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Can Ellen DeGeneres bounce back – and do we want her to?

The TV queen has vowed a 'new chapter' on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. What that looks like remains to be seen...

By Jamie Tabberer

Words: Jamie Tabberer

‘Should Ellen DeGeneres be cancelled?’ is a very 2020 question.

But, before answering it, it’s worth remembering Ellen was almost cancelled once before.

Cast your minds back to 1997 – or your imaginations, if you weren’t born – and a time when precious few LGBTQ people were out on TV.

Ellen – with incomprehensible bravery – came out in the most direct, public and showbizzy way imaginable: on the cover of TIME. (‘Yep, I’m gay’ was the iconic line).

Not content with a mere mag cover, she also came out via a TV interview with Oprah Winfrey. Then, her eponymous sitcom character in Ellen came out as well – the self-aware icing on the cake.

Looking back, it was a ground-breaking statement. But we must never forget the backlash she weathered at the time.

Companies pulled advertising from Ellen in droves; TV execs added a wholly unnecessary parental advisory warning before each episode of the show’s final season. (It was cancelled the next year.)

Ellen addressed her awful 2020 in a Twitter video yesterday (Picture: NBC)

Reflecting on the era in an interview with the Mail On Sunday in 2016, the star said she experienced depression.

“I was a very insecure person and depended on validation from people who watched my show or my stand-up – validation I felt I’d lose if everybody knew who I really was,” she said.

“[…] Afterwards, there were jokes at my expense and I couldn’t turn on the TV at night without some comedian or talk show host making fun of me.

“Not for a minute did I regret doing what I did, but it was hard. There was a whole lot of anger and depression, and it was scary because I was also running out of money.” 

But Ellen bounced back – and then some.

She landed her own talk show in 2003, and – infusing it with charm and warmth – enjoyed an interrupted reign as the world’s most popular lesbian for the next 17 seasons and 2,7000+ episodes. An ill-advised turn as a judge on American Idol in 2010 was a mere chink in her armour.

But then 2020 happened.

Well, actually, 2019 happened.

Indeed, Ellen was already skating on thin, problematic ice last year when she attempted to rehabilitate Kevin Hart’s image after his Oscars/resurfaced anti-gay comments row last year.

But for some, hanging out with former US President George W. Bush at a football game was a step too far. (“I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have” she said at the time).

But this was just a taste of the annus horribilis that was to come.

It all started in April, when Ellen sparked backlash after comparing coronavirus-induced lockdown – in her sunny, airy LA mansion – to “jail” in a supposedly cute, funny video.

But the dam really broke with subsequent BuzzFeed reports alleging a toxic workplace culture at The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Multiple current and former employees complained of an atmosphere of racism, fear and sexual impropriety on set. Top producers were fired, and an investigation took place.

While no allegations were made directly at Ellen – it’s easy to imagine her as the show’s far-removed figurehead, for better or for worse – the damage to her reputation was done.

A Twitter pile-on of shared stories of interactions with Ellen, of her supposed ‘meanness’, became a living, breathing meme. Videos resurfaced of her brash interviewing style, with Mariah Carey, for example, recalling in a Vulture interview an ‘extremely uncomfortable’ broadcast in which Ellen tried to confirm she was pregnant by encouraging her to drink champagne.

Sofia Vergara, conversely, poured cold water on charges of a feud, while Kevin Hart also leapt to her defence. (No word from Bush yet). But it all seemed too little, too late. The ‘be kind’ lady was seemingly no more.

Until yesterday, that is, when Ellen appeared to pull her career back from the brink.

Addressing a virtual audience in the first ep of Ellen’s 18th season, she said of this year’s investigation: “I learned things happened here that never should have happened.

“I take that very seriously and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected. I know I’m in a position of privilege and power and I realise with that comes responsibility. And I take responsibility for what happens at my show.”

She then shared an eye-opening anecdote of how her ‘be kind’ persona came to be.

“I started saying ‘be kind to one and other’ after a young man named Tyler Clementi took his own life after being bullied for being gay,” she said.

“I thought the world needed more kindness. […] I think we need it more than ever now.”

So, what is next for Ellen? And in a topsy-turvy world where JK Rowling can bash trans people on a near-weekly basis and remain a cultural leader, no less. (By the way – JKR’s antics put Ellen’s into perspective, surely?)

The truth will no doubt be stranger than fiction – in fact, Ellen’s 2020 already bears more than a passing resemblance to last year’s fantastic Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson-starring comedy Late Night.

But what’s curiously unremarkable about Ellen’s ongoing reappraisal is that – this time at least – it has nothing to with her sexuality.

It is a sign of progress that’s easy to miss.