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When Oprah Winfrey agreed to guest star on Ellen DeGeneres’ eponymous ABC sitcom back in 1997, she had no idea the kind of backlash it would generate.
The episode, in which Winfrey played a therapist, featured DeGeneres’ Ellen Morgan revealing her sexual orientation for the first time, a long-rumored plot twist that made for game-changing TV. DeGeneres did so offscreen as well, coming out publicly in a Time Magazine cover story titled, “Yep, I’m Gay,” and a sit-down interview on Winfrey’s since-ended talk show.
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“I did it because she asked me to do it and I wanted to support her,” Winfrey tells The Hollywood Reporter of her decision to be part of the “puppy episode,” as it was famously code-named, in this week’s cover story. “It didn’t occur to me that there would be a backlash.”
After the episode aired on April 30, 1997, Winfrey was on the receiving end of vitriol-fueled letters and phone calls. “It always turns to race. I got all of the, ‘N—–, go back to Africa. Who do you think you are?’” she says of the venom hurled her way, noting that she had never experienced anything like it before.
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Winfrey was not alone. The episode, watched by a record 42 million people, drew fire from advertisers (Chrysler was among the brands to pull ads) and affiliates. Rev. Jerry Falwell called DeGeneres “Ellen DeGenerate,” religious groups staged protests, and execs involved received death threats that required security at their homes.
DeGeneres, like Winfrey, was caught off-guard by the explosive reaction, a point that became clear when she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “She was pretty emotional that day — kind of tense and not fully herself,” Winfrey recalls of the April 1997 interview she did with DeGeneres. “It’s one thing to be ready to step out, it’s another thing to be ready for the thunderous explosion that occurred after she did.”
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A decade and a half later, though, Winfrey believes that the courageous — and, for a three-year period, career-destroying — decision is the reason DeGeneres has been able to find success in daytime. “Being able to be free, literally, and to express herself in a way that she can be 100 percent truthful with the audience has allowed them to fall in love with her,” says Winfrey of her longtime daytime rival. “Honest-to-God truth: I don’t believe she would have been as successful as she has become had she not come out.”
She adds of DeGeneres, who is poised to kick off her 10th season of The Ellen DeGeneres Show on Sept. 10: “The reason why people love Ellen so much is because they see themselves in her. It’s not about gender or sexual preference.”
Email: Lacey.Rose@THR.com; Twitter: @LaceyVRose
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