We all know Ellen, we all love Ellen, but she is rarely included in lists of icons that are usually saved for pop divas and stars of camp movie classics. This beloved comedienne is a member of our LGBT community who changed the face of television, and perceptions of gay people forever.
The Early Life
Born and raised in Metairie, Lousiana to parents Elizabeth “Betty” Pfeffer and Elliot DeGeneres, Ellen grew up with older brother Vance, who would later serve as a writer for her sitcom, until their parents separated in 1973. Ellen moved with her mother and step-father Roy Gruessendorf from the New Orleans area to a small town in Atlanta, Texas, while Vance stayed with their father.
Ellen graduated from Atlanta High School in 1976 before moving back to New Orleans to major in communication studies at the University of New Orleans. After one semester she left to do clerical work in a law firm. From this led a string of dead end jobs as a waitress, a shop keeper, a bartender, a hostess, a house painter, and even working as a retail assistant for J. C. Penney, who later became a sponsor for one of her shows.
During this time Ellen held a steady stream of boyfriends while also experimenting with her female friends. Once she finally realised she wasn’t just unlucky in choosing men but she was in fact a lesbian she quickly came out to her mother while on a beach during a family holiday. Her mother supported her immediately.
Ellen cites her mother as the reason she began to make people laugh, as following the divorce she would often be down so Ellen would make her laugh in attempts to cheer her up. Her mother says while she was not the class clown in school, she would use her humour as a way to make friends in her new town.
Now an adult in 1979 Ellen became roommates with Kat Perkoff, with whom she later dated. With assistance from Kat, she would write comedic essays in hopes of them being published in magazines such as National Lampoon. Her friends soon took notice, as one invited her to perform at a luncheon. Having no scripted material, her first performance consisted of her eating a burger on stage, which became a huge hit. Her next show at a university coffee house saw her perform a song she says she had written during her stay in a hospital that saw her bang piano keys while screaming in pain. Her unique style once again proved popular with the audience, she and partner Kat reworked her essays into a full stand up routine before she hit the comedy circuit. While this was happening Ellen discovered Kat was cheating on her. During the breakup Kat devastatingly passed away, leaving Ellen heartbroken. In her grief she would talk to God as if through a phone call. She made a promise at the time to perform the bit on Johnny Carson.
Ellen quickly found herself as the master of ceremonies for a New Orleans comedy club before sending Showtime a video of her set for their national talent contest in 1982. She first won for New Orleans, then Louisiana, then the USA. Now she held the title of “Funniest Person in America” with just a couple of years experience under her belt. Rising from local comedienne to nationally known name overnight she hit the road to perform stand up as a headlining act around the country, even appearing in a few HBO specials.
The year is now 1986, and after four years experience on the road she finally scored a spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, after being bumped previously. She did as she promised herself and performed the phone call with God piece which caused her to become the first female comedian to be called over to talk to Johnny Carson, a glowing endorsement for any up-and-coming comedian.
In 1991 Ellen won her very first award, an American Comedy Award for ‘Funniest Female Stand-Up Comic’.
At the turn of the 90’s the star began dabbling in TV where she scored roles on Open House and Laurie Hill before both were cancelled, though she was acclaimed as the highlight of both.
Making the best of a bad situation, the Laurie Hill producers took Ellen and created a sitcom around her featuring an ensemble cast titled My So Called Friends. Following a lukewarm reception the show was reconstructed after its first season to focus more on Ellen, removing several characters and even retitling it after her.
The revamped show proved to be a success as the sitcom ran for five seasons averaging from 10 to 14 million viewers across the years. The rating and reviews slowly increased after the first season slump as viewers connected with Ellen’s oddball sense of humour, and physical comedy. For her work she earned several Emmy nominations and won a Peabody award in 1997 for her efforts on the show.
The actress was still so far in the closet at this point that she starred in a romcom Mr.Wrong that received extremely negative reviews, more to do with the film than Ellen herself.
She also took to hosting for her first time, performing at The Grammy’s for two consecutive years in 2006 and 2007. Her positive, bubbly attitude and affinity for dance was praised, but this was just a taster for what she would bring in years to come.
The Turning Point
Desperate to tell her truth, and allow her character to follow suit, Ellen began negotiations with ABC to allow the character to be a lesbian. The information soon leaked leading to both support and dismay. A true comedienne Ellen used the controversy to her gain teasing both her own and the characters sexuality.
