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Ellen's Legacy in Trouble: Can She Stage Another Comeback?

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Ever since I read The New York Times piece last week about the dismal ratings for this season’s Ellen Show, it felt like history repeating itself. As we are all aware, last summer Ellen was accused of being, mmm…not so nice, and of creating a toxic work environment. According to the Times, when Ellen premiered last September and apologized, viewers tuned in. They have since been tuning her out, and I’m wondering if Ellen is being shut down and shut out again? And should all the good she’s done be ignored?

Full disclosure here. I have worked with the media for nearly 30 years, with all manner of outlets, including print, digital, news programs, variety, and talk shows. I always heard rumblings about Ellen’s “meaness,” but to be honest, I’ve heard about everyone else’s too. If you work in any form of news or entertainment, you need sharp elbows, so you’re not going to make lots of people fall in love with you.

The allegations of a toxic work environment though are troubling. I have worked for two powerful bosses who generated extremely harsh job environs, so I have sympathy for anyone who toils away in misery. It is grindingly unseemly and unsettling. There’s no excuse for this, and I hope that the apology on this front from Ellen was sincere. 

Here’s the issue from those of us who walk with our feet firmly on the ground. For all intents and purposes, Ellen is probably the one of the biggest queer celebrities on Earth. And while that sounds glorious, it can come with a rude awakening.

When you become internationally famous, it can be difficult to be human. And what I mean by that is you are surrounded by a cottage industry that swarms you, and churns out publicity, money, endorsements, money, foundations, money, licensing agreements, money, personal appearances, books, production companies, and did I mention money? On and on and on. The Ellen brand is a verifiable business built around making money on her super-enormous fame.

As such, it’s nearly impossible to be a human in this environment. It really is, and that’s not anyone’s fault or isn’t meant to garner sympathy for sure. Good behavior counts. However, you can try as hard as you want to be normal, but your feet invariably leave the ground. There is no privacy. You are hounded everywhere you go. There is no normality. There is no hiding — except for the limited number of people who are in your trusted enclave, and most of them are trying to earn a living off of you.

And, when people become gigantically famous, they end up encapsulated in a busy and burdensome bubble. The air around them gets sucked up by a bottomless array of sycophants, security, subordinates and servants. It is virtually impossible for anyone to penetrate that suffocating bulb, so you become even more isolated.

I’m not making any excuses for Ellen. And not everyone who is hugely famous is inhuman; yet, the odds are stacked against you for being — and remaining — down-to-earth. Remember when it was just Ellen conversing with her relatable, wine-drinking mom? It used to be so quaint. That was replaced by a tone-deaf video message from Ellen and Portia who complained about being locked in their gilded paradise during the pandemic. Somewhere along the way, Ellen lost her ability to relate, and that dovetailed with the allegations of being mean.

Another problem with Ellen's image is that she sold herself as being nice. That was her motto. She repeatedly reminded us to be kind and labeled it on money-generating, licensed merchandise. Then the claims of drama and mischief behind the scenes of her show became public, critically coupled with her complaints about being quarantined in a mansion, while the rest of us scurried for toilet paper and Clorox.

Suddenly, people sensed entitlement and a temper, two words that weren’t associated with Ellen in the public eye. And, now Ellen is in trouble — again.

As a comedian and a celebrity, people either love Ellen or hate her. Just like anyone else, she’s not for everyone. When you get right down to it, perhaps it’s the heavily populated entertainment industry on the East and West coasts who really are obsessed with Ellen's turmoil.

There’s also some intrinsic misogyny that’s working against her from these very same folks. We know that’s a given for any woman who is supremely celebrated, wealthy and well-off, and especially true, perhaps, if they’re a lesbian. There are several LGBTQ+ multi-millionaires and billionaires who sing, produce, and act, and they are mostly, if not all, men. No one is overly concerned if Elton John or David Geffen is "nice." And that’s why what’s going on with Ellen stands out. Is this a déjà vu moment for her?

She created a hit television show in the 1990s, and the money and fame rolled in. Those who weren’t in the know, and that would include most of America, again outside of Los Angeles and New York, mostly assumed that Ellen was straight (if they gave it any thought). Similarly, they also believed that the somewhat awkward, and man-adverse protagonist she played on her show, Ellen Morgan, was straight. She was rich, famous, and hiding her sexuality. Then, she bravely came out in 1997, both personally and professionally, with Morgan being one of TV's very few queer characters.

Just like now, people didn’t like the fact that they were led to believe she was a certain way in her personal life and a different way on TV, so they stopped watching. Hollywood, ruled mostly by white, straight men at the time (not that much has changed), sensed doom, so they pulled the plug on Ellen after a season of out living. She was such an easy target at that time, and she was virtually blackballed by the industry. As a result, her popularity plummeted, the show’s ratings tanked, and her fame and riches were at risk. Sound familiar?

As a gay man of a certain age, I always loved Ellen. Who can forget the indelible moment of pride seeing Ellen on the cover of Time magazine proclaiming, “Yep, I’m Gay?” And then, when it all fell apart for her because she was a lesbian, it was upsetting for all of us paying attention.

Now, look how far she’s come. And how open she is. Ellen has been forthcoming about her marriage on her talk show, which is so ironic, considering what happened to her when she dared speak her truth years ago. I often wonder if she holds any resentment for how she was treated by the male establishment and by the public? Wasn’t there just a hint of some recrimination, some bitterness? Is that why she might be considered unpleasant?

Instead of saying, “I’m gay,” Ellen is saying, “I’m sorry,” I think we should take her at her word like we did before. Celebrities can be like us in one way, they are human, so they make mistakes, and they’re entitled to make amends and make it right, just like us.

For us, Ellen will always be a game-changer, a trailblazer, a barrier-breaker. She will go down in LGBTQ+ history for opening up the airwaves for all the Will & Graces, Modern Families, and Schitt’s Creeks that followed in her wake. There are often times, when I have watched these shows, that I thought about what happened to Ellen, and what she did.

She made it possible to have hit programs with gay characters played by real gay people. Ellen broke the mold. She took a gut punch so that others would not have to. And sadly the gay Ellen Morgan never got the chance to really come into her own.

In the end, Ellen Morgan became Ellen DeGeneres, who ended up talking about herself each day, and her life as a lesbian. Was it all an act? Not if you consider she never shied away from speaking openly and honestly about her sexuality.

As an LGBTQ+ icon, and a woman, she has proudly built an empire, and it’s come with some heartache and hardships. If she might be a bit testy at times, or not always genuine, who can blame her?

As she once said, “Though you feel like you're not where you're supposed to be, you shouldn't worry, because the next turn you take, it will lead you to where you want to go.” Will Ellen be able to turn it all around again?

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

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