The US talk show host and comedian has overcome adversity to become a bona fide American superstar and a household name.
In September, Ellen DeGeneres told the audience of her talkshow about the pros and cons of hosting the Academy Awards: “Pro: a lot of fancy designers will want to approach me and want me to wear a beautiful, expensive gown. Con: ain’t no way in hell I’m wearing a gown.” The audience erupted in cheers.
Such vocal approval is an indication of how far both DeGeneres’s fortunes and US public attitudes towards sexuality have shifted. At the turn of the century, you could have been excused for thinking DeGeneres was down and out.
After spending two decades establishing herself as one of the most popular comedians in the US, in 1997 she gambled everything on coming out as a lesbian, both in real life and in character on the hit sitcom that bore her name — and she seemed to lose. Advertisers deserted her show, her relationship with Anne Heche became tabloid fodder and her career seemed to stall.
Look at her now. DeGeneres hasn’t just bounced back; she’s a bona fide American superstar, with a juggernaut of a talk show, nearly three billion views on her YouTube channel, and more Twitter followers than Oprah Winfrey. She has done it on her own terms. And she definitely wears suits, not gowns — as she will when she hosts the awards for a second time tomorrow.
DeGeneres has never been one to think small. Born outside New Orleans in 1958, she once said she decided early in life “I wanted to have money, I wanted to be special, I wanted people to like me, I wanted to be famous.” One of the key aspects of her success is that she has achieved this, lost it all and come back stronger without coming across as ambitious or egocentric, let alone nasty. Her amiability and approachability are crucial to her appeal.
Overcoming adversity is a motif that repeats itself in DeGeneres’ life. When she was a 21-year-old college dropout, she fought with girlfriend Kat and left their apartment. When Kat found her at a rock concert and begged her to come home, Ellen ignored her. Minutes later, Kat was killed in a car crash. Devastated, DeGeneres almost fell into self-destruction but found herself in her work. She impulsively embarked on what would become her comedy career, writing a routine called A Phone Call to God that she decided — one day — she would perform on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Seven years of gigging later, in 1986, she did just that — and was the first female comedian he invited over for a chat after her routine.
In 1994 DeGeneres landed her own ABC sitcom, Ellen. Like Seinfeld, it combined wry observation with stories about social awkwardness: bookstore worker Ellen was basically likeable but clumsy and needy, with a tendency to veer off on tangents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her penchant for self effacement, Ellen was hiding something.
Rumours about her sexuality grew until in 1997 Ellen the character and DeGeneres the performer came out as gay. Oprah was involved in both cases, as therapist to the former and host to the latter when DeGeneres appeared on her show.
“It’s important to remember no one had done anything like that before,” says Matt Kane of Glaad, the US lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender media advocacy group. “Ellen occupied a position in US pop culture that meant she introduced a lot of viewers to the reality of being gay or lesbian in a way they hadn’t confronted.” The coming out sparked a mini culture war. The TV evangelist Jerry Falwell branded her “Ellen DeGenerate”.
Initial support from advertisers and the network slipped away, audiences fell, and in May 1998 Ellen was cancelled. “I didn’t work for three years,” she has said. “I was so angry. I thought: I earned this. I didn’t get this because I was beautiful; I didn’t get this because I had connections in the business. I really worked my way up to a show.” Meanwhile, her public profile took a hammering, not least because for the first time the press had a celebrity lesbian couple to fixate on in DeGeneres and Heche. Their displays of affection, including at the Clinton White House, were a lightning rod for criticism until they split in 2000.
By then, DeGeneres was re-establishing herself as a major standup. She was praised when she hosted the Emmys soon after 9/11 — asking “what would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?” — and secured a new sitcom on CBS. Momentum was gathering.
In 2003, she launched The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Combining celebrity guests and comedy it was fun and feel good but in a comfy way that contrasted with Oprah’s messianic vibe. It won several Emmys in its first year and ratings climbed. They haven’t stopped.
In 2004, DeGeneres started dating the actor Portia di Rossi, whom she married in 2008 and lives with in apparently blissful, tabloid-unfriendly domesticity.
DeGeneres’ new mainstream popularity was cemented in 2007 when she hosted the Oscars for the first time. It might have taken a decade, but DeGeneres had reclaimed her position as a kind of national best buddy. Last month, the New York Times called her the new Oprah.
DeGeneres was once asked about the moment when Johnny Carson invited her over to chat after her debut appearance on The Tonight Show. “It catapulted my career,” she acknowledged, but “that’s not why I wanted to do it ... I wanted people to get me.” A bumpy three-decade ride later, America gets Ellen DeGeneres, and it likes her.
Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2014