A decade ago Ellen DeGeneres made a decision that left her career and her personal life in ruins. Thriving once more, she talks about the long road back and her date with Oscar.
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.”
The couple may not have a definite date with the stork, but their calendar is marked firmly for a different kind of big event. On February 25, DeGeneres, a veteran of umpteen other awards shows, will realize a longtime goal when she steps up to the mic at the Kodak Theatre to host the 79th Academy Awards.
DeGeneres talked to W about her route to the Oscars, the bad years and the tragic accident that set her on the road to comedy in the first place. And though she insists there’s nothing political about it, when she takes to the stage for the biggest hosting gig in the business, don’t expect her to be wearing a dress.
W: We initially asked you to wear a dress. You considered it, but in the end you were passionate about not doing it.
ED: I know what this magazine is. It’s a beauty magazine; it’s a fashion magazine. For me to even be considered and asked to be on the cover—it’s huge…. When I [first] thought about doing it, I thought, Okay, I’ll be open to this. I’ll play dress-up. Then I thought, I just don’t feel comfortable in it. I don’t want to apologize for who I am.
W: Do you enjoy fashion?
ED: I usually wear Jil Sander, or I wear Marc Jacobs, or I wear Viktor & Rolf…. I love Raf Simons, but I didn’t know he was even doing the [Jil Sander] collection. I like Neil Barrett. I love clothes, so when I wear clothes, they’re usually somebody’s. You know, I’m not wearing Kmart.
W: Do you think that’s the perception?
ED: Whenever Portia and I are on the red carpet, they’re yelling out for her to tell them what she’s wearing. But nobody cares [about what I’m wearing] because I have a suit on, even if it’s a Gucci suit. That to me is frustrating, because I put effort into getting ready too. But I guess it’s not as important, and I’m not as dressed up somehow. I also feel myself more of a person than a gender. When people show me clothing that seems very, very feminine, it’s hard for me to embrace that, because it just doesn’t feel like me…. It was fun [for the shoot] having somebody do that to my hair, and do that makeup. But would I want to do that every single day? No.
W: What will you wear to the Oscars?
ED: Everybody’s sending me stuff. Gucci sent me this amazing package with all kinds of different designs and different fabrics, in a beautiful box with my name engraved in gold plate. I picked some fabrics, and they’re making me something. Zac Posen made me a gorgeous tuxedo. Viktor & Rolf is making me something…. I wasn’t planning on changing because it’s just different suits, but I may do it, because I’d like to thank them all for making me stuff, for wanting to do that.
W: Let’s talk about the show. Did you expect daytime television to be so grueling?
ED: Every single day, it is my stamp on everything—it’s my name—so I have to answer every question. I have to make every decision. I have an amazing team, I have amazing producers, I have amazing writers, but at the end of it, it’s me making the decisions on the writing, the tone, the editing…. I want the show to reach people and to be something positive. Because the world is full of a lot of fear and a lot of negativity, and a lot of judgment. I just think people need to start shifting into joy and happiness. As corny as it sounds, we need to make a shift.
W: It has been suggested that it was just that attitude that got you the Oscars, because the show had gotten too nasty and satirical.
ED: For whatever reason it’s just the right timing for me…. It is a difficult thing because no matter how popular you are as a stand-up—you can go out and fill a 10,000-seat arena and be smart and funny—it’s delicate to host an awards show and know where your place is and know that it’s not about you, that it’s about the people who are nominated, and respect that, but at the same time have your moment to show them who you are.
W: Why do you think that so much comedy is so mean-spirited?
ED: It’s easy. I mean, it’s not like I don’t do that sometimes, around my friends; it’s not like I’m being duplicitous. It’s just that I think that there’s a time and place for something to be funny at an expense. But I don’t think you do it publicly. When there’s somebody at the other end of that joke, it’s not fair.
W: What do you think of Kathy Griffin?
ED: Very mean…. I know she had a big thing about wanting to be on the show, and we didn’t book her. She did a whole thing that I banned her from the show. I didn’t ban her from the show, because first you have to be on the show to be banned.
W: What about Sarah Silverman?
ED: I think she’s hilarious. I think she’s raunchy as can be, not my kind of comedy, but I think she’s brilliant. Smart counts for a whole lot to me.
ED: Sacha? I think Sacha [Baron Cohen], again, is brilliant. He’s a friend of mine. I think he’s hilarious. I haven’t seen Borat, so I can’t really speak [about it] yet. I don’t like bathroom humor and I know that there’s some pretty gross stuff in there. But some of the stuff he does is hilarious—as long as everybody is clear on the fact that he’s pointing out how scary a lot of people are.
W: Time once quoted you as saying there’s too much sex out there.
ED: I do think there’s too much, and I don’t have a kid. The lyrics of songs, everything; I just feel like every kid is growing up too fast and they’re seeing too much. Everything is about sex, and that’s fine for me. I’m not saying I don’t like it. But I don’t think it should be everywhere, where kids are exposed to everything sexual. Because they have to have some innocence; there’s just no innocence left.<
W: You have said you were fearful growing up. Of what?
