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We love Ellen DeGeneres, but it sure took a while; catch her Tuesday on 'American Idol'

In a pop culture universe too often dominated by the likes of Snooki or Jay Leno, she stands as America's Most Unlikely Sweetheart.

It wasn't easy for Ellen DeGeneres to fight her way into our collective hearts, but now that she's in, we wonder why it took so long. Armed with a sharp comedic wit and gentle charm, she's poised to replace two of the biggest icons in television with barely a ripple.

She'll be joining American Idol's judging table at 8 p.m. Tuesday for the final lap of superstar arbiter Simon Cowell (DeGeneres was hired after the auditions we've been watching the past few weeks were completed). And Oprah Winfrey has all but handed her the mantle as goddess of daytime television — via a rare, two-person cover on O magazine — before her scheduled exit next year.

This is hardly the fate anyone would have predicted 10 years ago, when DeGeneres looked more like a brilliant talent destined to watch blowhards like Tim Allen and Jim Belushi take all the good gigs.

Her groundbreaking, but inconsistent, ABC sitcom Ellen had just imploded, undone by the decision to have its star and lead character both come out as lesbians at the same time when few in Hollywood knew exactly how they felt about the whole gay thing.

It didn't help that DeGeneres' first high-profile public romance was with celebrity freakazoid Anne Heche, an unstable star America kind of regarded as that crazy girlfriend your best buddy dates and you tolerate because, well, your pal likes her. She was still a year or so away from a humiliating turn as a failed dot-com executive in an ill-considered CBS sitcom. That gig came after a Carol Burnett-style variety show idea flamed out before it could even air.

Now that the 52-year-old star stands at television's pinnacle, it's a good time to ask: What happened?

Did she change to earn our love, or did we just evolve enough to accept her?

In other words: Why Ellen?

Lovable eccentric brings funny back

At first, even Fox TV executives seemed a little mystified by their good fortune when DeGeneres agreed to take a departing Paula Abdul's place on American Idol.

She was everything Abdul was not. Sharp. Dependable. Free from ego and head trips. Yet DeGeneres was experienced enough to take on Cowell, funny enough to promise a crackling judges' table and beloved enough that many overlooked the oddity of having someone with no music business experience help pick the country's biggest pop music star.

"We were, frankly, surprised at the enthusiasm in replacing Paula when we first started our conversations with Ellen," said Peter Rice, chairman of entertainment for Fox Broadcasting back in January. "(She) can have a wonderful sort of injection of energy into a format that's beloved and works around the world."

Translated from execu-speak: America loves Ellen, so we love her, too.

And her first step in earning that adoration came from a simple decision made years ago; rather than be an advocate, she was going to lead by example.

"I just want to be funny again," she told critics back in 2001, two years after the messy, public death of Ellen. "I've learned that it's really hard to do a sitcom and do important political issues. I thought I could do it, and I thought it was something that was important to do. But I think people just want to turn on their TV set and laugh."

Perhaps. But what DeGeneres really did was show instead of tell. Settling down with slightly less famous actor Portia de Rossi (Arrested Development, Ally McBeal), DeGeneres built the kind of life her sitcoms could only yearn for, proving that her days out of the closet were healthier and more successful in ways no interview could accomplish.

Next, she found a better venue for her unique talents in daytime talk. A lovable eccentric with a warm heart, DeGeneres always seemed more interesting than the characters she played. She's quirky and engaging in a way that audiences tuning into Home Improvement and Dharma & Greg likely weren't ready to see.

Unveiled in 2003, The Ellen DeGeneres Show freed her from the typical rhythms of sitcoms years before audiences would reject them almost entirely. Instead, we saw her passion for dancing, habit of giving gifts to the audience and an off-the-cuff wit that works best in comfortable, unfettered surroundings.

Most important, DeGeneres came into her own as a gay woman, just as America was figuring out that issue, too.

Then along came more tolerance

Think about it: Back in 1997 when Ellen aired its coming out episode, a coalition of conservatives took out an ad in Daily Variety condemning the show.

Evangelist Jerry Falwell called the comic "Ellen Degenerate" in interviews. Blue chip companies such as Wendy's and General Motors dropped advertising from the program. Even then, such actions seemed a bit extreme; the TV equivalent of Alabama Gov. George Wallace hysterically blocking the door to black students trying to enter a white college three decades earlier.

Flash-forward 13 years, and even Republican retired Gen. Colin Powell is reconsidering the issue, earning headlines for flipping his past stance to support gays serving openly in the military. DeGeneres found herself ranked fourth in a recently released Harris poll of most-liked TV personalities (tied with House's Hugh Laurie and just below Leno), explaining why she and de Rossi likely won't have kids in a recent interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric that earned more headlines for her defense of taking the job on American Idol.

Just like DeGeneres, it seems we've come a long way, too.

That's why watching DeGeneres on American Idol on Tuesday will feel like something more than a celebrity changing of the guard. It feels like the full flowering of a talent whose accomplishments have grown with our own understanding and tolerance.

Not a bad legacy for a performer facing the biggest challenge of her career. Again.

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at blogs. tampabay.com/media.

Tell us how she did

Ellen DeGeneres joins the judges' table on American Idol at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WTVT-Ch. 13. Be

sure to drop by the Feed (blogs.

tampabay.com/media) that night to weigh in on how she does.

We love Ellen DeGeneres, but it sure took a while; catch her Tuesday on 'American Idol' 02/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 5, 2010 5:09pm]

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