Of course, as far as covers go, this one is nothing compared with the one she did in April 1997, when she appeared on the front of Time magazine next to the headline "Yep, I'm Gay." In those days, Ellen—a Louisiana native who broke into stand-up comedy in the early '80s by performing at small clubs in New Orleans—was the star of her own sitcom, ABC's Ellen. As the show gained popularity and critical acclaim, Ellen, now 51, chose to reveal the secret she'd been carrying for years. What followed was a media circus leading up to the most-watched episode of her series: an estimated 42 million people tuned in to see Ellen's character also come out of the closet. But just as quickly, the crowds went away. The show's ratings started to crash, and a year later it was canceled.
In September 2003, Ellen came back to television as host of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, now in its seventh season. When she's not delighting viewers with her quick wit and spontaneous dance moves, she's squeezing in one of her side gigs—like, say, hosting the Academy Awards (which she did in 2007) or taking a spot on the judges' panel on American Idol (which she'll do in 2010). Away from the limelight, Ellen shares her life with the actress Portia de Rossi. The two began dating in 2004, and four years later, in a private ceremony at their home, they married. Despite the passage of California's Proposition 8 (which made same-sex marriage illegal in the state), the couple's union is still valid because it occurred before the November 4, 2008, vote.
When Ellen arrived at the photo shoot for our cover , I didn't have to ask her how she was doing: it showed on her face. She radiated the kind of peace and satisfaction that comes only when you're living at your highest potential.
That's why, a few days after our photo session, I give Ellen a call—to talk about the balance she's obviously achieved in her life, and to get the story behind the glimmer in her eye. — Oprah
Start reading Oprah's interview with Ellen
Ellen DeGeneres [ After checking her caller ID ]: Harpo Inc.
Oprah: [ Laughs ] I love it. Are you awake?
Ellen: I am. I just woke up. I had a horrible night. The weirdest thing happened. We had some huge pop in the wall at 2:30 in the morning, and then it sounded like our whole house was going to explode. I don't know if a speaker blew or what—it was just this crazy loud vibration that went on forever, and I lay in bed thinking that the house was going to catch fire because there'd been an electrical short. So I went down to the basement—I haven't been down to the basement since we moved in two years ago—and lying next to all the audiovisual equipment is an audiobook called Being in Balance.
Oprah: Oh my goodness. Isn't that just how the world works?
Ellen: There's always a reason things happen.
Oprah: You're exactly like I am. I know that everything happens for a reason, so I look at everything like, "Okay, what does that mean, and "What am I supposed to be getting from that ?"
Oprah: You know, you can make yourself nuts doing that, though. But it's also the way to live, I think. How long have you been living this way?
Ellen: Well, I think I've always been a searcher. But right before I decided to come out, I went on a spiritual retreat called "Changing the Inner Dialogue of Your Subconscious Mind." I'd never been to anything like it before, and all my friends were taking bets on how long I'd last with no TV, no radio, no phone. But for me that was the beginning of paying attention to all the little things.
Oprah: Would you say that coming out was the seminal moment in your life?
Ellen: Oh yeah, because it stripped everything away. The whole world was talking about me. You know, if you're going to be honest with yourself, you have to admit that you go into show business wanting people to talk about you and wanting everyone to know who you are. But that also means there are going to be a whole bunch of people who don't like you. No matter who you are. I'm sure there's somebody out there who doesn't like Betty White because she's short and has white hair.
Oprah: Refresh my memory: At what point did you make the decision to come out? You were three years into your sitcom?
Ellen: I was four years in, because the fifth year is when they canceled me. I think I've told you about a dream I had. I was struggling with the idea of coming out—what it would do to my career and to me—and in this dream, I was holding a tiny finch in the palm of my hand. I could feel how much I loved this bird and that it was safe in my hand, and I was reaching in to put it back in its cage—one of these thin, bamboo, beautiful, multitiered cages—and as I was putting the bird back in, I realized that the cage was against a window and the bird could fly out. The bird realized it at the same time I did, and I became the bird. And the bird looked at me and wanted to fly out, but I looked at the bird and said, "But you're safe in here in a beautiful cage. Don't leave." And the bird just looked at me and flew out the window.
Ellen: So I was like, "Okay, I know what that means." Until then I'd had no idea I was in a cage. I was in this beautiful setting, and I was making money and had everyone taking care of me.
