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DeGeneres, Ellen (b. 1958)  

Comic Ellen DeGeneres' act is characterized by slapstick zaniness, split second timing, and rambling monologues delivered with a hapless charm that invites audience identification. However, no matter how great her contribution to the world of comedy, DeGeneres will probably be best remembered as the first lesbian to star as a lesbian on her own network television series.

Born on January 26, 1958 into a middle-class family in Metairie, Louisiana, DeGeneres grew up riding her bicycle through the streets of New Orleans, a city that prides itself on a diverse and quirky population. Although the family moved to Texas for several years, DeGeneres, after dropping out of college in the mid-1970s, returned to New Orleans to follow her own unconventional path.

She worked a series of jobs, from oyster shucker to housepainter, before stumbling into comedy. Her first stand-up act was performed at an informal show at a friend's party. DeGeneres came on stage with a burger and fries and proceeded to eat as she talked, forcing the audience to wait as she chewed between lines. In this first show, she not only entertained her friends, but she began to create the bumbling everywoman character who would later convulse audiences across the country.

DeGeneres began to perform stand-up in coffeehouses and comedy clubs in New Orleans, then around the country as she developed her act. In 1982, she won a cable television contest for "Funniest Person in America," and soon she had her own cable specials and guest spots on shows such as The Tonight Show and Arsenio Hall. In the early 1990s, she made the most of supporting roles in the short-lived ABC sitcom Laurie Hill and the Fox network's Open House. She also won the American Comedy Award for "Best Female Standup."

In 1994, ABC offered DeGeneres her own sitcom, a Seinfeld/Friends clone, titled These Friends of Mine. The show was fairly successful, and the next season the network changed the title to Ellen.

DeGeneres had realized that she was a lesbian while still a teenager, and by the time she was in her twenties, she was living a fully, if closeted, lesbian life. As her career and her public recognition grew, so did the chasm between her public and private lives. As her sitcom approached its third season, DeGeneres made the decision not only to come out as a lesbian performer, but also to bring out the other Ellen, her sitcom alter-ego.

The decision would have a huge impact on DeGeneres' life and career, and also on anyone exposed to the barrage of media coverage. The coming out of the actress and her character led to an international discussion of the presence of gay men and lesbians in prime-time television.

On April 30, 1997, Ellen Morgan, heroine of Ellen, came out as a lesbian in a highly touted hour-long special episode. The show was one of the highest rated television shows ever, attracting 36.2 million viewers and winning an Emmy Award for writing. DeGeneres' success was short-lived, however. ABC canceled Ellen at the end of the season, citing the poor quality of the shows and declining ratings.

An angry and disappointed DeGeneres blamed lack of network support for her show's failure. She felt especially betrayed by a parental advisory warning that the network placed on the shows with gay content.

The coming-out episode of Ellen received intense scrutiny from both the gay and mainstream press. Conservatives were, predictably, horrified; and, while many gays have hailed DeGeneres as a courageous pioneer, others have criticized her for not being political or radical enough. The media blitz surrounding her coming out affected DeGeneres' family as well. Her mother supported her by becoming an outspoken advocate of gay rights.

Shortly after the coming out episode, DeGeneres became romantically involved with (previously heterosexual) actress Anne Heche. Their relationship was constantly monitored by the press, who criticized them for such blatancy as public displays of affection at a White House function. Heche and DeGeneres dissolved their relationship at the end of 1999.

DeGeneres continues to work on network television. She had a recurrent role in the 1998 season of Mad About You, and she starred in another sitcom for CBS in 2001-2002. She has also appeared on cable (in Part 3 of HBO's If These Walls Could Talk) and in feature films (Edtv and Goodbye Lover in 1999). She has also gone back on the road as a stand-up comic, which resulted in another HBO comedy special, and she was invited to host the Academy Awards.

In 2003, DeGeneres began hosting a syndicated talk show. Offering a mix of celebrity interviews, musical performances, "real people" segments, and audience participation games, as well as a daily monologue by DeGeneres, the show quickly earned critical praise and solid ratings. In 2004, it won a daytime Emmy award for "Outstanding Talk Show."

The talk show, in fact, developed into a megahit. In 2008, DeGeneneres won her fourth straight Emmy for the show.

Thus, despite the failure of her sitcoms, Ellen DeGeneres has bounced back in a spectacular fashion. She is now one of the most beloved television personalities in the United States. Rather than harming her career, her highly publicized coming out seems only to have increased her celebrity.

After the highly publicized dissolution of her relationship with Heche, DeGeneres embarked on a much less publicized relationship with photographer Alexandra Hedison, with whom she was together for almost four years. Ironically, soon after the December 2004 publication of an Advocate cover story on DeGeneres that featured photographs by Hedison, the two decided to end their relationship.

