Freeze Frame: The TIME magazine cover that changed Ellen DeGeneres’ life and career

Just over 25 years ago, in 1997, Ellen Degeneres rose to fame in a very different Hollywood landscape than the one we know and love today.

The gay icon, who shot to fame in the mid-90s for his starring role in the sitcom Ellenhad spent years suppressing his true sexual identity.

She constantly dodged questions from the press about her love life and tried to keep it Ellen character and the real Ellen completely separated.

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Ellen DeGeneres appeared as gay on the cover of TIME in 1997. (Time)

During his sitcom’s long run on television, between 1994 and 1997, LGBTIQ+ characters on prime-time television were a virtually non-existent concept.

But, in 1997, all that changed. Rumors quickly swirled that DeGeneres’ beloved character on the hit show was “coming out of the closet” in an upcoming episode.

On March 3 of that year, ABC announced that Ellen’s character would indeed be coming out as a lesbian.

In tandem with her fictional self, DeGeneres also decided to officially come out. To prove that she was proud of her sexuality, the comedian announced it on the cover of TIME magazine.

The title simply said, “Yes, I’m gay.” It was accompanied by an article about the actress and why she made the decision to tell the world that she was a lesbian.

It was a “secret” she had been carrying for years. However, DeGeneres has made it clear that she doesn’t want to be known as a “spokesperson” for the gay community.

“When I decided to get my character out on the show, I knew I was going to have to get out too. But I didn’t want to talk about it until the show was over,” DeGeneres said. Explain.

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Ellen's Sitcom
Ellen’s famous episode starred Laura Dern. (ABC America)

“And you know, I watched my friend Melissa [Etheridge] out, and she became ‘the lesbian rock star’. I never wanted to be the ‘lesbian actress’. I never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community. Already. I did it for my own truth.”

While an actor coming out isn’t exactly groundbreaking news in 2022, DeGeneres’ announcement came as a shock to fans and the industry.

In 1997, DeGeneres was risking a lot to speak her truth as a gay woman. At that time, same-sex marriage was still illegal in all US states.

And sadly, there were real repercussions for his career and the show. Ellen once the magazine cover hits the stands.

“When I decided to bring my character out on the show, I knew I was going to have to do it too.”

TIME readers responded to the cover with both negative and positive reactions. An offended reader described the article as “an affront to decency in general”.

Meanwhile, several big-name sponsors pulled ads from him ABC series, including JC Penney and Chrysler department stores.

Despite the advertisers’ aversion, no less than 42 million American viewers watched the episode of Ellentitled “The Puppy Episode,” to see DeGeneres appear in character as well.

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Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche
Ellen DeGeneres and her ex-girlfriend, the late actress Anne Heche. (Corbis via Getty Images)

It wasn’t enough to save the sitcom. The show was later criticized for being “too gay” and was abruptly canceled after its fifth season.

Laura Dern, who starred in the episode, also later said she had lost work and needed “full security details” following the backlash.

For DeGeneres, it momentarily stalled her career.

She struggled to land another starring role on a series regular, despite being one half of one of the world’s most famous same-sex couples after starting their relationship with his ex-girlfriend. Anne Heche.

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Eventually, DeGeneres returned to the limelight with her wildly popular talk show in 2001, The Ellen DeGeneres Showwhich lasted 21 years.

In 2016, the now 64-year-old received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former US President Barack Obama for her “courage and candor” in coming out in 1997.

And to mark the 25th anniversary of his now famous TIME cover, DeGeneres commemorated the occasion with a dry message.

“I remember coming out gay on the cover of TIME magazine 25 years ago today,” she tweeted in April 2022. “However, I don’t remember saying ‘Yeah’.”

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