A day in the year of Ellen

She’s been through the fire of coming out. Now Ellen DeGeneres is hotter than ever. In this exclusive interview, given just prior to her breakup with partner Alexandra Hedison, Ellen gives us a private glimpse of the superstar who happens to be gay

BY Anne Stockwell

December 21 2004 12:00 AM ET

We’re 15
minutes out from the start of The Ellen DeGeneres
Show,
and the studio audience is already on its feet
and dancing. Practically speaking, we don’t have a
choice: Nobody could resist the beat of the vintage
funk music pounding through the warm
blond-wood-and-aqua set. Besides, it’s fun. Other
live shows push their audiences to compete
aggressively for souvenirs, but here, in NBC’s
Studio 11 in Burbank, Calif., guests are told they’ll
get an "I danced with Ellen" T-shirt not for having
danced best but for having the best time while
dancing.
By the time DeGeneres bounds onto the set
in slacks, blazer, and running shoes, she’s the
last to arrive at her own party.
And are they ever thrilled to see her. Their
roar of affection fascinates particularly because
there’s no way this far-flung crowd is all
gay-friendly all the time. Yet confronted with one of
America’s most famous lesbians ever, everybody
greets her as one of their own.
At 46, DeGeneres is living proof that you can
actually come to the end of coming out. More than
perhaps any other public figure, she has run the whole
gauntlet—professional setbacks; her own public
growing pains; the humiliation of being written off by
colleagues, pundits, and a lot of lesbians and gays as
well. Now DeGeneres is on the other side. Honors and
endorsements are rolling in. She’s slated to speak at
one of Harvard Law School’s commencement events
in 2005. She’s featured in a new global ad
campaign for American Express alongside other highly
individual stars like Robert De Niro, Tiger Woods, and
surfer Laird Hamilton.
More than all that, in terms of her own talent,
DeGeneres is apparently just getting warmed up. After
decades of success in sitcoms, it turns out
she’s equally gifted at hosting a cavalcade of
celebrities and coming up with offbeat ways to let
them shine. A good example: When the famously
foulmouthed Colin Farrell did the show, every curse word was
drowned in the studio by the sound of a mighty
ka-CHING. Farrell and DeGeneres had agreed that
he’d be fined $100 per profanity, with the take
to go to charity. The shtick worked brilliantly, granting
Farrell his edge but softening it too. Just as clever was a
good-humored sketch in which Farrell and Ellen fell
into a passionate kiss backstage and he sobbed
brokenheartedly once she was gone. The audience, feeling in
on the joke, loved it.
With this show, DeGeneres has found the
Goldilocks zone: not too sweet, not too sharp, but
just right. Of course, finding that zone keeps her on
a day-in, day-out treadmill she describes as “insane.”
“Ellen’s running a
marathon,” acknowledges photographer Alexandra
Hedison, DeGeneres’s partner of nearly four years.
How does that marathon unfold each day? The
Advocate
asked Hedison to give us an idea by
shooting one day in the life of her significant other.
What follows is a rare personal glimpse of the woman whose
comedy was one of the few things to unite Americans in
2004. This year we all danced with Ellen. In case you
didn’t notice, she led.

Did you always know your show would be such a
smashing success?

No. I thought I’d be good at it. I
didn’t know how hard daytime was; I
didn’t realize how competitive it was, that
there’s a pecking order, until you establish yourself
and your ratings are at a certain point, that a guest
has to go on this show first, then that show,
then that show—all these different games that
people play of “You can’t have this person
until they appear on this show,” and that kind
of sucks. I didn’t realize the amount of
content that you have to come up with every single
day.
I mean, we’ve done, like, 140 shows.

That’s incredible.
I know. It’s 140 monologues, 140 days walking out
and having something to talk about, 140 times that
I’ve had to stay completely present with
somebody and not drift off no matter how tired I am.
It’s really an intense amount of energy to expend
every day. I’m finding ways of keeping that
energy level up, because it’s really hard. But
I’m pleasantly surprised. And now it feels like
there’s very little that could really happen that
could hurt us. We’re in good shape now.

