Born on January 26, 1958, in Metairie, Louisiana, Ellen DeGeneres hit it big as a stand-up comedian before starring on her own sitcom, Ellen. In 1997, she came out as gay, and became a staunch advocate of LGBT rights. She has been the host of her own award-winning talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, since 2003, and married girlfriend Portia de Rossi in 2008.
Ellen Lee DeGeneres was born January 26, 1958, in Metairie, Louisiana, to an insurance salesman and a working mother who divorced when DeGeneres was a teenager. When she was growing up, DeGeneres dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but she gave up the idea because she was “not book smart.” Instead, she waited tables, sold vacuum cleaners, painted houses and worked as a legal secretary.
DeGeneres’s older brother, Vance, an actor/comedian and former correspondent for The Daily Show, was long considered the humorous member of the family. Then once, during a public speaking event, DeGeneres found herself frightened by the crowd and used humor to get through the experience. She was a hit, and received offers to do stand-up comedy. She began performing in 1981, bolstered by her mother’s moral and financial support.
At the age of 23, DeGeneres began performing at a local coffeehouse. She got her big debut in 1986 when, acting on a tip from Jay Leno, The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson sent a booking agent to catch her act at the Improv in Hollywood. As a result of that engagement, DeGeneres appeared on The Tonight Show and earned the distinction of being the only female comic to be invited by Johnny Carson to sit on the famed “couch” during her first visit.
DeGeneres then began making regular appearances on the talk show circuit, including performances on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Later with Greg Kinnear, Larry King Live, and Good Morning, America. She was also profiled in detail on ABC’s PrimeTime Live.
Her wit won over audiences, and DeGeneres finally found success as an actress with her own prime-time sitcom—the self-titled television series, Ellen. The series was originally titled These Friends of Mine, but was renamed in 1994. From that point, the show evolved from its beginnings as an ensemble effort into a showcase for DeGeneres.
The show faced strong criticism when, in April 1997, DeGeneres’s character became the first lead in sitcom history to openly acknowledge her homosexuality on air. An ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, refused to air the landmark episode. Fearing controversy, some of the show’s sponsors, Daimler Chrysler among them, withdrew advertisements.
Several episodes following her reveal had gay themes and, throughout the remainder of the season, DeGeneres and ABC executives faced a storm of criticism. But the show also received rounds of applause from gay-friendly activists—including DeGeneres’s mother, Betty DeGeneres, who appeared on numerous talk shows in support of her daughter. Despite a supportive audience, an Emmy Award for the coming-out episode and the show’s groundbreaking place in television history, Ellen was canceled in 1998.
But DeGeneres had already made the move to the big screen, starring in the dark comedy Mr. Wrong (1996) as a woman in search of the perfect man. She also appeared in the comedy EdTV (1999), starring Matthew McConaughey, and the television production of If These Walls Could Talk 2(2000), in which she shared a much publicized love scene with Sharon Stone.
Talk Show Host
Returning to television in 2003, Ellen DeGeneres became a big hit with daytime viewers with her self-titled talk show, Ellen. Since its inception, the show has won a slew of Daytime Emmy and People’s Choice Awards.
Also in 2003, DeGeneres lent her voice to the animated box office smash, Finding Nemo, in which she plays a friendly yet forgetful little blue fish named Dory. The next year she received two Emmy Award nominations for her stand-up comedy special Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now.
A unique combination of kind and funny, Ellen DeGeneres became a popular choice to host major awards telecasts. She was tapped to host the Grammys in 1996 and 1997; the Primetime Emmys in 2001 and 2005; and the Academy Awards in 2007 and 2014. Underscoring her popularity, DeGeneres in 2009 was chosen to fill the coveted fourth slot as a judge on American Idol, replacing Paula Abdul.
DeGeneres is also the author of several books, including My Point … and I Do Have One (1995), Seriously … I’m Kidding (2011), and Home (2015). Her film work slowed after her talk show took off, but she’s continued to work mostly behind the scenes as an executive producer of several television shows including Bethenny (2012-2014), Repeat After Me (2015), One Big Happy(2015), Little Big Shots (2015) and her HGTV reality competition show, Ellen’s Design Challenge. Most recently, Degeneres returned to the studio for a much-anticipated production of Finding Dory, set for a June 2016 release.
For several years, DeGeneres dated actress Anne Heche and, in 1999, the couple bought a home in Los Angeles. Although at one point they publicly announced their desire to be married, the couple broke up in August 2000.
DeGeneres then dated Alexandra Hedison for a few years before becoming involved with actress Portia de Rossi in December 2004. DeGeneres married de Rossi on August 16, 2008, in what was perhaps the highest-profile gay marriage after California legalized the unions.