Today on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Portia DeGeneres has the hour dedicated to discussing her new book, Unbearable Lightness. As I told you in my review last week, the book revolves largely around her struggles with anorexia/bulemia and hiding her sexuality early in her career.
The Oprah episode was great PR for the book — Oprah asked Portia about events that she wrote about and also read some sections aloud. But in terms of what you won’t find in Unbearable Lightness, Portia shares some insights on taking Ellen’s last name and Ellen herself is asked how she felt in learning about Portia’s former illness.
Ellen on Portia’s eating disorders:
Portia on how Ellen saves her:
Portia on legally changing her name to DeGeneres:
Portia on realizing she was gay:
Portia on experimenting with her straight friends:
“And she was vilified,” Oprah said.
“A lot of people just remember the parties,” Portia said. “The ‘good for you!’ But actually, she lost her first sitcom almost immediately after that.”
Then Oprah shared that after she played the therapist on Ellen’s coming out episode of the sitcom, she got “more hate mail for playing the therapist on that show than I ever received in my entire career. Just for playing the therapist.”
Portia begins to cry and says, “That really hurts me to hear that” and Oprah says she can understand it would make a gay actress “go way back in the closet and close the door.”
“Yeah, hell no — I’m not trying that!” Portia said with a laugh. “I would never do a talk show — especially late night men — because I was terrified they’d ask me if I had a boyfriend. I didn’t know how to answer that. Hiding your sexuality is the most horrible way to live and it really does a huge disservice to society because if everybody who was gay came out — if every profession; teachers, doctors — if everybody came out and said ‘I’m gay, who cares?’ it would make a big impact with all these teenage suicides.”
Portia then takes cameras on a tour of their 26 acre farm where it’s “the most amazing relaxing place for us.” She says they visit there every weekend they can and it’s “most definitely” her favorite place on earth. She introduces us to Monty and May, horses in their stables. Riding was a big part of Portia’s becoming more healthy because she wanted “energy to know how to ride her” and helped her reconnect with nature.
At the end of the show, Portia became very emotional in discussing her mother being in denial about her eating disorder and her sexuality. It was a pivotal moment for Portia, as she writes in the book and relayed to Oprah, when her mom said she didn’t care if Portia was gay — she just wanted her to live. “It was that moment where I thought I have hope now, because I know that my mother is going to be OK,” Portia said.
Portia goes on to say that her mother expected her to hide her being a lesbian because she liked “the TV actress but she didn’t really like the lesbian.” And Portia said to her, “There’s a very fine line between being private and being ashamed,” as her mother would flaunt her brother’s relationships and hide anything involving Portia outside of her acting career.
“She didn’t really know how devastating it is for a parent to say ‘I accept it, that’s the way it is and it’s fine but don’t tell anybody,'” Portia said. “It’s a strange message to send somebody. Ideally ultimately ‘who cares’ is the best response they can ever get if they come out to somebody.” There was loud applause from the audience, who also gave Mrs. DeGeneres a standing ovation when she first took the stage.
Portia may not have came out in 1998, when she was starting career on a hit show, but she chose to speak about it when she was self-assured and happy with herself, her life and her wife. And with the platform she has now, speaking about being comfortable with who she is at whatever weight she is, she’s doing a huge service for lesbians, women and anyone who has suffered from an eating disorder or being in the closet.