20 Fascinating Facts About Ellen DeGeneres, Hollywood's Most Generous Personality
Ellen DeGeneres is easily one of the most recognizable faces on television. But there have been some serious personal and professional highs and lows on her way to A-list fame. Her resiliency is impressive.
She earns a reported salary of $75 million per year and has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Here’s the path taken by this standout stand-up comedian turned queen of daytime television.
Ellen Lee DeGeneres was born January 26, 1958, to parents Elliott Everett DeGeneres, an insurance salesman, and Betty DeGeneres, a speech therapist. She was born in Metairie, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans. She was raised as a Christian Scientist, admitting she didn’t have any medicine or receive any shots until she was 13. She eventually renounced the religion.
Ellen’s Early Family Life
She has one older brother, Vance DeGeneres, who appeared on “The Daily Show” as a correspondent multiple times between 1999 and 2001. He is now a writer, musician and producer. She is also 11th cousins with Madonna, who was born the same year as the comedian. The two entertainers share a grandfather ten generations back.
At age 13, Ellen’s parents divorced and she went to live in Atlanta, Texas with her mother. She used comedy to help her mother get through a particularly tough period of her life, doing whatever it took to stir up laughs when her mom would start to slip into depression.
Job Hopping in New Orleans
New Orleans fascinated Ellen, and she spent much of her youth exploring the city.
As she grew into her adulthood, she had a hard time figuring out what she wanted to do with herself. She considered being a veterinarian for a while but concluded she wasn’t “book smart” enough. She tested the waters of a ton of different jobs, including working as a paralegal, a hostess, a bartender, a house painter, an oyster shucker and a vacuum cleaner saleswoman.
Starting Her Career in Comedy
At 23, she started developing a comedy routine. Soon enough, she became the emcee at a New Orleans comedy club. And in 1982, after submitting some of her set to a Showtime competition, she was named the Funniest Person of the Year by the network.
She continued to hone her act over the next several years, leveraging the award for bookings at more clubs across the United States.
A Breakthrough With Johnny
Her big break came in 1986 when she performed on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” Carson, at the time, was well known for starting multiple comedian’s careers if he was impressed by the set. After Ellen’s live set, Carson asked her to come to the couch and chat. This was the first and only time he asked a female comedian to sit on the couch next to him after their first performance.
Ellen continued to appear on more talk shows while touring. In 1991, she won the Best Female Stand Up award at the American Comedy Awards.
Breaking Through With ‘90s Sitcoms
In the early ‘90s, she began appearing in multiple sitcoms including “Open House” and “Laurie Hill.” Her most notable sitcom appearance, however, was on the show where she played the lead character who was also named Ellen and heavily inspired by Ellen’s own personality. The original name of the show that premiered in 1994 was “These Friends of Mine.” After its first season, the show was renamed “Ellen.”
Coming Out: Ellen and ‘The Puppy Episode’
In 1997, Ellen’s popular TV show aired “The Puppy Episode,” which would end up making TV history. Ellen’s character came out as a lesbian. The same month, DeGeneres personally made her sexual orientation public with a cover and feature in “Time” magazine.
She also discussed being a lesbian on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Ellen’s character was the first openly gay lead character in a TV sitcom, and Ellen herself would be the first openly gay leading actress in a sitcom.
An enormous amount of controversy and support surrounded the episode. An estimated 46 million people viewed it, making it the most viewed episode of the show. She also won an Emmy award for the writing of the episode.
After the show, however, the show’s guest star Laura Dern admitted she had a hard time finding work for over a year after playing Ellen’s love interest. And Ellen herself faced an immense amount of backlash from religious groups, corporate sponsors and the network itself. The following year, the sitcom was cancelled.
Ellen entered a career slump.
She’s No Stranger to Career Rough Patches
After “The Puppy Episode” polarized much of America, Ellen went through a rough period. She admitted that she felt like everyone hated her. She had a tough time finding mainstream work. And her very public relationship with actress and director Anne Heche ended. She appeared in a few films, but had a hard time finding her voice and traction in the industry. In 2001, she did create the short-lived sitcom “The Ellen Show.” Viewers praised the show, but it was cancelled after 13 episodes. Five filmed episodes didn’t air.
For the next couple of years, Ellen slowly found more TV roles, including on “Hollywood Squares” and “Will and Grace.” In 2003, she embarked on a 35 city tour that culminated in an HBO special titled “Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now.”
That same year, she premiered the syndicated daytime talk show “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” which immediately found traction and continues to be on the air, though it is often just referred to as “Ellen.”
Her Show’s Popularity Is Off the Charts
“The Ellen DeGeneres Show” has been nominated for 166 Daytime Emmy Awards, winning 61 of them. The show’s also won 17 People’s Choice Awards.
On top of all that, the TheEllenShow channel is one of the 20 most subscribed channels on YouTube. Plus, Ellen has her own conglomeration of videos on top of what can be found on YouTube another website, which she calls EllenTube.
