Ellen DeGeneres is one of the most beloved talk show personalities in entertainment history, and she’s made some of the best meme discoveries that we’re still obsessed with to this day. But behind the laughs, DeGeneres has lived a dramatic and even dark life. Here are little-known facts about her.
Ellen DeGeneres Facts
1. A Comic Is Born
Ellen DeGeneres was born on January 26, 1958 in Louisiana. It all seemed like a regular middle-class upbringing: Her mom Elizabeth worked as a speech therapist, while her father Elliott was a long-time insurance agent. But underneath the surface, DeGeneres’ real childhood was not only bizarre, it was also downright tragic.
2. Dressing the Part
Even at the height of her fame, DeGeneres has always been a prankster—but her surprise appearance at Tulane University’s commencement is the absolute best. DeGeneres followed out heavy-hitters Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush…dressed in a bathrobe and slippers. As she quipped when she got to the podium, “They told me everyone would be wearing robes.”
3. Finding Ellen
Ellen gained even further fame when she voice-acted as the beloved but addled Dory in the Pixar film Finding Nemo—but few people know the hilarious reason she was chosen for the role. Director Andrew Stanton said he picked DeGeneres because she continually changes the subject when she speaks, even within a single sentence.
4. Bed Rest
Bizarrely, Ellen once ran her talk show from her hospital bed. She had a torn ligament and doctors ordered her to rest, but the hardest-working woman in Hollywood just couldn’t seem to stop. She continued the show as normal, except now guests had to sit on the side of the bed instead of her big, plush armchairs.
5. What a Pain
DeGeneres had a very weird adolescence, to say the least. She was born into a family of Christian Scientists, and was a member of the religion until she was 13 years old. Followers of this sect of Christianity do not believe in seeing doctors or even using medication, leading to some very strange habits for the teen Ellen. She admits she never even tried Aspirin until after she left the religion.
6. A Broken Home
In 1978, DeGeneres’ parents divorced, breaking up their small family. While Ellen’s brother Vance decided to stay with his dad, Ellen chose to go live with her mom and her mom’s new husband, Roy Gruessendorf, in Atlanta, Georgia. It was already a tumultuous time in her life, but it was about to get so much worse.
7. Family Troubles
When she was just 15 or 16 years old, Ellen’s mother Elizabeth, or Betty Jane as her loved ones call her, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Luckily, Betty Jane survived and still has a close relationship with her daughter (more on that later). Unluckily, her stepfather Roy took disturbing advantage of Betty Jane’s illness.
8. NOT the Dad of the Year
At the same time that Ellen’s mother found out she had breast cancer, Roy proved himself to be total scum of the Earth. He assaulted the teenaged Ellen using her mother’s illness as a trick. One day when her mom was out of town, Roy claimed that he had to “check” Ellen for lumps. She naively agreed the first time…but it only escalated from there.
9. Gone in 60 Seconds
After the second time Roy did this, DeGeneres knew something was very, very wrong. On the third try, she actually locked her door to protect herself from him. But Roy’s response just got more disturbing. He actually kicked down her door to get to her, and Ellen had to escape from her bedroom window. Yikes.
10. Mother Doesn’t Know Best
Sadly, when Ellen finally worked up the courage to tell her mother about the attacks a few years after the fact, Betty Jane didn’t believe her. She ended up staying with Roy for another 18 years, putting a huge strain on their relationship. However, in a fist-pump moment, Betty Jane finally dumped him after realizing he could never get his story straight.
11. Be Your Heroes
Eventually, DeGeneres started trying to make her dream of becoming a stand-up comedian a reality. In those early days, she cited classic comic Steve Martin as one of her main influences.
12. As Seen on TV
DeGeneres’ most famous comedic role is probably for her own show, Ellen, at sitcom where she played an anxiety-ridden bookstore owner. At the time, critics called it “a female Seinfeld,” which is obviously super high praise. But just because it was popular doesn’t mean the show didn’t have its fair share of controversy.
13. Good Girl
On April 30, 1997, Ellen aired its now infamous “The Puppy Episode.” Strange title, right? It was actually a code name. In the episode, Ellen’s character comes out as gay, and DeGeneres wanted to keep the content as secret as possible until the show aired. When the episode did play on TV screens across the country, the reaction was truly awful.
14. The World Wasn’t Ready
Though “The Puppy Episode” did big numbers in terms of ratings and is still one of TV’s iconic episodes, people were outraged at the reveal. All of a sudden, both DeGeneres and her guest star Laura Dern were Public Enemies Number One and Two. ABC even placed a “Parental Advisory” warning before each episode, which…is a bit much.
15. American Drop-Out
Most people forget this, but Ellen had a failed stint on American Idol as a judge. She replaced OG panellist Paula Abdul for the position, and was supposed to be on the show for five seasons. Instead, she quit after just one. At the time she said it wasn’t “the right fit,” but she’s since revealed her real reason for quitting.