So you’ve come up a lot in the guest pecking
order, I’m sure.
Yeah, but…it doesn’t matter to me; I
don’t care if I’m having them after
every single person or that they’ve been on
everything. I know I’m gonna do something different
with them. And that’s the whole point of the
show, so that people who are watching will go,
“I’ve seen them on every interview, but
I know when they’re on Ellen’s show,
I’m going to see something different than I
would see on anywhere else.”

Who’s helping you come up with the
monologues every day?
I have writers. And I come in—sometimes I have
something to say, sometimes I’ve given them
ideas. I’ll just come in some days—like
today I’m talking about relaxing and different ways
that you can relax—I told them last week,
“Come up with a monologue for that.”
Yesterday I had no idea what I was talking about.
[Anne laughs] Oh, public speaking.
I make sure that they have something every
single day, and then they come in and we either write
it together—we just pitch ideas or
they’ve written it after we’ve pitched ideas,
and then I rewrite it with them. It’s a collaboration.

Do you get any time to yourself?
During the day? No. Literally from the moment I get
here, there are probably 30 things I talk to Craig, my
assistant, about—making decisions. I had radio
interviews this morning when I first came in, then the
writers come in, and then the segment producers come in and
we go over the questions for the guests of the day,
and I rewrite things that I don’t think I want
to talk about and change things. Then I usually have
an interview—something like this—and then I go
down and rehearse, then we rewrite things, then I get
hair and makeup. I’ve never had so much power
over a show. I mean, I guess I did with my sitcoms,
but I didn’t care about it. I was like, “I
don’t care about the set; I don’t care about
the color of the walls.” But I make every
single decision on this show. I have executive
producers, but it comes down to coming up to me and saying,
“Here’s the option: We do this or we do
this.” It’s probably 70 to 100 decisions
a day. Every day.

That’s grueling.
It’s insane. And then it starts over the next
day. I’ve never been so involved in every
aspect. We just got back from New York—we went
to New York to do that RSVP Suite. I did something
with Donald Trump, I did something for American Express, I
did the Today show. I did something every day
from 6 a.m. until about 8 o’clock at night for
four days. And then I got on a plane and came back and
started yesterday.

Can you ever have a sick day?
No. Last year I got sick—you get sick a lot on
this show, because you’re shaking a lot of
hands and there’s a lot of contact—and I
talk about everything that’s going on with me;
I never try to pretend like something isn’t going on.
[Last year] I walked out and I would say,
“I’m sick,” and I would talk
about being sick and the cold medicine and how it makes you
feel. You can just feel the audience kind of [makes
a downward gesture
]…They don’t
want me to be sick. If I’m down, they’re
down. So even if I’m sick, I gotta be up,
because it’s up to me to keep that energy going.

What a great year you’ve had—that was
going to be the whole subject, and then the election
happened. Were you surprised by all that?
I feel like things sometimes have to swing a certain way
in order to swing back. You know, everybody has gone
through this. Every group of people that has been
discriminated has gone against these times, and
it’ll be fine. You can’t think anything else,
or else you’re doomed.
I do believe that things will swing back and
that even conservative people will think this has gone
too far now. All I can think about is what I do, which
is make people happy and forget about all that stuff.
Then people that do that for a living—activists and
politicians—are gonna keep fighting, and I can keep
being a representative of what is supposedly not
normal and try to remind people that we are
normal.

We’re both from the heart of the red states,
where gay marriage was such an election issue. So many
gay people had their families, in effect, vote
against them. Would you have anything to say to
families like that?

[Pauses] I think in a way, they’re
not really clearly understanding that it’s a
big deal. I think they’re trying to protect
[against] something that they fear. I think anybody
who is going to that length, to vote on some kind of
measure to exclude rights from people, is acting out of
fear. I don’t know that I’m the
person—or anybody—who is going to be
able to [change anyone’s mind]. I think it’s a
matter of realizing that it’s just about having equal
rights. It’s not about having special rights,
it’s about equal rights.