Not too long later she came out on the cover of Time as well as appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show and discussing in an interview with Diane Sawyer. Quite the trifecta. She also used this time to confirm her sitcom double would be doing so also.
She was not the first celebrity figure to publicly come out as gay, but many before her did so out of force, or toward the end of their career as they had little to lose. Ellen did things differently. Right at the height of her career she felt a need to be true to herself and stop hiding a large part of her life. With everything on the line she put her faith in the public and told the world she was a lesbian. This is a reality that is difficult today, but in 1997 it was a completely different world. Her unashamed bravery was a spectacle within itself.
‘The Puppy Episode‘ will go down in history as one of the most progressive moments for the gay community in television history. Ellen became the first lead character in television history to not only come out on air, but to be gay. If it were not for this we may never have had the likes of Sense8, Modern Family or Glee.
Her non-fictional mode of coming out was not a dramatic tearful scene, nor a shame-ridden spectacle like seen before but a hilariously joyful moment in true Ellen fashion. Guest stars Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, Melissa Etheridge and Laura Dern turned out to show their support, with Oprah taking on the role of a therapist that aides the lead to come to this realisation.
This was the highest-rated episode of Ellen’s tv show history, drawing a giant 42 million viewers! This episode won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series and a second for Outstanding Multi-Camera Picture Editing. This is also the reason she won the Peabody Award and a GLAAD Media Award in 1998. Ellen’s sitcom counterpart coming out has been described as “the most hyped, anticipated, and possibly influential gay moment on television”.
GLAAD credits Ellen with paving the way for the LGBT-themed programming that came in the years following such as Will and Grace, The L Word, and Ugly Betty. It has also been suggested that Ellen along with these other series featuring LGBT characters have helped to reduce societal prejudice against LGBT people. The episode was ranked #46 on TV Guide’s list of “100 Greatest Episodes of All-Time”.
Shortly after Ellen premiered this groundbreaking episode, she was quickly turned on by Hollywood execs, companies and viewers alike.
The 90’s while not too long ago was entirely different that todays society. She was not greeted by applause and embraced to the nations heart like Caitlyn Jenner. She was something new, scary and unmarketable. Straight people no longer wanted to watch the show as there was too much ‘gay material’, and many gay people scared of the backlash also hit out; such as Chaz Bono, and Elton John.
Unlike today where homophobia is vehemently looked down upon, in the 90’s it was just an opinion. Protesters were not chastised for stating the show would bring down family values and cause a negative impact on our society. This caused sponsors to pull out from funding the series, and being worried the network slapped a warning to the beginnings of the episodes.
Ellen was stuck between trying to de-gay the character and move on, and sensitively trying to tackle gay issues for the under-spoken minority that desperately looked to her as a leader. Though she had little time to worry, as shortly following her outing the series was canned altogether.
The shocking story of her coming out stayed in the tabloids for months after its release; there was no social media or 24 hour news, there were not 10,000 celebrities in every field. An unheard story like this would be news for a long time. So after giving only 2 interviews, by the weeks following people were tired of hearing about it over and over. Her subsequent relationship with Anne Heche that was highly chronicled was not always appreciated. After losing acting work due to her relationship even Heche turned her back, breaking up with Ellen and stating she was ‘straight’ again before marrying a man. Ellen then moved onto Alexandra Hedison (who later married Jodie Foster) creating another spectacle in the news.
By 2000 she had embraced her label as a gay activist, working with gay-focused companies and providing speeches. This is the year she starred in If These Walls Could Talk 2, alongside an all-star cast, that detailed the stories of lesbian women in three different time periods.
Moving over to CBS Ellen created a new show ingeniously titled The Ellen Show, a sitcom that was pretty much a carbon copy of her first with minor changes. The character ‘Ellen’ was still an out lesbian but the show did not focus on it, much like the final season of her first show. After just one season, the show was cancelled after failing to find an audience. Ellen was once again failing to find her feet.
In 2003, after five years of struggling to land a stable job, Ellen teamed up with Warner Brothers to produce a chat show in place of the flailing The Caroline Rhea Show.
To begin networks were hesitant in touching the project, they could not see what housewives would have in common with an openly lesbian woman. Some producers were worried Ellen would be a cesspit of foul language, explicit sexual provenance, and an interest in gay-themed chat that the audience would be disengaged from.
Despite the many fears, The Ellen Degeneres Show kicked off filming for first-run syndication, opening offers to many stations. Among these it first began airing on NBC at 4pm, with repeats on ABC and various other channels depending on states.
