The Booming Business of Ellen DeGeneres: From Broke and Banished to Daytime's Top Earner

9:00 AM PST 08/22/2012 by Lacey Rose
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Mary Rozzi

Friendly, funny and yep, she’s gay -- the pain and the glory in creating her top-earning syndicated series. Says Oprah: "Being truthful ... allowed the audience to fall in love with her."

After a few weeks at the University of New Orleans, DeGeneres dropped out to pursue a career in comedy. Still, she needed to pay the bills, leading to a series of odd jobs, including a shampooer at a hair salon, a vacuum salesman and an employment counselor. But as her act improved, stand-up became a full-time gig. "She did a lot of observational stuff, and she was always clever, clean and very confident," says David Spade, who met DeGeneres -- with whom he confesses he tried to flirt -- on the stand-up circuit. (At one point, the duo was paired for a brother-sister TV comedy, but the project never made it to air.) After every performance, she'd come out and take questions from her audience, always scared to death that one would be about her sexuality. She never was asked, a fortunate thing as she had no response prepared.

Then one night, as a 27-year-old DeGeneres was performing at The Improv in Los Angeles, a few supporters -- including Jay Leno, whom she had opened for a handful of times -- turned to Carson's booker and suggested he pay attention. "There are comedians who people laugh at but don't like. That's not Ellen. When you see her, you like her and you want to laugh," says Leno, adding, "She understands that being a good comic is about making people happy, and that's what she does." Weeks later, DeGeneres was booked on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. "That was the turning point in my career," she says of the segment, during which she became the first female comedian to be invited to join Carson on the couch. "That's very clever, very fresh. I mean it, it is good material," he told her at the time.

Sitcoms came next. First Fox's Open House, in which she played a receptionist at an L.A. real estate firm; then Laurie Hill, where she was a nurse; and finally Ellen, which catapulted DeGeneres to household-name status. The latter earned her four lead actress Emmy nominations and a writing win during its five-year run. There were films, too, including the now-ironically titled 1996 romantic comedy, Mr. Wrong, with DeGeneres starring opposite Bill Pullman.

More recently, DeGeneres has looked to expand her footprint offscreen. She launched a record label, eleveneleven, and signed her first artist, YouTube breakout Greyson Chance, in 2010. The move followed DeGeneres' one-season stint on American Idol's ninth season, which expanded her reach but proved a poor fit. "It was hard for me to judge people and sometimes hurt their feelings," she said at the time.

She has beefed up her production company, too, which focuses on sitcoms, reality and talk shows. Among them: Bethenny Frankel's daytime effort, which generated impressive ratings during its trial run this summer. (DeGeneres acknowledges she's an obsessive watcher of the Real Housewives franchise, where Frankel got her start.) Although DeGeneres is mum on details about future efforts, she's working on a feel-good TV effort with Justin Bieber and his manager Braun as well as a project with YouTube stars-turned-frequent guests Rosie McClelland, 5, and Sophia Grace Brownlee, 9. "Since the train has left the station," she says of the young duo, "I might as well be the conductor."

The Ellen DeGeneres Show has been renewed through the 2013-14 season, but its host will likely stick around longer. There will be adjustments to the format, however, including a push to be a bit more topical this season. (Bookers are courting Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who should be comforted to know that DeGeneres refrained from making a single Sarah Palin joke during the 2008 election.) The shift is a push by DeGeneres, who feels her day-to-day life lacks fodder: "It's really hard to constantly come up with things to talk about. If I had a kid, I could go, 'You wouldn't believe what she did today. But I can't really go, 'I gardened today,' " she smiles about a daily routine that often involves tending to her farm, playing poker, swimming, riding bikes, seeing friends (Aniston is among her closest) and staying current with TV (she watches everything from Housewives to The Colbert Report).

You don't need to spend much time on the Warner Bros. lot to know that DeGeneres has a heavy hand in her own success. She begins her workday at 10 a.m. and has a role in every element of the hourlong show, including booking her guests (still on her wish list are Bono in-studio and Kate Middleton). "Ellen has had a vision for what she's wanted this show to be from the beginning: really funny and always positive, and she's been unwavering about that for 10 years," says Ed Glavin, who has produced Ellen alongside Mary Connelly and Lassner since the talk show's launch in 2003.

To hear Scooter Braun tell it, that environment is the reason his client, Bieber, has appeared 12 times, including for birthdays and a graduation. "He doesn't feel like she's trying to talk at him. He feels like he's talking to a friend," he says, noting that DeGeneres' show has helped kick-start Bieber's career as well as those of Carly Rae Jepsen ("Call Me Maybe") and The Wanted.

In fact, sales for Jepsen's single jumped 32 percent in the two weeks following her mid-March performance on Ellen; after The Wanted sang "Glad You Came" on a January show, the song saw its best-selling week since its release some five months earlier, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Adds Braun: "I've definitely seen an impact in sales, but even more so you see an impact on culture. It's the first time people feel connected to that artist more than the song."

The executives at Telepictures have spent the better part of a decade trying to better understand what it is about DeGeneres' show that has enabled it to cut through the daytime clutter in a way that most shows don't -- or can't. What they've found, according to Telepictures executive vp current programming David McGuire, "It's all based on Ellen not trying to be anybody but who she is."

The irony is not -- nor will it ever be -- lost on DeGeneres, who made a pact with herself long ago to be fully herself, on air and off. "I know that every time I list something that I am, I am potentially alienating a whole group of people. Publicists and managers will encourage you not to say what political party you belong to, what you eat, what you don't eat, who you sleep with and all that stuff," she says, pausing to think through what will come next.

She continues: "I just think it's dangerous. People need to have all kinds of examples and heroes on television who stand for something."

Additional reporting by Shirley Halperin.

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