Is getting married important to you?
No. I’ve never had that desire to stand
in front of a bunch of people and say, “This is
how I feel—everybody needs to know
this.” I feel, if something happens to me, that Alex
would be protected financially. We’ve gone to
lengths where we’ve had to pay an attorney
money that married people don’t have to, to come
in and set up certain rights so that if I’m in the
hospital, she has the right to be in there and make
decisions for me. But not everybody can afford to go
to that length.

I’ve heard you say in interviews that,
because you’re seen as such a hero, people get
reverent with you. That could be a drag sometimes.
You know, I was talking about this with Alex the other
day. I guess it’s just hard for me to
understand because it’s my life and it’s
just who I am, but I understand the impact that it’s
had on other people. I have to appreciate that, and I
shouldn’t push it aside.
That’s why when people applaud when I
walk out there, as much as I know people at home are
going, “That’s
enough—we’re at home, we don’t need to
hear the applause that long,” if people feel
like whooing, I’m gonna let ’em whoo.
[Anne laughs] How often in a day do you
feel like whooing? I want people to feel how they feel. What
I don’t want people to feel is less than.

In 2000, I was in the audience at the Concert for
Equality in Washington, D.C., when you got the longest
standing ovation I’ve ever heard.
You’d had such a difficult year. But then
came that unbelievable ovation. What was that like from
your end?

It was wild. It was wild.

Does that ever come back to you in your mind?
No, not until you just said that. I try not to
hold on. I don’t know if I try not to; I just
don’t hold on to stuff. Things happen, and
it’s all part of this puzzle that keeps making me,
and I try to figure out who I am by all these little
pieces. That was definitely a moment that was just so
emotional. It was pretty cool.

I want to ask about this genius you have: When
somebody says something, you instantly know what to say
back. It’s not quick; it’s instant.
Do you see that comeback in your mind? Is there a
sensation that comes to you?

There’s a sensation after it comes out of
my mouth, like, Oh, that was good. [Anne
laughs
] I mean, seriously, that’s not any
controlled…it’s not me.
Everybody’s born with different talents: somebody who
can dance really well or play sports really
well—that perfect basketball shot where
there’s just all net…

That sweet spot.
Yes, and that’s how I feel. If you know what
hitting that sweet spot feels like when you hit a golf
ball, that’s what it feels like when something
comes out of my mouth that fast. Sometimes I think of
something when somebody’s talking and it takes me a
few seconds, and by that time they’re starting
to talk about something else and I have to let it go.
And I’m so mad at myself, because had I been
two seconds earlier, I would’ve had a great response.
But it’s more important to let the person talk,
because it’s not about me, it’s about
showing them in their best light.
And some days I’m quicker than others.
It’s like anybody, whatever you do: There are
days that I’m fast, and there are days where
I’m really, really funny, and then there are days
where I’m not funny. I don’t try to be
funny when I’m not funny, because I think
that’s really annoying.

That’s smart.
It’s just, people that are on all the
time—and I know people that are really funny
people—after a while, when it doesn’t
ever turn off, it’s like anything. You’re
like, “OK, that’s… [mimes
fatigue
] funny.” You just can’t
laugh after a while. Sometimes I get people trying
harder to be funny around me too, to show me that
they’re funny so that I’ll somehow bond
with them. And that’s hard, ’cause you
can feel when somebody’s trying, you can feel when
it’s forced.

The things you can say as a stand-up in a club are
very different than what you can say on your show. Are
you eventually going to write a book including
everything you would’ve said on the show
but couldn’t because it was daytime, because it
was nice?

