Ellen DeGeneres has become a legend in her own right since she hit the spotlight in the late 1970s — though there have been some bumps along the way.
The talk show host started out as a stand-up comedian in her native Louisiana after leaving the University of New Orleans just one semester into her studies as a communications major. She found moderate success early on, becoming the MC at Clyde’s Comedy Club in 1981 and launching a national tour soon after.
The funnywoman got her big break in 1986 when she performed a stand-up routine on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. More appearances on late-night TV followed, along with club bookings and eventually theater appearances and small TV roles.
DeGeneres landed her first regular small-screen gig as a cast member on the Fox sitcom Open House, which aired from 1989 to 1990. After a brief stint on ABC’s Laurie Hill, which the network canceled after four episodes, DeGeneres scored her own sitcom titled These Friends of Mine and later renamed Ellen.
“I was laughing out loud when I read the script,” she told The New York Times in 1994. “I knew what I could do with it. I wanted to do a smarter, hipper version of I Love Lucy, only don’t take it so far that I’m in a man’s suit with a mustache trying to fool Ricky that I’m not his wife. I wanted a show that everybody talks about the next day.”
And talk they did. During the height of Ellen’s popularity, its star came out as a lesbian — in real life and on the show. ABC canceled the sitcom just a year later as ratings dipped, leaving DeGeneres devastated.
The My Point … and I Do Have One author went public with her relationship with actress Anne Heche shortly after coming out, and she later dated photographer Alexandra Hedison.
DeGeneres returned to TV in 2001 with The Ellen Show, but the CBS sitcom was canceled less than four months after its premiere. Two years later, NBC took a chance on the actress and gave her a daytime talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which is now her most successful venture to date with nearly 3,000 episodes and 60-plus Emmy wins.
The animal rights activist has also found fortune on the big screen as the voice of Dory in the Disney-Pixar animated movies Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. She met The One along the way too, marrying actress and model Portia de Rossi in 2008.
DeGeneres found herself face-to-face with scandal again in 2020, however. Multiple current and former talk show employees came forward with allegations of racism, fear, intimidation and sexual misconduct in the workplace. Executive producers denied behaving inappropriately with staffers, while DeGeneres apologized to those “being looked at differently, or treated unfairly, not equal, or — worse — disregarded.”
Scroll down to see photos of DeGeneres through the years.