Ellen DeGeneres is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the world’s most beloved chat show hosts, actors, and TV personalities. She is loved by fans of all ages (not least for voicing Dory in Disney’s Finding Nemo) and was last year awarded a Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama.
However, in 1997 – shockingly recently – DeGeneres was the victim of a heavy homophobic backlash after she publicly came out as gay in her sitcom, Ellen. The show was cancelled, and she found herself unable to find a job for several years, which led to her suffering from depression.
Now, in a new interview nearly 20 years to the day that the episode first aired, DeGeneres says she knew there was a risk to telling the truth, but she wasn’t prepared for the sheer volume of hate – and says of that time: “Nobody really understood how dark it got for me.”
“I knew I was risking hurting my career,” she tells The Associated Press. “But to know that Laura Dern was punished for it just because she played my love interest in that show is crazy. I mean, she’s a brilliant actress, she’s heterosexual and yet she was punished. And Oprah [Winfrey] got hate mail just for being a part of it.”
The 59-year-old continues: “Obviously, that’s why a lot of people don’t come out, because there’s a very loud and clear message … that a lot of people don’t understand it [being gay], and because they don’t understand it they fear, and because they fear it they hate it. But I had no idea the amount of hate. I had no idea that there would be death threats or a bomb scare. It was a really scary time.”
DeGeneres – who is now married to Portia de Rossi – goes on to say that she felt “attacked” after the series ended. Eventually, the overwhelming hatred became too much, and she found herself “depressed” and on the verge of a breakdown.
“Nobody really understood how dark it got for me. I was really, really in a deep depression,” she recalls. “I had never been so down in my life. I was depressed. I was broke. I felt attacked. It was everything that you just fear in life, like nobody loving you.”
However DeGeneres says she will never regret coming out: “It became more important to me than my career. I suddenly said, ‘Why am I being, you know, ashamed of who I am just to be successful and famous in society’s eyes?’”
She added: “For me to crawl out of that and to accomplish what I’ve accomplished with the show and with my brand and with my production company, and to succeed after all that … [It] makes me realize that no matter how dark something gets, and no matter how bad something gets, that there’s always a possibility of good coming from it.
“You have to just hold on and know that something good will come from it and there’s always a lesson in everything.”
Obama previously praised DeGeneres for her bravery in coming out.
Speaking at the White House on 22 November last year, the former POTUS said: “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.
“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.”
Images: Rex Features