Ellen DeGeneres has carved out a career as a funny but warm and understanding TV host who pioneered the use of the phrase, 'Be kind'. But late last year, The Ellen DeGeneres Show was hit by major controversy when she was accused of being a diva and a Buzzfeed News investigation alleged there was a toxic work culture.
An internal review found "deficiencies related to the show's day-to-day management" and as a result, three top producers quit last August. When the show returned in September, Ellen - who turns 63 today - apologised to viewers, insisting she takes 'responsibility' and describing herself as a 'work in progress'.
"I learned that things happened here that never should have happened. I take that very seriously and I want to say I am so sorry to the people that were affected," she said in her opening monologue. I know that I'm in a position of privilege and power, and I realise that with that comes responsibility. I take responsibility for what happens at my show.
"Being known as the 'be kind lady' is a tricky position to be in. I am that person that you see on TV. I am also a lot of other things. Sometimes I get sad. I get mad. I get anxious. I get frustrated. I get impatient. And I am working on all of that."
The crisis wasn't the first time her world had been rocked. Indeed, Ellen has endured more than her fair share of personal heartbreak and betrayal. From being sexually abused as a teenager, losing her first love in a tragic accident, suffering severe depression and watching her mum battle breast cancer, the star's real life has been riddled with hurt.
Her teenage years were tragically marred by the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather while her mum was out of town receiving treatment for breast cancer. Aged about 16 when it happened, Ellen opened up about the sexual assaults in 2019 in the hope of helping others, describing how her stepfather convinced her to let him check her breasts for lumps.
"He told me he’d felt a lump in [my mother's] breast and needed to feel my breasts because he didn’t want to upset her, but he needed to feel mine,” she told David Letterman's Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.
But the abuse didn't stop there, and on one occasion she was forced to flee the house and spend the night hiding in a hospital.
“He tried to break my door down, and I kicked the window out and ran because I knew it was going to go more to something," she said. "And I didn’t want to tell my mother, because I was protecting her and I knew that that would ruin her happiness.”
When Ellen finally confided in her mother Betty, she didn't believe her and stayed married to the stepfather - who died in 2018 - for another 18 years. It was only when his story kept changing that Betty realised he had lied, and last year she made a public apology to her daughter, admitting she has to 'live with that regret'.
In a statement to NBC news, Betty said: “I know now that one of the hardest things to do is speak up after being sexually abused. I love my daughter, and I wish I had the capacity to listen to her when she told me what happened."
Meanwhile, Ellen's relationship with her Christian Scientist father Elliot faltered when she came out as gay aged 19 and he asked her to move out of the house he shared with his wife and their two young daughters.
“[My stepmum] had two little girls that they worried that it would influence them," Ellen once told Oprah Winfrey.
“[It] really hurt. I loved them. But, I understood it. I understand people not understanding. I’m fine with that. I can’t change anyone’s mind.”
By then a struggling stand-up comedian, she moved to New Orleans and fell in love with poet and bar manager Kat Perkoff. But Kat died in 1980 when her car hit a tree as she drove home from a concert following a reported row with Ellen, leaving the then-22-year-old devastated.
“They were two very creative people, crazy and young and very much in love,” her sister Rachel Perkoff told People in 1997. “She told me she was on the interstate the day before - she drove by the accident but she didn’t know who it was. When she found out, you can imagine how shocked she was.”
The tragedy did, however, inspire Ellen's “phone call to God” routine that finally got her noticed and earned her Showtime’s Funniest Person in America award in 1982. A move to Los Angeles followed and in 1997 she broke boundaries by coming out as gay - both to Time magazine and in character on The Ellen Show. She also went public with new girlfriend, actress Anne Heche, who would go on to break her heart when she walked out three and a half years later.
“Anne broke my heart into a million pieces,” Ellen later said. “When Anne left, I’d wake up in the morning, and my eyes would just immediately fill up with tears, and I would start convulsively crying.”
And her mental health continued to suffer when The Ellen Show was cancelled just one year after her coming out, plunging the star into a deep depression. Unemployed and feeling like a pariah, her confidence plummeted and she isolated herself from those who loved her, crawling into 'a dark hole'.
“If you ever have experienced depression, you isolate yourself and don’t reach out for help. You don’t say, ‘I’m hurting, I need help’ – you kind of crawl further into that dark hole, so that’s where I was for a while," she said.
Eventually she moved out of LA, started seeing a therapist and taking anti-depressants and the black cloud lifted. She told Good Housekeeping how she, “had to go on anti-depressants for the first time in my life... I slowly started to climb out of it. I can’t believe I came back from that point. I can’t believe where my life is now.”