She Works With Outside Collaborators
Thanks to the popularity of “Ellen,” she has expanded her influence into multiple collaborations outside of TV. She has many popular game apps available, and she also launched her lifestyle line called “ED.” She has collaborated with Gap Kids and Cisco, and she even has a partnership with Petsmart. Plus, she is a co-owner of Halo, a company that hopes to revolutionize pet food.
And if all of that weren’t enough, she also has her own record label called eleveneleven, which was founded with help from her production company, A Very Good Production.
Needless to say, she stays busy.
Ellen’s Movie Presence
Her first movie role came in 1993 when she played a coach in “Coneheads,” a spinoff of a popular “Saturday Night Live” sketch by the same name. She starred and had cameo roles in multiple films through the next decade, including “Mr. Wong” and “EdTV.” One of her most notable roles was opposite Sharon Stone in “If These Walls Could Talk 2,” where she did a love scene with Stone that she was anxious to do at first. Her then-girlfriend, Anne Heche, was directing the movie and convinced her to do the scene.
In 2003, she voiced the playful-though-forgetful sidekick Dory in the Disney movie “Finding Nemo.” Her character was so popular it got its own sequel, “Finding Dory,” in 2016.
Ellen the Author
She’s written four books: “My Point Is...and I Do Have One,” “Seriously… I’m Kidding,” “The Funny Thing Is…,” and “Home.” Her personal chef, Roberto Martin, also created a cookbook based on the vegan recipes he has created and cooks for Ellen and her wife, Portia de Rossi.
She Has Tons of Ongoing Projects
She has produced multiple TV shows outside of “Ellen” on various networks, including some spinoffs directly inspired by elements the talk show itself. She produces “Little Big Shots,” “Ellen’s Design Challenge,” and “Ellen’s Game of Games,” and she partnered with Jay Shetty for the creation of a motivation-oriented digital network. She has also produced more traditional sitcoms including “Bethenny,” “Repeat After Me,” and “One Big Happy.”
She’s not done with stand-up comedy, either. She recently released her latest special on Netflix in 2018, “Relatable.”
She’s a Popular Host
Her first major hosting gigs were at the 1996 and 1997 Grammy Awards. She hosted again on a big stage in 2001 after the Emmy Awards were postponed twice after September 11. Her ability to be playful yet respectful after the national tragedy garnered her a huge amount of appreciation from fans, and also proved her skill at hosting. She was asked to host again in 2005, three weeks after Hurricane Katrina.
She was the second woman in history, behind Whoopi Goldberg, to host the Academy Awards, which she first did in 2007. She hosted the ceremony again in 2014 and took an epic selfie packed with movie stars.
Life With Her Wife
She was famously dating Anne Heche in the ‘90s and dated photographer Alexandra Hedison after they broke up. Hedison is now married to Jodi Foster.
In 2004, she started dating actress Portia di Rossi after they met backstage at an award show. The two married in 2008 in a small ceremony that included about 20 close friends and family. They’ve been married for 11 years now and continue to be outspokenly supportive of each other.
Like all famous couples, rumors fly around about them but Ellen jokes that she likes that her relationship is normalized like any other famous relationship would be, with lots of gossip and rumors.
She Wins Awards and Honors, Too
Ellen has won multiple awards throughout her lifetime, including a ton of Emmy and People’s Choice Awards. She also has some even more impressive career awards, including a Peabody Award she won in 1997 for her work on her sitcom, “Ellen.”
In 2012, she won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. And on November 22, 2016, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, which is the highest award a civilian can earn.
She’s an Advocate
Ellen is an outspoken advocate for many humanitarian causes. The ones she’s best known for are fighting for and speaking out in support of gay rights and animal rights. She was vegan for years, but recently admitted she began eating some fish and eggs.
Facing Accusations, Taking Responsibility
The summer of 2020 brought a rough period to The Ellen DeGeneres Show, resulting in a shakeup and the resignation of three top producers. Buzzfeed News reported in July that as many as 10 former staffers and a current one charged Ellen and show managers with fostering a toxic workplace, including allegations of retribution for taking medical and family leave and tolerating racist comments.
WarnerMedia conducted an investigation, which resulted in Ellen apologizing and three top producers leaving the show. She later confirmed to viewers that inappropriate behavior took place among her staff and that as the show's creator she takes responsibility for it.
She’s Active in Philanthropy
Ellen is a major philanthropist, donating to various causes. But she’s been even more generous on her show, donating to lots of “average” people. She’s given scholarships to students who needed it, raised money for elephants, donated to hurricane relief funds, and given money to a cancer survivor’s wedding.
She’s gained a reputation for being generous with both her guests and her studio audience members.
For her 60th birthday in 2018, Ellen’s wife surprised her by setting up The Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund. It’s first major project: building the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Wildlife Fund in Rwanda, which will provide jobs and help with conservation efforts for mountain gorillas.