It gets better
"If this isn't an example of 'It gets better' than I don't know what is. Time is a strange thing. I was at rock bottom and out of money, with no work in sight, but one step at a time, it gets better. It gets much better," (Schladebeck). Ellen Lee DeGeneres has been entertaining the American public since the early 1980s with relevant yet entertaining banter. She has captured the hearts of many with her original sense of humor and ability to approach serious subjects while staying true to herself. DeGeneres has the ability to connect with an extensive amount of diverse individuals because of her life experiences. She has endured many struggles but overcame them to become who she is today. Her early life and career, sharing her sexuality with the world, and the success she has finally found, caused her to grow and adapt.
Born on January 26, 1958, to Scientologist parents, Ellen didn’t know what laid in store for her. She lived with her mother, Betty, who was a speech therapist, and her father, Elliot, who was an insurance agent, as well as her older brother, Vance. However, when she was fifteen, her parents divorced. Even though Ellen was devastated when her father and brother moved out, she didn’t have time to grieve. Ellen was left to comfort her emotionally unstable mother, telling her jokes to try to ease her mind. This helped encourage Ellen’s love for comedy. “My mother was going through some really hard times and I could see when she was really getting down, and I would start to make fun of her dancing, So I would totally bring her from where I'd seen her start going into depression to all the way out of it. As a 13-year-old kid, I learned I could manipulate people that way. That's a really powerful thing,” (Carter). Ellen saw how she was able to make her mom forget the emotional pain she was harboring by making her laugh, and she loved being able to help others this way. This passion for making people feel better stayed with her for the rest of her life. Her mother eventually remarried a traveling salesman. The two moved with him to Atlanta while Vance and Ellen’s father stayed in Metairie, Louisiana. This complete division of the family wasn’t easy for anyone, and Ellen was forced to adapt. Her entire young life, she was forced to be the rock for her mother and so Ellen had to become very strong. She didn’t have the easiest childhood, but it helped brace her for the future.
She enrolled at the ‘University of New Orleans’ and took classes in communication studies. However, she dropped out, opting to work various jobs such as waitress, hostess, bartender, and house painter. Money was tight, but her lack of financial stability forced Ellen to be thankful for what she had. This attitude helped her realize that it was the people that she was with that mattered to her, not how much money she had. She would always remember this lesson, and never took the people around her for granted. She couldn’t afford to live on her own while working as a waitress, so she moved in with her girlfriend. Then, unexpectedly, her girlfriend died in a car accident leaving Ellen devastated. Once again, she felt the loss of someone she loved. “I couldn’t afford to live where we were living together and so I moved into this tiny little basement apartment,” she recalled. “I moved into this basement apartment and I was sleeping on a mattress on a floor and it was infested with fleas. And I used to write all the time, I wrote poetry and songs and stuff, and I thought, ‘Why is this beautiful 21-year-old girl just gone and fleas are here?’” (Chen). This experience, though tragic, inspired her career-launching stand up routine. She remembered how desperately she wanted to know why her girlfriend had died and why there were so many fleas. She wished to be able to call God himself in order to get the answers to her questions. “I just thought it would be amazing if we could just pick up the phone and call up God and ask questions and get an answer…,” (Chen). This provided the material for her first stand up routine where she pretended to call God and asked him humorous questions. “Listen, there are just certain things on this earth, I don't understand why they're here. No, not Charo, but there are certain things, like, insects. No bees are great, the honey, that's clever. I was thinking more like fleas, they seem to have no benefit... no, I didn't realize how many people were employed by the flea collar industry, not to mention sprays. Yeah, I guess You're right, of course You are,” (Chen). This is one of her most memorable bits. By exercising her sense of humor, she was able to make the best of the situation and cope with her grief. The material she created from this event didn’t just help her mental wellbeing. She could also use the material for stand-up.She took one of the lowest moments in her life and used it benefit her career. This attitude would help her later when she would continue to face discouragement.
Her career didn’t kickstart overnight by any means. Her first stand-up comedy performances were in small coffee houses and clubs. In the early 1980s, she became the ‘emcee’ at the ‘Clyde's Comedy Club’ in New Orleans. During this time, she was also touring the country, visiting many local level comedy clubs. This was difficult for her because of her extreme fear of flying. However, she was dedicated to furthering her career and swallowed her anxiety. Her efforts paid off, and during this time she was named ‘Funniest Person in America’ by the American television network ‘Showtime’ and she became a household name. In 1986, she was seen on the ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ where she was the first female to have been invited to sit down. Johnny Carson invited very few people to sit down to talk with him after performing and it was viewed as an honor on the show. This is also where she first performed her famed “phone call to God” bit. (2019 Encyclopedia Britannica). In 1989, she appeared in the sitcom ‘Open House’ and worked in films such as ‘Ellen’s Energy Adventure’ and ‘Coneheads’. In 1992, she earned a new show, ‘These Friends of Mine’. Her exceptional performance led to the producers choosing to rename the second season of the show after her. She was also the presenter of the ‘Grammy Awards’ in 1996 and again in 1997, a huge honor. However, her luck changed in 1997 when she choose to openly share that she was a lesbian on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’.
