Ellen DeGeneres has been charming her way onto our television screens since the late '80s with her hilarious jokes, supreme hosting skills and, of course, a super-successful talk show. Before the star receives the Carol Burnett Award — a special prize established by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to recognize outstanding achievement in television — at the 2020 Golden Globes on Jan. 5, join Wonderwall.com as we look back at the comedy star's life in photos.
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It was Ellen DeGeneres' older brother, Vance DeGeneres, who helped Ellen along on her path to comic greatness. Once Vance found success in New Orleans' rock music scene and started getting attention for entertaining, Ellen caught the bug too. She dropped out of the University of New Orleans after just one semester to pursue comedy. "Everybody knew who he was," Ellen once told People about her brother. "That's what motivated me to do something, because I watched him get all this attention and glory."
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Ellen DeGeneres began performing stand-up comedy in 1981 when she was 23. She started at a local coffeehouse and got her big break five years later in 1986 when a booking agent from "The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson" checked out her act at the Improv in Hollywood, California, after getting a tip from comedian Jay Leno. Her act was a hit, and shortly afterward, Ellen began appearing on "The Tonight Show" and other major TV programs like "The Late Show with David Letterman," "Later with Greg Kinnear," "Larry King Live" and "Good Morning America."
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After making the rounds on the talk-show circuit, Ellen DeGeneres landed an ABC sitcom. Originally titled "These Friends of Mine," the show also starred Jeremy Piven and Joely Fisher. For the series' second season in 1994, the name changed to "Ellen" and focused more on the comedienne's character, Ellen Morgan. The show was a huge success, earning Ellen four Emmy nominations for her acting work (she won an Emmy for comedy writing in 1997) plus three Golden Globe nominations during its five-year run.
The "Ellen" show broke barriers when Ellen DeGeneres' character became the first lead in sitcom history to acknowledge her homosexuality on television. In April 1997, Ellen came out both off-screen (with a Time magazine cover) and on-screen (in-character on "Ellen"). When parent network ABC aired the controversial coming-out episode, a Birmingham, Alabama, affiliate refuse to show it, and the then-controversial telecast resulted in some advertisers withdrawing their spots. It became a huge pop culture moment and the episode won an Emmy — but the show was canceled a year later in 1998.
The same year that she came out, Ellen DeGeneres started dating actress Anne Heche. The relationship made headlines in large part because Anne did not identify as gay. The actress told Oprah Winfrey, "When I saw Ellen across the room, I just, like, swung across on the chandelier, and dropped down beside her. Our souls connected. I don't feel like I'm gay. I just feel like I'm in love."
As her TV show "Ellen" wound down, Ellen DeGeneres shifted gears and set her sights on film roles. She landed parts in 1996's "Mr. Wrong" opposite Bill Pullman (seen here), 1999's "EdTV" and "If These Walls Could Talk 2" in 2000.
Ellen DeGeneres spread her hosting wings, starting with the Grammys in 1996 and 1997. She was also tapped to host the Primetime Emmys in 2001, which were delayed twice in the wake of 9/11. When the show eventually aired on CBS, Ellen drew praise for the way she handled the sensitive event. Among her more iconic jokes following the terrorist attack: "I felt it was important for me to be here tonight because what would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?" Ellen received a standing ovation from the audience at the end of the ceremony.
Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche went their separate ways in August 2000 after more than three years together. Ellen moved on quickly, finding new love with then-31-year-old actress and photographer Alexandra Hedison. Her mother, Betty, approved of the new relationship, explaining, "As a mother, I'm just happy to see my child happy. So much has happened to Ellen, she's been so devastated." Ellen and Alexandra's relationship lasted until late 2004. In 2014, Alexandra married actress Jodie Foster.
In 2001, Ellen DeGeneres made her second attempt at sustaining a sitcom and created "The Ellen Show." The CBS series never found its footing and was cancelled after 13 episodes, leaving five episodes unaired.
Ellen DeGeneres returned to television in 2003. The star launched "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and won over audiences and critics alike. The talk show attracted A-list talent and immediately started racking up Daytime Emmy Awards — 59 and counting as of 2017 — including statues for outstanding talk show and host.
In 2003, Ellen DeGeneres landed the role of beloved, forgetful blue tang fish Dory in the now-classic Disney movie "Finding Nemo." The animated film was an instant success, earning over $940 million worldwide and winning the Academy Award for best animated feature. In fact, "Finding Nemo" was the highest grossing animated film of all time until "Shrek 2" surpassed it in 2004.
In December 2004, Ellen DeGeneres began dating Portia de Rossi. The two first clicked at the VH1 Big in '04 awards on Dec. 1, shortly after Ellen's split from Alexandra Hedison. "She's taught me lessons about myself, and I feel like I've taught her. We've both changed and grown, and we just feel like, 'Oh, okay, this is completion,'" Ellen said in 2007 of their relationship.
