In an emotionally charged ceremony, President Barack Obama has awarded Ellen DeGeneres America’s highest civilian honour – admitting he “choked up” handing out one of his last Medals of Freedom.
During the event Tuesday night (22 November) Obama, who will be leaving the White House in 2017, praised the comedian, actor and TV host for coming out as gay in 1997, despite the risk it posed to her career at the time – emphasising that her bravery was important not just for the LGBTQ community but for the entire United States of America as it helped to “push our country in the direction of justice.”
“It’s easy to forget now, when we’ve come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law, just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago,” he said.
“Just how important it was, not just to the LGBT community, but for all of us to see somebody so full of kindness and light, somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbour, or our colleague, or our sister, challenge our own assumptions.
“Remind us that we have more in common that we realize. Push our country in the direction of justice. What an incredible burden that was to bear, to risk your career like that.
“People don’t do that very often. And then to have the hopes of millions on your shoulders.”
“It's like Ellen says, we all want a tortilla chip that can support the weight of guacamole...” he added, to laughter from the crowd. “Which really makes no sense to me, but I thought would break the mood because I was getting kind of choked up.”
He wasn’t the only one; DeGeneres was clearly moved by his words, tearing up as he placed her medal around her neck.
DeGeneres, now one of the world’s most beloved chat show hosts and TV personalities, suffered a heavy backlash after she publicly came out in 1997. Her sitcom, Ellen, was cancelled, and she found herself unable to find a job for several years – which led to her suffering from depression.
Disney’s Pixar then offered her the role of Dory in Finding Nemo, which she has credited with enabling her to rebuild her career, making it bigger, brighter, and bolder than ever; she is now watched by 15 million people each week on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Despite the momentousness of the occasion, however, DeGeneres still displayed her trademark humour as she waited to be honoured by POTUS. Posing outside on a bench, she wrote on Twitter: “They haven't let me in to the White House yet because I forgot my ID.”
She added: “Not joking.”
Thankfully, however, the situation was resolved – and she later posed for a selfie with her proud wife Portia de Rossi.
“Barack Obama just awarded me the Medal of Freedom,” she wrote. “I hope it serves as an ID. I have no idea how I’m getting home.”
DeGeneres and the likes of Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Diana Ross and Michael Jordan were especially chosen by Obama for his final Medals of Freedom.
“These are folks who have helped make me who I am,” he said.
“Everybody on this stage has touched me in a very powerful, personal way, in ways that they probably couldn't imagine.”
DeGeneres took advantage of the famous faces gathered in one place, staging an epic #MannequinChallenge video (above) from inside the White House.
Images: Rex Pictures