Ellen wanted to be true to herself and felt it was important to share her story so that others could do the same, even though her manager had advised her against coming out. She recently revealed that "anybody making money off me said, don't do it," (Harnick). Ellen also shared the fear that revealing this to the world could hurt her career, but she wanted to be genuine and empower others to have the courage to do the same. After this, she began to receive backlash. She received hateful letters and even death threats, but there were still people who continued to support her. Ellen was obviously hurt by the negative messages she received, but she also believed that she had an obligation to continue her career for those who still stood by her. That same year, in April, the character that Ellen portrayed on her show also announced herself to be a lesbian. This episode is believed to have received higher ratings in comparison to all the other episodes of the show. However, after this, Ellen began to receive even more backlash, and eventually, her show was canceled due to a drop in ratings. In a new interview with Dax Shepard for his “Armchair Expert” podcast, DeGeneres explained, "It hurt my feelings. I was getting jokes made at my expense on every late-night show, people were making fun of me. I was really depressed. And because of that, and because the show was canceled, I was looked at as a failure in this business. No one would touch me. I had no agent, no possibility of a job, I had nothing," (Chen). She found herself sinking into depression, isolating herself. She felt that she had no one to turn to, even saying, “Because there was so much talk about [coming out] . . . Even Elton John said, ‘Shut up already. We know you’re gay. Be funny.’ I had never met him and I thought, ‘What kind of support is that from a gay person?” (Konow). DeGeneres fell out of popularity and chose to stay out of the public eye until she could recover mentally from the number of hateful things that people had said about her. She was reluctant to ask for assistance and tried to manage her problems on her own. “If you ever have experienced depression, you isolate yourself and don’t reach out for help. You don’t say, ‘I’m hurting, I need help’ – you kind of crawl further into that dark hole, so that’s where I was for a while,” (Konow). Being honest with herself and knowing that she was complete, helped her emerge from the shadowy abyss that she felt imprisoned in.
After recovering from her depression and achieving a good psyche, Ellen was ready to go back to what she was familiar with, comedy. She found that her identity was deeply rooted in her ability to make others laugh. Comedy had always been what she leaned on in hard times. She got back into show business in 2001, and the same year, she re-appeared on television with the sitcom ‘The Ellen Show’, which aired on the ‘CBS’ network. Even now, she is in awe that she had the ability to recover and continue her career. “I can't believe that I was able to achieve what I achieved, lose it all and then get to this point in my life at 60 years old,” she said. “To start over at 45. Nobody starts over in this business at 45, much less a woman. I'm really grateful that I had that experience and it made me a stronger person," (Chen). She is very thankful that she was able to have a second chance and a platform that she can use to help others. She was given her own talk show, ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show’, which she still hosts. Early in her show, she did not feel genuine as she dressed and styled her hair in ways that did not refelt who she was. She did this because her manager thought it would be best if she maintained a traditional feminine appearance, urging her to dress in skirts and keep her hair long. She believes that it took being authentic for her confidence to improve again. As soon as she was true to herself, she was finally able to be content, saying, "I slowly gained the confidence to be authentic, and what I've learned about other people is that they strive to be authentic, too. So whether they fully support me, love my lifestyle or love that I'm married to a woman, I think they like that authenticity, and they're drawn to it," (Schladebeck). Part of her success comes from her originality. Her show is very different from previous talk shows. She brings a new attitude to television, dancing in the aisles with the live audience and pulling pranks on her guests. She never liked mean comedy and refused to participate in it, especially when she had been the butt of the joke, and the show reflects her all-inclusive attitude. She uses her platform to stop hostility against everyone, even those who are discourteous and bad-mannered. Her dancing and creative spirit have allowed her to reach millions and empower them to be themselves, no matter the circumstances.
Ellen’s career and life haven't been easy, but she managed to overcome every obstacle thrown at her and enable others to do the same. Even at fifteen years old, she supported her mother and lifted her spirits. When her girlfriend unexpectedly passed away and she lived in a basement with fleas, she turned the situation into a career-launching stand up routine. Also, after she faced backlash after she came out to the public and her career suffered because of it, she took time for herself and came back better than ever. She found success because of her ability to make the best of every situation and her amusing and authentic sense of humor. She believes that everything gets better if you take it one step at a time, and her life and legacy are a testament to that.