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Finally getting Ellen

In September, Ellen DeGeneres told the audience of her talkshow about the pros and cons of hosting the Academy Awards: “Pro: a lot of fancy designers will want to approach me and want me to wear a beautiful, expensive gown. Con: ain’t no way in hell I’m wearing a gown.” The audience erupted in cheers.

Such vocal approval is an indication of how far both DeGeneres’s fortunes and US public attitudes towards sexuality and gender have shifted. At the turn of the century, you could have been excused for thinking DeGeneres was down and out.

After spending two decades establishing herself as one of the most popular comedians in the US, in 1997 she gambled everything on coming out — both in real life and in character on the hit sitcom that bore her name — and she seemed to lose. Advertisers deserted her show, her relationship with Anne Heche became tabloid fodder, she sank into depression and her career seemed to stall.

Look at her now. DeGeneres hasn’t just bounced back; she’s a bona fide American superstar, with a juggernaut of a talk show, nearly three billion views on her YouTube channel, and more Twitter followers than Oprah Winfrey, CNN or any member of One Direction. She has done it on her own terms. And she definitely wears suits, not gowns as she will when she hosts the awards for a second time on Sunday.

DeGeneres has never been one to think small. Born outside New Orleans in 1958, she once said she decided early in life “I wanted to have money, I wanted to be special, I wanted people to like me, I wanted to be famous.” One of the key aspects of her success is that she has achieved this, lost it all and come back stronger without coming across as ambitious or egocentric, let alone nasty or mean. Her amiability and approachability are crucial to her appeal, and perhaps her most politically significant attributes too.

Overcoming adversity is a motif that repeats itself in DeGeneres’ life. When she was a 21-year-old college dropout, she fought with her girlfriend Kat and left their apartment. When Kat found her at a rock concert and begged her to come home, Ellen ignored her. Minutes later, Kat was killed in a car crash. Devastated, DeGeneres almost fell into self-destruction but found herself in her work. She impulsively embarked on what would become her comedy career, writing a routine called A Phone Call to God that she decided — one day — she would perform on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Seven years of dedicated gigging later, in 1986, she did just that — and was the first female comedian he invited over for a chat after her routine.

In 1994 DeGeneres landed her own ABC sitcom, called Ellen.

Rumours about her sexuality grew and hints were dropped on the show until in 1997 both Ellen the character and DeGeneres the performer came out as gay. Oprah was involved in both cases, as therapist to the former and talkshow host to the latter when DeGeneres appeared on her show.

Initial support from advertisers and the network slipped away, audiences fell, and in May 1998 Ellen was cancelled. “I didn’t work for three years,” she has said. “I was so angry. I thought: I earned this. I didn’t get this because I was beautiful; I didn’t get this because I had connections in the business. I really worked my way up to a show, a sitcom that was mine that was successful, that was on for five years. I did what was right: I came out, which was good for me and ultimately it was the only thing I could do. And then I got punished for it.”

By 2000, DeGeneres was re-establishing herself as a major stand-up. She was praised when she hosted the Emmys soon after 9/11 and secured a new sitcom on CBS. Momentum was gathering. In 2003, she stole the film Finding Nemo as scatterbrained Pacific regal blue tang Dory.

In 2003, she launched The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Combining celebrity guests and comedy shtick — dancing with the audience, social-media blooper segments — it was fun and feelgood but in a comfy, pally way that contrasted with Oprah’s messianic vibe. It won several Emmys in its first year and ratings climbed. They haven’t stopped yet.

DeGeneres was once asked about the moment when Johnny Carson invited her over to chat after her debut appearance on The Tonight Show. “It catapulted my career,” she acknowledged, but “that’s not why I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it because I wanted people to get me.” A bumpy three-decade ride later, it’s safe to say that America gets Ellen DeGeneres, and it likes her.