story are well known. Certainly her syndicated talk show, which enters its tenth season in September, is widely recognized. It is, in fact, the “top-earning syndicated series,” according to Hollywood Reporter’s feature story (August 23 – September 5 issue), The Booming Business of Ellen DeGeneres: From Broke and Banished to Daytime’s Top Earner.
Ellen DeGeneres was born January 26, 1958, in Metairie, Louisiana. Her mother, Betty, shows up on Ellen’s show fairly often, and there’s the occasional visit of Ellen’s wife, Portia De Rossi. According to the Hollywood Reporter story, the profits of her show are in the “$20 million range.” Add the earnings from her production company, record label, books and “spokesmodel” deals, and you have what the Reporter story calls the “Ellen DeGeneres’ $50 Million Empire.”
For many, perhaps especially within the LGBT communities, one of, if not the most, memorable Ellen moment may be the “The Puppy Episode” of Ellen’s sit-com, which aired on April 30, 1997. We all knew it would, in fact, be her character’s “coming out” episode. DeGeneres had actually already come out, in an equally big way, on the April 14, 1997 cover of Time magazine, with “Yep, I’m Gay.” This made her, according to People:
… TV’s first openly gay star. Conservative Rev. Jerry Falwell proclaims her ‘Ellen DeGenerate,’ while the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation later gives her a special honor. ‘I didn’t choose to be anything other than a comedian,’ she tells Time. ‘I just happen to be gay, and I didn’t feel like keeping it a secret, so I announced it. It all turned into this whole big political thing.’
Other than news programming, I’d stopped watching television except on rare occasions years before the April 30, 1997 show. This was one of the rare occasions. Watching the Ellen character stammering and struggling to get the words “I’m gay” out was a mixture of painful, humorous and familiar. The fact that when her character finally managed to say the words it was accidentally into an open microphone in an airport terminal was a perfect “coming out” television drama.
I can’t embed the video, but you can see it here.
The real-life repercussions were, unfortunately for her career, even more dramatic, as the Falwell quote above indicates. Ellen the real person paid a big price for what really was a courageous decision. From People:
A record 42 million people tune in as DeGeneres’ TV persona ‘comes out’ on Ellen that features Oprah Winfrey. After religious groups protest the show, ABC cancels Ellen in 1998.
Winfrey received hate mail, including explicitly racist in nature, after her guest starring in the coming out episode as Ellen’s therapist. About DeGeneres, Winfrey told the Reporter:
‘Being able to be free … and to express herself in a way that she can be 100 percent truthful with the (talk show) audience has allowed them to fall in love with her,’ says Oprah Winfrey … . ‘Honest-to-God truth: I don’t believe she would have been as successful as she has become had she not come out.’
The fact that the Ellen talk-show even happened is rather amazing. It’s success, and Ellen’s success in general, is even more amazing. From the Reporter:
On Sept. 10, the Telepictures talk show will enter its 10th season on air, a milestone few station managers predicted DeGeneres would reach back in 2003, when she was spiraling from her courageous – and for a three-year period, career-destroying – decision to publicly reveal her sexual orientation.
The emphasis on DeGeneres simply being herself, and simply being a someone “easy to like,” are obvious factors in her success. But of course, that doesn’t erase the struggles. The Reporter story also mentions that Ellen has
… managed to strike a remarkable balance by being agenda-free without shying from who she is, as evidenced by frequent mentions of (and occasional visits from) her wife of four years, Portia de Rossi. Yes, she addresses bullying from time to time and even opted to fire back when the One Million Moms group said JCPenney would lose customers with ‘traditional values’ by hiring DeGeneres.
‘I usually don’t talk about stuff like this on my show, but I really want to thank everyone who is supporting me,’ she told her viewers in February. ‘Here are the values that I stand for: honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated and helping those in need. To me, those are traditionally values.’
She’s mostly “apolitical,” as the feature story describes her, but there are exceptions. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain appeared on her show. She told McCain:
‘We are all the same people. You’re no different than I am. Our love is the same.” …
True to form, DeGeneres ended the segment on a lighter note, suggesting in jest that McCain walk her down the aisle when she wed de Rossi.
Ellen has had her mother’s support. In fact, Betty was in the coming out episode, and became the “first non-gay spokesperson for (HRC’s) … national coming out project.” That was also in 1997. Earlier, from HRC, on the fifteenth anniversary of the coming out episode, with a bit of perspective, and with a classic Ellen line:
‘The Puppy Episode’ first aired on April 30, 1997, and while shows like Will & Grace and Glee have made coming out a regular prime time occurrence, it’s important to remember what a groundbreaking moment that was. Though we’ve come a long way, Ellen tweeted yesterday that she’s ‘still waiting for that puppy.’