When Ellen DeGeneres Was Just 20, She Suffered A Personal Tragedy That Would Stay With Her Forever

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It’s probably fair to say that almost everyone in the United States knows the name Ellen DeGeneres. She’s a hugely successful TV host, after all. But to some, the comedienne may also feel like a genuine friend. And this is partly thanks to her openness and candour when it comes to her off-screen life. In 2018, for instance, DeGeneres made a heartbreaking admission to her followers.

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To many of us, DeGeneres may appear to lead a wonderful life. She’s a beloved TV personality, for one thing, she has a multitude of awards on her shelves, and she’s married to fellow actor Portia de Rossi. Plus, she was a trailblazer for other LGBT people in a time when coming out was much more difficult than it is today.

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But DeGeneres’ path to stardom wasn’t always easy. In fact, her 20s were rocked by tragedy – and she at one point blamed herself for it. Afterwards, though, DeGeneres was able to make sense of the terrible trauma and channel her grief into comedy. And the experience no doubt made the popular host the person she is now.

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These days, DeGeneres occupies herself with a lot of charity work and is an active philanthropist. On The Ellen Show, for instance, she often gives generous donations to those in need. And the star seemingly does her best to give back to other people who are also trying to improve the world.

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Take the 2018 episode of The Ellen Show when DeGeneres surprised a family of six by handing them a massive $1 million. According to the star, she chose this particular couple and their four kids because of their desires to help others – even when they themselves didn’t have much to give.

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Plus, DeGeneres also works in animal activism. As well as being a vegan, she encourages other people to eat fewer animal products through her “Meatless Mondays” idea. The host has spoken out against animal abuse, too, and she’s donated money to organizations that support wildlife. DeGeneres even has a gorilla sanctuary, which was a gift from her wife, de Rossi, named after her.

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Unsurprisingly, then, DeGeneres’ motto is, “Be kind to one another.” It’s how she closes each episode of her show, and she tries to live up to it off camera, too. “I started out as a comedian, and I wanted to make people laugh,” she said after being given the Favorite Humanitarian honor at the People’s Choice Awards in 2016. “I wanted to make people happy and feel good.”

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Said goal is all the more remarkable, though, when you consider the hardships and unkindness that DeGeneres has faced in her life. For instance, when the comedienne came out as a lesbian in 1997, it sparked a media firestorm that was so relentless it impacted on her mental health. Plus, it seemed as though she might lose her career as a result.

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Indeed, DeGeneres’ self-titled sitcom – in which her character also comes out – went off the air in 1998. And the star subsequently struggled to find work. “Everything that I ever feared happened to me,” she told the Los Angeles Times in December of that year. “I lost my show. I’ve been attacked like hell. I went from making lots of money on a sitcom to making no money.”

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In fact, the homophobic backlash was so great that it even affected DeGeneres’ co-stars. Laura Dern’s career hit a stumbling block, for instance, when she faced difficulty finding acting gigs directly after her appearance on Ellen’s coming out episode. And Oprah Winfrey, who portrays DeGeneres’ therapist on the show, reportedly received racist hate mail as a result. All in all, it was a dispiriting time for each of the three women.

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Thankfully, though, things did eventually change. And when DeGeneres was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, then-president Barack Obama talked about the strides that she had made for the LGBT community. “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,” he said.

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Plus, Obama maintained that DeGeneres’ coming out had been important not only for queer people, “but for all of us to see somebody so full of kindness and light — somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbour or our colleague or our sister — challenge our own assumptions [and] remind us that we have more in common than we realize.”

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What’s more, DeGeneres’ journey to becoming a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient is an even bigger achievement when you think about what else she had to overcome to get to that point. Not only has the star suffered homophobia, but she has also endured heartbreaking loss. Plus, she lived through a very difficult childhood, which is another thing that she’s been open about.

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For instance, during DeGeneres’ 2018 Netflix special, Relatable, she spoke about growing up in a very religious household. “I was raised Christian Science,” she told her audience. “It is a religion that does not believe in doctors or medicine. So, [during] my entire childhood I never had any vaccination [and] never had any medicine.”

