Right now, here’s what’s on Ellen DeGeneres‘s actual to-do list: 1. Star in a talk show adored by millions. 2. Work with her wife, Portia de Rossi, on major renovations to their new home. 3. Stay calm about hosting the Oscars, which will be seen by nearly everyone on the planet, on March 2. 4. Remove throw-up deposited by Augie, Portia and Ellen’s new rescue dog, from de Rossi’s sweater (he gets carsick). At 56, she’s taking it all in stride, and that has come with riding out bumps in life’s road. DeGeneres sat down with PEOPLE’s Elizabeth Leonard to share a little wisdom about what she’s learned along the way. And – no worries, Augie – she wouldn’t change a thing.
I’m hosting the Oscars – because it’s a really terrifying thing to do.
I thought, why not challenge myself? I’m comfortable right now, and it’s never good to be comfortable as a performer. In real life, I like to be comfortable. I go home and literally put pajamas on immediately. Creatively I need to push myself. Hosting the Oscars is pretty much the scariest thing you can do. This is up there with bungee jumping. It’s a room full of energy, like this breathing, living organism. I’m very susceptible to energy, good and bad, and I have to become a part of it and at the same time control it like a conductor. It’s such a delicate balance.
It’s a great year to host – there are great movies nominated and fun people in the audience for me to play with. I’m not going to hurt anybody, but it will be fun. I kinda know everybody too: Julia is my friend, Meryl is lovely, Sandra’s hilarious, Leo is fantastic, I did EDtv with Matthew, and I’ll definitely have jokes with him. Portia’s picked out her dress. I told my mom yesterday that she’s going, and she’s excited. My brother’s writing with me. I’m not taking this lightly, and I want to do a good job.
After I came out, I went through a really tough time. And that’s okay.
For whatever reason, it was a big deal for me to come out. To me, my coming out was the equivalent of if Liberace had come out. I didn’t think it was going to be that much of a surprise. What hurt was this: Does that label, that word, change my talent, my kindness, my heart, my intention for entertaining people? I thought everyone knew me, and I didn’t think that one little adjective was going to define me. I didn’t have perspective for a while. The bottom line is as simple as this: My feelings were hurt. I just gave up and moved to Ojai and sat in my house as long as I could until I ran out of money. Then I started over again. What I did, I want to say it was brave, because it was, but it was mainly for me. No human being should live with a lie or a secret that they feel bad or shame about. Coming out is not a big deal anymore. At the time, it was harder for Portia, and she paid some consequences for it for a while. Looking back, I did feel isolated, I did feel rejected, but now I look at it as a movie that I saw that someone went through. I only experience the amazing life that I have right now.
I’ve found true love – and it rocks.
Tabloids say we’re breaking up. The other day Gayle King said to my friend, who was at a party Oprah Winfrey threw, “How are Ellen and Portia? I heard they broke up!” Nigel Lythgoe texted me, “I hope the rumors aren’t true.” Apparently she’s demanding $220 million! I’ll give it to her, I don’t care – she doesn’t have to leave me. One tabloid said Portia’s leaving me because she doesn’t like moving a lot, which is funny because she is overseeing the construction of our new house and loving it. They had a photo of Portia not wearing her wedding ring. She goes, “I didn’t wear it because when I ride horses and I’m holding the reins, it gives me a blister!”
The truth is, and this is corny, I fall more in love with Portia all the time. I really do. She surprises me all the time. She’s always wanted to play the cello, so for her birthday, I bought her a cello and had it custom-painted piano black so it was sexier. I thought it would just sit in her office and look really cool, but she plays it every single day. She’s so funny, really smart, talented and kind. I love her so much it kills me. What amazes me is that it never is boring. I make her laugh, but she really makes me laugh. It’s what anyone experiences when you find that person that gets you, wants to take care of you, wants the best for you. We’re really lucky because we know how rare it is.
And honestly, we’d probably be great parents. But it’s a human being, and unless you think you have excellent skills and have a drive or yearning in you to do that, the amount of work that that is and responsibility – I wouldn’t want to screw them up! We love our animals.
Some of the most helpful folks in my life have been animals.
Animals are the closest things to God. I was going to be a veterinarian, and the compassion I have for animals is from my earliest memories. The first bird I saved was a mockingbird when I was around 7 years old. All these kids were giggling and poking it with a stick, and it was covered with ants. It had fallen out of the nest, and I took it home, and it grew up to be a full, grown-up mockingbird. I took it back to that same tree at camp and released it. When I was at a low after the show was canceled, there was a hummingbird in a fountain that was almost dead. I just put my hand in to take it out, and I saw it was alive. So I held it in the sun, and it started drying off and flapping its wings. Then it flew straight up. It was like this metaphor. It had been one of those down days for me. Just when you think you should give up, there’s a hand that comes and gets you and goes, “Nope, you’re going to be okay.”
Being happy means accepting that you’re going to feel sad.
I have a lot of depth for the sad things in the world, but I have a lot of joy and love and laughter every single day too. I’m not an even-keeled person. I come to work and make people happy and laugh, and it feeds me because my heart breaks for all the sad things in the world. That’s why I became a comedian: because I knew if somebody was sad, I wanted to make them feel better. I’ve always been in tune with people feeling awkward or being an outcast. Because I’m so honest, it’s hard for me to pretend that everything’s fine when it’s not. As a kid, I wish I’d been allowed to think it was okay to admit things were not fine. I think it’s unfair to grow up thinking that when your gut is saying things don’t seem like they’re fine, you think, “Well, I’m wrong and I can’t trust my feelings because the only feelings I’m allowed to have are really happy feelings.” That’s just not okay. If something is upsetting, I talk about it.
There’s nothing more confidence-building than people liking you. If you’re lucky and you build a career the way I have, over 30 years, you hope that little by little you have a fan base. And if you’re lucky enough to lose them all and build it back up again, you’re even more appreciative. But I think confidence is the most important thing. Not cockiness, but confidence. It helps tremendously to know that people have flown from all over the world to see you. There’s joy in that room. It feeds me every single day. They’re giving me love, and I try to give that back to them.
Talking for a living makes you really, really love peace and quiet.
When I’m done for the day, I like quiet. I talk all day long, so driving home I don’t talk. I just listen to the radio. Sometimes I listen to books on tape; right now I’m listening to Gone Girl. Sometimes Portia and I sit and talk or go for a walk with the dogs. I try to be quiet or meditate before bed. But I do watch a lot of TV and movies and do homework on the guests. I have not let go of Revenge, and I love Scandal and True Detective.
I am so blessed in so many ways. But I’m not always funny. I’m not always happy. I’m a human being. I don’t want to be expected to be funny all the time. It’s not real. I’m constantly learning and growing and trying to be better. It’d be better to have balance and not as much sadness, but I wouldn’t trade the joy and the highs. Everything has led me to this amazing place in my life – every decision and every experience, bad and good – so I try to just go, “This is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing and experiencing.” Everything is perfect somehow.