Entertainment

The TIME magazine cover that changed Ellen DeGeneres’ life

A little over 25 years ago, in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres rose to fame in a very different Hollywood landscape than the one we know and love today.

The gay icon, who shot to fame in the mid-’90s for her starring role in the sitcom Ellen, had spent years suppressing her true sexual identity.

She constantly dodged press questions about her love life and tried to keep her Ellen character and the real Ellen completely separate. 

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Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay on the cover of TIME in 1997. (Time)

During her sitcom’s long run on TV, between 1994 and 1997, LGBTIQ+ characters on primetime television were a virtually non-existent concept.

But, in 1997, all that changed. Rumours quickly leaked that DeGeneres’ beloved character on the hit show was going to “come out of the closet” in an upcoming episode.

On March 3 of that year, ABC announced the character of Ellen would indeed be coming out as a lesbian.

In tandem with her fictional self, DeGeneres decided to officially come out too. To prove she was proud of her sexuality, the comedian announced it on the cover of TIME magazine.

The headline simply read: “Yep, I’m Gay.” It was accompanied by an article on the comedian and why she made the decision to tell the world she was a lesbian.

It had been a “secret” she carried for years. However, DeGeneres made it clear she didn’t want to be known as a “spokesperson” for the gay community.

“When I decided to have my character on the show come out, I knew I was going to have to come out too. But I didn’t want to talk about it until the show was done,” DeGeneres explained. 

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Ellen sitcom
The famous Ellen episode starred Laura Dern. (ABC America)

“And you know, I watched my friend Melissa [Etheridge] come out, and she became ‘the lesbian rock star’. I never wanted to be ‘the lesbian actress.’ I never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community. Ever. I did it for my own truth.”

While an actor coming out isn’t exactly groundbreaking news in 2022, DeGeneres’ announcement came as quite a shock for fans and the industry alike.

In 1997, DeGeneres was risking a lot to speak her truth as a gay woman. At that time, same-sex marriage was still illegal in every state in the US.

And sadly, there were real repercussions for her career and the show Ellen once the magazine cover hit the stands.

“When I decided to have my character on the show come out, I knew I was going to have to come out too.”

TIME readers responded to the cover with both negative and positive reactions. One offended reader described the article as “an affront to decency in general”.

Meanwhile, several big-name sponsors pulled ads from her ABC series, including department store JC Penney and Chrysler.

Despite advertiser aversion, a staggering 42 million American viewers tuned in to the episode of Ellen, titled ‘The Puppy Episode’, to see DeGeneres come out in character too.

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Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche
Ellen DeGeneres and her ex-girlfriend, late actress Anne Heche. (Corbis via Getty Images)

This wasn’t enough to salvage the sitcom. The show was then criticised for being “too gay” and was abruptly cancelled after its fifth season.

Laura Dern, who starred in the episode, also later said she lost work and needed “full security detail” following the backlash.

For DeGeneres, it momentarily stagnated her career. 

She struggled to land another starring role on a regular series, despite being one half of one of the world’s most famous same-sex couple after debuting her relationship with ex-girlfriend Anne Heche.

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Eventually, DeGeneres returned to the spotlight with her wildly popular talk show in 2001, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which ran for 21 years.

In 2016, the now 64-year-old was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former US President Barack Obama for her “courage and candour” by coming out in 1997.

And to mark 25 years since her now-famous TIME cover, DeGeneres commemorated the occasion with a dry message.

“I remember coming out as gay on the cover of TIME magazine 25 years ago today,” she tweeted in April 2022. “I don’t, however, remember saying ‘Yep.'”

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