Ever since she came out publicly in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres has been a leader in the LGBTQ community. Not only did she come out personally to Oprah Winfrey, she had her character come out on The Ellen Show, making her the first openly gay woman to play an out lesbian on TV. Widely regarded as a major step forward in pop culture and a huge success (despite The Ellen Show getting canceled immediately after), Ellen has broken so many barriers in her long and successful career. But to hear her tell it, that meteoric rise to fame didn’t come without a lot of grief and loneliness.
Ellen decided to really open up while appearing as a guest on “Armchair Expert,” a podcast created and produced by Dax Shepard, Monica Padman and Rob Holysz. While her episode touched on a wide range of topics, what stood out most was the revelation that she suffered from depression during the time after she came out because everyone constantly made jokes at her expense.
“Because there was so much talk about it, everyone was just sick of it,” she told Dax. “I had only done the cover of Time magazine, a primetime special with Diane Sawyer and Oprah … Even Elton John said, ‘Shut up already. We know you’re gay. Be funny.’ I had never met him and I thought, ‘What kind of support is that from a gay person?'”
Despite taking this huge leap forward for LGBTQ representation everywhere, Ellen faced a lot of backlash.
“Everybody assumed I was just nonstop talking about it,” she said. “It hurt my feelings. I was getting jokes made at my expense on every late-night show, people were making fun of me. I was really depressed. And because of that, and because my show was cancelled, I was looked at as a failure in this business. No one would touch me. I had no agent, no possibility of a job, I had nothing.”
And she never intended to be this big hero for the LGBTQ community either, but that’s exactly what she was forced into, for better or for worse.
“I was looked at as the new leader, and I didn’t want to be a leader and I didn’t want to be political,” she said. “I just wanted to be free from a secret and that’s all I wanted. Some people thought, ‘You’re not gay enough and you’re not doing enough for our community and there are so many that have done more.’ I didn’t say I was your leader and I didn’t say I have done more … I just want to be a comedian and I just happen to be gay. I think I’m doing a lot just by being a physical presence of hopefully a representation, not of the entire gay community, but of someone at home going, ‘There’s someone that’s gay.’ It was really tough.”
Fortunately times have changed so much since then. Representation for the LGBTQ community is at an all-time high with no signs of slowing down, and its thanks in large part to Ellen’s bravery.