Getting Ellen DeGeneres to Talk Was No Easy Feat in 1997

Introduction to an excerpt from Random Events Tend To Cluster, A Memoir, by Judy Wieder

Television comedy star Ellen DeGeneres has begun sending out serious signals that she’s about to set fire to her closet. After all the years that mainstream media has refused to cover gay and lesbian issues or people, suddenly The Advocate is in a dead-heat race with every major news and entertainment outlet to score that coveted “coming-out interview” from the most sought-after gay celebrity in history. (Not to mention all the other gay publications clamoring to get to her.)

The time is 1997; I am the Editor in Chief of The Advocate. The memoir is written in the present tense and uses the lingo of whatever period we’re in…

Ellen’s publicists are having nothing to do with us. They’ve picked Time, Diane Sawyer, and Oprah. My many letters to Pat Kingsley, Ellen’s publicist, fall on blind eyes. What’s more, Out magazine, our fierce competition during this time, is helmed by another very determined lesbian EIC, (the late, gifted) Sarah Pettit, who also “wants her!” In fact:

“I was in the shower this morning, and suddenly I thought to myself: Judy Wieder!” Sarah Pettit unexpectedly says on the phone to me one morning at work. “I’m going to be in L.A. next week, and I assume you aren’t getting Ellen either, so let’s double the pressure.”

I am so stunned that she’s calling me and admitting that she is getting nowhere with an Ellen interview, and needs help, my help, I can’t reply. So, she goes right on:

“I think you and I should climb up to the Hollywood Sign together, the two of us, sit there, and hold a big press conference!”

“What?” I finally react.

“Ellen is the biggest coming-out in our movement’s history; and her handlers are not including the gay press,” Sarah goes on, accurately. “That’s a little homophobic, don’t you agree?”

“Yes, but, is it about that, or...?”

“Of course, it is!” she blows down the rest of my sentence. “We are too gay for Ellen.”

“I don’t know, Sarah,” I stall, “Even if you’re right, I don’t think sitting in front of the Hollywood sign and calling her handlers homophobic is going to get us our interviews.”

She sighs loudly, annoyed. “I have to do something!”

“Oh, well, we do too,” I shoot back. “The Advocate’s a newsmagazine. Ellen is news. This is happening. We have to write about her—with or without her participation, which I hate.”

Now I’m ringing Sarah’s competition bell.

“Well, we’re already doing something on her!”

“Oh?” I say, worried. “Without her, naturally,” I poke around.

“Nothing from her, no.” She says, crestfallen; then finishes off our conversation: “Well, it was an idea, anyway.”

“Yes, yes, and thank you for thinking of me for your Hollywood Sign plan,” I trail off awkwardly.

A week later, Out appears on the stands with a cartoon of Ellen on the cover, sticking her toe in the water with the cover line: “Come On Out Ellen, The Water’s Just Fine—an editorial by Sarah Pettit.”

The Advocate takes an altogether different approach. At first, I admit, it drives me bats! But without help from Ellen, there is nothing I can do: Because of our over 70% male readership, the company president and those he shares council with, hit on the idea that even though this may be a great time for lesbian stars who are coming out (Ellen, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Janis Ian, Amanda Bearse, Martina Navratilova, etc.), what about male stars? And there it is: the perfect Advocate cover story, accompanied by a large cover photo of a headless man’s buffed-up torso. Newsstand candy. The cover lines read: “Lesbian celebrities are leading the way out of the show business closet...so where are the men?”

Crazy! Instead of celebrating this amazing vogue of gutsy lesbian closet-busters, culminating in an interview with Lady Ellen, The Advocate is going on the newsstands asking why it is a bigger risk for gay male celebrities to come out than for lesbians. It’s antagonistic, controversial, thought-provoking, very Advocate, and the best we can do without the star herself. Everybody is regurgitating Ellen’s quotes and editorializing about her historic move. We can’t do that. The Advocate has to lead, and we can’t lead without Ellen. So, we look at a different side of the phenomenon, and it works because in our society it’s easier to condemn sex between men than between women. Aside from the prevalent use of “girl-on-girl porn” to turn straight men on, the less apparent reason for reviling male-male sex is because that sex act is misunderstood to mean one man is being used “as a woman”—and, well, we all know how lowly women are! An openly gay actor risks being seen as more female, and is thus aligned with the “weaker sex.” Alas, it just interrupts too many movie-goers’ fantasy lives.

Still, I continue to insist that an in-depth interview with Ellen is essential for The Advocate’s history. I don’t care how many Diane Sawyer or Oprah talk shows she does! What she will tell the gay press—her family, so to speak—will be newsworthy and totally different from her mainstream interviews. And so, I keep the team focused.

More letters are mailed to publicists, more Advocate issues sent to “her people.” Then, one day, Ellen signals back. As her television show progresses, the plot line turns to finding “Ellen Morgan” a girlfriend. One night during an episode, a main character turns to a girl Ellen is interested in, and says, “Are you an advocate of The Advocate?”

“OMG!” I jump up. “They’re using The Advocate to determine if this girl is gay and a potential partner for Ellen,” which, incidentally, is something a lot of people actually do. Men and women, who are uncomfortable saying they’re gay, often tell me, “Oh, I’m a longtime reader of The Advocate.”

Naturally, I want to believe this means Ellen is opening to the idea of being interviewed by The Advocate, so I jot off still another note, thanking her for including the magazine in her show. A few weeks later, I am invited to be in an episode of Ellen, selling Advocate magazines at a women’s music festival. At this point, I’d be a rhino on skates selling popsicles if that’s what it takes to get her to talk to us. At the taping, Ellen comes over and chit-chats with me, thanking me for being in the episode. I do what I can to show her I’m just another human being, not out to take anything from her. And I don’t bring up the interview.

Then, in the midst of her very closely run press carnival, Ellen appears on Oprah with her girlfriend (at this time), actress Anne Heche, and watches, stunned, as Anne sets off a twister that shoots the whole show to Oz! DeGeneres’ normal control over the discussion is obliterated when the focus switches to Anne’s “terrifying remarks about sexual fluidity.” With haiku-like brevity, Anne freaks out both Oprah and America with her poetically precise, “I didn’t all of a sudden feel, Oh, I’m gay. I just all of a sudden felt, Oh, I love!

Well, you could hear people kicking their TVs over from coast to coast. Suddenly gays and lesbians weren’t in their defined boxes, and that scared all the box people. Poor Oprah had to call an “emergency follow-up show with experts on the subject of gay sexuality.” When my phone rings with an invitation to appear alongside such heavyweights as Dr. Dean Hammer, Charles LePresto, and Chandler Burr, I know The Advocate has to quickly pull together a cover story on this hot-button topic—and have it ready for me to wave around on the Oprah show. Timing is everything, and over three million people will watch this episode of Oprah; so, our ability to capture what this moment in gay and lesbian visibility means, is a huge opportunity for the magazine. After several heavy-duty brainstorming sessions with the staff, we hit on, “Beyond Bisexuality,” with Anne Heche on the cover, naturally.

[It will take the rest of the year and many more adventures and mishaps before The Advocate finally sits down with Ellen for its exclusive, 11-page interview—Ellen’s very first with the gay media.]

Excerpted from Random Events Tend to Cluster: A Memoir by Judy Wieder, courtesy Lisa Hagan books and available now.

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