Funny, friendly and kind, Ellen DeGeneres has been a much-loved celebrity for years.
But her public image has taken a battering in 2020, as various allegations of mean behavior and a toxic work culture on the set of her long-running talk show have come to light. Let’s look at DeGeneres’ rise to fame — and her show’s fall from grace.
‘Funniest Person in America’
Born in Louisiana in 1958, DeGeneres is now a household name across the world. But when she dropped out of the University of New Orleans after one semester, she worked as a vacuum salesperson, a waitress and an oyster shucker. The turning point came when she started pursuing stand-up comedy. In the early ’80s, she performed at local clubs and bars in New Orleans and quickly gained a following. DeGeneres started touring across the U.S., and in 1982, she was named Showtime’s Funniest Person in America.
Johnny Carson’s Coveted Couch
By 1986, only male comedians had been called over to Johnny Carson’s couch after their set on “The Tonight Show.” But DeGeneres changed that. After an incredible debut set on the show, Carson invited her onto the coveted couch. After that, her career rose to another level. She got several acting roles, appearing in sitcoms like “Open House” (1989) and “Laurie Hill” (1992).
Her Groundbreaking Sitcom
It was only a matter of time before DeGeneres got her own show. In 1994, the ABC sitcom “Ellen” made its debut (as “These Friends of Mine,” but the title changed between the first two seasons) and ran for five seasons through 1998. DeGeneres played Ellen Morgan, the owner of a Los Angeles bookstore called Buy the Book, and the supporting cast included Joely Fisher, Holly Fulger and Arye Gross. It was a big hit — and it was also groundbreaking. Shortly after DeGeneres publicly revealed that she was gay, the show became the first U.S. sitcom with a main character who came out. “The Puppy Episode” featured Oprah Winfrey as a therapist who helps Ellen come to terms with her sexuality, and a staggering 42 million viewers tuned in to watch history being made.
The Oprah Winfrey Interview
DeGeneres made several public appearances after she came out, the most highly-publicized being her interview with Oprah Winfrey. It aired earlier the same night that DeGeneres’s character on “Ellen” came out — on an episode starring Winfrey herself as a therapist.
Talking to Winfrey about why she hadn’t come out sooner, DeGeneres said, “I never thought it was anybody’s business, who I am and who I am with. So I thought, why do people need to know? And then I realized that as long as I had this secret that I worried about all the time, that it made it look like something was wrong.”
DeGeneres’ career took a dip after she came out. She received death threats, and her show was canceled by ABC after ratings fell. But in 2000, things started looking up in her personal life. DeGeneres met fellow actress Portia de Rossi that year, and they went public with their relationship in 2005. They were one of the most prominent celebrity couples to get married in 2008, after the Supreme Court of California legalized same-sex unions.
DeGeneres’ history as a stellar awards show host started in 1994, when she co-hosted the 46th Primetime Emmy Awards with Patricia Richardson, who played Jill Taylor on the popular sitcom “Home Improvement.”
It was this role that helped her career bounce back after her sitcom was canceled. DeGeneres was the solo host of the 53rd Primetime Emmy Awards in 2001, which was held in the aftermath of 9/11. She hit exactly the right note with her clever opening monologue.
2003: A Great Year
In 2003, DeGeneres’s comeback was well underway. She was the voice of the loveable fish Dory in the hit animated film, “Finding Nemo.” (She later starred in the 2016 sequel, “Finding Dory.”)
“The Ellen DeGeneres Show” also started in 2003, and the daytime talk show was an instant success. Packed with feel-good moments and major Hollywood celebrities, DeGeneres had a winning formula.
Queen Of The Oscars
In 2007, DeGeneres hosted the 79th Academy Awards. Almost 40 million people tuned in to the show, which included a quick-witted opening and hilarious bits — some of which involved the crowd. For instance, she took to the aisle to present a screenplay she wrote (“a cross between ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Big Momma’s House'”) to Martin Scorsese. The comedienne later landed an Emmy nomination for her stint on the show.
The Most Famous Selfie In The World
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) March 3, 2014
The next time DeGeneres hosted the 86th Academy Awards was in 2014, aka the night of the most famous selfie in the world. Bradley Cooper took the photo, which included some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt and Lupita Nyong’o. It quickly went viral.
Presidential Medal Of Freedom
DeGeneres received the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2016. The award — the highest civilian honor — is given to only the most unique and special individuals.
“In a career spanning three decades, Ellen DeGeneres has lifted our spirits and brought joy to our lives as a stand-up comic, actor and television star,” said a White House aide during the ceremony. “At a pivotal moment, her courage and candor helped change the hearts and minds of millions of Americans, accelerating our nations constant drive towards equality and acceptance for all.”
