20 years ago, way before the popularity of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the comedian had a sitcom called Ellen. On Ellen, DeGeneres’ character revealed she was gay, a revolutionary declaration for the time. After the episode, her career was almost completely ruined.
The Big Reveal
When DeGeneres’ character Ellen Morgan came out on national television, viewers everywhere were completely shocked and reacted negatively. Declaring on air, “I’m Ellen and I’m gay” almost completely ruined her career. Fortunately, those five words also ended up catapulting her to stardom later on.
The TIME Cover
In 1997, Ellen came out on the cover of TIME magazine with the famous confession, “Yep, I’m Gay,” and readers were stunned! The cover generated tons of attention. At the time, the star of the sitcom Ellen said she had been building up the courage to come out for decades! For years, the comedian dodged interview questions about her sexuality and tried to hide her girlfriends from the public. Fans were shocked that DeGeneres was willing to risk her career to be open about her life.
Who Was She Dating?
Back in 1997, DeGeneres had another lady on her arm. When she first came out, Ellen was dating fellow blonde actress Anne Heche. The couple dated until 2000 and reportedly had a tough breakup. Heche and DeGeneres were living together until the relationship disintegrated and Heche had to move out of their $3.5 million home. Shortly after the breakup, Heche was found by police wandering by stranger’s homes. She was taken in by sheriffs and then released two hours later.
When Ellen DeGeneres came out on public television, her future wife Portia de Rossi was still closeted. In fact, the actress did not meet Ellen until 2004. De Rossi remembered what it was like when Ellen first came out. She said, “when Ellen came out, every single gay person was holding their breath wondering what was going to happen to her.” According to E! News, De Rossi didn’t come out until 2005 because she “didn’t want to be a lesbian” and was struggling with hiding an eating disorder.
Medal of Freedom
The courageous confession that almost cost DeGeneres her career in 1997 is also what landed her the Medal of Freedom from President Obama. DeGeneres and Obama shed a few tears as the President dressed the honorable medal around her neck. A White House aid shared, “Again and again, Ellen DeGeneres has shown us that a single individual can make the world a more fun, more open, more loving place.” The bravery Ellen exhibited in 1997 and every day since has positively affected many people’s lives.
Gay People Against Ellen
Not only was the show canceled when DeGeneres came out, she was also bombarded with complaints from some gay people who criticized her decision to open up in 1997. Chaz Bono said, “[Ellen] is so gay it’s excluding a large part of our society. A lot of the stuff on [the show] is somewhat of an inside joke. It’s one thing to have a gay lead character, but it’s another when every episode deals with specific gay issues.”
Oprah is Ellen’s Therapist
Oprah Winfrey knew DeGeneres back in the day. Winfrey actually played the role of Ellen’s therapist on the coming out episode of her show Ellen. In the episode, Ellen lies to her friends about an intimate relationship with a man. She then goes to her therapist, played by Oprah, who asks, “Has there ever been anyone you felt like you clicked with?” Ellen nods her head. Oprah asks, “And what was his name?” Ellen pauses and then responds, “Susan.” Viewers went stunned!
Advertisers Dropped Ellen
Ellen’s coming out episode generated tons of backlash from advertisers who decided to remove their advertisements while the episode aired. Ironically, JC Penney was one of the companies that chose to remove their advertisements from the episode. Years later in 2016, things came full circle when JC Penney decided to feature Ellen DeGeneres in a Christmas advertisement. Even though JC Penney received criticism from One Million Moms, a conservative media group, the company stood by their choice to feature DeGeneres.
Coming Out Hints
The Ellen Show prepared for the big coming out episode for months before it actually aired. The sitcom tried to drop hints that the character was a lesbian in various ways throughout the season. The show’s writers tried to build it up by sprinkling coming out jokes in different scenes. In one scene, Ellen’s friend asked, “are you coming out?” Then Ellen jokes playfully, “I was in the closet”, as she leaves the coat closet in a scene.
Mary Tyler Moore
Many popular actors and actresses were featured as guest stars on The Ellen Show before it was canceled. Mary Tyler Moore played herself as a guest star on one episode of the show in 2001. Because Mary Tyler Moore also had her own TV show, DeGeneres respected her as a role model. This year when Moore passed away at the age of 80, Ellen tweeted “Mary Tyler Moore changed the world for all women. I send my love to her family.”
Ellen’s Net Worth
It is astounding to think about how far Ellen DeGeneres has come since she came out on national television. Within twenty years she went from being a failing actress dubbed as “too gay” to being one of the most successful talk show hosts on the planet. Now, the popular comedian has a net worth of around $360 million! Now, her talk show is one of the most-watched shows on the planet and she makes an annual salary of $75 million. Things really turned around for her!
She Cried Every Take
While reminiscing with Laura Dern and Oprah Winfrey about the iconic episode, Ellen remembered what it was like to say she was gay in the scene. She said, “gay people don’t just go around saying I’m gay, because you don’t need to for the people that know you’re gay, so no one one says it — for those words to come out of my mouth for the very first time, even rehearsing it, I would burst into tears every single time.”