The show was not too heavily promoted, as there was still not a great deal of confidence instilled in the comedienne after a string of failed female hosts before her. Kicking things off with a bang, many of Ellen’s high profile personal supporters such as Jennifer Aniston, and Justin Timberlake visited to help draw in viewers.
What came next was a surprise to all; people actually watched it! The viewers racked up over time and the awards began rolling in. Since its inception, the show, and host, have garnered 14 Peoples Choice Awards and an astonishing 26 daytime Emmys. Proving on both sides to be a critical and commercial success.
The same year she saw herself voicing ‘Dory’ in Pixar animated movie Finding Nemo. The family movie earned universal praise, closing to almost one billion dollars at the box office and earning the Academy Award for best animated feature. After much campaigning ten years later a sequel was announced, focusing on Ellen’s ‘Dory”.
With this film under her belt, Ellen realised she has tapped into children as a large demographic. Not an easy accomplishment from an openly gay woman, she then incorporated more family elements in her show to maintain this viewership. Since she found this new audience, much of her stand up has dropped the more risqué and expletive jokes for safer alternatives.
While her show continued to receive popularity, she found herself hosting the Emmys in 2005, and Academy Awards in 2007. The first out lesbian to accomplish many of these tasks.
By 2009, she was so popular with audiences that Fox bagged her for their most iconic airing show, American Idol, despite her not having a great deal to do with music. While this was a criticism by many, others were just happy to see the figure on screen, a testament to her popularity. She departed after just one season.
The peak of her career in recent years came in 2014, when she was announced to host the Academy Awards once more. After a revolving door of struggling hosts, there was little competition for her to beat in terms of performance. When she finally hit the stage once again she blew away everyones low expectations, providing one of the best ceremonies in recent history. Her support from the crowd, celebs, and the use of including the audience at home via technology saw the world simultaneously root for her. Every appearance was a hit and people were soon hoping to see Ellen more than who won.
Since her time hosting, she has reestablished herself as the peoples favourite television personality; her show is doing better than ever in the upper echelons of daytime television, her youtube videos gain millions of views per day, her social media is widely followed, and her celebrity guests are always happy to stop by.
Watching her daily, her viewers are almost friends, and she has shared great deals with them; her relationship with girlfriend turned wife Porsche, her thoughts on having kids, living together and her constant little quips about not being into men, the audience never fail to burst out into fits of laughter.
There is a website called afterellen.com. A lesbian-focused site, that derives its name from the impact Ellens coming out had on television. After her famous ‘I’m Gay’ cover countless other celebs such as Rosie O’Donnell have followed, and regular homosexual characters began to emerge in shows.
She was the catalyst for the “new gay visibility age” where she lead the way for gay people on television to be able to have storyline, topics, and themes in shows.
Rosie O’Donnell’s coming-out announcement only five years later saw much less of a commotion, showing how quickly Degeneres’ impact on gay visibility shifted Americas reaction. In the years since a whole host of celebs have made the announcement to less and less overall response.
Author Suzanna Walters writes: “TV is now filled with gay characters on high-end dramas such as E.R. and NYPD Blue and camp cartoons like The Simpsons. Gays are witty sidekicks, girls next door, doctors and lawyers, city officials, and teenage experimenters, garnering Emmys, accolades, and great ratings as they invade the family home through the ubiquitous tube.”
Though gay and lesbian individuals worked for years to get their counterparts on screen, Ellen opened the door for their work to get through. Now a large majority of shows feature at least one gay character, with more and more putting them front and centre with some media created exclusively for the gay community.
Her success is evident in everything she does, her fan base is not predominantly homosexual but everyone; housewives, kids, the elderly, she even has a few Teen Choice Awards! She is a CoverGirl, owner of a record label, producer of television shows, creator of home wear and fashion, a much sought after spokesperson, and the face of wholesome television.
She is known as being kind, funny, and generous, everybody loves Ellen no matter their state, age or gender. She is everyones friend when in need, and America has taken her to its collective heart. She has shared so much of her life, and continues to do so ,and is a beacon of positivity and love that people aspire to be like. She has done so much for the normalisation of gay assumptions by just being herself and appearing on television daily.
The struggles she has endured and overcome in the name of achieving something groundbreaking and paving the way for future generations of gay people, and the phenomenal work she has done becoming one of Americas sweethearts while fighting for gay rights and inclusion is the reason Ellen Degeneres is our ultimate Gay Icon.