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The Great de Rossi


The lady has something to say.

Maybe she always did, but she didn't always know it. For a very long time she swallowed words instead of food. When she did speak she answered as if in character, imitating the kind of woman her publicists and costars told her young actresses should be.

That was the deal Hollywood offered: Forget being smart. Forget being a feminist. Forget that year of law school. And definitely forget being gay. Be "Portia de Rossi," an Australian ingenue. Rolling Stone's "hot bombshell" cover girl. A modern Rapunzel with silky blond hair bewitching an audience simply by unpinning a tightly knit bun.

Be miserable and self-destructive.

"It was a very difficult dichotomy to live in," she says now. "Oh, I'm Portia. I'm fresh and new to Hollywood. I just found myself in Ally McBeal. Now I'm in my underwear and sleeping with my boss even though I don't want to portray women in the workplace that way. All of these things were tearing me apart. Plus--" Her mouth quirks up. "I was gay, did I mention?"

A self-described "staunch feminist," she was stuck on a show that famously led Time magazine to ask "Is Feminism Dead?" Its leading ladies seemed to shrink in size with every episode, and the only on-set rumor that came close to challenging the popularity of "Does everyone on Ally have an eating disorder?" was "Is that hot blond gay?"

Today, De Rossi is a walking, talking advertisement for happiness. "I talk about everything more now than I used to," she says. She writes about it too, in a book that she discusses for the first time publicly with The Advocate.

At a long, late lunch, she's very pretty, of course, fresh-faced without makeup. More striking is how calm she seems, how confident and clear-eyed. If there's a neurotic, needy star somewhere inside, she's been outvoted in favor of a sly, sarcastic woman with a keen appreciation for the absurdity of her life. "I just wanted to have a relatively quiet life, as much as one can have as an actress," she says. Then she fell in love with Ellen DeGeneres and became half of the most famous gay couple in the world.

De Rossi is either statue-still or a hummingbird, full of fluttery movement. She plays with her hair, with the rubber band on her wrist, with the sleeves of her sweater. But even when she fidgets, she never appears nervous. Her relaxed, thoughtful attitude is a Los Angeles anomaly.

And she has that least likely of all Hollywood endings--a marriage everyone believes is the real deal. "It's one thing to have attention; it's one thing to stand for something," she says. "But unless it's backed up with genuine happiness, I think people can sense that it's not worth celebrating."

After so many years dancing around questions about her sexuality, she first spoke with The Advocate in 2005, talking at length about her relationship with DeGeneres. But even then she avoided talking politics.

But four years later, during an appearance on The View to promote her sitcom, ABC's Better Off Ted, De Rossi didn't hesitate before she schooled conservative host Elisabeth Hasselbeck on what marriage really means: "Without the word, we don't have equal rights.... Every citizen of this country should have that right."

"I've had fun there in the past," De Rossi says of the show. "But just before I was scheduled to appear, the New York legislature voted on marriage and it failed. It was so disappointing to me. And I thought, if I'm going on The View and I have a viewpoint, I might as well talk about it. It's more important than talking about a TV show."

Her wedding to DeGeneres was splashed across the cover of People, which also featured page after page of photos with breathless captions detailing their clothes, the food, and the flowers, just like any other (straight) celebrity wedding. Oprah Winfrey spent an entire hour showcasing their relationship in an episode pointedly titled "Ellen DeGeneres and Her Wife, Portia de Rossi." It's up for a GLAAD Award--competing against an episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show in which DeGeneres interviews Sirdeaner Walker, the mother of 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover, who hanged himself after being bullied. ("Oh, boy," De Rossi says when told of the matchup, then says loyally, "I hope Ellen wins for Ellen's show.")

Whenever anyone asks De Rossi about marriage equality--and, grateful for whatever "little tiny platform" she's given, she hopes they will--she reveals herself to be an impeccably prepared spokeswoman, a perfectly poised first lady of advocacy. Further proof will come in March when the Human Rights Campaign will acknowledge De Rossi with its Visibility Award at a ceremony in Los Angeles.

"Ever since Ellen and I got together, I feel like I've been given an opportunity to actually--God, this sounds corny..." She rolls her eyes at herself, fidgets, and then forges ahead. "Well, I feel like my life can actually kind of stand for something. And I don't mean that in a self-aggrandizing way, like, 'Look at me, I can make a difference.' But I feel like, maybe I get why I'm here."

