Ellen Lee DeGeneres was born January 26, 1958 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was the daughter of an insurance salesman and a working mother who were divorced when DeGeneres was a teenager. When she was growing up she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but she gave up the idea because she was “not book smart.” Instead, she waited tables, sold vacuum cleaners, painted houses, worked as a legal secretary.
DeGeneres’ older brother, Vance, was the creator of the Play-Doh character “Mr. Bill” on the long-running NBC comedy skit program Saturday Night Live, and was long considered the humorous member of the family. Then once, during a public speaking event, DeGeneres found herself frightened by the crowd and used humor to get through the experience. She was a hit, and received offers to do stand-up comedy. She began performing in 1981, bolstered by her mother’s moral and financial support.
At the age of 23, she began performing at a local coffeehouse. She got her big debut in 1986 when, acting on a tip from Jay Leno, The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson sent a booking agent to catch her act at the Improv in Hollywood. As a result of that engagement, DeGeneres was invited onto The Tonight Show and earned the distinction of being the only female comic to be invited by Johnny Carson to sit on the famed “couch” during her first visit. She then began making regular appearances on the talk show circuit, including performances on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Later with Greg Kinnear, Larry King Live, and Good Morning, America. She was also profiled in detail on ABC’s PrimeTime Live.
Her wit won over audiences, and DeGeneres finally found success as an actress with her own prime-time sitcom—the self-titled television series, Ellen. The series was originally titled These Friends of Mine, but was renamed in 1994. From that point, she enjoyed a dizzying evolution from its beginnings as an ensemble show to its development into a showcase for DeGeneres.
The show faced strong criticism when, in April 1997, DeGeneres’ character became the first lead in sitcom history to openly acknowledge her homosexuality on air. An ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, refused to air the landmark episode. Fearing controversy, some of the show’s sponsors, Daimler Chrysler among them, withdrew advertisements.
Several episodes following her reveal had gay themes and, throughout the remainder of the season, DeGeneres and ABC executives faced a storm of criticism. But the show also received rounds of applause from gay-friendly activists—including DeGeneres’ mother, Betty Degeneres, who appeared on numerous talk shows in support of her daughter. Despite a supportive audience; an Emmy Award for the coming-out episode; and the show’s groundbreaking place in television history; Ellen was canceled in 1998.
But DeGeneres had already made the move to the big screen, starring in the dark comedy Mr. Wrong (1996) as a woman in search of the perfect man. She has also appeared in the comedy EdTV (1999), starring Matthew McConaughey, and the television production of If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000), in which she shared a much publicized love scene with Sharon Stone.
Returning to television in 2003, Ellen DeGeneres became a big hit with daytime viewers with her self-titled talk show, Ellen. Since its inception, the show has won an Emmy, nearly a dozen Daytime Emmy Awards, and numerous People’s Choice Awards.
Also in 2003, DeGeneres lent her voice to the animated box office smash, Finding Nemo. The next year she received two Emmy Award nominations for her stand-up comedy special Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now.
A unique combination of kind and funny, Ellen DeGeneres has been a popular choice for award show host in recent years. She has hosted the Primetime Emmy Awards twice, and the Academy Awards for the first time in 2007. In September of 2009, Ellen made headlines again when she was chosen to fill the coveted fourth slot as a judge on the ninth season of American Idol. Former judge, Paula Abdul, announced her departure from the show earlier in the year. Show executives had been searching for a replacement for several months.
In addition to her stand-up, film, and television career, Degeneres is also the author of several books, including My Point … and I Do Have One (1995) and The Funny Thing Is… (2004).
For several years, DeGeneres dated actress Anne Heche and, in 1999, the couple bought a home together in Los Angeles. Although at one point they publicly announced their desire to be married, the couple broke up in August 2000. DeGeneres then dated Alexandra Hedison for a few years before becoming involved with actress Portia de Rossi in December 2004.
DeGeneres married de Rossi on August 16, 2008, in what was perhaps the highest-profile gay marriage after California legalized the unions.