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:
She hated herself. I mean, she absolutely hated herself and I look at her and I think, ‘How could you ever? How did you not know how amazing you were?’ It’s heartbreaking.
I didn’t know at first. I met her after she had gone through that. I knew that she had suffered from eating disorders but nobody really sees the ugly, deep, dark places that she takes you in in that book. I’d seen one of the pictures where she looks like a skeleton and so I knew it had been bad, but i didn’t know what it takes to get to that point and the insanity of the repetitious behavior and the loneliness and the hiding — all that stuff. She’d read little passages as she was writing it and just break down in tears.
Being on the show and talking about it and sharing such personal information is hard for her but I think she’ll help a lot of people. She saves me every minute of the day and I don’t know what I’d do without her. She’s so amazing in every way. If i had to pick one thing that’s the best about her is that she’s so loving. She’s just the most loving kind generous person to everyone. She’s sweet, she treats everyone in a very kind way and that’s the best thing about Portia.
Portia on how Ellen saves her:
Love saves me. Love really does heal you. And I think that her love for me is so unconditional that it actually makes me feel like maybe i should kind of start accepting myself for exactly who I am because she seems to.
Portia on legally changing her name to DeGeneres:
I love her and I am very proud to be her wife. And I made up my name. I made up this name because I thought it was important to be independent of my family and kind of be an individual. And as I’ve gotten older, I realized the sense of belonging, and I really wanted to be a part of Ellen’s family. And I am, but I think just solidifying that by taking her name makes me feel — makes me feel like I have a family.
Portia on realizing she was gay:
It was a gradual realization I think. I have always really loved men — and still do — and just kind of assumed I would be straight. I think everybody assumes that you’re going to be heterosexual. The thing that made me think I wasn’t was I developed very strong feelings for my best friends, for my girl friends, that were stronger than friendship. And I had a series of mini heartbreaks throughout my teens because my fantasy of what life could be like with my best friend wasn’t shared with my best friend. My best friend wanted to get married to a man and have kids and I just wanted to be with them. And that’s when I thought something was definitely different about me. So really it took until I was about 18 when I realized I have to date other lesbians if I was ever going to fulfill that fantasy.
Portia on experimenting with her straight friends:
Here’s the thing — I thought if i was experimenting with another straight girl, that I wasn’t gay. We were just two straight girls experimenting. But I was afraid being around lesbians, because if I was going to be experimenting with lesbians, it must mean I’m gay. I didn’t want to be gay. I wanted to be "normal."
Having to hide something like that just ruined me. It really really killed me. Because, even though I’d gotten to a point where I wasn’t ashamed anymore, I was doing it for financial reasons, so I could have a career. Because there were no lesbian TV actresses then or actresses ever in history. You have to remember this was 1998 when I started Ally McBeal. In 1997 Ellen came out, and I watched that like I"m sure a lot of gay people did, especially gay actresses at the time. What’s going to happen to her, because really it was the litmus test for me. If she went down, there’s no way in hell I can come up. If someone as charming and wonderful as Ellen DeGeneres can’t pull this off and keep her career, it’s not going to work for me. So I had to keep it hidden.
"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.