According to Ellen, she just couldn’t handle judging all the vulnerable young hopefuls, and hated breaking their hearts.
16. Friends in High Places
DeGeneres celebrated her 30-year class reunion in absolute style. With the success of her talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show, she was able to fly her entire graduating class over from Atlanta to California to be guests on the show. To sweeten the deal, she also gave Atlanta High School a new electronic LED marquee sign.
17. By Any Other Name
So where did the title “The Puppy Episode” come from? At the time the episode was in development, producers and executives were fed up with the fact that Ellen’s character had zero interest in dating anyone (ahem, dating men). Desperate, someone even suggested she should get a puppy instead. It was a terrible idea, but at least the name stuck.
18. I’m Coming out
In April 1997, Ellen came out herself while on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was a huge platform for an equally huge announcement. There’s even a little Easter egg about this in “The Puppy Episode”: in it, the character Ellen confesses she’s gay to her therapist, who is—you guessed it—played by Oprah Winfrey. Layers, guys.
19. Love at First Sight
Four years after her split with Anne Heche (more on that later), DeGeneres found lasting love with Portia de Rossi, her wife of over 10 years. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have difficulties. Although de Rossi claims she loved DeGeneres “since I first laid eyes on her” back in 2000, she wasn’t out at the time and refused to approach her. Four years later, this all changed.
20. Seeing Other People
After a chance meeting at an awards show, de Rossi and DeGeneres connected again. But with the meeting came drama. Both women were dating other people at the time, but instantly knew they wanted to be together. They had to each tell their girlfriends that things were over…not two conversations I’d want to have.
21. Caught Red-Handed
Ellen is NOT afraid to get sassy with her audience members on her show, but many people thought she took it way too far in one episode. As a gag, Ellen set up an unmanned merchandise table and told guests they could take just one free item. Meanwhile, she was actually taping the whole thing. So when she saw a guest take multiple items, she shamed them in the most embarrassing way possible.
On the aired episode, Ellen showed the tape to her audience and zeroed in on the offender, “Nancy,” giving her a good roasting in a clip that’s seriously almost too awkward to watch.
22. DeGeneres Doldrums
Ellen’s coming out of the closet on Oprah and then on her own sitcom Ellen is often seen as a triumphant moment. But it had a little-known dark side. After all of the controversy surrounding Ellen’s choice to publicly reveal her sexuality, DeGeneres admitted she became “mired in depression” about her identity.
DeGeneres’ talk show has become famous for scaring its guests by having someone (usually Ellen herself) pop out of the side table on set. Some of her best moments include freaking out Sarah Paulson as a clown and scaring Niall Horan with a Harry Styles look-alike, but maybe her finest hour was when she set up a huge jack-in-the-box backstage to get all the producers as they walked by.
24. Check Your Hearing
De Rossi broke the news that she was dating Ellen in a hilarious way. Her 98-year-old grandma asked about her love life, saying “What’s his name?” De Rossi replied “Ellen DeGeneres.” After a beat, her grandma said: “Alan?” No, grandma, no.
25. Snake Charmer
Maybe Ellen’s most awkward moment on her show happened very early on, when an animal expert brought in a huge python and asked Ellen to hold it with him. Almost as soon as she touched the snake, it wrapped its tail around her pelvis in just the right way to make it look like she had, uh, a package. See for yourself.
26. Arrive on Time
Ellen definitely doesn’t have your typical celebrity complex. In fact, she is known for her punctuality and her strict professionalism on sets basically wherever she goes. Interviewers at magazines like Good Housekeeping and O, The Oprah Magazine said she always arrives early for interviews and for the photo shoots.
27. Mommy and Me
Although they had some very rocky beginnings, DeGeneres really does have a heart-warming relationship with her mother Betty Jane, who’s always done her best to support her daughter in whatever she does. In return, Ellen makes sure the best seat in her studio audience at The Ellen DeGeneres Show is reserved for Betty Jane.
28. You’ve Been Served
DeGeneres is really sporty, and especially loves football and tennis. She’s such a tennis nut, in fact, that she has her own personal court at her home in California.
29. Sia Later
When it came time to work on the Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory, Ellen called in a favor from one of her most famous friends. For the song “Unforgettable,” she recruited pop singer Sia to do the vocals. Man, when I want a favor, I just have to ask my mom.
30. Seal of Approval
Ellen is really good at what she does, so it was only a little surprising when she performed on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1986. But no really, this was actually incredible: DeGeneres was the first female comedian the iconic host ever invited to the classic show, which is an enormous endorsement from one of the biggest in the business.
31. True Fiction
In a classic example of Hollywood sliding doors, DeGeneres actually tried out for the part of Jody in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but ultimately lost out on it. The part when to Rosanna Arquette instead.
32. What a Doll
Way back when, Ellen lived in the apartment that was featured in the creepy horror movie Annabelle. While promoting the movie in her show, she explained that: “The apartment in the movie was my first apartment that I moved to in L.A…I was watching it going: ‘That looks familiar’ and it was my building. It was scary back then too.”
