Being America’s favorite lesbian-next-door is good business. A new cover story in The Hollywood Reporter traces Ellen DeGeneres’ rise from the rubble of her coming out to having the highest-earning show in daytime television today. Her expanding empire of her daytime talk show, production company, film projects, book deals, record label and product endorsements earn her an estimated $50 million year.
Photo courtesy The Hollywood Reporter
But The Hollywood Reporter piece reveals it hasn’t always been easy street in business for the New Orleans native. In fact, after her “Yep, I’m Gay” heard around the world, Ellen almost went bankrupt after her show was cancelled and Hollywood stopped calling. And she admits selling her talk show was no easy task. She told THR:
They said, “Who is going to watch a lesbian during the daytime? You know these are housewives and mothers, right? What does she possibly have in common with them?”
Her syndicated daytime talk show enters its 10th season when it premieres Sept. 10. And now the numbers speak for itself. Last year it averaged 3.2 million viewers and sold $87 million in spot ads, according to Kantar Media. And Forbes magazine just named her the 47th most powerful woman in the world. Guess those housewives and mothers found plenty to have in common with a lesbian.
What’s particularly interesting about the article is how many people were surprised by Ellen’s success. Her simple formula of keeping things “quirky, safe and highly entertaining” seemed to have been overshadowed by what others saw as the obstacle of her sexual orientation.
Still, her current success did not come without significant early backlash. After she famously came out on her sitcom on April 30, 1997 in “The Puppy Episode,” Ellen’s rating crashed and her show only lasted one more season before being canceled. Even those who guest starred on the show faced harsh backlash. Oprah Winfrey, who appeared as Ellen’s therapist in the episode, told THR:
It was the worst backlash I had ever received. And it always turns to race. I got all of the, “N–, go back to Africa. Who do you think you are?” I’d never experienced anything that bad before.
After the show went off the air, Ellen then went through a three-year period without work and nearly went broke. She contemplated quitting the business. But then she staged her successful “The Beginning” stand-up tour and in 2001 the Emmy Awards came calling for a host the show. Her hosting gig, right after the Sept. 11 attacks, were widely considered a triumph and she was back on the Hollywood map.
Hard as it is to imagine now, her talk show was still a tough sell. According to THR Ellen had to travel across the country to each market to reassure nervous TV executives that there was nothing to fear from The Big Lesbian and her Big Gay Agenda. As she told the magazine:
They were always shocked. They’d be like, “She didn’t curse,” as though cursing were a characteristic of gay people. …. I had to show them that I know how to talk to people — like how hard is it to talk to people? — and still a lot of them didn’t want to hire me.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact of Ellen’s paving of the coming out road. In the article, comedian Wanda Sykes, who came out 11 years after Ellen in 2008, says Ellen “took the bullet for everyone else.” And it’s true. All the nonchalant comings out of today like The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons, Star Trek‘s Zachary Quinto and White Collar‘s Matt Bomer without a big splashy magazine cover are because Ellen did it 15 years ago on a big splashy magazine cover.
The magazine also ironically notes that it is Ellen’s very difference that has helped to make her so popular to so many people. And it’s also a good lesson for other celebrities who might still be in the closet peeking out right now. As Ellen told THR:
I know that every time I list something that I am, I am potentially alienating a whole group of people. Publicists and managers will encourage you not to say what political party you belong to, what you eat, what you don’t eat, who you sleep with and all that stuff. I just think it’s dangerous. People need to have all kinds of examples and heroes on television who stand for something.
Sure, coming out of the closet won’t give us all a $50 million dollar entertainment empire like Ellen. But at least we now know, thanks to her, it certainly won’t prevent us from having one either.