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When we think of Ellen DeGeneres, what typically comes to mind are things like her hit daytime television show, her myriad ad campaigns, and, of course, her hosting gigs. As DeGeneres prepares to take on her second round as an Oscar host this Sunday, we wanted to step back and remember what viewers used to think about her. Fifteen years ago, when audiences thought about Ellen, what typically came to mind, first and foremost, was gay.
Ellen began her stand-up career in the late 1970s, touring the same clubs as her male peers. By the early '80s, she'd won myriad comedy awards and appeared on The Tonight Show, where Johnny Carson compared her work to that of the legendary Bob Newhart. After her set, she was invited to sit on the panel for an informal on-air chat — a right of passage in the comedy community — as the first woman to ever hold that post.
Ellen's television career continued on a bumpy trajectory; her early sitcoms and variety shows were quickly canceled. But, in 1994, one stuck. Originally titled These Friends of Mine, the show was renamed Ellen and, soon after, the real buzz began. Even though the series was a massive hit, talk centered around its titular star and when, if, or how she might come out. Then, in 1997, Ellen faced the crowd head-on and came out both in character and real life. Millions of fans cheered, assuming the fight was over, that Ellen had won. But, meanwhile, there was a quiet, though powerful, backlash. Advertisers pulled their support, and, as the season went on, many pointed out ABC's seeming lack of promotion. Within months, the series was canceled, and Ellen faded from the limelight.
After, Ellen took more than her share of bruising. The evangelical right came out against her, calling her "Ellen Degenerate." (Good one, guys.) And, for years she was seen as more of a liability than an asset to networks and studio heads. But, as we all know, Ellen couldn't be held back for long. In 2003, her daytime show debuted — to wild critical success — and Ellen was back, for good. From there came the ad campaigns, the spokeswoman gigs, and an unparalleled viewership.
We know all these facts. But, it's easy for us to forget just how extraordinary they really are. Ellen could have let us forget her. It's hard enough for any performer to stay in the spotlight, but Ellen had to wake up battle-ready every day to do so. It's because she chose to stay and fight that others had to fight less. It's because she chose to stay and fight that shows like Glee and Modern Family didn't need Very Special Episodes about the terror of publicly coming out. It's because she chose to stay and fight that being gay, in public or private, is no longer the first thing we think about when we think of Ellen DeGeneres.
When we tune in to the Oscars tonight, it'll probably be the usual: song and dance, weepy actors, and everyone getting up to pee during the Sound Design awards. Nothing special. But, in the middle of it all will be Ellen, busting her ass on stage, like she's done for over 20 years. That's nothing special either. But, she is. She allowed us to take a lot for granted, and for that, we owe her recognition. We owe it to her to remember — and to say, thanks.