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'I may be funny but I know what it feels like to be sad inside'

Ellen DeGeneres is an icon who has spent her career breaking down every barrier imaginable. She tells Donal Lynch that her sunny comedy comes from memories of the darker side of life

Published 30/07/2016

Ellen DeGeneres
Ellen DeGeneres
Ellen at her Hollywood star
Still going strong: Ellen with Portia de Rossi

You would expect a chat show host to have impeccable lighting, the kind that renders you a blurry, flattering approximation of yourself. Given the lack of studio lighting, Ellen DeGeneres has decided that will mean being mostly in the dark today. The lighting in her hotel suite is so catacomb-dim that, as my eyes try to adjust to the lack of daylight, I hear her before I see her and have a flashback to her famous appearance on Johnny Carson's show - "God, is that you?". She kindly ignites her megawatt smile to guide my way and I resist the urge to touch her face, Helen Keller-style, to check it's really her.

If I look a little freaked out, it might be because it is surreal sitting opposite her. Ellen, after all, is a living legend, a trailblazer by just about any metric you care to mention. She made a virtue of every disadvantage she was given, destroying barriers around gender, race and sexuality with her sunny affability. She was funny before women were considered funny enough for primetime. She was gay before it was cool - no sitcom star had ever come out at that point.

And in middle age, she reinvented herself as the White Oprah, and married one of the hottest women in Hollywood. Critics say her comedy is safe - Disney-ified - but there isn't an A-list star who has taken more risks than Ellen.

Still, it feels fitting that we're here to talk about Finding Dory, Disney's follow-up to Finding Nemo, which has already sat atop the US film charts for many weeks now.

It's a charming, witty caper about a fish who is trying to find her parents, with lots of nutritious messaging about disability rights and preserving the environment for the kids and some sardonic humour for the adults. Ellen was the first voice actress ever to win a Saturn Award - for Finding Dory - and her bemused, helium-inflected delivery anchors the new film.

"There are harder jobs to do, she concedes. "But this has its challenges too. When you're acting in a regular role, you do have the benefit of hair and make-up and body language, but with a role like this you only have your voice. When Dory cries, I have to cry, when she's excited I can only convey that with my tone."

One of the themes of the film is the re-discovery of childhood memories. Dory suffers from short-term memory loss (Ellen's casting was apparently inspired by the sight of her changing the subject five times during one sentence while interviewing a guest on her show) and can only piece together her back story with the most fleeting recollections of her childhood.

I remind Ellen of a moment when she was a guest on Oprah Winfrey's show and could not say when a childhood photo, which flashed up on the screen behind them, had been taken. How much does she remember from her early life in Louisiana?

"I grew up in a very conservative home. There was no drinking, smoking or cursing. We moved around a lot. I had to make new friends because we changed schools every year and-a-half or so. And that was sometimes lonesome because of course you couldn't take friends with you and had to make new ones."

Her father had been a reader - sort of like a preacher - in the Christian Science Church until she was 13 and when she was 15 her parents divorced. Later in her teens, she came out to her father and stepmother and was asked to leave the house.

Did she forgive them for that?

"Everybody is fine now. It's just ignorance. I would understand if someone is doing drugs in the house - kids obviously shouldn't be around something like that in any circumstances - but being gay isn't setting any kind of example. It doesn't rub off on someone. They just didn't know better. They don't want society to know and they're sort of protecting you and they're sort of protecting their own egos, like they failed or something."

Ellen tells me that this was the period in her life when she began to realise what a powerful force her sense of humour was.

"I've always been funny," she tells me. "I would use it when I met new people to try to get them to like me. Of course, I used it at home too. When my mother and father divorced and my mother was going through a really hard time, I tried to make her laugh and I realised I had that kind of power to change someone's mood. I still didn't realise that I was going to be a comedian. I just knew that I was funny."

It would be years before the world knew this. She worked in various places as a waitress, a clerk and a sales assistant for clothing chain JC Penney (which, decades later, would hire her as a spokesperson). In her late 20s, she decided to take to the stage at a comedy club in New Orleans.

"I was asked to do something at a club. I got up and said something really stupid. And people saw it and liked it and I was on my way."

In the early 1980s she began touring and was named the funniest person in America after winning a competition. This in turn led to her being invited on to The Tonight Show. She was also invited to speak to Johnny Carson after her set - something never done before for a female comedian.

"That was obviously exciting, because I knew what a big deal it was, he didn't have to do that."

Her early forays into television were not successful (she appeared as a supporting player in two short-lived sitcoms) but it was only after the syndication of her eponymous sitcom, Ellen (originally named These Friends of Mine) that she really became a star. There were four well-received series of the show before, in 1997, Ellen decided that first she, and then her character, would come out.

