November 10, 2003 12:00 PM

Like much of Hollywood, Ellen DeGeneres is on the Zone diet. Except in her case “it’s not a weight thing,” says the trim star. “It’s more I just got sick of making a decision every day of what I wanted to eat.” So now Zone meals are delivered daily to the set of her new talk show. “Of course, I can eat all the meals for the day in one sitting,” notes DeGeneres. “The portions are smaller than airplane food.”

Then again, the comedian’s plate is already plenty full: The syndicated Ellen DeGeneres Show premiered in September to solid ratings and critical praise for DeGeneres’s quick wit and easy charm. And she just released her second book of comic essays, The Funny Thing Is…. Factor in her scene-stealing voice work in the year’s highest-grossing film, Finding Nemo, and her happily low-key romance, and it’s clear that DeGeneres—who spent much of the past two years lying low following the 2000 bust-up of her relationship with actress Anne Heche—is back. “Right now I’m in such a good place, and I’m so grateful for every step of the way,” says the 45-year-old comedian, “because it makes me appreciate this time even more.”

Better yet, she has someone to share it with: actress-photographer Alexandra Hedison, 34, her girlfriend of three years. The pair met through mutual friends in 2000, and today they share a Hollywood Hills home with their two cats Harlow and Subtle and their new mixed-breed puppy Lucy. “Alex is perfect for Ellen,” says rocker Melissa Etheridge, a close DeGeneres pal. “Seriously, the perfect partner for Ellen. I’ll look at Ellen and say, ‘Don’t you f—-this up,’ which she’s not. They’re very, very in love.”

The smooth sailing marks a change for DeGeneres, whose decision to come out in 1997, both on her popular ABC sitcom Ellen and in real life, made her at once a target and a reluctant gay icon. When Ellen was canceled at the end of the following season, “I went through a phase, whether it was true or not, where my perception was, ‘Everyone hates me now,'” says DeGeneres, “and it felt horrible.” She and Heche broke up in August 2000, and a year later Heche married cameraman Coleman Laffoon. By then, “Ellen had a lot of healing to do,” says actress Kathy Najimy, a close friend. “All the world was watching. She came out, and she went down.”

She worked her way back up in part, at least, by learning to handle the flak. “I’ve learned that there’s room for people to not like me,” she says. When TV station managers expressed unease that her talk show would turn political or delve too deeply into her romantic life, she met with some of them individually to address their concerns. “The questions started early on. ‘How are you going to avoid talking about your lifestyle?’ Every single day I live my life, and I don’t really talk about it,” she says. “If it comes up, it comes up.”

Besides, if The Ellen DeGeneres Show has a personal agenda, it’s this: fun. “You can walk into her dressing room, and there can be any number of people in there dancing,” says executive producer Mary Connelly. “You feel foolish if you’re not.”

Still, when the star returns to Hedison at the end of the day, the mood is decidedly less manic. “We’re not walking around with big shoes and red noses by any means,” says DeGeneres. Instead, “when I go home, I just want to sit and look at my animals. I’m no fun at all,” she says. “I’m boring as hell.”

Somehow, we kinda doubt it.


Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

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