The “The Puppy Episode” had been anticipated by fans for the entire season and the two-part episode ended up becoming the highest-rated episode ever on Ellen. More than 42 million viewers tuned in to watch Ellen DeGeneres and her character Ellen Morgan reveal her true sexual preference. No one knew how the show planned to acknowledge Ellen’s coming out. Even though many were very skeptical of the two-part coming out episode, those same critics tuned in to see what would transpire on the show.
Parental Advisory Warning
The revolutionary Ellen episode attracted more than 42 million viewers causing a lot of panic for the network. As a result, the network chose to put a “parental advisory” warning on the episode. DeGeneres protested the warning, but network executives made the final call to include the cautious notice. The most scandalous part of the episode was when Ellen’s character briefly held hands with her love interest, played by Laura Dern. During that time, even the most minimal amount of non-heterosexual touching raised eyebrows.
Does Ellen regret her choice to come out on TV? Recently, Ellen tearfully revealed that she has no regrets. She said, “I can’t tell you how challenging it was to get this episode made, and at the time, it was so controversial. It was the hardest thing that I ever had to do in my life, and I would not change one moment of it because it led me to be exactly where I am today, standing in front of you, which is a joy.”
Laura’s Ruined Career
Recently, when Ellen reunited with her old co-star, the two actresses talked about how the coming out episode deeply affected both of their careers. The episode was so controversial, that even Laura Dern had to deal with the repercussions of the coming out episode. Many viewers assumed that Dern was also a lesbian, and the speculations about her sexuality almost cost her career. Dern could not get acting work for over a year after “The Puppy Episode” aired.
Living with Shame
Before the episode aired, Ellen had been living in the shadows for years. Hiding such a huge part of her life made her feel ashamed of herself. After the episode, when DeGeneres spoke to Diane Sawyer in an interview, the comedian shared how she made her choice to reveal that she was a lesbian. She told Sawyer, “I decided this was not going to be something that I was going to live the rest of my life being ashamed of.”
America After the Episode
Because Ellen’s coming out episode aka “The Puppy Episode” garnered so much attention, network executives took notice and started to embrace other queer characters. Just a couple months later, Will and Grace was introduced to American television. The show was well-received by viewers. Unlike Ellen, Will and Grace was not perceived as threatening and did not jeopardize any of the actors’ careers. Now, as the millennial generation is the most openly gay in history, more gay TV characters are being accepted by viewers.
Back before Portia de Rossi officially came out, the actress had many qualms about what it meant to be a lesbian. First of all, the Arrested Development star had never actually met a lesbian before! In an interview with the Conversation, Portia admitted, “I’d never met one…I just thought they were strange and that they hated men and they were very serious…there were no out celebrities or politicians or anybody that I could look to and go, “Oh, I could be like that.”
Even though the coming out episode on Ellen had really high viewer ratings, in general, the show’s ratings continued to decline rapidly afterward. Because of the poor response, the show was canceled after just 13 episodes. When the show abruptly ended, there were still five episodes left unseen. The unseen episodes ended up only being aired on the Paramount Comedy Channel in the United Kingdom, at 2:30 pm on weekday afternoons. They were also released on the show’s DVD release, but most people have still not seen the episodes.
Even though the Ellen sitcom was very controversial and canceled early, the show still managed to get tons of guest stars that are really famous today. Even Dakota Fanning had a small part on the Ellen sitcom. In 2001, when Fanning was just seven years old, she played the role of young Ellen on an episode called “Missing the Bus.” The young actress was already known in Hollywood and had been in Ally McBeal, ER, Spin City, and The Practice prior to her work on Ellen.
Wendy’s Removes Ads
“The Puppy Episode” stirred up so much controversy that Wendy’s decided to remove all of their advertisements from Ellen permanently. Many conservative and right-wing groups like the American Family Association also put pressure on ABC to cancel the coming out storyline. Other advertisers like JCPenney and Chrysler joined in with Wendy’s to cancel advertisements and to stop buying time during the episode. Despite the withdrawal from certain advertisers, the creators of Ellen decided to move forward with their choice.
Oprah’s Hate Mail
Even playing the role of Ellen’s therapist on the Ellen show caused Oprah to receive tons of backlash. Recently on DeGeneres’ talk show, Winfrey revealed that she received hate mail after “The Puppy Episode.” Some of the angry viewers even called Oprah the N-word and told her to “Go back to Africa.” Dern, who played Ellen Morgan’s love interest during the now-famed episode, admits that the role put a damper on her career for some time as well.
Many people do not know that Ellen DeGeneres has an older brother and that he works in Hollywood too. His name is Vance DeGeneres and he was even the executive producer of Crazy, Stupid, Love. Vance helped his little sister break into the comedy scene in New Orleans because he was a big name in the music scene. For a couple years, Ellen’s brother was a correspondent on The Daily Show. Not only that, he was also a guest star on her sitcom Ellen for two episodes.
