Oprah Winfrey knew she was getting involved in something big when she signed on to guest star as Ellen DeGeneres' therapist on the comedian's late-90s sitcom.
But she never anticipated becoming a target herself, after the controversial 1997 episode -- during which DeGeneres' character, Ellen Morgan, first came out as a lesbian -- aired. (DeGeneres timed her character's coming out with her own, real-life announcement, appearing on the cover of Time magazine that week.)
"I did it because she asked me to do it and I wanted to support her," Winfrey, 58, tells The Hollywood Reporter in a new interview. "It didn't occur to me that there would be a backlash."
As DeGeneres dealt with the consequences of her decision to discuss her sexuality publicly (major advertisers like Chrysler pulled their ads from her show, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell referred to her as "Ellen DeGenerate"), the network CEO was on the receiving end of her own angry, hateful messages.
"It always turns to race. I got all of the, 'N-----, go back to Africa, who do you think you are?'" Winfrey reveals.
Despite the hatred directed their way, the pair followed up their fictional discussion with an unscripted interview on Winfrey's talk show. "[Ellen] was pretty emotional that day -- kind of tense and not fully herself," the host says. "It's one thing to be ready to step out, it's another thing to be ready for the thunderous explosion that occurred after she did."
Ultimately, Winfrey says, it was DeGeneres' decision to speak up about her sexuality that guaranteed her long-term success. "Being able to be free -- literally -- and to express herself in a way that she can be 100 percent truthful with the audience has allowed them to fall in love with her," Winfrey explains. "The reason why people love Ellen so much is because they see themselves in her. It's not about gender or sexual preference."