After months of skirting the issue, comedian Ellen Degeneres comes out in a very big way when her character on the hit television show Ellen declares that she — and the actor playing her — is a lesbian.
Talk about ballsy. Called “The Puppy Episode”, the show garnered 42 million viewers and marked the first gay leading primetime character in television history. Despite speculation that advertisers would try to pull away from the controversy, the only corporate sponsor to cancel was Chrysler, and only for the single episode.
“For me this has been the most freeing experience because people can’t hurt me anymore," said Degeneres in a 1997 Time magazine interview. "I don’t have to worry about somebody saying something about me, or a reporter trying to find out information. Literally, as soon as I made this decision, I lost weight. My skin has cleared up. I don’t have anything to be scared of, which I think outweighs whatever else happens in my career.”
Although there was the requisite backlash — Jerry Falwell called her "Ellen Degenerate" (to which Ellen replied ""Really? He called me that? I've been getting that since the fourth grade.") — the show went on another season before the Louisiana native moved on to her Emmy-winning Ellen Degeneres Show.
“I experienced both sides of it because when I came out, everything was great," Ellen recalled later with The Advocate. "I was ‘entertainer of the year,’ and I was one of the ‘ten most fascinating people.’ And it was a whole year of celebrating Ellen."
"And then it went to the complete opposite end. Suddenly I had become this person that everybody was saying, "Oh, I hate her. Oh, I love her." And I heard about all of it. It just got to be where I couldn't watch TV without somebody saying something mean. I was the punch line of every joke, like Monica Lewinsky.”
But now, 14 years later and happily married to Australian-born actress Portia del Rossi, it's Degeneres who's having the last laugh.
"It's a big risk for people to have a big career and come out," she said after her wedding in 2008. "But it would change things if people would live their lives. It's healthier for them. I have faith that people will open their minds and their hearts."