Araceli Campiz wasn’t expecting visitors on the afternoon of Aug. 19, a Saturday. So she was surprised to hear a knock at the door of her family’s Hi modest yellow ranch house, situated on a remote dirt road in rural Cantua Creek, Calif. She was even more surprised when she opened the door: A fan of the 1998 film Six Days, Seven Nights, Campiz, 22, instantly recognized the sunburnt caller as none other than the movie’s leading lady, actress Anne Heche. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, we’re in the middle of nowhere,’ ” recalls Campiz, a student at Heald College in Fresno, “and she walks in.”
What Campiz didn’t know was that the previous day Heche, 31, and her partner, actress Ellen DeGeneres, 42, had issued a joint statement to the New York Daily News announcing an end to their very public, much-written-about relationship. “It is an amicable parting,” they wrote, “and we greatly value the 3½ years we have spent together.” Coming from a couple who sported matching wedding bands, referred to one another as “my wife,” and just 10 days earlier had been house hunting, hand in hand, in L.A., the announcement shocked even close friends. “It was one of those magical relationships that you feel really honored to be witness to,” said costume designer Julia Caston, who worked with the couple last summer on the March HBO special If These Walls Could Talk 2. “They were completely on the same page.”
If the split was startling, Heche’s behavior in the hours that followed was bizarre. After explaining to Campiz that she had left her Toyota SUV by a dusty roadside about 1½ miles away, the actress gulped down glass upon glass of water, “took off her Nikes and said she needed to take a shower,” recalls Campiz, who obliged, offering her a towel. Refreshed, Heche, who, as far as Campiz could tell was neither drunk, drugged nor ill, plunked down in the living room, requested a pair of slippers (and suggested Campiz don the same) and settled in. “She wanted to watch a movie,” says Campiz, “but the VCR was broken.”
Bemused at first, the young woman grew uneasy when Heche showed no sign of leaving—calling neither friends nor a garage—after half an hour had passed. “I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “So I called the [Fresno County] sheriff’s department.” “When deputies arrived, Heche told them that she was “God, and was going to take everyone back to heaven…in a spaceship,” according to a police report that was aired on the local NBC affiliate KSEE-TV. The deputies summoned an ambulance, which ferried Heche the 50 miles to Fresno’s University Medical Center, from which she was released after a few hours.
Throughout her curious odyssey, Heche, who was hospitalized last April after suffering an adverse reaction to medication, “cooperated with the deputies,” says Fresno County Sheriff’s Lt, Merrill Wright, adding that “there is no criminal investigation.” The next morning Heche, wearing a floppy hat and sunglasses and accompanied by her business manager Harley Newman, returned to the car. A tow-truck driver they had summoned refilled the fuel tank and the pair drove off.
Back in Los Angeles, shell-shocked friends of the couple were still trying to make sense of the split. Any notion that a third party was involved or that Heche—who dated actors Steve Martin and Richard Burgi before meeting DeGeneres—had returned to her heterosexual roots were quickly dismissed. “There was no hint of any extracurricular activities,” says Paula Fleet, the main hairstylist on One Kill, a Showtime thriller starring Heche that wrapped in December and aired on Aug. 6. Heche and DeGeneres, she adds, “seemed to want to be in each other’s company all the time.”
So what went wrong? There’s no question that the couple endured intense scrutiny—much of it invited—from the moment DeGeneres, the successful star of the ABC sitcom Ellen, announced on the April 14, 1997, cover of TIME, “Yep, I’m Gay.” When Heche disclosed to PEOPLE weeks later that she was DeGeneres’s mystery woman (the pair had met and fallen in love at first sight at a Vanity Fair Oscars bash that March), they were transformed simultaneously into poster girls for the gay-rights movement and punching bags for conservatives, including radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger and the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who called the comedian “Ellen DeGenerate.” “Either they were made into role models for happiness for same-sex couples or attacked,” says Judy Wieder, editor-in-chief of The Advocate, the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine. “Cameras followed them everywhere. At times that might be exhilarating, but at other times I’m sure it was an utter nightmare.”
For a while the out-and-proud pair were happy to flaunt their relationship to further gay causes, meeting up three times with President Clinton, speaking out at a rally in support of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and appearing alongside other gay stars, including Melissa Etheridge at last April’s Equality Rocks Concert in Washington, D.C. That activism, say friends, hurt their careers. In 1998, faced with poor ratings, ABC canned Ellen at the end of its fifth season; meanwhile, Heche began seeing fewer scripts. “The fact that she came out of the closet,” says Scott Seomin, entertainment media director of the L.A.-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, “certainly prevented her from getting work as a leading lady.”
Fed up, the couple fired their agents and publicists in late 1998, sold their three-bedroom Spanish-style house in L.A. and abandoned Hollywood for rural Ojai, with DeGeneres vowing they would “simplify their lives.” The hiatus was short-lived. After Heche proved her heterosexual chemistry opposite Harrison Ford in the solid ’98 box office performer Six Days, Seven Nights—a part she’d signed on for before going public with DeGeneres—the actress was back in demand. In June ’99 the couple bought a contemporary home in the Hollywood Hills and plunged back into the L.A. scene, with one caveat: DeGeneres, for one, was tired of being typecast. “I’m not going to raise any Rainbow Flag and hold up some Lesbian Leader sign,” she declared to PEOPLE last February. “I want to focus on being funny.”
She did make one exception: starring with Sharon Stone as a lesbian couple trying to have a baby in HBO’s If These Walls Could Talk 2, a half-hour production written and directed by Heche. During the shoot, which ended last August, Heche and DeGeneres “were together constantly, both on and off the set, and [the relationship] seemed very healthy,” says cinematographer Peter Deming. When DeGeneres was uncomfortable about shooting a nude love scene with Stone, Heche, who has referred to the script as “a love letter” to her partner, closed the set and constantly reassured her that the scene was “going to be great,” reports costume designer Caston. Three months later, when DeGeneres visited Heche on the set of One Kill, Heche would punctuate decisions by calling out, “Is that okay, honey?” recalls hairdresser Fleet. In turn, she says, DeGeneres “had advice on everything, just everything. They seemed very, very together.”
And, it seemed, that’s how they planned to stay. Last October the pair told a Vermont crowd that they would take vows in the Green Mountain state if the Civil Unions law, then under consideration by the legislature, became legal. And as recently as July they had spoken of starting a family. “We are definitely ready,” DeGeneres told PEOPLE after returning from a 36-city stand-up comedy tour—her first in six years—that Heche filmed for HBO. (A special, Ellen DeGeneres: The Beginning, aired on July 23, but the fate of the unfinished documentary Heche filmed on the tour is unknown.) “I would love to adopt, but Anne really wants the experience of having a baby. We want to have several.”
For now, at least, that seems unlikely. A week before announcing their split the couple put their 10-acre Ojai retreat on the market for $2.75 million. Heche, for one, won’t be home for a while. Seemingly recovered from her brief hospital stint, on Aug. 21 she flew to Toronto, where she is filming the thriller John Q with Denzel Washington. Also on her schedule: Prozac Nation and the drama Auggie Rose, due next month. Meanwhile, DeGeneres, who will begin taping a new hour-long CBS variety series on Oct. 20, is laying low.
For the gay community, which has enjoyed generous support from the high-profile couple, their breakup is a political loss. But their friends appreciate that the greater loss is a personal one. “They were just always there for each other,” says Caston. “It just makes me sad they’re not together anymore.”
Edmund Newton, Michelle Caruso, Mark Dagostino, Tom Cunneff and Nadine Mendoza-Province in Los Angeles and Sue Miller in New York City