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That’s right: DeGeneres’ family’s belief in Christian Science meant that she wasn’t even allowed access to basic drugs. “My grandmother lived with us when I was a little girl, and if an aspirin commercial came on the air, she would get up from the sofa, go over to the TV, turn it down, stand in front of it and hum a hymn really loudly,” the comedian revealed during the Netflix special.

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DeGeneres went on, “So, you could imagine my fascination with aspirin when I was a little girl – like, ‘What is aspirin?’ I would be in the car, and we would drive by a pharmacy, and I’d be like, ‘I’m going to get aspirin someday.’” She added, “My parents divorced when I was 13, and I went through sort of a bad girl phase. I was on aspirin — one or two a day; I was on aspirin a lot.”

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As a comedy show, Relatable was, of course, funny, but it also provided insight into the “real” DeGeneres. She spoke about how the public seemed to perceive her as a near-perfect human being and how hard that was. “It’s a wonderful thing, but here’s the downside: I can never do anything unkind ever,” she said. “I’m the ‘Be Kind’ girl.”

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DeGeneres went on, “And I’m kind. I’m a good person. I know I am. But I’m a human being, and I have bad days, and I’m in traffic like you, and I drive. But I can’t do the things you do because I’m the ‘Be Kind’ girl. I shouldn’t even have a horn in my car,” she joked. “There’s no reason for me to have a horn. I can’t honk ever at anyone.”

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In addition, the star opened up about about how difficult it was for her to come out. “The same people who loved me overnight just hated me because they knew I was gay,” DeGeneres said. “Everything changed. And you know, I went through a depression. And people made fun of me, and people were writing articles about me, dissecting the whole process and why I [came out] and that I shouldn’t have done it.”

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Then, DeGeneres told the Relatable audience that she eventually got a talk show, after trying for ages to get her foot back in the door. But in an attempt to avoid her sexuality becoming an issue, producers told the new host to wear more feminine outfits. “Is Ellen wearing a necklace? It’s very delicate. She may not be gay anymore. I don’t know,” the comedian said mockingly.

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But no matter the consequences, DeGeneres seemingly always knew that she needed to come out. And in Relatable she revealed that her subconscious showed her the way. “I had a dream that I was holding a baby finch – like a little precious bird,” she explained. “And it was my pet, and I put it back in its cage, which was this beautiful, multi-tiered bamboo cage.”

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DeGeneres thinks that the dream was a metaphor for where she was in her life at that point. “The bird became me when it went into the cage. And all of sudden, it realized that it was up against a window all along. And the window was open, and the bars were wide enough for the bird to fly out,” she said.

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The comedian continued, “And I looked at the bird, and I said, ‘Don’t leave. You’re safe in here.’ And the bird looked at me and said, ‘I don’t belong in here,’ and flew out. The next morning I woke up and said, ‘I’m coming out.’” It’s certainly a touching story, and it shows the turmoil that the star went through.

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It’s fair to say, then, that DeGeneres has confronted many difficult things in her life, and she’s come out the other side happy and successful. But there’s one tragic story from her past that some people may not yet know. And it seems as though this terrible experience ended up being the spark that lit up her comedy career.

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Before DeGeneres was a household name, she was a young woman in love. Her girlfriend was poet Kathy “Kat” Perkoff. And people who knew them at the time said the relationship was a serious one. The pair met in the ‘70s in New Orleans, Louisiana, at a time when the future star was holding down various odd jobs to pay the bills.

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The New York Times actually published the story of Kat’s tragic death in 1994. But given that DeGeneres had yet to come out, the poet was referred to as the star’s “best friend” rather than her girlfriend. In fact, it was only after DeGeneres announced that she was gay a few years later that the media picked up on the real story.

