As Ellen DeGeneres debuts on American Idol tonight, she stands as America's Most Unlikely Sweetheart
Back then, the comic's career was hardly assured. Her sometimes brilliant, too-often disappointing ABC sitcom Ellen had met an awkward end a few years earlier, felled by a creative slump which followed after both the character and its star came out as gay.
At a time when stars such as Neal Patrick Harris can come out with barely a pop culture ripple, it's tough to remember what a seismic event her revelation became, back in 1997. Time magazine put her affirmation on the cover and noted homophobes such as evangelist Jerry Falwell took out ads in national publications to denounce her impact on American culture and young people.
I remember speaking with her mother Betty DeGeneres around this time -- she was raising funds for the gay advocacy group The Human Rights Campaign -- and I told her something I would later turn into a really interesting story for our Perspective section: That the anti-gay sentiment I was seeing reminded me of the same struggle black people endured to earn their civil rights 30 years before.
And just like we look back at racist figures such as George Wallace with a mixture of pity and anger, so we will come to regard folks like Falwell and Anita Bryant -- demagogues building their fame and power on the backs of an oppressed minority. Where have we seen that before?
And now, all that stuff has come true. Ellen DeGeneres is on the verge of becoming one of television's great icons, finding her way in a quirkily personal talk show, joining TV's most-watched series tonight on American Idol and preparing to take over Oprah Winfrey's mantle as queen of daytime television when Winfrey retires next year.
Here's my column from Sunday charting her amazing journey -- a trip made possible by her own talent and determination and our own ability to overcome prejudice.
Can't wait to see her take on Simon Cowell tonight.