It’s been over 20 years since Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian — but she still vividly remembers the milestone moment.
Opening up to Dax Shepard on his Armchair Expert podcast this week, the comedian reflected on the trajectory of her career, touching on the cancelation of her popular ABC sitcom, Ellen. In April 1997, DeGeneres publicly came out on the cover of Time magazine — just weeks before her character on the show did the same on the now-iconic “Puppy Episode.”
“[The show ended] because I came out,” said DeGeneres. “This is a long, long story — but they really didn’t want me to come out. I wanted to come out. I said, ‘It’s my life. I want to come out. I want the character to come out. It’s the time.’ I said, ‘I’m going to lose the career. Like, you can just put another show on. It’s my show to lose’ — even though it wasn’t my show.”
“They finally let me come out, and it was a huge success the night of,” she continued. “It was huge. It was celebrated … and then they just stopped promoting it because everybody was scared. We were losing sponsors, so they were just acting like, ‘We’re just letting it glide. We’re not going to touch it.’ I got no more advertising, I got no more promotion. So they canceled it.”
In the period that followed, DeGeneres, 61, said she faced significant backlash.
“During the time, because there was so much talk about it, everyone was just sick of it,” she said. “I had only done the cover of Time magazine, a primetime special with Diane Sawyer and Oprah — those were the only three places I talked — but people were reporting on reports and reports and reports.”
“Even Elton John said, ‘Shut up already. We know you’re gay. Be funny,’ ” she continued. “I had never met him and I thought, ‘What kind of support is that from a gay person?’ But everybody assumed I was just nonstop talking about. It hurt my feelings.”
DeGeneres also said she struggled with jokes being made at her expense on “every late-night show.”
“People were making fun of me. I was really depressed,” she said. “And because of that and because the show was canceled, I was looked at as a failure in this business. No one would touch me. I had no agent, I had no possibility of a job, I had nothing.”
In the gay community, DeGeneres said she was looked at as “the new leader” — but that wasn’t what she wanted, either.
“I didn’t want to be a leader,” she admitted. “I didn’t want to be political, and I didn’t want to be an activist, I just wanted to be free from a secret. That’s all I wanted.”
“The gay community, it’s a really difficult line to walk,” she added. “Some people thought, ‘You’re not gay enough, and you’re not doing enough for our community, and there are so many that have done more.’ And I was like, ‘I didn’t say I was your leader, and I didn’t say I have done more. I just want to be a comedian, and I just happen to be gay.’ Of course, I’m going to speak up. I think I’m doing a lot just by being a physical presence, hopefully a representation, not of the entire gay community, but of somebody at home going, ‘Oh, there’s someone who’s gay.’ So it was really tough. It was a high, and it was celebrated, and then it was a complete low.”
Last year, DeGeneres fought back tears while celebrating the 20-year anniversary of her coming-out episode on her talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
“It was the hardest thing that I ever had to do in my life,” she said. “And I would not change one moment of it because it led me to be exactly where I am today, standing in front of all of you.”