An Embarrassing Interview
In 2019, actress Dakota Johnson was a guest on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” — but it wasn’t the usual lighthearted affair. The previous year, DeGeneres had talked about being upset because she didn’t get invited to Johnson’s 29th birthday party. During the 2019 interview, she asked her guest, who had recently turned 30, “How was the party? I wasn’t invited.”
Johnson replied, “I did invite you and you didn’t come,” adding that she could “ask everybody” to confirm, including DeGeneres’ producer, Jonathan. Someone off of the set shouted to confirm that she had been invited, but that DeGeneres was out of town. Oops.
‘Cold And Distant’
In January 2020, Dutch beauty YouTuber Nikkie de Jager, also known as NikkieTutorials, appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” after she came out as transgender in an emotional video.
According to Pop Crave, de Jager told Dutch magazine &C that she wasn’t given the same VIP treatment as the other guests, revealing that she wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom closest to her because it was “reserved for the Jonas Brothers.”
In another talk show appearance, De Jager agreed that DeGeneres was “cold and distant” when the cameras were turned off. “Let me say that there’s a big difference between this show and Ellen DeGeneres, and I’m saying that in favor of this show,” de Jager told the host Matthijs van Nieuwkerk, according to a translation by the YouTuber Sebastian Williams, a native Dutch speaker. “It’s nice that you say ‘hi’ before the show. She didn’t.”
Allegations Of Racism
In July, a Black woman who used to work on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” told Buzzfeed News she experienced racism during her 18 months as an employee. She said when she was hired, a senior-level producer said to her and another Black employee, “Oh wow, you both have box braids; I hope we don’t get you confused.”
And at a work party, she said, one of the main writers told her, “I’m sorry, I only know the names of the white people who work here,” and other coworkers “awkwardly laughed it off” instead of defending her. When the woman asked producers not to use offensive terms like “spirit animal” on the show, colleagues called her “the PC police.”
Sexual Harassment and Sexual Misconduct
BuzzFeed News’s Krystie Lee Yandoli told NPR that she spoke to 36 former employees who described “an environment on [‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show’] of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.”
“Former employees said that this culture started with executive producer Ed Glavin – that he would touch them inappropriately in the control room and make them feel uncomfortable, that generally he led with fear and intimidation,” Yandoli said. “Former employees also told me that head writer and executive producer Kevin Leman groped them, touched them inappropriately and made sexually explicit comments in the office and at office parties as well as a former employee who told me that executive producer John Norman groomed him over a period of time and then also made an unwanted sexual advance on him.”
Yandoli added that Glavin didn’t respond to the website’s request for comment, Leman “categorically denied any kind of allegations against him,” and Norman also denied any allegations made against him.
Not Practicing What They Preach
Another former “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” employee told Buzzfeed News that after working on the show for almost a year, they took medical leave for one month to check into a mental health facility for a suicide attempt. The week they went back to work, they were told their position was being eradicated.
“You’d think that if someone just tried to kill themselves, you don’t want to add any more stress to their lives,” said the employee. Their story was corroborated by four other employees and medical records.
“Some of the producers talk openly in public about addiction and mental health awareness, but they’re the reason there’s a stigma,” the employee added. “They definitely don’t practice what they preach with the ‘be kind’ mantra.”
DJ Tony Okungbowa Wades In
DJ Tony Okungbowa, who was the on air talent on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” from 2003 to 2006 and again from 2007 to 2013, made his feelings clear in an Instagram post.
“While I am grateful for the opportunity it afforded me, I did experience and feel the toxicity of the environment and I stand with my former colleagues in their quest to create a healthier and more inclusive workplace as the show moves forward,” he wrote.
Controlling Behavior On Set
I have another food one: she polices her crew's lunch orders, nobody allowed to eat fish etc. They would come hide on our stage to eat what they wanted away from her.
— Alison Freer ✂️ (@AlisonVFreer) March 20, 2020
Many stories came out on social media about the alleged behavior of DeGeneres herself on the set of the show. These included accusations that she wouldn’t let crew members eat meat or fish, that she fired an autistic custodian for greeting her, and that she made anyone entering her office first chew gum from a bowl outside her door due to her “sensitive nose.”
TV writer Ben Simeon wrote in a Twitter thread started by comedian Kevin T. Porter , “A new staff member was told, ‘Every day she picks someone different to really hate. It’s not your fault, just suck it up for the day and she’ll be mean to someone else the next day.’ They didn’t believe it, but it ended up being entirely true.”
