Every week we will be taking a look at women that have inspired us, in the boardroom, in print, on the silver screen and in the news.
Ellen Lee DeGeneres was born on January 26, 1958, in Metairie, Louisiana, to an insurance salesman and her working mother, a speech therapist – now an American LGBT rights activist and the first straight spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign’s National Coming Out Project.
When Ellen was growing up, she dreamed of becoming a vet but instead she waited tables, shucked oysters, served as a bartender, painted houses, a legal secretary a vacuum cleaner salesperson (one that she and Willie Nelson discovered they had in common during an interview on her talk show).
DeGeneres’s older brother in the meantime, Vance, an actor/comedian and former correspondent for The Daily Show, was considered the humorous member of the family. Then once, during a public speaking event, DeGeneres found herself frightened by the crowd and used humour to get through the experience. She was a hit, and received offers to do stand-up comedy. She began performing in 1981 at a local coffeehouse, bolstered by her mother’s moral and financial support.
Her ‘big break’ came in 1986 when, acting on a tip from Jay Leno, The Tonight Show sent a booking agent to catch her act. As a result she appeared on 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.
By 1994, she was starring on her own ABC sitcom and in 1997 used it 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. However, the coming-out episode won her an Emmy. But despite audience support and the show’s groundbreaking place in television history, the surrounding controversy caused Ellen to be canceled in 1998.
After a few years of professional and personal setbacks, DeGeneres bounced back as the host for the Emmy Awards following the September 11 attacks in 2001. She received numerous accolades for her charm, tone and uplifting personality, which served as a balm to a grieving country.
In 2003, she made a triumphant return to TV as the host of her own award-winning talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. She begins each show with a short monologue followed by a dance, which brings her into the audience before she settles into her onstage chair.
Still, she always remained an animal lover and when she married girlfriend Portia de Rossi in 2008, they served only vegan food (no animal or dairy products) at their wedding reception. Today, they live on a farm with a variety of animals, from cows to dogs to horses. DeGeneres also promotes and features vegan recipes on her show and website. In 2009, PETA named her its Woman of the Year.
In recent years DeGeneres has also made a name for herself as a reliable awards show host; the Grammys in 1996 and 1997, the Primetime Emmys in 2001 and 2005 and the Academy Awards in 2007 and 2014.
Finally it was widely reported recently that DeGeneres received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the former President Obama – albeit slightly delayed after she forgot her ID and the security team denied her access to the Whitehouse! The award is for ‘individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavours,’ according to the White House.
Fun Facts about Ellen
- DeGeneres is the star of an EPCOT attraction at Walt Disney World. As part of the Universe of Energy at EPCOT, she is the main character in Ellen’s Energy Adventure. During the ride, audience members are transported to DeGeneres’s brain, which becomes a time machine taking them through primeval forests where dinosaurs dwell.
- DeGeneres and Madonna are related through a common 10th great-grandfather: Frenchman Martin Aucoin.
- Ellen DeGeneres turned down a role in Friends before starring in Ellen
- She was originally offered Sandra Bullock’s role in Speed in 1994.
- Ellen collects antique mirrors and portraits.
- The best seat at the studio where “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” is recorded is reserved for Ellen’s mom, Betty.
- In November 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named her a Special Envoy for Global AIDS Awareness
- She was the voice of Dory in “Finding Nemo.”
- Ellen bought her home in Los Angeles for $39,888,000. It sits on 2.3 acres. The main house has 6 bedrooms, 9 1/2 bathrooms, a pool, pool house, gym, spa, and tennis court.
- The second time she hosted the Academy Awards, she orchestrated a selfie during the broadcast, which became the most retweeted image ever. The photo of 12 celebrities broke the previous retweet record within 40 minutes, and was retweeted more than 1.8 million times in the first hour. By the end of the ceremony it had been retweeted over 2 million times, and less than 24 hours later, it had been retweeted more than 2.8 million times. Two years later, it still holds the record.
- Michelle Obama beat her in a press ups competition!