No one, not publicists or producers or even gay organizations, is telling her what to say these days. She doesn't care if every question during a junket for her show is about her personal life. Where she once would have demurred, arguing for privacy, "what I meant was I should stay in the closet because I'm greedy and selfish," she says. "Maybe by sharing my life, I can make people more aware of how important gay marriage is." Is that more important to her than acting? "Of course," she answers immediately. "Actors come and go. Characters come and go. TV shows come and go. While acting is entertaining, for me personally, it's a little empty." Her Better Off Ted executive producer, Victor Fresco, "is incredibly supportive" and knows she "comes with some other stuff," as she puts it. "My career is only a part of my life, and it's certainly not what I think I was born to do."

It seems entirely possible that what De Rossi was born to do is, well, be married and talk about it. A year and a half after their 2008 wedding, she and DeGeneres are still that almost obnoxiously adorable couple. If anything, getting married has only made them more so. "I thought I'd feel more blase about it, more comfortable. But it's the complete opposite--I've become a lot less selfish. I'm constantly thinking about her needs and our needs as a team. It's a lovely, symbiotic partnership. Who knew marriage could be like that? I'd only heard bad things about it."

At a time when gay people's right to marry is bandied about on ballots, in courtrooms, and on Sunday morning talk shows, De Rossi has an eagle-eyed precision for making a simple, persuasive point. When we meet, the Proposition 8 trial has just begun in San Francisco, and lawyers are cross-examining expert witnesses. "Hmm, let's see," she says. "Look at the country. Do we all have equal rights? No. Case closed."

"I think it's up to us to save marriage," she says. "Up to gay people across the country, seeing as though we're fighting for it so vehemently." De Rossi has an impressive ability to marry the personal and political: "This whole thing has been a wave of excitement and hope, and then it gently falls back into despair. And then it picks us up again. Unfortunately, we're the ones who have to suffer this--this humiliation, really. There's kind of a dignity that's been stripped from us. Gay people are the ones who have to suffer through it--but without it, it won't change."

But a marriage between two entertainers, especially when one is arguably among the most powerful players in Hollywood, is an uphill battle, or so says conventional Tinseltown wisdom. They give themselves an edge by avoiding as much of the media coverage as possible. De Rossi is surprised, for example, when I tell her their on-camera congratulatory kiss after DeGeneres won an Emmy in 2008 was on the front page of many newspapers.

Even the paparazzi seem to buy into their love story, mostly leaving the two alone. "To think that a married gay couple is considered boring and normal is fantastic," she says. "Happiness is a choice too. It's a choice to live in a state of gratitude and to fix what makes you unhappy. Being honest with who you are, being able to go out into the world and show people that you can be successful and be happy and be in a good marriage--it's important."

Mostly, they have so far avoided letting their notoriety get the better of them by communicating with each other. "I tell her all my insecurities, all of my worries, and within a few minutes I feel better," De Rossi says. "She's just so helpful to me. I think I help her too. I keep her focused on what's important and what the big picture is. I think that's what a good couple does for each other."

Unlike with most other couples, we get to eavesdrop. There are harmless, jokey anecdotes in DeGeneres's talk-show monologues about how tall De Rossi is, how she sleeps through their cats' nighttime shenanigans, her mocking retorts every time DeGeneres does something stupid. It's the daily, easily dismissed fragments of a couple's life together, significant only because they're broadcast to a huge cross section of America. De Rossi plans to attend as many American Idol tapings as possible--DeGeneres is now a judge--upping the chances that the show's enormous audience may also be exposed to DeGeneres's marital comedy routine.

Despite busy work schedules, they have carved out a surprisingly quiet, domestic life. They spend most weekends on a farm just outside Los Angeles, reading--De Rossi loves Jonathan Safran Foer and Sylvia Plath--gardening, and avoiding the phone.

Both are now vegans, which is a challenge only in that both take the commitment seriously but neither is a particularly good cook. At home in Los Angeles they have a chef, but they try to fend for themselves at the farm.

"I can't claim to enjoy cooking or be good at it in any way," De Rossi says. "I usually do the same dish every weekend." What dish? "Pasta," she says, again rolling her eyes. But then she zooms in on the real reasons behind their decision: "The more you learn, the harder it is to go back to the way you used to eat--blindly, without knowing what you are putting in your body or how animals are treated."

