Who Is Ellen DeGeneres?
Ellen DeGeneres hit it big as a stand-up comedian before starring on her own sitcom, Ellen. In 1997, she came out as gay, and became a staunch advocate of LGBTQ rights. She has been the host of her own award-winning talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, since 2003, and married girlfriend Portia de Rossi in 2008.
DeGeneres was born January 26, 1958, in Metairie, Louisiana, to an insurance salesman and a working mother who divorced when DeGeneres was a teenager. When she was growing up, DeGeneres dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but she gave up the idea because she was "not book smart." Instead, she waited tables, sold vacuum cleaners, painted houses and worked as a legal secretary.
DeGeneres's older brother, Vance, an actor/comedian and former correspondent for The Daily Show, was long considered the humorous member of the family. Then once, during a public speaking event, DeGeneres found herself frightened by the crowd and used humor to get through the experience. She was a hit, and received offers to do stand-up comedy. She began performing in 1981, bolstered by her mother's moral and financial support.
At the age of 23, DeGeneres began performing at a local coffeehouse. She got her big debut in 1986 when, acting on a tip from Jay Leno, The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson sent a booking agent to catch her act at the Improv in Hollywood. As a result of that engagement, DeGeneres appeared on The Tonight Show and earned the distinction of being the only female comic to be invited by Johnny Carson to sit on the famed "couch" during her first visit.
DeGeneres then began making regular appearances on the talk show circuit, including performances on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Later with Greg Kinnear, Larry King Live, and Good Morning, America. She was also profiled in detail on ABC's PrimeTime Live.
Coming Out on the 'Ellen' TV Show
Her wit won over audiences, and DeGeneres finally found success as an actress with her own prime-time sitcom — the self-titled television series, Ellen. The series was originally titled These Friends of Mine, but was renamed in 1994. From that point, the show evolved from its beginnings as an ensemble effort into a showcase for DeGeneres.
The show faced strong criticism when, in April 1997, DeGeneres' character became the first lead in sitcom history to openly acknowledge her homosexuality on air. An ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, refused to air the landmark episode. Fearing controversy, some of the show's sponsors, Daimler Chrysler among them, withdrew advertisements.
Several episodes following her reveal had gay themes and, throughout the remainder of the season, DeGeneres and ABC executives faced a storm of criticism. But the show also received rounds of applause from gay-friendly activists — including DeGeneres's mother, Betty DeGeneres, who appeared on numerous talk shows in support of her daughter. Despite a supportive audience, an Emmy Award for the coming-out episode and the show's groundbreaking place in television history, Ellen was canceled in 1998.
DeGeneres later revealed the difficulties she faced in coming out — from the Ellen executives who advised her against doing so, to the backlash she faced for making her personal life public. Appearing on Dax Shepard's Armchair Expert podcast in 2018, she recalled the humiliating feeling of being the subject of late-night talk show jokes, while rejecting the premise that she was an LGBTQ "leader" simply because she didn't want to keep the secret anymore.
'The Ellen DeGeneres Show'
In 2003, Ellen DeGeneres became a big hit with daytime viewers with her self-titled talk show, Ellen. Since its inception, the show has won a slew of awards, including a record 11 Daytime Emmys for a daytime talk show.
By the time her show was canceled, DeGeneres had already made the move to the big screen, starring in the dark comedy Mr. Wrong (1996) as a woman in search of the perfect man. She also appeared in the comedy EdTV (1999), starring Matthew McConaughey, and the television production of If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000), in which she shared a much-publicized love scene with Sharon Stone.
'Finding Nemo' and Awards Show Host
Also in 2003, DeGeneres lent her voice to the animated box office smash Finding Nemo, in which she plays a friendly yet forgetful little blue fish named Dory. The next year she received two Emmy Award nominations for her stand-up comedy special Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now. DeGeneres later returned to the Nemo franchise with the 2016 sequel, Finding Dory.
A unique combination of kind and funny, Ellen DeGeneres became a popular choice to host major awards telecasts. She was tapped to host the Grammys in 1996 and 1997; the Primetime Emmys in 2001 and 2005; and the Academy Awards in 2007 and 2014. Underscoring her popularity, DeGeneres in 2009 was chosen to fill the coveted fourth slot as a judge on American Idol, replacing Paula Abdul.
Books and Executive Producer
DeGeneres is also the author of several books, including My Point ... and I Do Have One (1995), Seriously ... I'm Kidding (2011) and Home (2015). Her film work slowed after her talk show took off, but she's continued to work mostly behind the scenes as an executive producer of several television shows including Bethenny (2012-2014), Repeat After Me (2015), One Big Happy (2015), Little Big Shots (2015) and her HGTV reality competition show, Ellen's Design Challenge.
Other Projects and Honors
Juggling many roles in Hollywood, DeGeneres has continued building her empire. She owns her own record label called "eleveneleven," as well as a lifestyle brand called Ed by Ellen (launched in 2015) which sells shoes, home and baby items, accessories and a pet line. She is an avid animal rights and gay rights activist, as well as a vegan.
In November 2016 DeGeneres received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama for her contribution to the arts.
In early 2018, as part of a 60th birthday gift from de Rossi, the TV personality learned of plans to create the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda, the first initiative of the new Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund.
At January 2020 Golden Globes, DeGeneres was presented with the honorary Carol Burnett Award for excellence in television. She became the second recipient of the honor, following its namesake in 2019.
For several years, DeGeneres dated actress Anne Heche and, in 1999, the couple bought a home in Los Angeles. Although at one point they publicly announced their desire to be married, the couple broke up in August 2000.
Marriage to Portia de Rossi
DeGeneres then dated Alexandra Hedison for a few years before becoming involved with actress Portia de Rossi in December 2004. DeGeneres married de Rossi on August 16, 2008, in what was perhaps the highest-profile gay marriage after California legalized the unions. In 2010 de Rossi was granted permission to legally change her name to Portia Lee James DeGeneres.
Sexual Abuse Revelations
DeGeneres first alleged that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather in a 2005 interview with Allure magazine. She elaborated on the topic during an appearance on David Letterman's Netflix show in 2019, recalling how her stepfather insisted on "examining" her breasts for lumps after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1970s.
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