In 1996, comedian, actress and future talk show queen Ellen DeGeneres was so far from coming out that she starred in a stinker of a film called Mr. Wrong alongside Bill Pullman and Joan Cusack. In this comedy DeGeneres played a single and lonely woman who finally manages to find her dream man, only to discover that he is more of a nightmare. The film was poorly received, with #DeGeneres nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst New Star and a Stinkers Bad Movie Award for Worst Actress.
But less than a year later, DeGeneres decided that it was time to disclose her sexual orientation to the world. Rather than being outed as gay against her wishes by way of a sordid tabloid tale, DeGeneres was the orchestrater of her own coming-out story.
On April 14, 1997, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine, along with the headline: "Yep, I’m Gay," which still today remains one of the magazine's best ever headlines. Soon after, DeGeneres appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss her coming-out revelation, followed by an interview with Diane Sawyer.
Two weeks after her cover story, DeGeneres made the decision to also come out in reel life on her sitcom Ellen. On April 30, 1997, in The Puppy Episode: Part 1, DeGeneres's titular character had the misfortune of outing herself in the most public way possible. Leaning over an open microphone at an airport departure lounge, she inadvertently announces her feelings to another female — played by guest star Laura Dern — while the entire terminal looks on. This episode marked the first time that a TV character on a prime-time show came out as gay, and also the first time a character was portrayed by an openly gay actor.
During this episode, an estimated 42 million viewers tuned in to watch the beloved character reveal she was gay. Despite the ratings boom, however, what happened next was far from liberating for DeGeneres. The religious right expressed disapproval of both the #ABC and DeGeneres. Regular sponsors of Ellen, including J.C. Penney and Chrysler, withdrew their advertisements during that episode, and Wendy's opted to cancel its advertisements from the show completely. As a result, the following fifth series received far less promotion, saw a decline in ratings, and the show was subsequently canceled.
On The Comeback Road
Following the cancelation of Ellen in 1998, DeGeneres returned to the standup comedy circuit before hitting the big screen once again with films such as Edtv and The Love Letter. Soon after, she took her second stab at the sitcom world with The Ellen Show, which began in 2001. However, this was not the hit she'd hoped for, and due to poor ratings the comedy was canceled after its first season, which lasted only 18 episodes — that's 13 episodes aired, five unaired.
However, DeGeneres didn't have to wait long for what would undeniably be her breakthrough year. In 2003, she voiced the character of Dory in the Disney/Pixar animation #FindingNemo, a critically acclaimed masterpiece that grossed more than $940 million worldwide. The long-awaited sequel made its way onto our screens last year, with DeGeneres once again voicing the lovable Dory, this time in the lead role. #FindingDory lit the worldwide box office alight, with global takings of more than $1 billion.
Just four months on from the 2003 release of Finding Nemo, DeGeneres made the comeback of all comebacks, with The Ellen DeGeneres Show debuting that September to both critical and commercial acclaim. Winning 38 #EmmyAwards, The Ellen DeGeneres Show has recently been renewed for an additional three seasons, meaning the show will grace our screens until at least 2020.
Her Legacy Continues
Such is the endowment of DeGeneres, a 2015 poll in conjunction with branding expert Jeetendr Sehdev and Variety found that DeGeneres influenced gay rights views more than any other celebrity or public figure, with DeGeneres beating the likes of #HillaryClinton, #RosieODonnell, and Glee antagonist Jane Lynch. She even beat out former President #BarackObama, who endorsed same-sex marriage as part of his 2012 reelection bid.
Perhaps the true legacy of DeGeneres is the fact she has inspired others to be themselves, to give them the strength to fulfill their lives in an open and free way. Such is the respect that DeGeneres garners, celebrities including country music singer Chely Wright, and actresses Jane Lynch and Ellen Page have all credited their own personal coming-out revelations to the influence that DeGeneres had when she came out.
Indeed, Wright spoke to DeGeneres on her talk show in 2010 about being inspired to come out:
“I was watching the episode of your television show when you came out, oddly enough with my father. … I was watching it with my sister and my father, who did not know at the time that I was gay, and you may not want to hear this part, but I’m going to tell you.
“My father, the minute you came out, he reached for the remote control and flipped the TV off and he said, ‘That’s disgusting!’ It sends me into a spiral.”
Wright admitted that her father's reaction delayed her own coming out for years, with the singer promising herself that she would never let the public, her friends, or even her family know she was gay. But when she finally had the courage to admit her sexual orientation to her father, his reaction took her by surprise, with the patriarch hugging her and saying that everything would be OK.
#Glee star Lynch married her wife, clinical psychologist Lara Embry, in 2010. Later that year the actress admitted to DeGeneres that the talk show host had been an inspiration in her own coming out saga:
“You were at the height of your fame and you came out. And that just blazed a trail for me. It really did. It made it so much easier for me what you did.”
And three years ago, X-Men: Days of Future Past star Page revealed her sexual identity at the Human Rights Campaign's Time to THRIVE conference. A few months later, Page made an appearance on DeGeneres's show and thanked the host, telling her:
["I was] grateful to you because you did it in a time where it was much harder and much scarier."
Not just a leader in the community, DeGeneres is also an animal rights advocate who, in 2009 was named Woman of the Year by PETA.
Then, in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named DeGeneres as Special Envoy for Global AIDS Awareness. In 2014, DeGeneres was ranked at No. 46 on Forbe's list of The World's 100 Most Powerful Women.
On September 4, 2012, DeGeneres received the 2,477th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Receiving the recognition, the comedian was in typical funny mode at the ceremony:
"I always thought people liked my dancing best. I guess my walk is pretty good, too."
And who can forget that selfie that DeGeneres orchestrated at the 2014 #Oscars that became the most retweeted photo of the year?
In 2016, DeGeneres was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor. The award is presented to individuals who have "made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
When DeGeneres came out in 1997, it was a groundbreaking and monumental moment not just in TV history, but in the LGBT community.
At a time when people were expected to act in a certain way, and particular issues regarding being gay were not as widely accepted as they are now, DeGeneres paved the way. As somewhat of an accidental ambassador to the cause, DeGeneres has set a path for many others to find the courage to accept who they are, making the world a much less scary place for the #LGBT community.
- LGBT-Themed Video Games That Are Both Badass And Inclusive
- Why 'Star Wars 8' & 'Frozen 2' Could Be Important LGBT Turning Points For Disney
- 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer': The Personal And Cultural Importance Of LGBT Couple Tara & Willow 20 Years On
[Main image: The Ellen Show]