For nearly two decades, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and its openly lesbian host have invaded American homes, shattering stereotypes while charming viewers with a mix of entertainment and celebrity interviews. But after more than 3,000 episodes, the talk show, which had managed the feat of rivaling that of Oprah Winfrey, ended Thursday on a bitter note, due to testimonies recounting a toxic work environment. Flagrant contradiction with its slogan, “Be Kind” (be nice).
“When we started the show in 2003, the iPhone didn’t exist. Nor social networks. Gay marriage was not legal,” Ellen DeGeneres recalled last month. “We have seen the world change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.” The cultural landscape has also evolved since 1997, when the star, who rose to prominence as a comedian, came out as gay – simultaneously on television as Ellen, her character in a sitcom of the same name, and in real life, on the cover of the magazine Time.
Obama’s dance moves
Ellen is the first main character of a television series to “come out” and, if her interpreter is immediately propelled to the status of gay icon, the sitcom is canceled a year later because of a backlash. This is the beginning of a crossing of the desert that will last five years, before Ellen DeGeneres reinvents herself as an animator. “It was an event, a milestone,” but it also became controversial, says Mary Murphy, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. “She led the way. She was probably – and perhaps still is – the most famous LGBTIQ+ person in America.”
If Ellen DeGeneres has never hidden her sexuality, her address book overflowing with ultra-famous guests and her lightness have made her successful, especially in the more conservative regions of the United States. For 19 seasons, the whole of Hollywood jostled for a place on the couch of the host, where they could comfortably promote themselves, without ever being jostled by more than a few light teasing in a schoolboy atmosphere.
Obligatory passage: the dance, at the beginning of each program. Barack Obama, then an ambitious young senator, had sketched a few steps on the tube Crazy in Love of Beyoncé in 2007. Some celebrities came more than ten times. Actress Jennifer Aniston, the first guest, returned to complete the circle Thursday at the last. “She is one with the celebrities, she is their friend. They know that. And she makes it all fun,” says Mary Murphy. “Perhaps because having suffered herself, she did not want to make other people suffer. She wasn’t looking for them.”
Behind the scenes, bullying and racism
But his stage was not only reserved for stars: the public, just like the latest sensations of YouTube, were regularly invited there to enjoy their quarter of an hour of glory, sometimes for wacky games. “Ellen is this funny, goofy and eccentric character who doesn’t take herself too seriously”, judge Jeetendr Sehdev, author of The Kim Kardashian Principle. “We had never seen a talk show host who looked like her, or behaved like her… She was the woman with the short hair and the pantsuit, while all the others were blow-drying themselves.”
But rumors of a less rosy atmosphere behind the scenes exploded when Buzzfeed published an investigation into the show’s toxic work environment in 2020, including reports of sexual harassment, bullying and racism. Three of the show’s producers had been fired. Ellen DeGeneres had been accused of not having known how to manage her team, and of being much less sympathetic in private than in front of the camera.
Last May, when the end of the show was announced, she nevertheless denied any link with these controversies. “I needed a new challenge,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. But the controversy had only accumulated for the star, again at the center of criticism for his defense of comedian Kevin Hart, who had given up the presentation of the Oscars in 2018 after the resurgence of old tweets deemed homophobic. “All of a sudden, she fell a little out of favor,” analyzes Mary Murphy. She seemed “close to celebrities, close to the public, but distant from those who work with her,” she adds. For Jeetendr Sehdev, Ellen DeGeneres has always been “full of contradictions”. It’s “part of the reason why she attracted so many people” and “the reason why her integrity, credibility and authenticity were called into question,” he says.