Get It Straight

Five years ago, this interview would have been such the big deal--the coup of the year, the elusive great white at last wriggling on the hook. At least, that's how she was treated back then, when she still took her meals in that velvet closet. She attracted the spotlight (some might say she grabbed it and aimed it directly at herself) and was delighted when journalists came around begging and pleading for her to tell them everything. Who wouldn't have been? Only the crooked and corrupt--or the unreasonably sane--hide from open microphones and leering cameras; everyone else waits his turn, especially little girls from New Orleans who grow up in modest homes tended to by parents who idolize the famous. Everyone dreams of being so well-known his face peers out from every newsstand in the country--all eyes fixed on him, all necks straining to catch a glimpse of the private life made explicitly public. Of course, only those who've actually been there will insist that dream doesn't come without a corresponding nightmare. They're the Garanimals of fame, matching tops and bottoms in one-size-fits-all.

"I was raised with people who loved celebrity, and we didn't have any money," Ellen DeGeneres says now, her voice so oddly familiar and intimate even over a phone line. "And I knew celebrities got a lot of attention, and another thing is celebrities had a lot of money and everybody loved celebrities. So those were all really important things to me, and I always wanted to have that kind of feeling." In 1997, she got it: Her face stared out from every celeb-obsessed magazine, her crooked smile hinting at the bewilderment and resentment that would follow soon enough. Entertainment Weekly wondered, "Will Ellen DeGeneres' Alter Ego Come Out With Her Hands Up?"; "Will Ellen Still Wear Pants?" read the front of Newsweek. Time said only, "Yup, I'm Gay."

She still is, and five years later you'd think it wouldn't be a big deal. To anyone. Ever. Hard to believe it ever was, except maybe to Jerry Falwell, whose close connection to God still couldn't muster him better material than "Ellen DeGenerate." But still it lingers--The Gay Thing, as though her sexuality is all that defines her. Almost each piece written about her during this current tour, which began with four Los Angeles club dates in April and winds up this month in Fort Lauderdale, echoes the same theme: "She's still gay," as though her being a lesbian is little more than a fad on its last legs. Not too long ago, she says, there was even a bomb threat at one of her stand-up shows. Little wonder it's been awhile since she embarked on such a long tour; who needs such tsuris?

"For a while there, right after I came out, I felt like everybody loved me," she says. And they did. Some 40 million viewers tuned in to watch her counterpart--Ellen Morgan, star of ABC-TV's Ellen--come out on national television. She announced it on an airport loudspeaker, just to make sure no one missed it. You'd have thought she was announcing a cure for cancer, not just letting the world know she liked sleeping with women (and one in particular, that lunatic Anne Heche, for whom there is no such thing as private or even prudent or rational). But, all the same, it was kind of fun. It even made her mother, Betty--the national spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign's National Coming Out Project and the author of Love, Ellen--a bit of a celebrity. It was a blast. For about this long.

"That whole period was very exciting to me," she says. "But, you know, I knew there were people who didn't like me, because we had, you know, a bomb threat during the taping of Ellen and death threats and all that stuff. There's kooky people out there, and, you know, there are still people out there who, you know, for whatever reason, you know..." Her voice trails off for a moment. She hops aboard a new train of thought. "But, I think for the most part, there's been a lot of people that have changed, and I think the world is a different place now."

Maybe so. Probably not. After all, not much has really changed in the last few years. In 1998, Ellen was getting canceled by ABC for being, ya know, too gay. Only a few weeks ago, DeGeneres was getting the boot from another network: CBS announced in May it was not renewing The Ellen Show, on which DeGeneres played an Internet exec named Ellen Richmond who returned to her hometown and got stuck there. Think Providence, only not nearly as funny.

It's often said that Ellen was axed by ABC because it was too "political," too preachy--too much about her sexuality, too little about her comedy. Which is, in retrospect, so much garbage. Ellen was as much a victim of network politics as it was a casualty of its writers and star's decision to push DeGeneres' agenda of delivering a thoughtful, funny show about a woman in her 30s grappling with her sexuality. When it debuted in 1994, the show was produced by Disney--which later purchased ABC, meaning the network now owned the show. The series had simply become too much of a pain in the ass for ABC execs, who had seen major advertisers pull out (and how ironic is that?) over issues of content. Network censors actually killed a benign line in which DeGeneres jokingly told the actress playing her girlfriend, "I said I want to take you like a wild animal," which pales next to every tired fag joke that passes for clever on Will & Grace these days. It was easier to kill the show than tame it.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky