Ellen DeGeneres: Complete guide to the downward spiral of talk show host’s public persona

LGBT+ icon no longer thought to be ‘nice’ person she presents herself as on hugely popular TV series

Emily Yahr
Wednesday 05 August 2020 13:32
Neil Breen told not to look at Ellen DeGeneres

Did 50 Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson bring down one of the most popular talk show hosts in history?

Well, no – but you might have recently seen a lot of jokes on Twitter that say as much. Ellen DeGeneres’s reputation has been on a downward slide since roughly last fall, when, during a particularly awkward interview, Ms DeGeneres accused Ms Johnson of not inviting her to a birthday party and Ms Johnson replied with the now infamous quote: “Actually, no, that’s not the truth, Ellen.”

But that was just one in a series of controversial incidents surrounding Ms DeGeneres, which culminated in a much more serious way last week after a pair of BuzzFeed articles alleged a toxic work environment on the daily talk show, as well as allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct by producers. Warner Bros. launched an internal investigation. Ms DeGeneres sent an email to staff that said she took responsibility as the face of the show, but criticised her employees for not “do[ing] their jobs as they knew I’d want them done”. As a result, she wrote, she and the production company will be “taking steps, together, to correct the issues”.

If you’re curious about how things got to this point, here’s a guide to how Ms DeGeneres’s public persona went from the “new Queen of Nice” to even fellow celebrities calling her out for treating people “horribly”.

December 2018: The New York Times profile

Even if you don’t regularly tune in to the comedian’s hugely successful talk show (on the air since 2003), you probably know one thing: she’s known for being nice. Not only is her daily sign-off “be kind to one another”, she used to open each episode with some goofy dancing, which endeared millions of viewers to her every afternoon. She frequently gives money and gifts to people in need, and has had many viral segments involving adorable small children meeting their heroes.

But when the New York Times published a DeGeneres profile with the clearly provocative headline “Ellen DeGeneres Is Not as Nice as You Think”, it also had some truth to it. In a rare interview, Ms DeGeneres spoke candidly about the pressure to be seen as happy-go-lucky all the time, and reporter Jason Zinoman noted this dichotomy in her 2018 Netflix stand-up special, titled Relatable: “In sharp contrast to her public image as everyone’s good friend, happy to listen, she presents herself – with tongue in cheek – as cartoonishly aloof and indifferent, stuck in a privileged bubble, cracking several jokes, for instance, about her fabulous wealth,” he wrote.

Mr Zinoman also asked her about the long-circulating rumours in Hollywood – that she, actually, is the opposite of her on-camera personality, and not that nice to her employees. Ms DeGeneres responded: “That bugs me if someone is saying that because it’s an outright lie. The first day I said: ‘The one thing I want is everyone here to be happy and proud of where they work, and if not, don’t work here.’ No one is going to raise their voice or not be grateful. That’s the rule to this day.”

January 2019: The Kevin Hart interview about the Oscars

The Ellen DeGeneres Show has long been seen as a friendly spot for A-list stars looking to promote their new project, even though the host also likes to pull terrifying pranks on them as soon as they step on set. In January 2019, Kevin Hart appeared shortly after he stepped down as Academy Awards host, because of controversy over his previous homophobic tweets and jokes. Ms DeGeneres, whose coming out as gay on her sitcom in 1997 was a groundbreaking moment for the LGBT+ community, said she believed in second chances and urged him to ignore the negative comments online – she also called the academy and asked them to rehire Mr Hart. This led to a swift backlash against Ms DeGeneres for deeming Hart as forgiven, even though many people were still offended by his homophobic comments and didn’t appreciate being dismissed as “haters”.

October 2019: The George W Bush photo

Last fall, Ms DeGeneres and former president George W Bush were photographed chatting and laughing together at a Dallas Cowboys-Green Bay Packers game. The image sparked outrage on the Internet because Ms DeGeneres, an LGBT+ advocate whose career suffered when she came out, was so friendly with a politician who supported a ban on same-sex marriage and whose administration launched the Iraq War.

Ms DeGeneres’s explanation on her show the following week, peppered with jokes, did not impress her critics. “People were upset. They thought: ‘Why is a gay Hollywood liberal sitting next to a conservative Republican president?’” Ms DeGeneres said during her monologue. “Here’s the thing: I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different, and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different.”

She compared it to how she doesn’t agree with people who wear fur, or those who play Christmas music in October. “When I say: ‘Be kind to one another’, I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do,” she continued. “I mean be kind to everyone.”

She showed one tweet that said: “Ellen and George Bush makes me have faith in America again”, and the audience burst into applause. But many disagreed, summarised in one sample YouTube comment: “Ellen whitewashing the crimes of a war criminal as ‘differences of opinion’ like not wearing fur actually has me lose faith in humanity.”

