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 and gender 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, she sank into depression 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, CNN or any member of One Direction. 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 on Sunday.
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 or mean. Her amiability and approachability are crucial to her appeal, and perhaps her most politically significant attributes too.
Overcoming adversity is a motif that repeats itself in DeGeneres’ life. When she was a 21-year-old college dropout, she fought with her 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 dedicated 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, called Ellen. Like Seinfeld, it combined wry observational standup with stories about social awkwardness: bookstore worker Ellen was basically likeable but clumsy and needy, with a tendency to ramble nervously and veer off on tangents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her penchant for deflection and self-effacement, Ellen was hiding something.
Rumours about her sexuality grew and hints were dropped on the show until in 1997 both Ellen the character and DeGeneres the performer came out as gay. Oprah was involved in both cases, as therapist to the former and talkshow host to the latter when DeGeneres appeared on her show. Degeneres also gave an interview to Time magazine, appearing on the cover with the strapline “Yep, I’m Gay”.
“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. “To come out on that scale – 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, with many praising the comedian’s courage while others recoiled. 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. Four months later, Will & Grace – the first network sitcom with a lead character who was out from the start – debuted to considerable success. But Ellen was out in the cold. “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, a sitcom that was mine that was successful, that was on for five years. I did what was right: I came out, which was good for me and ultimately it was the only thing I could do. And then I got punished for it.” 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 unabashed 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 2002, the lesbian culture website AfterEllen launched, its name confirming DeGeneres’s coming out as a watershed moment. And in 2003, she stole the film Finding Nemo as scatterbrained Pacific regal blue tang Dory.
In 2003, she launched The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Combining celebrity guests and comedy shtick – dancing with the audience, social-media blooper segments – it was fun and feelgood but in a comfy, pally way that contrasted with Oprah’s messianic vibe. It won several Emmys in its first year and ratings climbed. They haven’t stopped yet.
In 2004, DeGeneres started dating the actor Portia di Rossi, whom she married in 2008 and lives with in apparently blissful, tabloid-unfriendly domesticity.
“She’s a great symbol of how far we’ve come,” says Kane. “From losing nearly all her major sponsors after she came out, she’s now one of America’s most popular talk show hosts. Her screen presence is very welcoming. She can be quick-witted and sharp without being mean-spirited, which has really endeared her to audiences. She connects by doing what she does best: talking about shared experiences.”
Prejudice against any given group is harder to maintain once people get to know a member of it. “Housewives who might have been disapproving when Ellen came out have got to know her,” says Kane. “They see she’s not the frightening activist they might have thought, but someone they want to spend time with on a daily basis.”
DeGeneres’ new mainstream popularity was cemented in 2007 when she hosted the Oscars for the first time. The fact that she was the first openly gay person to do so was perhaps less interesting than the sense that she was tapped because of her upbeat tone, a marked shift from two years of distinctly barbed hosting from Chris Rock and Jon Stewart. Now DeGeneres was the go-to act to keep everyone calm.
“These days it seems that everyone loves DeGeneres,” W magazine noted. “Her distinctive hip populism cuts across divergent demographics while alienating no one … She just seems so nice and so normal.” It might have taken a decade, but DeGeneres had reclaimed her position as a kind of national best buddy. But she has kept getting bigger. Her talk show goes from strength to strength, clocking up ever-growing ratings, 33 Emmys to date and A-list guests (Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep in recent weeks). Last month, the New York Times called her the new Oprah”, noting her extraordinary advertising pull and growing range of branded products and media ventures, and suggesting her show has “helped fuel a full-fledged cultural movement, in which bullying is not OK”.
Certainly, DeGeneres is using her industry clout to push things forward. Through her company, A Very Good Production, she is currently producing sitcom One Big Happy, about a gay woman and a straight man (Elisha Cuthbert and Nick Zano), lifelong friends who have a baby just as he meets the love of his life. DeGeneres will even graduate from comic relief to leading fish in Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, scheduled for release in 2016.
And of course she has been invited to host the Oscars again – notably in the wake of another couple of fractious years courtesy of the bizarre Hathaway-Franco double act of 2012 and Seth MacFarlane’s bad-taste bonanza in 2013. “When she was first announced as an Oscar host, some people saw it as a risk,” says Kane. “Now it seems like a natural fit or even a safer choice.”
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 to do it because … I wanted people to get me.” A bumpy three-decade ride later, it’s safe to say that America gets Ellen DeGeneres, and it likes her.
Born 26 January 1958 in Metairie, Louisiana
Career In 1986 she became the first female comedian to be invited for an on-screen chat with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. From 1994-1998 she appeared in the sitcom Ellen. After that was cancelled, she experienced a hiatus before returning with her talk show.
Low point After coming out as a lesbian in Ellen and in real life in 1997, advertisers pulled out of the show and it was cancelled after one more season.
High point Her appearance as host of the Emmys soon after 9/11.
What she says “My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 now, and we don’t know where the hell she is.”
What they say about her “She combines her cosy charm with a coldly brilliant cynic’s eye.” – Leo Benedictus, the Guardian
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
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