Today we honor and celebrate an international celebrity who uses her voice and fame to make the world a better place. Ellen DeGeneres was born in 1958 in Louisiana. After her parents’ divorce and her mother’s remarriage, the family moved to Atlanta, TX, where Ellen finished high school in 1976. She moved back to New Orleans for college but dropped out after one semester.
She held a number of jobs (including selling clothes at JCPenney, for which she is now the official spokesperson). She also started doing stand-up comedy for fun, quickly realizing that this was her passion. By 1981 she was the emcee at a local comedy club and began touring nationally. In 1982 she was named Funniest Person in America by Showtime. In 1986 she appeared for the first time on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson; Carson invited her over for an onscreen chat after her performance, making her the first comedienne in the show’s history to be treated this way.
She had a number of small film roles and was a frequent guest on television shows. In 1994, she starred in These Friends of Mine, renamed Ellen after the first season. Tired of the rumors about her sexuality, Ellen came out as lesbian on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997, followed by a very successful coming out episode for her character on Ellen. Sadly, while the public were interested in the sensation of the coming out, they lost interest in the show’s sensitive portrayal of her exploring her identity and Ellen was cancelled after one more season.
She starred in The Ellen Show for the 2001 – 2002 season. A wonderful, witty show in which her character was out from the beginning, it co-starred major talents like Cloris Leachman and Martin Mull. CBS seemed to have no idea what to do with the show, bouncing it from one slot to another, confusing fans and eventually killing it. (The whole series is available on DVD and streams from a variety of sources; go find it and watch it!) Soon after this she had her award-winning turn as the confused fish Dory in Finding Nemo. She has also hosted the Academy Awards and the Prime Time Emmy broadcast.
In the talk-show void left by Rosie O’Donnell’s departure from daytime, many celebrities launched new chat shows in 2003. Ellen’s was the clear winner, combining her charm, wit, and easy-going nature with guests for a combination that appealed across demographics. While Ellen is seldom as political as she could be on the show, she is open about her life and her family, frequently talking about her wife, Portia de Rossi.
Ellen uses her significant wealth and public voice to support charitable causes. She has won many broadcasting and comedy awards but has also been noted for her contributions to social justice. She makes an enormous difference simply by being the lesbian in everyone’s living room but also recognizes that the power of her celebrity can be wielded to good effect. In 2011, Secretary of State Clinton named Ellen the Special Envoy for AIDS Awareness in recognition for her work in that area.
As an added bonus, Ellen has a wonderful mother, who turned around her shock at Ellen’s coming out to be a staunch advocate for the LGBT community. Betty DeGeneres is the first non-gay spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign’s National Coming Out Project and perhaps the most visible member of PFLAG.