Ellen DeGeneres realized laughter was the best medicine when her parents divorced at 13, her mother battled breast cancer, she was molested by her stepfather and when one of her first loves was stolen from her by a car accident. The latter in particular kicked off the TGIFriday’s waitress’ stand-up career as it inspired her first monologue, “A Phone Call To God,” which earned her the 1984 Showtime’s Funniest Person in America award and motivated her to crisscross the country. In 1986, she became the first female comedian Johnny Carson invited to chat on The Tonight Show couch. Her next stop was TV, first playing an oddball secretary on Fox’s Open House and then as a bookstore employee on These Friends Of Mine. (Ironically, she turned down a role in Friends before taking this similarly titled gig.) The show, rebranded as Ellen season 2, earned DeGeneres four Lead Actress Emmy and three Golden Globe nominations and an Emmy writing win. She relied on her chuckle-through-controversy strategy again in 1997 when she came out on the cover of Time, became the subject of much protest as TV’s first openly gay star, and had her show cancelled. She was down, but not out as she continued to make films (EdTV, The Love Letter), had long-term love affairs with Anne Heche and photographer Alexandra Hedison, was praised for her deft and sensitive hosting of the post-9/11 Emmys and in 2003 voiced Dory in Disney behemoth Finding Nemo and launched her still-running multiple Emmy-winning daytime talk show. The face of CoverGirl (at 50!), who was only the second woman to host the Oscars solo and also spent a season as an American Idol judge, connected with Portia de Rossi in 2004 and married her in 2008, months before the state banned same-sex marriage.
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