Ellen DeGeneres: Portia and Power and Me
By Caroline Overington
The Australian Women's Weekly, October 2014.
SHE IS ONE of the most famous women in the world, so let’s start with some things you might not know about Ellen DeGeneres.
First, she was born on Australia Day.
Second, she is married to an Australian woman.
Third, her genealogist assures her that she’s related – through a distant cousin – to Catherine, the Duchess
of Cambridge, which means that she’s “the obvious choice” (those are Ellen’s words) to be named godmother to Catherine and Prince William’s unborn child, who is, in turn, heir to the Australian throne.
Given all those links to Australia, it’s something of a scandal that Ellen, 55, has never been here. That will change
on March 17, when she and her wife, actress Portia de Rossi, who was raised in Geelong, touch down for a promotional tour of Melbourne and Sydney.
Given Ellen’s huge popularity in Australia – and pretty much everywhere else – it’s fair to say excitement about her visit is palpable. A near-ecstatic crowd turned up outside the Sydney Opera House to wave Ellen placards when the tour was announced. Staff from Ellen’s show have already been over, scouting for places to film and they’ve been inundated with requests to meet the star.
That is not all: while not confirmed, at the time of writing, plans were under way to have Ellen and Portia meet Prime Minister Julia Gillard at a cocktail party on March 19. Everyone involved, from the Prime Minister’s office down, was feeling nervous about whether it would – or should – happen: on one hand, Gillard is Australia’s first woman leader; on the other, she broke the collective heart of the gay community when she refused to back the vote on gay marriage.
Ellen is known supporter of same-sex marriage (given her own marriage to Portia, how could it be otherwise?) and so, when The Weekly was given the opportunity to meet her at the taping of her show last month, and to put some questions to her, we couldn’t help but ask: “Do you have anything to say to our prime minister about her stand on this?”
As is her style, Ellen replied kindly, and with grace.
“I would just tell her that I married the one and only love of my life,” she replied, “and that everyone should be so lucky to have that opportunity.”
The Ellen DeGeneres Show is filmed at the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, California every day at 4pm. The set is as you might imagine: a couple of nice couches, a big display of flowers, plenty of cameras and lights. What’s
for the room. It takes about four months to secure a ticket via the show’s website to see Ellen, so plenty of people simply turn up without a ticket, hoping that somebody else has had to drop out.
Since hardly anyone ever misses the opportunity when it comes, those extras end up standing out the back, listening to the show through the walls, which doesn’t seem to bother them at all.
The mix of people in the audience interesting, too. On the day of The Weekly’s tour, there was a young girl with a tongue studs sitting next to a housewife from Mississippi, sitting next to a man who looked like he might drive a pick-up truck. Katy Perry’s “Baby, you’re a firework!” was booming out of the speakers, and plenty of people were dancing in the aisles.
When Ellen came out from behind the sliding glass door, dressed in what’s become her signature style (dark jeans, low-heeled shoes, a man’s-style vest and a funky jacket), the crowd began to stamp its feet and cheer.
The show went off without a hitch: there was a celebrity interview with actress Mila Kunis (she’s apparently dating Demi Moore’s ex, Ashton Kutcher); a cute segment on men who send in pictures of themselves, wearing Ellen underwear; and another on a little boy who recently became YouTube-famous for telling his mum that he hadn’t raided the pantry of cake sprinkles, when the evidence of it was all over his sweet, stained mouth.
There was some talk about the up trip to Australia. It’s
one that Ellen has long been promising Portia she will
one day make, although Portia has been warning her
that the spiders are like dinner plates. “The
huntsman,” she tells the audience, pointing at the
large log coffee table in front of her, “is a spider the
size of that.”
A few moments later, with the bulk of the day’s
shooting over, she’s bounding over to say hello. As is
so often the case when you meet someone famous in
person, she’s much smaller – and prettier – than she
seems on TV. She also comes across as a tiny bit shy.
“We’re are so excited about coming to Australia,” she
says, “I’m a bit scared – not just of the spiders,
also the jetlag. But we can’t wait to get there.”
Ellen DeGeneres was born on January 26, 1958, in Metairie, Louisiana. Her childhood was generally happy, although the family moved around a lot, and Ellen developed a sense of humour, partly as a way to cope with always being the new girl.
Her parents separated when she was still quite young, and Ellen acknowledges that, while divorce can be difficult for children, it can also give them the grit they need to succeed in life. “I remember wanting to make my mother laugh,” she tells The Weekly. “That’s how this whole crazy thing got started. So, yes. True.”
After finishing high school, Ellen went briefly to the University of New Orleans. She also worked as a waitress, shucked oysters in that city’s French quarter and did a range of other odd jobs, to make ends meet.
Encouraged by a close friend, Ellen began writing humorous essays, hoping to have them published in magazines like National Lampoon.