It was a move that landed Ellen on the cover of TIME Magazine and made her one of the talking points of the year. No prime time star had ever come out. Oprah Winfrey had played Ellen's therapist on the show and the comedian appeared as a guest on Oprah's show, taking questions from the studio audience.

"I don't see why people have to come out - why make such a big deal about it? I'm straight and nobody seems to care," one woman said.

"That reminds me," Ellen deadpanned. "Time called - they want your number."

In the coming-out episode, she did a famous song with Melissa Etheridge, listing the paltry number of gay women whose careers had survived coming out of the closet. Ellen was not going to be part of this elite band, it seemed.

Despite the blizzard of publicity, coming out seemed to signal the death knell: the show returned for a fifth season, but was then cancelled amid falling ratings. Her career went into a tailspin.

"I'd forgotten that song," she says of the Etheridge duet. "I was a pretty good singer, although it must have been a pretty short list of people.

"I knew there was a 50-50 chance of it going badly wrong. I thought maybe it would be, like, 70-30 positive-negative. I'm a comedian and they know who I am and now they know this part of me, but it's not going to change my humour. It didn't change who I was. Looking back, I'd say the reaction sucked at the time, but it was what it was."

That same year, 1997, Ellen began a much-publicised relationship with Anne Heche. The couple spoke openly about wanting to have kids.

Heche even told TV Guide that she hoped to be the one to carry the child. Ellen proclaimed her love for Heche. Reflecting on the death of Princess Diana and the fragility of life, she said: "If Anne goes, I want to go, that's how strongly I feel."

Three years later, hours after news of the end of the relationship had broken, a shaken and incoherent Heche parked her car along a California motorway and wandered up to a stranger's home. It was a low moment in Ellen's life and career.

Heche went on to marry a man and then divorce. She now has a child with her Men in Trees co-star James Tupper.

By this time, Will and Grace had seemingly usurped Ellen as the family-friendly gay primetime presence (a fact she later said she resented) and DeGeneres was in danger of being remembered as a '90s curio, a pop culture footnote.

All that changed after she hosted the Emmy Awards, which came just after 9/11. Organisers wanted the event to strike a sombre tone and Ellen brought down the house with her famous line: "What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman, in a suit, surrounded by Jews?"

Suddenly, her career had currency again. She launched her own talk show in 2001 and various iterations of it have run ever since then.

As with Oprah's own show, an appearance on Ellen can transform lowly YouTube hopefuls into superstars and Ellen can cause products to sell out in moments with her endorsements.

She and her producers seemed to be suggesting that Saoirse Ronan abused that platform earlier this year after the Irish actress appeared on Ellen's show and wedged the name of South William Street nail bar Tropical Popical into the conversation a few too many times. Ellen's show tweeted a meme of Ronan repeating the name of the business several times throughout the interview.

"Oh is that what she was doing? Does she have a piece of that or something," Ellen asks me. "Well, I mean, it's hard to criticise that. We're all doing that in some way or another. I mean, what am I doing here?"

She's so relentlessly sunny that there's a temptation to think that beneath Ellen's warm visage there must be a hard-bitten tyrant with a snarkier sense of humour that she saves for private moments.

I ask her assistant to just widen her eyes at me if she's ever had a phone thrown at her, but as the chat show host looks on bemusedly, the assistant confirms that Ellen is really as lovely as she seems.

"I think that, because I know what unhappiness is, I want to put happiness out there into the world," Ellen tells me. "I know what it feels like to be very sad. I know what depression feels like. I know what abandonment feels like. And so I learned to do something that helps all of those conditions, which is to be really funny. I try to find humour in the most mundane things that human beings do."

She married Portia De Rossi in California in 2008. At the time she didn't think that a lesbian couple would be of interest to the paparazzi, but Ellen and Portia have become tabloid favourites, with the subject of if/when they will have children wearily brushed aside by both at various points. For now, they revel in the status of aunts, but Ellen tells me she doesn't use her superstar status to curry favour with the nieces.

"They watch some of the show - they're seven and five. They don't really understand what the show does yet, but they will as they get older. Portia is the beautiful princess aunt to them and they love her."

Ellen has places to go and people to see - including, perhaps, Kate Middleton, who she claims is a "15th cousin"; the two women shared space in the Royal Box at Wimbledon in the days before we meet. It's time for me to move.

I don't feel bad asking Ellen for a picture - she is, after all, the selfie queen, but I do wonder if it will come out, given that there is no 'interior of coal bunker' setting on the iPhone.

When the publicist hands the phone back to me, I glance down to see that I look indistinct, like a startled poltergeist. Beside me, Ellen is just right; she seems to have a glow that comes from within.

Finding Dory is in cinemas now

Belfast Telegraph

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