No, this is really my humor, this is really who
I am. I’m not censoring myself. I think
that’s the misconception with me—and
that was the problem with me getting the show in daytime.
“She’s gonna have to be different,
’cause it’s daytime.” If I had a
nighttime slot, I would have the same exact show that
I have right now.
If I do have a thought of something that would
be kind of off-color, it’s really just like
those inside thoughts that anybody would have. When
those things happen, I don’t say anything, and then
the audience laughs with me—everybody’s
thinking the same thing.
Yesterday, Ashley Judd was on, and I said,
“Is your husband here?” She said,
“He’s shopping today—here I am
working, and he’s shopping. We’re big into
role reversal in our marriage.” I was like,
“Please tell us about that.” Because
you’re not going to ignore the fact that she’s
talking about role reversal in their marriage. Then it just
was a laugh and we went on.

Elton John was on with you on Monday. Do you two
ever play off the fact that you’re both famous
gay people?

No. I don’t live my life
like…I’m not even aware that I’m
famous until people remind me. I wake up every single day
and I have my life, and it’s pretty normal. I
drive myself to work, I don’t get driven to
work; I don’t have a chef that makes me
breakfast in the morning. I don’t think that
I’m famous until I come here and it’s
like, Oh, that’s right. Even then, this
is my job.
And I don’t think, I’m going
home to my girlfriend and I’m gay.

That’s my life, that’s who I love, my
girlfriend and I are in love, but I don’t think,
I’m going home to my gay girlfriend.
And I don’t think, Oh, that’s right,
Elton’s gay and I’m gay and we’re
together.
To me, that is a problem, when there is too
much emphasis. Also, it’s not making steps
forward. It’s continuing to say “us and
them.” And I don’t think it is “us and them.”

Well, it doesn’t make sense.
There was a time when people were saying I was not gay
enough, that I wasn’t doing enough and I
wasn’t an activist, and then straight people
were saying, “She’s too gay.” Any time
you start pointing the finger and judging somebody else,
then you have no right to get mad at them for judging
you, because they feel just as strongly as you feel.
It may not feel good to you, but they have that right.

A lot of us think of you as—I hate the term
role model—as our visible person, I guess. You
went through the fire of coming out in front of
the world. And now you’re at the place
where so many of us would like to be. Everybody knows
it’s you and Alex; they know you’re
gay. But it’s not the first thing they
think of. Have you outlasted your own coming out? Are
you past the worst of it?
Oh, yeah. I mean, the worst of it really was—I
don’t feel like [my past relationship] needs to
be mentioned in every single thing that I do, but
unfortunately, that is what contributed to this whole
thing. And it is one of those pieces that was necessary to
me—a huge amount of growth. Huge. I’m
grateful for that relationship, I’m grateful
for all of it, because I look at that and I go,
What made me that person that allowed all that to
happen?
It’s hard to say what caused the
fire that I went through, as you say. But whatever it
was, it was all good and all necessary, because
it’s even sweeter where I am now.

I believe you.
I worked really, really hard for my career up until that
point. I made a decision to come out because it was
the right thing for my soul, for me as a person, and I
realized that it was more important to fully embrace
and not to feel one ounce of shame about myself. Up until
you make that decision, you can tell yourself all you
want that it’s nobody’s business and it
has nothing to do with anything—[but] it has
everything to do with everything. Once you embrace it,
then it’s got nothing to do with anything.

It’s so hard to see until you’re
through it.
It’s huge, huge…like you’re
carrying around a piano on your back and you
don’t even know it until you say, “Wow,
this is who I am and I’m not gonna hide it anymore
and I’m not gonna feel shame about it and
I’m not gonna worry if people hate me or think
I’m a freak or think I’m gonna lose my
career.” It’s so much stuff you’re
carrying around attached to that one tiny thing. And
then once you do it— [Smiles]
For me, when people go, “Do you hide the
fact that you’re gay on the show?” or
“Do you worry about that?” I
don’t even think about that. But I used to think
about it all the time, because I was making sure that
Ooh, if I say this, will they know that
I’m gay? What if I do this? What if I slightly
look at a girl?
You can’t possibly be
the best person you are at whatever it is, because
you’re hiding.

