Ellen DeGeneres attracted massive media attention when she came out as a lesbian on her television show in 1997. Known as "the puppy episode," the program stirred controversy and drew criticism from conservative sectors. DeGeneres and her partner, actress Anne Heche, came out at the same time, DeGeneres appearing on the covers of national magazines. The caption accompanying her photograph on the cover of Time read, "Yep, I'm Gay Her place in history as TV's first gay lead character was thus secured.
Born in New Orleans in 1958, DeGeneres' sometimes difficult life inspired her to use humor as a coping device. After her parents' divorce when she was 13, she and her mother, Betty, moved to Texas. It was a hard time, and DeGeneres used humor to buoy her mother's spirits. "My mother was going through some really hard times and I could see when she was really getting down, and I would start to make fun of her dancing," DeGeneres has said. "Then she'd start to laugh and I'd make fun of her laughing. And she'd laugh so hard she'd start to cry, and then I'd make fun of that. So I would totally bring her from where I'd seen her start going into depression to all the way out of it."
After graduating from high school in 1976, DeGeneres moved back to New Orleans where she worked a series of dead-end jobs: house painter, secretary, oyster shucker, sales clerk, waitress, bartender, and vacuum salesperson. At the encouragement of friends, she tried out her comedy on an amateur-hour audience, in 1981. Her act went over well, and her niche had been found. Only a year later, she entered and won Showtime's "Funniest Person in America" contest. The title, which brought both criticism and high expectations, was her springboard to stardom.
One of her better-known stand-up routines, "A Phone Call to God," came from one of her own darkest moments of despair, when a close friend and roommate had been killed in a car accident while out on a date. The girl was only 23, and it seemed very unfair to DeGeneres. She wanted to question God about a lot of things that seemed unnecessary, and again she turned to humor. She sat down one night and considered what it would be like if she could call God on the phone and ask him about some of the things that troubled her. As if it was meant to be, the monologue poured from her pen to paper, and it was funny, focusing on topics such as fleas and what their purpose might be. DeGeneres performed "A Phone Call to God" on the Johnny Carson show six years later. Everything clicked that night, and Carson signaled her over to sit on the couch after her performance. She was the only female comedian Carson ever called to come over and talk to him on a first appearance on the Tonight Show.
DeGeneres continued on the comedy circuit and started acting; one memorable performance was with dancing fruit in Very Fine juice commercials. She eventually landed small roles in several short-lived television series: Duet, Open House, and Laurie Hill. Her feature acting debut was in the 1993 movie Coneheads.
By 1994 she was starring in a series called These Friends of Mine on ABC. The first season was aided by a prime slot, following Tim Allen's Home Improvement. The network had such confidence in her that they announced that she would be the ABC spokesperson for radio ads and on-air promos, allowing her to introduce the debut of every show in the fall lineup. She also co-hosted the 1994 Emmy Awards ceremony.
Despite DeGeneres' fervent backing by ABC, the show had a number of problems, not the least of which were critical comparisons to Seinfeld, and a number of personnel changes on both sides of the camera. The show's name was changed to Ellen for its second season, its concept was changed, and Ellen was given more creative input.
By the third season, Ellen had failed to find an audience, however, and the show needed a boost. DeGeneres and her producers decided to announce the character's homosexuality to give the show a new edge--and to tell the truth. As DeGeneres told Time: "I never wanted to be the lesbian actress. I never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community. Ever. I did it for my own truth." After months of hinting around on the show, Ellen came out in an hour-long episode featuring guest stars Laura Dern, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, and Oprah Winfrey. The result was a clamor among conservatives and the religious right; evangelist Jerry Falwell called DeGeneres a "degenerate." The show won an Emmy for best writing in a comedy series, and a Peabody award for the episode. Entertainment Weekly named DeGeneres the Entertainer of the Year in 1997. In 1998, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD) awarded DeGeneres the Stephen F. Kolzak Award for being an openly gay celebrity who has battled homophobia. The series itself was given the award for Outstanding TV Comedy. The show was even praised by vice president Al Gore for forcing Americans "to look at sexual orientation in a more open light."