Following the break with Hedison, DeGeneres became involved with actress Portia de Rossi.

When the California Supreme Court overturned laws barring same-sex marriage in the state in May of 2008, DeGeneres and de Rossi announced that they would wed in the summer.

In an intimate ceremony, attended by only 19 guests, DeGeneres and de Rossi were married at their Beverly Hills home on August 16, 2008. The wedding was attended by both their mothers.

Tina Gianoulis


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Ellen DeGeneres at Outfest, a Los Angeles film festival, in 2003. Photograph by Angela Brinskele.
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   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  American Television, News

Although glbtq people and issues have been inadequately covered by American television news, there have recently been signs of improvement.

arts >> Overview:  American Television, Situation Comedies

American television sitcoms have consistently reflected the presence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, often in distorted and stereotyped ways, but occasionally in ways that acknowledge our humanity and complexity.

arts >> Overview:  American Television, Talk Shows

For glbt people, television talk shows have been both promising and problematic; they have brought glbt issues to public awareness, but until recently they have also presented glbt people as stereotypes and freaks.

arts >> Overview:  Cabarets and Revues

Historically, cabarets and revues have been much more likely to mention or imply same-sex desire than the "legitimate" theater; and same-sex desire has been less frequently condemned in cabarets and revues than in mainstream plays.

arts >> Overview:  Comedy: Stand-Up, Lesbian

Lesbian stand-up comedy provides an excellent example of how comedy can foster social and political awareness in both minority and mainstream communities.

arts >> Overview:  Film Actors: Lesbian

Lesbian actresses have played a significant role in Hollywood, but their contributions have rarely been recognized or spoken of openly; the "lavender marriage" is by no means a relic of the past.

social sciences >> Overview:  Gay Rights Movement, U. S.

The U.S. gay rights movement has made significant progress toward achieving equality for glbtq Americans, and in the process has become more inclusive and diverse, but much remains to be done.

social sciences >> Overview:  Same-Sex Marriage

Lesbian and gay couples have been fighting for the freedom to marry since the dawn of the modern glbtq struggle for equality; despite some success abroad, progress toward same-sex marriage in the United States has been slow.

arts >> Bearse, Amanda

One of the first primetime television actors to come out publicly as a gay person, Amanda Bearse has developed a second career as a film and television director and has become an outspoken advocate of gay visibility.

arts >> De Rossi, Portia

Portia de Rossi moved almost effortlessly from a teen modeling career to acting roles in film and television; her widely publicized relationship with Ellen DeGeneres has made her one of the best known lesbians in American pop culture.

arts >> lang, k. d.

Long before she came out, lesbians had made singer k.d. lang their own.

arts >> Leifer, Carol

Comedian, writer, actor, and producer Carol Leifer never anticipated that after the age of forty she would find personal fulfillment by recognizing her lesbianism, becoming a mother, and standing up for glbtq rights.

arts >> Ottman, John

In addition to scoring over thirty full-length motion pictures, American film composer, editor, and director John Ottman has also created musical compositions for numerous short films, television programs, and commercials.

social sciences >> Proposition 8 (California)

Proposition 8, also known as the California Marriage Protection Act, was the ballot proposition that amended the California state constitution to ban same-sex marriage; after prolonged litigation in both state and federal court, it was finally struck down in June 2013.

arts >> Sykes, Wanda

Actress and comedian Wanda Sykes, who has never been shy about addressing sensitive or controversial issues on stage, has also become a spirited advocate for glbtq rights.

social sciences >> The Trevor Project

The Trevor Project, a Los Angeles-based educational organization, operates the only national 24-hour, toll-free suicide prevention hot line in the U.S. aimed at glbtq youth.


DeGeneres, Betty. Love, Ellen: A Mother/Daughter Journey. New York: Rob Weisbach Books, 1999.

Flint, Joe. "As Gay As It Gets? Prime-time Crusader Ellen DeGeneres Led TV into a New Era. But at What Cost to Her Show--And to Her?" Entertainment Weekly No.430 (May 8, 1998): 26-32.

Stockwell, Anne. "A Day in the Year of Ellen." Photos by Alexandra Hedison. The Advocate (January 18, 2005): 44-60.

Tracy, Kathleen. Ellen: The Real Story of Ellen DeGeneres. Secaucus, N. J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1999.

Wieder, Judy. "Ellen: Born Again." The Advocate No. 807 (March 14, 2000): 28-33.


    Citation Information
    Author: Gianoulis, Tina  
    Entry Title: DeGeneres, Ellen  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 12, 2011  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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