ED: Afraid of anything; my experience was denial about real feelings, denial about pure joy and crazy, screaming happiness. There was no anger and screaming lows. But I’m really grateful for everything that I went through because [I decided] this is what I had to overcome; I was going to take chances. I was going to be different, I was going to be successful, I was going to have money.
W: Even as a child in New Orleans, you made a conscious decision to have money?
ED: I wanted to have money, I wanted to be special, I wanted people to like me, I wanted to be famous…. When you’re growing up and you see your brother [Vance DeGeneres, now a writer-producer in Hollywood] who’s talented and gorgeous and all these things, you want to be all those things. I thought if I could find a way to be famous, people would love me. And then you get all that stuff—and I worked really hard to earn all that—and it sounds crazy, but I got the biggest, [most] wonderful blessing I could get, which was I lost my show, and I lost my entire career, and I lost everything for three years.
W: Why was that a blessing?
ED: Because I got to learn that I was strong enough to start over again. Because 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. I was so angry, I was just so angry.
W: At the world?
ED: At the business. I thought, like, magazines were tearing me apart; I was the punch line. I guess that’s why I’m so sensitive about negative comedy, because I was the butt of every joke. I was the punch line, and it hurt. And my relationship was very, very public. Then I lost everything, and ultimately I lost that relationship. But I had to look at my part in it, and I had to look at and understand other people’s side of it.
W: How do you look at being on the receiving end of cruelty?
ED: I expected everybody to understand right away. I still think I was right. But I got to learn how to sit back and watch other people and learn what judgment was and have compassion. And learn that not only was I strong enough to make it in the first place, but I was strong enough to come back and make it again. How lucky am I to have learned that? That took a lot. I wanted to crawl up in a ball and climb in a hole and hide forever; I was embarrassed. That’s why I look at it as a blessing.
W: How did you feel when Will & Grace became such an instant hit?
ED: At first, I was angry…. But I was happy for them, and I was happy for the bigger picture, because I think everybody needs to be represented on television.
W: Are you at all surprised by where you are now?
ED: If I had ever thought that my career would have reached what it did before it dropped, much less then come back…I’m truly in an amazing, amazing place in my life. But I don’t want to say I’m surprised, because at the same time, I created it, I thought it, I wanted this. So when I look back on it, every single thing I’m doing is what I’ve wanted, and I believe that you get what you want.
W: Do you worry about another reversal of fortune?
ED: I don’t anymore, but I used to. But then I thought, I came back once, I’ll come back again. I know that I’m strong enough to come back…especially as a woman. Not too many women have a tremendous amount of opportunities to work. Even if you’re a beautiful woman, this whole business is youth-oriented. Everything is about No. 1, youth, and No. 2, beauty.
W: This year three grandes dames of acting—Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench—are nominated for best actress. A watershed?
ED: I hope it’s a turning point. It’s insane that we celebrate youth and lack of experience. I mean there’s nothing wrong with celebrating youth that’s just brilliant, like Dakota Fanning, like a freak of nature kind of thing…. [But] there are people, some not talented at all, who we celebrate. And then you have these brilliant actresses who can’t get work.
W: You’ve often said you don’t consider yourself a political person.
ED: I don’t make any kind of political statements. The only statement I make is that I’m openly gay and that I’m not ashamed of it, I’m proud of it, and that everybody deserves to be represented on television. I think secrets are what make you sick.
W: You had a very public relationship and breakup, yet since then, you haven’t tried to hide your relationships.
ED: I have more confidence in making decisions now, instead of letting someone else make decisions on how I should act in public. I don’t think I’ll ever make—I don’t want to call it mistakes—but it was a lot for people all of a sudden. They hadn’t seen that before; they hadn’t seen two women holding hands, or with their arms around each other on a red carpet. Now, I think in some ways I’m a little more private with my relationship. But we certainly don’t hide it. It was harder for [Portia] because before we got together she wasn’t out. She wasn’t public. It was actually a big step for her to take.
W: Do you have a paparazzi problem?
ED: If they find us shopping or something, they follow us, from store to store, the same shot—we’re getting out of the car, we walk into a place, they wait for us, we come out, we get in the car, they follow us to another place, we get out of the car. It’s like, Really? This is what you’re going to do with your day?
W: How do you deal with that?
ED: I’m not overly friendly, but I just smile or sometimes I ignore them. But I don’t care one way or another. They’re just trying to make money.
W: That’s gracious. ED: We were in an accident a while back, and they were following us. A car hit them first and then they hit us, and then we hit the car in front of us. One ended up on a stretcher. The girlfriend showed up 15 minutes later and is like, “Did you call your mom?” All of a sudden I saw this little…he was young, and he’s talking to his girlfriend and they’re talking about his mom. It was so interesting to me in a situation like that, to see who they were.
W: How do you conduct your public life with Portia?