From the age of 20, she was doing stand-up comedy in small clubs, and she later appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, The Oprah Winfrey Show and, most famously, on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show (she was the first female comedian ever asked to take a seat on his couch.)
Ellen’s comedy routines have always been a bit different, in that she rarely swears and does not like to make fun of other people. She sees no point in being lewd for laughs, a trait that continues to this day, where most of her jokes are shot through with kindness.
By the 1990s, she had her own sitcom. It was called Ellen, and she played a character called Ellen. Her character came out as gay
n 1997, as did she, which was a much bigger deal then than it is now. One TV station in one state – Alabama – refused to show that episode and one sponsor briefly withdrew its support from it.
The coming-out episode of Ellen went on to win an Emmy Award, but the show was cancelled the following year. In her autobiography, Seriously ... I’m Kidding, Ellen acknowledged with humour the difficulties with coming out.
“There are a lot of stereotypes associated with being gay,” said Ellen. “I didn’t realise how many there are, until recently, when a woman asked me how many cats I have. When I told her I have three, she said, ‘Oh, you really are a lesbian!’
“At first, I thought, ‘well, yes, I really am a lesbian. The secret’s out.’ But I was so taken aback by her comment. How does the number of cats you have make you a lesbian? Would having only two cats mean I’m straight?”
She remembers being criticised when she first came out for not being “gay enough”, saying, “It didn’t occur to me when I announced that I was gay I would have to clarify just how gay I am. What does it matter? What does
it mean? All I can say is I’m gay enough for me.”
Ellen was momentarily worried that, by outing herself, she had derailed her career, but the force that was Ellen ultimately proved unstoppable.
She returned to stand-up comedy for a while, and then to television in 2003, with self-titled talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show (the same year, Ellen also lent her voice to Dory in Finding Nemo, which, by chance, is about a fish trying to find its way to Australia.) Now in its 10th season, her talk show has won too many awards to count.
“It is instinct,” Ellen says of the mix of celebrity, tenderness, and humour that is at the heart of the show’s success. “And a jigger of tequila.” More seriously, she adds: “Everyday, I get to sit around with a team of people and we look for new things that move or inspire us, or make us laugh. We figure, if we respond to it, the audience will, too.”
The writers on the show have a motto: “Let’s try to beat that” and, says Ellen, “That’s their motto, because they are smart and like a challenge. But my real motto is actually ‘be kind to one another’ and I try to do that every day in my own life.”
One unexpected surprise of visiting Ellen on set was seeing Portia on the stage, not only at the beginning of the show but all through proceedings. On the day of The Weekly’s visit, she was wearing a tartan mini-skirt, a trendy top with leather patches on the elbows, and the world’s sexiest motorcycle boots.
She is more beautiful now, at 40, at a healthy weight with hair chopped short, than she was when she first came to fame in Australia, as the flaxen-haired lawyer on Ally McBeal.
Ellen keeps a special seat for her, off camera but directly in Ellen’s line of sight, and she brings her onto the stage during breaks to meet the guests. When the show was over, they both waved to the audience, and walked off hand-in-hand.
In an interview with The Weekly last year, Portia said that, when she first met Ellen, “my knees went weak and
I felt like I was shot through the heart with an arrow.”
They couldn’t immediately be together, in part because both were tangled up in other relationships and because Portia hadn’t properly come out, but these days, they’re inseparable. (Asked by The Weekly whether there is anything about Portia that makes Ellen think “yep, she’s an Aussie,” Ellen says, “Whenever we go ice-skating, she spins in reverse.” )
The couple were married in 2008 – the ceremony was legal in California – on the manicured lawns of their mansion in Beverly Hills. To celebrate their union,
Ellen put a three-carat pink diamond on Portia’s ring finger.
Five years on, the relationship endures. Ellen offered a snapshot of the union in her autobiography, which suggests that Ellen is the loopy one, while Portia is the more sensible one.
“I was home and I realised my favourite cat, Charlie, hadn’t come out to sit on the couch with me,” she wrote. “I assumed she was in our master bedroom. I could have walked to the bedroom or yelled for her, which is what I usually do.
“But we have an intercom, where I can push a button and talk to someone in another room. So I got on the intercom and said, ‘Charlie, I’m home! Charlie!’ and I hung up and waited for Charlie to come running.
“I didn’t think anything of it, until I looked over and Portia was staring at me. She said, ‘Did you just intercom the cat?’ And I looked at her and had no choice but to say, ‘yes, I did just intercom the cat.’ In my defence, I was tired.”
Being in a same-sex marriage no longer means that people can’t have children, and Ellen says in her autobiography that people are “constantly asking Portia and me if we are going to have children.”
If you’re one of those who want an answer to that question, Ellen can “tell you right now that we are not going to have any children. We thought about it. We love children but, ultimately, we decided that we don’t want children
of our own.”
