Legendary Balanchine ballerina Maria Tallchief once told me that she became an Ellen DeGeneres fan after watching her on Hollywood Squares. Joseph Kuhn, a gay art-semiotics major at an East Coast university, Tivos DeGeneres every day. And at a recent taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show in Los Angeles, I sat next to an elderly woman from Georgia who, during the star's signature bopping-with-the-audience entrance, danced like it was 1959.
These days it seems that everybody loves DeGeneres. Her distinctive hip populism cuts across divergent demographics while alienating no one. She has attained first-name-only status of the coziest sort, her most dedicated fans viewing her not with the awestruck devotion of Oprah Winfrey's faithful but with the familiarity of pals, as if they might go grab a drink with her after work. She just seems so nice and so normal.
But then, nice and normal are what DeGeneres's humor is all about as she riffs on the mundane, often mildly irritating realities of daily life. In her public persona at least, she has managed to retain a believable childlike gee-whiz wonderment at such frustrations as trying to start off a new roll of toilet paper, even though by the time this issue hits newsstands she will have just turned 49.
Yet as DeGeneres says in her American Express ad, her life is far from ordinary. Though she projects the off-kilter charm of someone whom fame caught by surprise, she actually sought from an early age the stardom that now affords her a sophisticated multiple-residence, art-collecting lifestyle. A thoughtful conversationalist off camera, she displays both the optimism of her onstage persona, that of a grown-up, engaging Pollyanna eager to find the good in everyone, and the subtle wariness of someone who knows heartache up close. Above all, she strives to neither hurt nor be hurt. She's known the latter, and it stinks. In 1997 DeGeneres and her sitcom character emerged notoriously from the closet, triggering a fierce public fall from grace that hit fever pitch during her tabloid-fodder relationship with Anne Heche. The episode left her stunned, angry, unable to find work for three years and mired in depression.
Today, however, DeGeneres is back on top of the world. Despite squaring off against Winfrey in major markets, her talk show, now in its fourth season, is a huge hit that has garnered her 15 Emmys, including two for outstanding host and three for outstanding show. For more than two years she has been happily involved with Portia de Rossi, and though she admits to being more guarded publicly than when she was in "another relationship," she is comfortable using terms of endearment with the tape recorder running. Noting that their relationship forced de Rossi's outing, DeGeneres coos, "I'm proud of you, baby" to the actress, who has spent most of the day with us. The two are considering having children, and go back and forth on the matter. "Ellen would carry," de Rossi offers. Counters DeGeneres: "That will never happen."