Friday, February 29, 2008

Ellen Speaks Out

I remember going to see Ellen as part of the University of Vermont's Coming Out Week festivities back in 1999. This was a couple of years after "The Puppy Episode," and Ellen's career seemed to be on the wane. The gig was in a gymnasium, and Ellen shared the spotlight with Anne "Call Me Crazy" Heche. As I remember, there was very little comedy. Basically it was Ellen and Anne talking about coming out and homophobia and discrimination and being in love and gay marriage, things that pretty much any gay person could talk about (many with more knowledge and articulateness than Ellen or, needless to say, Anne), but because Ellen was a celebrity, people parked themselves on uncomfortable seats under hideous lighting to listen.

As the evening wore on, with Ellen and Anne saying nothing that I didn't already know, I became more and more irritated. "Just be funny!" I wanted to scream at her. It seemed to me she could be a better role model for young gay people doing what she did best, comedy, rather than blabbing from this pseudo-spokesperson role that she'd taken on with good intentions but no particular skill or creativity. Then the Q&A segment began, and, as I recall, people started rambling on about their personal problems and rummaging through their coming out stories, desperately seeking validation from Queen Ellen, the same Ellen who'd waited until she was almost 40 to officially come out. I found the whole thing, in a word, icky, particularly when people began lining up for physical comfort, like Ellen was a priest handing out gay communion wafers in hug form.

When, not long after this, Ellen and Anne inevitably split up (who, aside from Ellen, didn't see that coming?), the lovey-dovey dopiness of the whole spectacle and Ellen's general gay naïveté seemed all the more pathetically apparent. Work on your routine, honey, I would have advised her if she'd asked, leave the preaching to the professionals.

Nearly a decade has passed since then (is it possible?) and, in the interim, Ellen's star has clearly risen again. (As for Anne, well . . . ) She's moved past the gay thing (as have her fans) and has remembered that she's supposed to be funny. She's found her niche. Watching her now, unlike that evening in 1999, it's obvious how she got to be a celebrity in the first place. She knows how to work the crowd. She's reclaimed her star. And, like Oprah, she recognizes her star power. Seeing today's Ellen speaking out about the Lawrence King murder from the platform of her show, I was struck not so much by the difference between Ellen then (1999) and Ellen now (though I'm sure she's much less naïve now than she was then) but by how effectively she can now send a message to a huge audience while still getting to do what she originally set out to do, entertain.

I remember fleeing the 1999 Ellen, my boyfriend and I simultaneously saying, "God, I need a drink after that." Today, watching her speak out on behalf of someone who can't, I have only respect for her. She's willing to harness her celebrity to try to make a difference when it counts, and when it doesn't she has the wisdom to return to the shtick that keeps her in our living rooms.

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