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People magazine published an article in 1997, in which Kat’s sister, Rachel, is quoted. “[DeGeneres and Kat] were two very creative people – crazy and young and very much in love,” she said. “My sister was a passionate, charismatic person. [DeGeneres] had a good influence on her; she was stabilizing and helped her focus on her art.”

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And Rachel also shed light on DeGeneres’ reaction to losing her girlfriend. The future star had been “devastated,” she recalled. “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.”

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However, it was many years before DeGeneres was able to tell the story in her own words. As she eventually explained on Oprah’s Master Class in 2015, Kat’s death was the first major loss that she had ever suffered. Her grandfather had died when she was very young, she said, but they weren’t close, and she didn’t go to his funeral.

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Losing Kat was, unsurprisingly, a terrible shock for DeGeneres. And it was made all the worse by the fact that the couple were technically apart at the time. “We had broken up. We fought a lot, [and] she was trying to get me to come back home,” the star recalled on the show. Prior to the falling out, though, the two women had been living together.

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Then, at a gig for DeGeneres’ brother’s band, Kat tried to make up with her old girlfriend. But it didn’t work. “I acted like I couldn’t hear her because the music was too loud,” the host said. “I was planning on moving back in; I was just trying to teach her a lesson.” Eventually, Kat left the venue, while the future star stayed behind.

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And this was the last time that DeGeneres saw Kat alive. On her way back from the show, she and her friends noticed a smashed car. Clearly, something bad had taken place. “[The vehicle] was split in two, and we heard sirens behind us, so it had just happened. Nobody was there yet,” the star said on Oprah’s Master Class. “We just kept going.”

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Sadly, Kat had been in that car, and she died as a result of the collision. “So that, of course, made me feel like I should have gone home with her that night. [If I had], she wouldn’t [have been] with that person,” DeGeneres said. She felt guilt as well as grief, but she had to carry on with her life. “In an instant, she just was gone. It shifted my entire focus,” the star explained.

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Plus, to make matters even worse, DeGeneres was living at the time in a cramped, bug-infested apartment. “There were just fleas everywhere, and I remember thinking, ‘It just seems so ridiculous that this young, 23-year-old girl who I was just living with [is] gone, and fleas are here,’” she said to the Oprah’s Master Class cameras.

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In order for DeGeneres to process her grief, she imagined having a conversation with God. “I thought, ‘It would be great to just pick up the phone and call up God and talk about this,’” she said. “It just was written. The whole thing came out. The whole conversation – the whole phone call. When I finished writing, I just thought, ‘Johnny Carson would love that,’” she added.

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And Johnny Carson did indeed love it. Years after Kat’s death, DeGeneres actually appeared on Carson’s Tonight Show and performed several stand-up sketches, including one about a conversation with the Almighty. It was called “Phone Call to God,” and once she was done, she became the first-ever female stand-up to perform a routine and then get an invite to the host’s couch.

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Indeed, “Phone Call to God” hints at DeGeneres’ state of mind when she wrote it. “Life is very precious. It’s very special. We’re here for such a short time, and everything on this Earth should have a reason – should have a beneficial purpose. And I feel like everything does… Except for fleas,” she says at the beginning of the sketch.

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“There are certain things on this Earth I just don’t understand why they’re here,” DeGeneres continues in the sketch. Underneath the silly jokes in the bit, though, there’s a dark humor about mortality. “I got time. Of course, you would know that more than me,” the comedian tells “God” at one point.

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DeGeneres opened up a little more about the tragedy in 2018, when she appeared on the podcast Armchair Expert with Dax Shepherd. “My girlfriend was killed in a car accident when I was like 20 years old. And I wasn’t doing comedy; I think I was probably waitressing someplace at the time,” she said.

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Indeed, DeGeneres had already been writing poetry at the time of the horrific incident, but pouring her grief into a comedy sketch created something truly special. “It just unfolded. I just wrote the entire thing, and when I finished, I read it, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s hilarious,’” DeGeneres said on the podcast. After all, sometimes the saddest of circumstances can pave the way for the most beautiful things.

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