It all started as a joke. At the beginning of 2009, Ellen DeGeneres said on her talk show that her New Year's resolution was to get on the cover of O, The Oprah Magazine. But what began as a funny bit quickly evolved into a full-fledged campaign.
For the December 2009 issue of the O, Oprah and Ellen got together and shot four separate covers. Now, for the first time in 10 years, Ellen is back on the Oprah Show stage. "I love now being able to really call you a friend," Oprah says. "Before we were sort of like celebrity friends."
"I've always wanted to be closer," Ellen says. "I can't believe it actually happened. I'm really thrilled, and I love the cover. I love it."
Ellen started her O magazine cover campaign because she was sick of the same old New Year's Resolutions, she says. "So I decided my resolution was to get on the cover of O. At that point, no one had ever been on," she says. "I thought it was impossible, and I like challenges. So I thought, 'I'm going to keep doing this until it possibly happens.'"
The idea came to her when she saw one of her CoverGirl Simply Ageless Foundation ads on the inside cover of the magazine. "I said: 'I'm almost on the cover. I'm just right there. If you flipped it over, that would be the cover of O,'" Ellen says. "So it kind of did initiate the entire thing."
So how did she react when she saw first lady Michelle Obama sharing the cover with Oprah in April 2009? "I thought, How dare you? It was my idea!" she jokes.
Now that her resolution has become a reality, Ellen has a new challenge. "My goal is to make it the biggest-selling issue of all time," she says.
There's been lots of anticipation for the publication of Ellen's O magazine cover, especially on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Ellen started an "Ellen O Clock" countdown and even dressed up as an O magazine cover for Halloween. "I think that's what threw out my back," she says.
Another highlight of Ellen's Halloween episode was a segment where she wore a mask and frightened people as they entered a bathroom stall. "That was the funniest thing I have ever seen," Oprah says. "I laughed until I cried, and then I thought, if somebody did that to me, I'd be so pissed. But every single time it got funnier and funnier and funnier."
Ellen says segments like that are born from her love of having fun. "I think it's very important to stay childlike, and I think it's very important to still play," she says. "Everybody stops playing when they get older, so that's why I do it."
Oprah got a taste of Ellen's idea of fun at their cover shoot. "It was such a joyous thing, doing the whole shoot," Oprah says.
Though Ellen's daytime talk show is a huge hit—she's won 29 Emmys in six years—and her career has never been better, she's traveled a long road to success. She says it was only eight years ago that she could hardly get people to return her phone calls. "It was really amazing to me that I would ever work again, at all," Ellen says. "Trying to get the talk show, looking back on it, we had to beg a lot of station managers to pick up the show because people thought no one would watch it because I'm openly gay."
Ellen first came out publicly on her prime-time sitcom Ellen. "I knew if I came out there was a possibility I would lose my career. But I didn't do it for my career, I did it for me to live my truth," she says. "I thought, 'I don't want to live and have any shame whatsoever.' I should be proud of who I am, and I don't care if people approve or not. It is who I am."
Ellen learned some of these lessons in other unexpected places. While she was struggling with whether she should come out, she says she had a dream that helped convince her to honor her own truth. "I was holding a tiny, little bird, a tiny, little, delicate finch," she says "I was holding it in my hand. It was clearly my pet that I loved, and I was putting it back in this cage that I kept it in—one of those bamboo multitiered cages. As I put the bird back in the beautiful cage it was in, I became the bird and I was still myself. The bird noticed that I had it up against a window, and [in front] of that window, which was open, the bars were much, much wider and had always been much wider. The bird noticed that, for the very first time, it was free to fly out. And I looked at the bird saying: 'Don't go. You're safe in here.' And the bird, being me, looked at me and said, 'I don't belong in here,' and flew out."
While some fans celebrated her honesty when she came out, others were less supportive, and Ellen was pulled a year later. "I had been on for six years, and I found out through my assistant that it was in the trades," she says. "No one called me to tell me it had been canceled."
Ellen says she didn't work at all for the three years after her sitcom was canceled. "I didn't have any money and I didn't have any job offers, and I was really scared and I was depressed," she says. "But I do believe that's when you do your soul-searching. I think when you have these trials that life gives you, it is an opportunity to find out who you are. Not just who you are when everything's great, but who are you when every thing is taken away from you and you have nothing."
These days, though, Ellen says she's as happy as she's ever been. "I work really hard at trying to see the big picture and not getting stuck in ego," she says. "I believe we're all put on this planet for a purpose, and we all have a different purpose. ... When you connect with that love and that compassion, that's when everything unfolds."
