April 30 is the 20th anniversary of “The Puppy Episode,” when Ellen Morgan—and Ellen DeGeneres—came out as a lesbian. It took months of planning and prodding ABC to get it on the air, but 42 million people tuned in. Yet, the episode was boycotted by advertisers like JCPenney and Chrysler, who pulled their ads rather than be associated with such a polarizing moment in television history.
Jerry Falwell proclaimed DeGeneres should be called “Ellen DeGenerate,” joining other right-wingers in a public letter condemning the episode. A group calling itself Media Research ran a full-page ad in Variety, proclaiming that ABC was “promoting homosexuality.”
“How gay was the show? The subjects that we dealt with were the subjects that any other show on television deals with,” DeGeneres told Diane Sawyer in a 1998 interview. “You know all these things you go through when you feel something for another person. So, you know, I guess if that’s gay because it’s the same sex that I’m dealing with, then it’s gay.”
Despite the high viewership and subsequent press around the coming-out episode, ratings and reviews for Ellen’s next season were lackluster. ABC President Robert Iger insisted that wasn’t because of the character’s sexuality per se, but because Ellen “became a program about a lead character who was gay every single week, and I just think that was too much for people.”
He blamed DeGeneres’ “powerful inner passion that made it absolutely impossible for her to slow down.” Ellen was canceled after that fifth season—something DeGeneres says she found out from an assistant who read it in the trades.
“The comfort level of the audience is never going to say ‘Come on, give some gay stuff. We’re ready for it now,'” she told Sawyer. “When I’m accused of being political, I’m showing love. How is that political? How is that political to teach love and acceptance?”
“The Puppy Episode” won an Emmy and a Peabody Award, but her character’s love life proved too difficult for ABC to fully support: The network barely promoted final season and placed viewer discretion warnings before each episode, cautioning watchers of “adult content,” despite Ellen’s tameness compared to hetero sitcoms like Seinfeld and The Drew Carey Show.
“It just felt so degrading,” DeGeneres confessed. “It’s my life. It’s how I live my life. I love someone, and because of who I choose to love, I get a warning label.”
At the time, DeGeneres was dating Anne Heche, who appeared with her on the red carpet. Like any new couple, they were affectionate in public—holding hands, putting their arms around one another. But news outlets like The New York Times criticized the star for “ostentatious display of affection with her lover.”
Even Elton John and Chaz Bono criticized Ellen for being “too gay.”
“It was all kinds other lessons of learning what it’s like to not be loved and to be the butt of everybody’s joke on television and in magazines, DeGeneres told Oprah Winfrey in 2015. “So I had to learn what that feels like to not let things like that get to you.”
It wasn’t only DeGeneres who had to face the fallout from “The Puppy Episode”: Winfrey and actress Laura Dern, who both appeared in the episode, received vicious hate mail.
“I did it because she asked me to do it and I wanted to support her,” Winfrey, who played Ellen Morgan’s therapist on the show, told The Hollywood Reporter. “It didn’t occur to me that there would be a backlash. It always turns to race. I got all of the, ’N*gger, go back to Africa. Who do you think you are?'”
Dern says she didn’t get work for a year after playing Susan, the object of Ellen Morgan’s affection.
“There was certainly backlash, I guess, that we all felt from it,” Dern said. Later she told The Telegraph, “People were uncomfortable. I’d done ‘Citizen Ruth’ as well, which was pretty racy, then ’Ellen.’ So there was a period of time afterwards when it was like, ’What do we do with her?'”
On Inside the Actor’s Studio, she revealed there were actually bomb threats during shooting. “It was not a popular choice, so god bless Ellen because [now] she’s on every day and people are watching her. She’s a true hero and a wonderful actor.”
Burned by the experience, DeGeneres returned to standup. In 2001, she starred in the short-lived CBS sitcom, The Ellen Show, which was critically panned. Her character, Ellen Richmond, was also a lesbian, though it was rarely mentioned. CBS canceled the show after just 13 episodes (even though five more had been shot).
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to work again,” DeGeneres told Out.”Time is a strange thing. I was at rock bottom and out of money, with no work in sight. But one step at a time, it gets better.”
It wasn’t until 2003 that she began to bounce back, voicing Dory in Finding Nemo and launching her self-titled talk show that same year. The Ellen DeGeneres Show soon became a hit: Her empathy, humor and star quality was finally on full view, just when America was coming around to being more accepting of the LGBT community.
Today, Ellen DeGeneres is worth an estimated $360 million, with a high-rated daily talk show, a production company, record label, home and lifestyle brands, numerous other projects, and even a Presidential Medial of Freedom.
In February 2016, President Obama told her “I don’t think anybody has been more influential [on LGBT equality] than you.”
DeGeneres is ultimately a success story, celebrated for risking her career to tell the truth and widen people’s world view.
“You can’t just come out and then go back in the closet and not show anybody anything,” she told Sawyer. “If I just had this one year of doing what I did on television, I’ll take that over ten more years being on a sitcom and just being funny.”