Even Betty White was on Ellen’s sitcom. In the show, she guest starred as Mrs. Gibson in the “Missing the Bus” episode. It was actually the same episode that Dakota Fanning was in! White and DeGeneres still get along very well. In 2010, Ellen hosted Betty on The Ellen Show. At 95 years old, White is still busy. She hosted and executive produced a popular show on television for a couple years called, Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, in which senior citizens play jokes on the younger people.
After Ellen came out, her career took a turn for the worst and she fell into a deep depression. DeGeneres told AP, “Nobody really understood how dark it got for me. I was really, really in a deep depression. I had never been so down in my life. I was depressed. I was broke. I felt attacked. It was everything that you just fear in life, like nobody loving you.” Somehow she managed to get out of it. Look how successful she is now!
Paved the Way
Ellen paved the way for other shows to hire actors and actresses who did not identify themselves as strictly heterosexual. GLAAD, an acronym for the “Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation” credits Ellen DeGeneres for opening more opportunities for other LGBT-themed programming like Ugly Betty, Will and Grace, and The L Word. Now most viewers do not think twice when a gay character is introduced. GLAAD also credits DeGeneres with helping “to reduce societal prejudice against LGBT people.”
Even though most people remember John Ritter from Three’s Company, he was also a famous guest star on The Ellen Show. He played Percy Moss in the “Gathering Moss” episode. Tragically, Ritter passed away in 2003 at the young age of 54. He died suddenly from an aortic dissection right after working on the second season of 8 Simple Rules. His conditioned worsened after he was misdiagnosed with a heart attack. The young actor passed away during surgery just a few days before his 55th birthday.
Believe it or not, but comedian Jim Gaffigan was actually on the Ellen sitcom! Way before he was a hugely successful comedian, he starred on The Ellen Show as Rusty Carnouk. The show’s storyline was that Rusty was Ellen’s senior prom date and he thought hey could pick up right where they left off in high school. Obviously, that did not work out so well for Rusty who was unaware of the fact that Ellen was a lesbian.
How They Met
Sparks flew the very first time Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi met backstage at VH1’s Big in ’04 Awards. Unfortunately, de Rossi had not come out as a lesbian yet. De Rossi spilled all the juicy details to The Advocate and said, “Ellen took my breath away. That had never happened to me in my life, where I saw somebody and experienced all of those things you hear about in songs and read about in poetry. My knees were weak.” In 2008, the couple tied the knot.
Even though baby rumors are always swirling around the tabloids, DeGeneres decided to clarify the truth once and for all. The comedian wrote in her book, Seriously…I’m Kidding, “People are constantly asking Portia and me if we are going to have children. We thought about it. We love to be around children after they’ve been fed and bathed. But we ultimately decided that we don’t want children of our own. There is far too much glass in our house.”
Secrets of “The Puppy Episode”
Writers decided to call the coming out episode, “The Puppy Episode,” for two reasons. First, they wanted to keep the much-anticipated episode a secret. Second, the title served as a way to get back at executives for denying DeGeneres when she pitched her idea for her character to come out. When Ellen asked executives to reveal her sexuality, they responded by saying her character should get a puppy instead! The title of the episode addressed the executives condescending answer.
Inspired to Come Out
Thanks to Ellen’s bravery, many other stars have been inspired to come out after DeGeneres did in “The Puppy Episode.” While on Ellen’s talk show, Ellen Page shared that she was able to come out at the Human Rights Campaign Conference, because of DeGeneres. The Juno star said she was “grateful to have that moment and grateful to you [Ellen] because you did it at a time where it was much harder and much scarier.”
Portia’s Real Reaction
Coming out is not easy, even for someone as beautiful and talented as Portia de Rossi. Back in 2005, Ellen and Portia had only been dating one month, but they decided to step out on the red carpet together at the Golden Globes when Arrested Development premiered. Portia recalled, “That was the first time we stepped out together as a couple, but for me, it was the first time I stepped out as a gay woman, really.” Sounds like a nerve-wracking experience, to say the least.
Her Family’s Reaction
According to People magazine, Ellen’s mom, Betty, had a priceless reaction when Ellen first came out. Betty shared, “When Ellen came out to me I just gave her a big hug.” Betty continued and opened up, “I was surprised and upset because I knew she’d be an object of bigotry and discrimination. That was not okay with me. Back then nobody talked about being gay, so it was a very different time.” Ellen and her mom are still very close to this day.
Back in 1995 before Ellen was out, a certain good-looking man would accompany her on the red carpet. He was a fellow actor named Johnathan Schaech, and he would join her at Hollywood premieres and hold her hand in front of paparazzi. Schaech recalled to Queer Voices, “My manager asked me to accompany her to events. She was scared people would not watch the show, her sitcom Ellen, because she was gay.” The actor was good friends with DeGeneres then and still thinks highly of her today.