In the following season the show continued to focus mainly on gay issues, despite declining ratings, and ABC decided not to renew the show for a sixth season. Critics noted that the show had become one-dimensional, with Ellen's homosexuality overshadowing all other topics. As the show declined, however, DeGeneres began branching out, writing a book, My Point ... And I Do Have One, in 1996 and releasing an album collection of stand-up material called Taste This. She also had her first leading role in a film, a romantic comedy with actor Bill Pullman called Mr. Wrong. Meanwhile, her series was picked up in syndication by the Lifetime channel in 1998. Is now in syndication today on the Oxygen channel. (2006)
DeGeneres returned to series TV in 2001 with a new CBS sitcom, The Ellen Show. Though her character was again a lesbian, it was not the central theme of the show. It received critical praise but low viewership and was cancelled after one season.
Although her second sitcom was not a success, Ellen did receive wide exposure on November 4, 2001, when she served as hostess of the Emmy Awards-TV show. Presented following two cancellations due to fears that a showy ceremony would appear insensitive following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the show required a newer, more somber tone that at the same time allowed viewers to temporarily forget the tragedy. DeGeneres delivered this, receiving several standing ovations for her performance that evening. She memorably delivered the following line: "We're told to go on living our lives as usual, because to do otherwise is to let the terrorists win, and really, what would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?"
DeGeneres lent her voice to the role of "Dory," a fish with short-term memory loss, in the summer 2003 hit animated Disney/Pixar film Finding Nemo. Finding Nemo was a box office hit, it had the biggest opening weekend of any animated film upon it's release on May 30rd, 2003. Pulling in over 330 million dollars total at the box office. It also Claimed the all-time first day USA record for home-release sales with 8 million copies sold (80% of which were on DVD). As of January 2005, it is the bestselling DVD of all time in the world with 22 million copies sold. The movie returned DeGeneres to the limelight, with critics giving her rave reviews. 2003 was a busy year for Ellen, she also narrated one of the highly successful VH1 Divas shows and wrote another book The Funny Thing Is.
In September of 2003, DeGeneres launched a daytime television talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Amid a crop of several talk shows surfacing in 2003 and hosted by high-profile celebrities (including Sharon Osbourne and Rita Rudner), DeGeneres' show has consistently risen in the Nielsen Ratings and received widespread critical praise. DeGeneres' show was nominated for eleven Daytime Emmy Awards in its freshman season, winning four, including Best Talk Show. The show has won 15 Emmy Awards in its first three seasons on the air. The Ellen DeGeneres Show is the first talk show in television history to win the Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show for its first three seasons on the air. Ellen is known for her dancing with the audience in the beginning of the show.
Since November 2004, DeGeneres has appeared, dancing, in a new ad campaign for American Express. Since May 2005, she has been a contributing blogger at The Huffington Post.
In August 2005, Ellen was selected once again as host of the 2005 Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony, which was held on September 18, 2005. (The awards show came three weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, making it the second time Ellen hosted the Emmys following a national tragedy. Because Ellen is from New Orleans, the tragedy literally hit close to home) When she announced that she'd be again hosting the Emmys, she joked, "You know me, any excuse to put on a dress." She also hosted the Grammy Awards in 1996 and in 1997.
DeGeneres' relationship with former Another World actress Anne Heche turned into material for the tabloid press. After several years in the spotlight, Heche broke up with DeGeneres and went on to marry male cameraman Coley Laffoon. DeGeneres then had a relationship with Actress/Director/Photographer Alexandra Hedison. They appeared on the cover of The Advocate magazine (ironically, after their split up had already been announced to the press). DeGeneres is now in a relationship with Arrested Development and former Ally McBeal star Portia de Rossi, which began in December 2004, they bought a 120 acre ranch together. In August 2008, Portia and Ellen married in Los Angeles.
DeGeneres has one brother, Vance, who made a guest appearance on Ellen in 1994. Vance was also a correspondent for The Daily Show from 1999 to 2001.
In her book, Love, Ellen, DeGeneres' mother, Betty, describes being initially shocked when her daughter came out as a lesbian, but has in fact become one of her strongest supporters. Betty DeGeneres is an active member of PFLAG and spokesperson for the HRC Coming Out Project. She is also a breast cancer survivor.