Tongue firmly in cheek, she adds in her book, “We have lots of animals that we treat like our family. We have two dogs, Mabel and Wolf, and three cats at home. We have two cats on our farm, two horses and two mini horses. We also have two cows, Holly and Madonna. And those are only the animals we let sleep in our bed.”
The couple’s passion for all creatures great and small extends to not eating them. Both Ellen and Portia are vegan.
“I think there’s a misconception that being vegan is difficult or isn’t delicious,” Ellen tells The Weekly.
“I love what I eat. And think about it, everyone I know either has or grew up with pets, and they were a huge source of joy. We see the beauty and unconditional love and distinct personality of our dogs or cats, but somehow people don’t realise that the same qualities exist in every cow, horse, and chicken.
“We are so removed from where our food comes from. Once you make that connection, eating animal products just doesn’t make sense. It’s bad for the planet, it’s bad for our health – it’s just not a compassionate or sustainable way to live. I realise it’s an adjustment for people, and I’m not saying everyone has to be vegan today, but it’s never been easier to be a vegan and we can all benefit from it.”
The decision not to eat any animal products means that “vegan” is another label that Ellen has to wear, but she’s sanguine: “I get labelled a lot,” she says in her book. “I’m often labelled a ‘gay talk show host’ or a ‘vegan animal lover’ or a ‘dancing superstar, the likes of which this world has never seen before’ or ‘just another gorgeous blond model with a pretty face.’”
More seriously, she tells The Weekly that being honest about her life means she gets “a lot of emails from people who tell me that I gave them the courage to be themselves. That’s such an amazing feeling. When you’re afraid
of what other people might think about you, it’s hard to grow as a person, so I’m proud I was able to let that idea go. I love breaking through barriers, whether it’s with my career or with my car.”
Ellen understands that interest in her life is part of what makes her famous, and that her fame puts her in a position to ease the burden of others.
Sometimes, the cause is global: the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, recently made Ellen an ambassador forthe plight of people suffering HIV, “a disease that grows where there is a lack of education and compassion, whether it’s in Africa or Australia or the U.S. If I can use my celebrity to shine a light or take a stand for those less fortunate, I will. I think it’s the least we could do.”
(For the record, on the question of whether Hillary should run for president, Ellen says: “I think that would be great. She still has a few pantsuits she left at the White House from last time she lived there.”)
At other times, the problem is more localised: one of the guests on Ellen’s show recently was suffering from cancer; she gave her $40,000 for treatment.
For more dreary, day-to-day cares, she recommends dancing, whether you’re any good at it or not, “because, either way, I’ll put you on TV.”
Ellen is close to the current US President, Barack Obama, who has danced on her show. The First Lady, Michelle Obama, also agreed to have a bit of a groove, but she also challenged the famously fit Ellen in a push-up contest, which Michelle easily won.
A week or so later, Barack told an audience of supporters that Ellen “accepts a little bit of teasing about Michelle beating her in push-ups – but I think she claims Michelle didn’t go all the way down,” prompting a wave of laughter from a crowd, who read that line entirely the wrong way.
Asked about that program, Ellen skirts neatly around it, saying: “I don’t want to keep bringing up the fact that Michelle cheated, because I’ve moved on. But, yes, physical fitness is obviously important, because, if she had been more in shape, maybe she wouldn’t have needed to cheat. I think we all learned a valuable lesson.”
When time came for Ellen to choose an Australian superstar to announce her decision to bring her show to Australia, she was pretty much spoilt for choice.
“It’s actually very hard to move around Hollywood, with all the Australians (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Rebel Wilson, Naomi Watts and on it goes) here,” she told The Weekly, “not because it’s crowded or anything, but because they drive on the wrong side of the road.”
She joined forces in the end with Nicole Kidman (they have the same Australian sponsor), who suggested that Ellen take time out while on tour to visit Kununurra in outback Western Australia.
“When I was filming the movie, Australia, I was swimming in the water there and that’s when I got pregnant,’’ Nicole told Ellen on her show. “It was a miracle. I think those watering holes are magical,” which prompted Ellen to quip: “Well, if I go swimming there and get pregnant, it would be a miracle!”
For many Americans, visiting Australia is the trip of a lifetime. It’s exotic, it’s expensive, and it’s particularly far away if you only ever get two weeks’ holiday. When Ellen announced the audience would be going on a holiday to Australia, their reaction was close to hysterical.
Ellen’s visit won’t be like Oprah’s trip, when the star and the audience travelled together, and it became part of the show. Ellen will film segments in Sydney and Melbourne to be played on her program. Her audience all got tickets that they’re welcome to use any time in the next 12 months. A quick survey of people in the crowd on the day The Weekly visited suggests that most people who dream about visiting Australia hope to see a kangaroo, a koala and a Bondi lifesaver (a huntsman spider, not so much.)
As to what Ellen herself expects to see, she deadpans her reply: “Of course, I don’t expect kangaroos in the main street,” she says. “But I do expect to see them boxing.”