33. All the Way to the Top
On November 22, 2016, Ellen got the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. She was very tearful throughout the whole ceremony.
34. French Connection
Believe it or not, Madonna and Ellen are eleventh cousins. They share the same 10th great-grandfather: Martin Aucoin from France.
35. Well Endowed
In 2017, Ellen faced backlash over an allegedly objectifying comment she made about Katy Perry’s breasts, where she said, “It’s time to bring out the balloons!” referring to the fact that it was Katy Perry’s birthday, but also clearly making a pun. Still, when it comes to Ellen, there are even more sinister backstage stories (more on that soon).
36. Um, Really?
When Ellen came out as a lesbian on her show in 1997, lots of people were up in arms, but one network took it to the next level. ABC’s affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama flat-out refused to air the landmark episode. As a result, some of the show’s big sponsors, including Chrysler, also withdrew their advertisements.
37. The Selfie Heard Round the World
Over the years, Ellen has got a reputation for being an incredible awards show host. Not only has she hosted the Emmys and the Grammys (sometimes more than once), she’s also responsible for orchestrating the famous “Academy Awards Selfie,” which she took while hosting that night, too. The star-studded photo, which had Meryl Streep, Lupita Nyong’O, and Julia Roberts among others, was re-tweeted 1.8 million times in just an hour.
38. Doggone It
When she was growing up, DeGeneres dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but she gave up the idea because she was “not book smart.”
39. Funny Girl
As DeGeneres climbed the stand-up comedy ranks when she was getting her start, things began happening very fast for her. By 1984, Showtime had even named her as “The Funniest Person in America.”
40. Hey, It’s a Living
While trying to get her big break, Ellen first went to school in New Orleans, but quickly dropped out and had to take up a series of odd jobs to support herself. Among other things, she was a bartender, a law office aide, a vacuum saleswoman, a TGI Friday’s waitress, and—maybe weirdest of all—an oyster shucker in New Orleans.
41. Lucky Number 11
DeGeneres owns her own record label called “eleveneleven.” She got the name because she kept seeing clocks right when they turned 11:11. The first act she signed to the label was internet sensation Greyson Chance.
42. You’re out
Sadly, all the backlash about the “Puppy Episode” was too much for Ellen, even though it had become a pop culture phenomenon. After just one more season, the network cancelled the show, and DeGeneres was in search of a new job. Obviously, this led to her talk show, so we can’t be too sad that it happened that way.
43. Animal Instinct
DeGeneres absolutely loves animals, and both she and her wife de Rossi are vegans. Makes sense, since she wanted to be a veterinarian!
44. The First Cut Is the Deepest
The first woman Ellen openly dated after coming out was fellow actress Anne Heche. Although they were together for almost four years, they came to an absolutely heartbreaking end. In 2000, they split, with both actresses at first refusing to give much information about the rift. Soon enough, though, the dark truth came out.
45. First Love, Worst Love
After a few weeks it was clear what happened, and it must have hurt like heck. Heche left Degeneres for someone else—a man named Coleman Laffoon. Twisting the knife in deeper, Heche even married Laffoon just months later. As Elle said at the time, “I feel betrayed. And I know him. He was on my tour with me, he was like my brother.” But their split caused an even worse scandal.
46. Taking It Hard
Bizarrely, the same weekend that the couple announced they were breaking up, a rural California resident opened her door to see Anne Heche, dazed and confused, on her porch. Alarmed, the owner called the authorities, who carted Heche away in an ambulance. Both Heche and DeGeneres refused to talk about this incident, though it was obviously directly related to their split.
47. PDA, Please
According to Ellen herself, there were deep cracks in her relationship with Heche from the start. When they got together, DeGeneres was still very newly out of the closet, and was uncomfortable at the thought of even holding hands. She says that Heche, however, pressured her into making public displays of affection, and she felt she had to do it to make the gay community more visible.
48. Peer Pressure
While filming If These Walls Could Talk 2 with Sharon Stone, DeGeneres was initially reluctant to do a love scene, since she was very new to being out of the closet. As per usual, her then-girlfriend Anne Heche—who directed the movie—had to convince Ellen to bare it all, and she eventually gave in.
49. Behind the Mask
Ellen has had a ridiculously long and popular Hollywood career, and her talk show is one of the most beloved ever. But some say she’s hiding dark behavior backstage. A waitress once claimed that after she served DeGeneres and de Rossi one day, Ellen immediately complained about her chipped nail polish, taking it up with the manager and almost getting the server fired. Bizarre as it is, there are more allegations…
50. So Fresh and So Clean
According to one more source, Ellen has a “sensitive nose,” and so keeps a bowl of gum outside her office that everyone must chew before they even talk to her. She also makes people go home and shower if she doesn’t like the way they smell. Another employee even went so far as to say she’s “notoriously one of the meanest people alive.”