Actress-comedienne Ellen DeGeneres broke new ground for women in the world of comedy: one of the most successful female standups of her generation, she parlayed her club success into television, movies, records, books, and a talk show, later making history for her portrayal of TV's first openly gay lead character. Born January 26, 1958 in Metairie, LA, DeGeneres worked a variety of odd jobs in the New Orleans area after high school and before making her standup debut at an area coffeehouse's amateur hour in 1981. A year later, she won a "Funniest Person in America" competition sponsored by the Showtime cable network; buoyed by her success, DeGeneres moved to San Francisco -- at the time a hotbed of standup clubs -- and launched a comedy career largely steeped in observational humor. However, it was a more personal tour de force, a telephone conversation with God inspired by the accidental death of a close friend, which became the centerpiece of her act and won her an invitation to perform on NBC's The Tonight Show in 1986; DeGeneres was so well received that host Johnny Carson even invited her over to sit on the studio set's couch, a career-making boost for any comedian. She was the first female comic ever to earn the invitation during her debut appearance on the program.
Within months, DeGeneres was a headliner on the national standup circuit, and she soon starred on a number of cable specials. In 1988, she accepted a supporting role on the Fox sitcom Duet, and as her stature as a comic continued to grow, she was besieged by other television offers. After rejecting a role on the series which became the blockbuster Friends, she accepted a starring role in the sitcom These Friends of Mine, a series clearly modelled on the success of Seinfeld. By the following season, the show had undergone a complete supporting cast overhaul and also received a new title, Ellen. While not the smash many expected the program to be, DeGeneres became a star; she headlined a romantic film comedy, 1996's Mr. Wrong, and even authored a best-selling book, My Point...And I Do Have One. She also recorded a comedy LP, Taste This. However, nothing in DeGeneres' career ever earned so many headlines or sparked so much controversy as decision to out her Ellen TV character as a lesbian, the first homosexual lead character ever depicted in an ongoing series. At the peak of the media frenzy, the real-life DeGeneres also admitted to being gay in a Time magazine cover story, ending months of media speculation. She has hosted her talk show since September 2003. ~ Jason Ankeny