The night of April 30, 1997 was one of the most talked about television events in years: the highly-publicized coming-out episode of Ellen.
Earlier that day audiences would learn all about the series’ star, Ellen DeGeneres, and her decision to come out publicly when she was a guest for the full hour of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Since its beginning, The Oprah Winfrey Show dedicated episodes to taboo topics such as racism in rural America, HIV and coming out as gay. In 1997 the talk show queen had just launched her massively popular Book Club the year before and was gearing up to star in the film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
But before Beloved, Winfrey agreed to play Ellen’s therapist on “The Puppy Episode”—and to a certain extent reprised her role during the hour-long conversation—as she asked DeGeneres about when she knew she was gay, and how her family took the news.
“Why do you think it was necessary to come out?” asked Winfrey.
“Because it is okay,” DeGeneres replied as the audience applauded.
Winfrey has said for years that the “worst hate mail” she ever received was for agreeing to play the therapist on Ellen. On this episode, the talk show host invited some of the haters to the taping to explain why they disagree with DeGeneres’ public coming out.
“I’m not on the cover [of Time magazine] saying ’Yep, I’m straight,'” said Donna, a viewer who had written to Winfrey saying she was “disappointed” in her.
“Actually Time has been asking how to get in touch with you,” interrupted DeGeneres as the audience broke out in applause and laughter, including Donna herself.
The second half of the episode welcomed DeGeneres’ new girlfriend, Anne Heche, to the conversation. Heche spoke about her closeted father who died of AIDS in 1983, and how since then she has always lived “truthfully,” including when she fell in love with DeGeneres—even though she had never been in a relationship with a woman before.
“I saw Ellen across a crowded room and I was just drawn to her,” the actress told Winfrey. The smitten couple were new and would last another three years until they broke up in 2000.
This episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show was only the beginning of Winfrey and DeGeneres’ friendship. The two appeared multiple times on each other’s talk shows, DeGeneres would be featured on Oprah’s Master Class on OWN and she even successfully campaigned to be on the cover of O Magazine.
“I was scared to death that if you found out I was gay you wouldn’t like me because I liked you so much and I wanted you to like me,” DeGeneres confessed to Winfrey during their conversation.
“Did you think that about other people too? ’If they found out I was gay they won’t like me?'” Winfrey asked.
“Just you,” DeGeneres joked as Winfrey and the audience laughed.
Tomorrow, Winfrey will be one of the special guests on DeGeneres’ talk show when she reunites the cast of Ellen in honor of the 20th anniversary of “The Puppy Episode”