COVID-19 Jokes Fall Flat
Ellen does her first show from home: “Being in quarantine is like being in jail. It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for ten days and everyone in here is gay.” pic.twitter.com/DH1ywZKAqR
— Mike Sington (@MikeSington) April 6, 2020
Like everybody else, DeGeneres had to self-isolate at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike everybody else, she has a sprawling California mansion to relax in. When she compared this to being in prison on her first show from home, she was quickly called out for being insensitive.
“One thing I’ve learned from being in quarantine is that people — this is like being in jail, is what this is,” DeGeneres said during the segment, adding, “It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days, and everyone in here is gay.”
Lack Of Communication With Crew Members
According to an exclusive Variety report, crew members for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” didn’t receive any communication about the status of their working hours or pay for over a month during COVID-19 lockdown.
Apparently, only four of 30 core crew members, many of whom have worked on the show since it first started in 2003, were tapped to work on the home-recorded versions of the show. And crew members were told to expect a 60% reduction in pay, despite the show continuing to air.
Colleagues Show Their Support
Amidst the numerous allegations, some of DeGeneres’ colleagues have come out in support of her. Executive producer Mary Connelly (pictured with Ed Glavin and Kevin Leman), who has been with “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” since its start, said she has never seen DeGeneres show diva behavior.
“None of what’s being said speaks to the Ellen I know,” Connelly told the New York Post. “Do the producers and her sometimes have to make unpopular decisions? Yes. Ellen is not afraid to tell you when she doesn’t like something. She’s had tough conversations with me. That’s a function of everyday life. But the person I know is someone who comes in every day and wants to put on a fun show in a fun environment and help people.”
Steven Mazan, a former staff writer for the show, said he liked DeGeneres’ “darker sense of humor.”
He added, “I never saw her as vindictive. I think people want to believe the Ellen you see on TV is the whole Ellen or the real Ellen. But nobody is that uncomplicated.”
On July 30, DeGeneres issued an apology to the staff members of her show by way of a lengthy memo, in which she said she is “glad the issues at our show were brought to my attention” and that they are “taking steps … to correct” them.
The message, which was obtained by PEOPLE, began, “Hey everybody — it’s Ellen. On day one of our show, I told everyone in our first meeting that ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show’ would be a place of happiness — no one would ever raise their voice, and everyone would be treated with respect. Obviously, something changed, and I am disappointed to learn that this has not been the case. And for that, I am sorry. Anyone who knows me knows it’s the opposite of what I believe and what I hoped for our show.”
DeGeneres also went on to say that an internal investigation, which included the involvement of Warner Bros., was underway.
What’s The Truth?
DeGeneres said in her memo that she had learned that people who worked with her and for her were speaking on her behalf and “misrepresenting” who she was, and “that has to stop.” But not everyone believes DeGeneres is innocent.
“Everybody Loves Raymond” alum Brad Garrett, who appeared as a guest on DeGeneres’ talk show six times between 2004 and 2007, chimed in.
“Sorry but it comes from the top @TheEllenShow,” Garrett tweeted. “Know more than one who were treated horribly by her. Common knowledge.” Actress Lea Thompson agreed with him, writing, “True story. It is.”
Katy Perry Speaks Up
1/2 I know I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience besides my own but I want to acknowledge that I have only ever had positive takeaways from my time with Ellen & on the @theellenshow. I think we all have witnessed the light & continual fight for equality that she has brought
— KATY PERRY (@katyperry) August 4, 2020
While many of DeGeneres’ celebrity friends have stayed silent, some have publicly supported her. Katy Perry wrote on Twitter, “I know I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience besides my own but I want to acknowledge that I have only ever had positive takeaways from my time with Ellen & on the @theellenshow. I think we all have witnessed the light & continual fight for equality that she has brought.”
Perry’s tweet divided opinion, with some users pointing out that her experience as a celebrity guest is likely to be very different than that of a crew member or non-famous person.
Portia de Rossi Stands By Her Wife
Portia de Rossi took to Instagram on August 4 to show her support for her wife.
“To all our fans …. we see you. Thank you for your support,” she captioned an Instagram image that said “I Stand By Ellen” in the host’s signature white and blue show colors.
The “Arrested Development” star added the hashtags #stopbotattacks, which appeared to suggest that the allegations came from “bots” and were unsubstantiated.
DeGeneres Fights Back
According to an internal email from executive producers on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” obtained by the New York Post, the talk show host isn’t going down without a fight. Sources close to the star said reports of her career being over were greatly exaggerated, and confirmed that DeGeneres plans to go back to work on August 24 for “Ellen’s Game of Games,” followed by a return to the set of her talk show when it premieres September 9.
“We know that these last few days have been a lot to take in and process for everyone,” read part of the email which was signed, “Love, the EPs.”