As if all that talking still isn't enough to make up for the years she played a stranger called "Portia de Rossi," she's written a book. "I'm writing a book," she corrects, with a grimace. "It'll be published in the fall, so...I have to be done with it before then."

This is the first time she's talked to a reporter about it. "I wanted to see what kind of book I was writing," she says. "It will deal with all the secrets that nearly killed me." Approached by an agent at William Morris to write about eating disorders, De Rossi wasn't sure she could do it. Nevertheless, she's writing it from a firsthand perspective without the typical celebrity-assist ghostwriter. "Nobody can really get inside the anorexic's mind like the anorexic," she says, referring to her own battles with an eating disorder.

"My mother thought I would be a writer. When I started writing little notes to Ellen, she said, 'You should be a writer.' Which is very encouraging and very sweet." She jotted down a half-dozen anecdotes that her agents shopped around to publishers; within three weeks she had a deal, if not much more idea what she wanted to write.

The book that has emerged is "definitely not self-help" and not quite a memoir--"I hate that term"--though it is absolutely autobiographical and, given her built-in platform--DeGeneres has shamelessly promoted Better Off Ted on-air--poised to be a best seller.

The story starts in 1997 (when her acting career took off) and goes through 2004 (when she began dating DeGeneres), with flashbacks to her childhood. "I abused my body. I had bulimia. I would use fen-phen. I wanted to talk about all that. But obviously I can't do that without talking about my sexuality. And although you can't really talk about one without the other, it still felt like two stories. The only thing that linked the two of them was me."

And it's not always easy going. "It's been a difficult but revealing process," she says. Losses she thought she'd fully grieved, such as her father's death when she was 9, have been confusing, if cathartic, to write through. "You go back and you experience these emotions that you thought weren't there any more."

So now the woman who once was terrified to speak about her life is a writer. The book leaves convenient room for a sequel spanning her life with DeGeneres. And, she says, "I would like to try my hand at a novel at one point." One thing she's not interested in trying is screenwriting. "I'm just not drawn to it," she says. "I still love acting. It's the easiest of all of it for me."

Since escaping Ally, she's played unusually complex women on TV, especially the hilariously dysfunctional sister, Lindsay Bluth Funke, on Arrested Development. "We all want a movie to happen," she says of the persistent development rumors. "Just write it already!"

She also did a long arc on Nip/Tuck as Joely Richardson's girlfriend. "It was weird playing a lesbian," she says. "The decision was easy. In fact, I went to Ryan [Murphy] and said, 'I think it's important that you get a lesbian to play a lesbian character.' But it was probably the closest to myself I've ever played. There were certain speeches that I would give about how hard it is to be a lesbian, and I would find myself bringing in a certain emotion that I attached to that statement. It was tricky. Was it me, or was it the character?"

On ABC's Better Off Ted--the fate of which was unknown when we talked, with its chances certainly not improved by running opposite American Idol, her wife's new prime-time gig--she plays Veronica, a shark of a boss to the ethically bombarded title character, played by Jay Harrington.

"Veronica makes me so happy. She's absurd, and I like absurd humor. I love it when people are really aggressive and funny--like how John Cleese in Fawlty Towers is always yelling at people. Veronica has no sense of morals or concern about other people. When people start telling me I'm just like my character, it'll be an indication I'm not doing anything right."

She makes another straightforward "case closed" argument for actors coming out, usual Hollywood scare tactics be damned. "People say, 'There are lots of openly gay actors.' And I'm like, who? If everybody I knew that was gay and not being open about it came out, it would make a huge difference to people coming up as young actors in Hollywood. Huge. To producers, to people in casting. I'm sure that when I was with Ellen a lot of people wondered if I could play a straight role convincingly. By having the opportunity, other people can go, 'Oh, that's OK. It didn't kill that show. That was believable.' "

In comparison to her wife, at least, "I haven't said 'I'm gay' that often," she says. Maybe that was true back when the idea of Portia as the femme fatale still cast such a long shadow over her public life.

This is what she has to say now: "Being on Oprah was a very surreal moment--to go from being so closeted and so afraid to talk about my sexuality to sitting with my wife, talking about my wedding and how much I love her. To look out at that audience and see most of the audience crying--Oprah was crying! Life can take so many twists and turns. You can't ever count yourself out. Even if you're really afraid at some point, you can't think that there's no room for you to grow and do something good with your life."

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