You’re a little perpetual self-checking
machine, and that’s all you are.
Now it’s got nothing to do with anything. I allow
anything to be said [and don’t worry about]
anything that I say, because I’m not scared of
anything anymore.

Let’s talk about Oh, God! which
you’re planning to remake in 2005 with yourself
as God. Your comedy has touched on God before. In
fact, the routine that got you started was called
“Phone Call to God.” But I’d have
thought that if you were going to remake this
film, you’d have put yourself in the John
Denver role.
Why’s that?

Because that seems to be your comedy persona. Not
the person who’s in charge, but the person
who’s tentative, who’s feeling her way.
That’s what’s going to be different about
this movie. We assume that God is completely in
control of everything. That’s a really easy way
to not take responsibility, to go, “Well, God wants
it this way” and “God planned it this
way.” How do we know that? Maybe God’s
going, “Oh, that’s not what I meant.”

I get it. That’s interesting.
If we’re created in God’s image and
likeness, supposedly, then there are mistakes;
there’s humor. We’re still writing [the
film] right now. It may leave you questioning, “Do
things happen for a reason? Are things all planned
out? Or are things all up to us, and we do with them
what we will?”

What do you think?
We make our choices, because—I think everybody
can relate to this—no matter how many times you
keep being somehow herded [away from] one direction,
you just ignore it and keep going back to that
direction, whether it’s a bad relationship or the
same kind of person that screws you over every single
time and you think, It’s gonna be different
this time.

So the question is—
If there’s something that is the higher
intelligence, the higher power, why would something
that powerful and that intelligent not give us that
same intelligence? Why would something with that
intelligence say, “I’m gonna be just a little
bit smarter because I have ego”? That’s
what we would do. So why wouldn’t
something that’s all love and all giving not give
equally to everybody?

God, obviously, is a hot topic in America right
now. Do you think some people might prefer not to see
God played by someone who’s gay?
Oh, I’m sure that when George Burns did it, they
were upset that a Jewish man was playing God. That was
a problem. But, listen, I’m not making The
Passion of the Christ,
I’m not making a
political movie, I’m making a comedy. Warner Bros. is
full steam ahead—we’re making the movie.
If it gets some people upset, they should come see the
movie and see what they’re upset about before
[judging], because it’s insane. I also played a fish,
and I wasn’t a fish.

True.
There will be things said [in the film] that I believe
in, because it’s what I do, even though my
comedy is not political. When I do “Phone Call
to God,” or when I go to God’s house to
visit [in 2003’s Here and Now], I always slip
something in there that I care about. When I was doing
the visit to God and saying, “I’m sorry
that we’re chopping the trees down, I’m
sorry we’re killing each other, I’m sorry we
call each other names,” there’s always a
punch line at the end of it. When I ask God what the
hardest thing about being God is, and God says,
“Trusting people—you never know if people
really like you, or if it’s just ’cause
you’re God.” That’s true.

You’ve had a lot of experience with that,
haven’t you?
Yeah. Right. So wouldn’t God have the same
problem? It’s a comedy, yet it’s all
stuff that, I hope, will make you think.

In “Phone Call to God,” you asked
God, “Why are there fleas?” Have you
figured that out yet?
[In “Phone Call”] God says, “There
are people employed by the flea- collar
industry,” which is true. [Pause] And the
sprays. [Anne laughs]
But that’s why the environment is so
important. You take one thing away, and something else
isn’t eating. And if that isn’t eating,
then something else isn’t eating. And it all ends up
with us. We’re all part of this huge ecosystem,
and we all need every single thing here. It’s
not like we can possibly go, “Well, we
don’t need that anymore.” We do. It’s
all imbalanced because we’re making it
imbalanced. Fleas are as important as the gorilla or
the horse or the fish or everything else that we’re destroying.

In this photo essay, what do you think people are
going to be surprised to find out about your daily life
when they see these pictures?
How boring it is. They’ll be like, “Oh,
man, this is a disappointment—I want my money
back!”

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