What on earth is going on with Ellen DeGeneres?
Kate, by email
Things are not well in Ellen land. Things have been worse, but let’s catch up on the current situation first.
Last month, 11 current and former employees of her hugely popular talkshow, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, spoke out, alleging that there is a “toxic workplace environment” on her show, with one black employee saying that a writer made racist comments. Other employees said they were fired after taking bereavement days to attend the funerals of family members.
“[DeGeneres’s] ‘be kind’ bullshit only happens when the cameras are on. It’s all for show,” one staffer told Buzzfeed News. DeGeneres has apologised to staff, while Warner Bros, the distributor of the show, has said it will make staffing changes. Given that DeGeneres has not been implicated in the accusations – this is not a Matt Lauer situation, in which a big star is personally abusing their position – she probably could have overcome this. Alas, this is the latest in a long line of problems for DeGeneres that will require more than some cute dancing to fix.
During lockdown, her staff complained that she had hired an external, non-unionised crew to tape her segments from home and that they were expected to take a 60% pay cut even while the show was still airing. DeGeneres also described being stuck in her phenomenally luxurious house as like “being in jail”, which did not go down brilliantly.
More recently, Neil Breen, a former producer of the Australian breakfast show Today, has talked about DeGeneres’s “bizarre” behaviour when she was interviewed on the programme in 2013. Being, like, a proper journalist and everything, I called up Breen to ask him to explain. “Her people said to me: ‘Right, Neil, you stand here and when Ellen arrives you’re not to approach her, you’re not to talk to her, you’re not to look at her.’ And I said: ‘Are you fair dinkum?’” They were. “I was the producer of the show! I wasn’t there for a selfie, you know what I mean?” says Breen.
The worm really began to turn for DeGeneres when she was photographed last October yukking it up with George W Bush at an American football game. Now, Bush is known to be a pretty personable guy. But palling around a US president who opposed gay marriage felt a bit off brand for a famously gay and famously married celebrity. DeGeneres said: “I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs I have.”
This would be fair enough, had she not gone after Caitlyn Jenner, when Jenner appeared on her show, for being a Republican. “A lot of Republicans would vote against all the issues that you as a woman and you as a trans woman would want someone to support,” DeGeneres said. And indeed they would – and one of those Republicans would 100% be DeGeneres’s mate Bush.
Let’s take a breath here. The workplace issues sound terrible. But the rest of it – the tone-deaf comments, the friendship with Bush – really only seem weird in the context of DeGeneres, whose whole brand is about niceness. Put it this way: if Jay Leno said something dickish and played golf with Bush, no one would care. This stuff does not fit into the DeGeneres narrative, which has been about teaching the US to be better.
After DeGeneres came out in 1997, her sitcom lost viewers and, incredibly, was slapped with a parental warning; she fell into a depression. So DeGeneres’s so-called rehabilitation to public affection is really a story of the US’s rehabilitation, when it finally and fully embraced a lesbian as a mainstream celebrity.
However, those of us who have been watching DeGeneres for a while know that she has always been a lot spikier than her image suggests. This was implied in the now ironically headlined 2018 New York Times profile of her, Ellen DeGeneres Is Not as Nice as You Think, which was about how bored DeGeneres was with being pigeonholed as nice (well, at least you are not bored any more, Ellen). Her interviews could be prickly, such as the extremely weird time in 2012 when she kept pushing Taylor Swift about her alleged previous boyfriends, or the even weirder time when she humiliated an audience member – on international TV – for taking an extra Ellen cap from the merchandise table, hauling her up on stage and putting her “in jail”.
DeGeneres has long said she is not as nice as people think – hell, she made a whole Netflix special saying exactly that. Whether she is significantly worse than every other entitled Hollywood asshole, or is just getting more grief for it due to being a woman/gay/known for niceness is a question that may be impossible to unpick.
But there are definitely some morals to this story: after all the sagas at Fox News and NBC, people definitely don’t tolerate bad behaviour in TV any more – and that is a good thing; becoming super-rich does not generally improve people’s behaviour; and, finally, when someone – famous or not – tells you that they are not that nice, believe them.
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