ED: We just don’t put out there as much as I would have in the past. But it’s silly to try to hide it. I’m not ashamed of it…. We’re not joined at the hip, and we’re not just a lesbian couple. We have careers.
W: Back to comedy. What were the early seeds?
ED: I was always observant…. I noticed that my brother got tons of attention and that my parents didn’t have a good marriage. I always wanted to shake things up. Somehow I guess I just started noticing all of that, and then a lot of stuff happened in my life.
W: What is most difficult about getting started in stand-up?
ED: You have to be really, really tough-skinned, because it’s hard. There’s lots of traveling, lots of being by yourself, lots of really rude drunk people. You’re not just in big cities; you’re in small towns, you’re in mini malls, strip malls, and people wander in.
W: Did you play places like that?
ED: Lots of places where, literally, the soup of the day got the top billing. There would be a chalkboard on the sidewalk and it would say: SOUP OF THE DAY: BROCCOLI. AND ELLEN DEGENERES. And I’m not kidding.
W: Talk about that first monologue, how it came out of a tragedy.
ED: My girlfriend was killed in a car accident when I was 21.
W: What happened?
ED: We had a fight. I left to go stay with friends to try to teach her a lesson…. My brother’s band was performing. She went looking for me. It was really, really loud, and she was there and she kept saying, “When are you coming back home?” And I kept going, “I can’t…I can’t hear you. What?” I was being really aloof. She kept saying, “Come back home,” and then she left. I left a few minutes later, and we passed an accident. The car was split in two.
W: Did you recognize the car immediately?
ED: I had no idea…. The next morning her sister came and said, “Kat died last night.” And I realized that I had passed it. So I was devastated but just trying to make sense of it. They said she was alive for three hours. Could I have saved her? And why didn’t I stop? She was this beautiful girl…. At that age I thought, Wow, she’s just gone, in an instant. I was just talking to her, and if I had said, “Yes, I’ll go home with you,” she wouldn’t have been in that car.
W: Did you feel responsible?
ED: I felt all kinds of things. I felt responsible. I felt how fragile life is, all that stuff.
W: Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
ED: I think that’s all we are, if we tap into it…. The praying starts when you’re faced with something, obviously. I just make a point of being aware of it every single day, all day if I can.
W: Do you believe in God?
ED: I believe that’s a label for something.
W: The accident moved you to write your first piece.
ED: That’s why I wrote “A Phone Call to God.” I couldn’t afford to live where we were living together, so I moved into this tiny apartment. It was infested with fleas, and I was laying on this mattress on the floor and she was gone, and I didn’t have any money…. And I just thought, Wouldn’t it be great if you literally had a phone number for God? You could just call God and ask God questions that you wanted answers to…. I just wrote exactly what it would be like to try to call God…. It would ring forever ’cause it’s such a big place…Him not knowing who I am at first, and then making fun of my name…God sneezing and me saying, “God bless you”…. It just poured out. And then I decided that I’m going to go on Johnny Carson and do this, so I just started finding a place to do comedy. And out of nowhere a comedy club opened in New Orleans. I got a job as an MC, and I started writing more and more and more.
W: Did it freak you out that it all started with the death of someone close?
ED: It’s hard to say what I felt like at the time. I mean, yes, I was very aware that basically her death kind of put me on a better path…. I just think that things happen the way they’re supposed to happen. I don’t think that there are accidents. That made me very introspective; it made me start thinking about a lot. I could have just gone out and gotten drunk every night, and spiraled out and just felt sorry for myself, and become a rebel. I went the other way. I decided I wanted to figure things out. I wanted to find out what all this is about.
W: How did you reconcile that introspection with your orderly, goal-oriented side—I want to be famous; I want to have money?
ED: The first step is the desire and saying it out loud. I don’t think I knew that at the time…. It’s too weird that I would just write something that fast and then my first response is thinking and saying, I’m going to be on Johnny Carson and be the first woman to be invited over to the couch.
W: And seven years later you were.
ED: I remember watching Roseanne [Barr] on Johnny Carson and she was killing. It was her first appearance, and I just watched, and I thought, He’s going to call her over for sure. And he didn’t. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that he didn’t call her over, and for whatever reason, it happened [to me].
W: The call to the desk was a huge deal.
ED: The fact that he wanted me to sit down and talk to him, it catapulted my career. [But] that’s not why I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it because I knew he would appreciate it, I knew it was smart, I knew it was different, and I knew that nobody was doing what I was doing…. That’s all I wanted. I wanted people to get me.
W: Samuel Beckett wrote that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” and there’s a cliché to the effect that comedians are unhappy people. Is it possible to be happy and funny?
ED: I’m really happy. And I’m pretty funny.
More Video Hair by Serge Normant for Serge Normant at John Frieda Salon; makeup by Gucci Westman for Lancôme; manicures by Lisa Postman for Célestine Agency. Fashion assistants: Deborah Afshanti and Felicia Garcia-Rivera. Photographed at Pier 59 Studios West.