Ellen says there were some positive outcomes from the hard times. "I learned compassion from being discriminated against," she says. "Everything bad that's ever happened to me has taught me compassion."
After the years of struggling with her career, The Ellen DeGeneresShow first hit airwaves in 2003. It was an immediate success. These days, Ellen isn't just a talk show host. She's also the face of CoverGirl, the voice of American Express and the only person in history to host the Grammys®, Emmys® and Academy Awards®.
In 2010, Ellen will be taking on another job, as the newest judge on American Idol. "It was a complete surprise," she says. "I had no idea that that was going to be offered to me. I was a little apprehensive because I thought, 'Well, are they going to think I'm taking Paula [Abdul]'s job away from her?'"
Since Ellen's always been a huge fan of the show, she says she brings a different and necessary perspective to the panel. "I'm going to bring a home viewer [aspect], which are the ones who vote anyway. We're the ones who call in; we're the ones who decide," she says. "It's got nothing to do with knowing anything about the music industry. It's just knowing what I connect to. I'm learning that I'm really picky. I think I'm going to really be much harder than I initially thought."
American Idol's toughest judge, Simon Cowell, may be known for his harsh comments, but Ellen says she's not scared to disagree with him. "That's new to me. [When] I grew up, I was always fearful of someone not liking me," she says. "One of the things I learned as I got older is that it's not about everybody approving of what I say. It's about if I believe in it and if I'm being truly honest. I don't want to be hurtful, but I want to be honest."
Marriage is another recent addition to Ellen's life. She started dating actress Portia de Rossi in 2004, and they married in August 2008. Portia joined Ellen at the O magazine cover shoot, and Oprah says their love for each other was written all over their faces. "When Portia first walked into the room, I have to tell you, your face lit up," Oprah says. "It was just so sweet."
"I feel very fortunate," Ellen says. "I feel really, really lucky that I found that connection."
Portia says she knew Ellen was the woman for her the first time they laid eyes on each other. "It took me three years to actually tell her how I felt about her, because I was on Ally McBeal at that time and I was not living as an openly gay person," she says. "I was closeted and very, very afraid that if I talked about being gay it would be the end of my career. So I wasn't about to then date the most famous lesbian in the world."
Eventually, Portia faced her fears head-on."I felt this overwhelming connection with her, and I just didn't want to miss out on that," she says. "The love overcame the fear."
Ellen says before they started dating, she had no idea that Portia had feelings for her. "I didn't know until we got together, when she finally told me how she was feeling."
After dating for four years, Ellen and Portia decided to have a commitment ceremony. "We made the date of August the 16th, and then in that time [leading up to the date], gay marriage became legal in California," Portia says. "So we were about to have the ceremony, and then all of a sudden it was like a gift that it was then legal."
Portia and Ellen both say that it was important to them to have the official "marriage" title. "The thing about being a gay couple is that in the past you referred to your wife and there was quotation marks around it. There was always that chance that people would kind of snicker about it," Portia says. "Now it's fact. It's law. She's my wife. I get to say that she's my wife, and that's just the way it is."
Ellen says that being married does feel different than dating. "It feels like you're home. There's an anchor. There's a safety," she says. "We are all equal citizens, and we should have the same right that anybody else on this earth has."
Just a few months after their wedding, there was big political change in America. The night of President Barack Obama's election was bittersweet for Ellen and Portia, they say. "We were celebrating that night that Obama won. We were so happy and we thought: 'What a huge thing this is. What a huge symbol of change, of how far we've come.' Then the next morning, we wake up and see that [gay marriage in California] has been overturned," Ellen says. "We cried. ... It was just a bad sign for humanity, I thought. It was sad, and I think it's fear tactics. I don't know how my love impacts somebody else's life. It's just my love. It was heartbreaking."
Since Ellen and Portia were married while gay marriage was still allowed, their marriage still holds up legally.
These days, Ellen and Portia are having the time of their lives, they say. "We think it's really important to have laughter in your home and really enjoy each other," Portia says.
Ellen says Portia makes her laugh every day. "You know how I make her laugh? I just say regular things and she bursts out laughing at me and I don't even know I'm doing it," Portia says.
Oprah says aside from being more successful than ever, Ellen even looks better than ever. "I think I'm healthier than I've ever been. I'm happier than I've ever been. I'm more myself. I can't stress that enough," Ellen says. "I think kindness is the key to yourself and to other people. ... I think I found out who I was, and I think I really try to be a better person every single day. And [Portia] makes me better."