Ellen DeGeneres took on a huge gig — hosting the Academy Awards — in 2007, becoming the second woman to ever emcee the show solo (the first was Whoopi Goldberg). But Ellen put a unique stamp on things: She was the first woman to ever host the show in pants!
Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi enjoyed a four-year courtship before marrying on Aug. 16, 2008, at their Los Angeles home. The wedding came in the wake of a court ruling that struck down California's laws against gay marriage. But that November, Californians voted to ban same-sex marriage. Of the ban, which has since been overturned, Ellen once said, "I was saddened beyond belief."
In 2009, Ellen DeGeneres took on a surprising new gig as a judge on "American Idol." She filled former judge Paula Abdul's slot that season. Despite her lack of experience in the music industry, Ellen believed she was a good fit for the show. "Hopefully, I'm the people's point of view because I'm just like you. I'm looking at it as a person who is going to buy the music and is going to relate to that person," she explained.
After just one season as a judge, Ellen DeGeneres announced in 2010 that she was leaving "American Idol" because it just didn't "feel like the right fit." (Simon Cowell left the same year.) "I also realized this season that while I love discovering, supporting and nurturing young talent," she added, "it was hard for me to judge people and sometimes hurt their feelings." In 2015, Ellen admitted to Howard Stern that joining "Idol" was "one of the worst decisions I've made."
Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Oscars for a second time in March 2014 and critics — and audiences — loved it. One of the highlights of the night came when Ellen convinced some of Hollywood's biggest A-listers to pose for a now-famous group selfie. How many Academy Award winners can you spot?
In 2016, Ellen DeGeneres lent her voice to the long awaited "Finding Nemo" sequel, "Finding Dory," which hit theaters that June. She's seen here promoting the animated masterpiece with fellow voice talent Ed O'Neill, Ty Burrell and Kaitlin Olsen at the D23 Expo in August 2015.
People's Choice Awards weren't all Ellen Degeneres was raking in in 2016. Thanks to her eight-figure talk-show deal, her earnings as a producer and licensing fees for her brands with companies including PetSmart and Bed, Bath and Beyond, not to mention her epic real estate holdings, Forbes estimated Ellen DeGeneres' net worth at $75 million that year. The magazine also named her the 50th most powerful woman in the world in 2015. (A few years later in 2018, she came in at No. 15 on the mag's "Celebrity 100 Earnings" list with $87.5M.)
Ellen DeGeneres was brought to tears when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2016. The honor was presented to her by President Barack Obama during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington D.C. "It's easy to forget now when we've come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law, just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago," the former POTUS said at the time. "Just how important it was. Not just to the LGBT community, but for all of us." He continued, "Ellen counters what too often divides us, with the countless things that bind us together, inspires us to be better, one joke, one dance at a time."
The people really love Ellen DeGeneres! Ellen and Portia de Rossi walked the red carpet at the People's Choice Awards where the beloved talk show host won three awards in January 2017 — giving her a grand tally of 20 People's Choice Awards during her career. Ellen became the award show's most-decorated star by picking up trophies for favorite daytime TV host, favorite animated movie voice (for "Finding Dory") and favorite comedic collaboration (for her "Mall Mischief" sketch with Britney Spears).
Ellen DeGeneres accepted three orange blimps at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards in March 2017 for favorite voice from an animated movie, favorite animated movie and favorite #Squad, all for "Finding Dory." During her #Squad prize speech, Ellen said, "It means the most to me that you would want to be in my squad. That, to me, is the biggest compliment, that I would win #Squad."
Ellen DeGeneres also landed a major Netflix deal in 2017. The comedian signed on to star in a stand-up special — her first since 2003 when she appeared in "Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now" for HBO. "It has been 15 years since I did a stand-up special. 15 years," Ellen (seen here on her show in 2016) said in a statement. "And I'm writing it now, I can't wait. I'll keep you posted when and where I'm gonna shoot my Netflix special. I'm excited to do it; I'm excited for you to see it."
In late 2017, Ellen DeGeneres expanded her resume by launching a brand-new show: "Ellen's Game of Games," which is based on game segments from the comedian's daytime talk show. The NBC series, hosted by Ellen, was a big success, leading network execs to renew it for a second season that will premiere in 2019.
To mark Ellen DeGeneres' 60th birthday in January 2018, wife Portia de Rossi surprised the comedy star and renowned animal lover to give her a jaw-dropping gift: The actress announced the establishment of The Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund and revealed its first initiative — to build a permanent and safe home for the The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda. A tearful Ellen couldn't believe it. "When we got married, Portia's line was 'it's good to be loved, it's profound to be understood,' and she understands me because that is the best gift anybody could have given me," Ellen said.