Shortly after the segment aired, this tweet by writer and comedian Dan Sheehan really picked up steam.

November 2019: The Dakota Johnson interview

Yes, it has become somewhat of a Twitter meme that Ms Johnson “brought down Ellen”, but this incident may have opened the floodgates. Ms DeGeneres kicked off their interview by noting Ms Johnson had recently turned 30: “How was the party? I wasn’t invited.”

Ms Johnson, decidedly unamused, shot back: “Actually, no, that’s not the truth, Ellen. You were invited.” Ms DeGeneres looked taken aback, as Ms Johnson continued to say that she remembered Ms DeGeneres had been offended she wasn’t invited to her 29th birthday, so the actress made sure to include her for her 30th. “I didn’t even know you wanted to be invited,” Ms Johnson said.

“Who doesn’t want to be invited to a party?” Ms DeGeneres asked.

“I didn’t even know you liked me!” Ms Johnson exclaimed, as Ms DeGeneres insisted she did, in fact, like her. “But I did invite you and you didn’t come, so...”

“Are you sure? How do you know? I don’t think so,” Ms DeGeneres said.

“Ask everybody,” Ms Johnson said flatly, drawing an audible gasp from the audience. “Ask Jonathan, your producer.”

Eventually, it was confirmed that yes, Ms Johnson had invited Ms DeGeneres, but she was out of that town that weekend (many surmised that it was likely when she was in Dallas at the Cowboys game with Bush, as Ms Johnson’s birthday was earlier that week). The interview went viral, and Ms Johnson was hailed for standing up to Ms DeGeneres when other celebrities would have been highly unlikely – or too afraid – to do so.

March: The viral Twitter thread

Ms Johnson may or may not have been the tipping point but a few months later another viral Twitter thread emerged as comedian and Gilmore Guys podcast co-host Kevin T Porter solicited negative stories about Ms DeGeneres in exchange for food bank donations.

April: The pandemic-related incidents

Several weeks after the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down production in Hollywood, Ms DeGeneres posted a YouTube video in which she compared being in quarantine to jail, a joke seen as especially tone-deaf given that she was sitting in her palatial California home while the spread of the virus in prisons was actually a dire situation. After backlash, her show’s official account deleted a tweet with the video and the clip was made private on YouTube.

About a week later, Variety reported that Ellen employees were panicking because they had been told very little about their future, including whether they would continue to be paid – and the host allegedly hired nonunion tech employees in the meantime to produce the show remotely from her house. The production company, which eventually gave the employees some answers, blamed the lack of communication on the “chaos” of the pandemic, Variety wrote.

July: The fallout

On 16 July, BuzzFeed published a long story by Krystie Lee Yandoli, who interviewed former (and one current) Ellen show employees who alleged a toxic environment of “racism, fear, and intimidation”, as one former staffer said: “That ‘be kind’ bullshit only happens when the cameras are on. It’s all for show.” Two weeks later, Ms Yandoli published another story that reported, according to dozens of people who worked behind the scenes at the show, “the office is a place where sexual harassment and misconduct by top executive producers runs rampant”.

Warner Bros. released a statement last week that it has been interviewing employees and said in part: “Though not all of the allegations were corroborated, we are disappointed that the primary findings of the investigation indicated some deficiencies related to the show’s day-to-day management. We have identified several staffing changes, along with appropriate measures to address the issues that have been raised.”

Ms DeGeneres also sent an email to staff that said there will be changes: “On day one of our show, I told everyone in our first meeting that The Ellen DeGeneres Show would be a place of happiness – no one would ever raise their voice, and everyone would be treated with respect. Obviously, something changed, and I am disappointed to learn that this has not been the case. And for that, I am sorry.”

“I’m also learning that people who work with me and for me are speaking on my behalf and misrepresenting who I am and that has to stop,” she continued. “As someone who was judged and nearly lost everything for just being who I am, I truly understand and have deep compassion for those being looked at differently, or treated unfairly, not equal, or – worse – disregarded. To think that any one of you felt that way is awful to me.”

Meanwhile, as other unflattering stories about Ms DeGeneres continue to crop up (YouTuber NikkieTutorials made headlines talking about her negative experience on the show, fans recalled this uncomfortable interview in which Ms DeGeneres pressured Mariah Carey to confirm her pregnancy), other celebrities are taking the unusual step of speaking up. “Sorry but it comes from the top @TheEllenShow. Know more than one who were treated horribly by her. Common knowledge,” actor Brad Garrett tweeted. “True story. It is,” actress Lea Thompson agreed.

This all led to a Daily Mail story published on Saturday that suggested the show “feels done”, but executive producer Andy Lassner dismissed the idea on Twitter last week, saying: “Nobody is going off the air.” When asked for comment, a Warner Bros. rep replied that the season premiere of The Ellen DeGeneres Show is 9 September.

The Washington Post

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