Oprah: So once that veil lifted, did everything change?
Ellen: Well, there were lots of different veils and lots of different layers—but just to say the words was so huge for me. You know, people say, "Why do you have to tell everybody, who cares, and why do you have to announce it?" It's because it's your truth and the truth shall set you free.
Oprah: To be able to say it out loud to the world.
Ellen: But then it turned into everybody telling me to shut up. I was on your show and I was on the cover of Time, and there was article after article, and then articles reporting on articles, and it became this storm. I was getting attacked for talking about it so much, and I was like, " I am not talking about it, you are." And then everybody was hating me and "Oh, shut up already," and that's when the show went down in flames. I actually think the show got better after I came out. The season that no one watched—
Oprah: …turned out to be the best season. I remember. But it's so important to say that out loud so people can also see for themselves how the things that broke you open actually allowed you to be set free.
Next: On becoming a vegan
Ellen: I think Diane Sawyer told me she read something that said the cracks in your heart let the sun shine through. I just thought that was beautiful. And it's all part of balance. I'm a comedian, and I definitely see the humor in a lot of things. I am also sad a lot. I cry often and easily. I think you're supposed to feel all kinds of things. You're supposed to laugh, you're supposed to cry, you're not supposed to shove your feelings under the rug. I was raised in an atmosphere of "everything's fine." But as I got older, I was like, "Well no, everything's not fine. There is stuff that's sad." I am a really sensitive person. I think I am too sensitive sometimes, especially in this business.
Oprah: But you do laugh more than you cry, don't you?
Ellen: Oh, sure. I'm not like a depressed person. But I am saddened by how people treat one another and how we are so shut off from one another and how we judge one another, when the truth is, we are all one connected thing. We are all from the same exact molecules.
Oprah: Is that why you became vegan?
Ellen: I became vegan because I saw footage of what really goes on in the slaughterhouses and on the dairy farms. As Linda McCartney used to say, if they had glass walls, no one would eat meat. And let me tell you, I loved eating meat. I loved lamb, I loved chicken, I loved my cheeseburgers.…
Oprah: Did you notice a difference when you became vegan?
Ellen: Well I felt better about myself, and I felt healthier living in a cruelty-free way. I haven't been sick since, I am not as tired, and I've lost weight. And I am lucky: I have a chef, so it's easy for me. For a lot of people, it's harder.
Oprah: Trying to do it so you stay balanced—back to that word, balance —is work. You've got to know what you're doing to get all your nutrition.
Oprah: Okay. So, when I saw you at the photo shoot for the cover, what I was most struck by was the light in your eyes.
Ellen: Well, of course there was a light—I was with you!
Oprah: [ Laughs ] No, there really was a twinkle in your eye that comes only from a sense of well-being. I'm telling you, I recognize it when I see it. What's that all about for you?
Ellen: You told me you wanted to talk about this, so I was thinking about it. And I asked my massage person: What is it about me that you think is balanced?
Oprah: [ Laughs ] That's like when Gayle was invited to speak about self-esteem and she calls me and says, "How do I feel about self-esteem?" So your massage person said…
Ellen: She said I constantly challenge myself. She has known me for 11 years, and she said when something goes wrong, instead of running away from it, I look at it and go, "What's my part in it, what's my responsibility?"
Next: Ellen opens up about her loving wife, Portia
Oprah: And are you able to challenge other people to accept their responsibility?
Ellen: Oh yeah, and that was such a huge thing for me, because I was raised to be quiet about things like that—you know, just keep your mouth closed. Not in a strict way—my parents were very passive. My father would never confront anybody about anything and is just kind and gentle. And my mother is really funny and sarcastic. But in my family, nothing was ever confronted. Yet now it's easy for me to tell other people what they're doing and how it makes me feel.
Oprah: You don't have the need to please.
Ellen: Well, sure, I want people to like me—but not at my expense. I just learned that there are too many people who are going to have an opinion about me whether I am kind to them or not. I can't control what they're feeling. I am not a yeller and I don't have a temper, but I do want people to do their best. And if someone is a friend and I see that they're doing stuff that is not helping them grow, I will make it a point to talk to them about it.
Oprah: Nongrowth seems to be a real deal breaker for you.
Ellen: I think you need to be around people who stimulate you.
Oprah: What was really delightful and heartwarming was to see you in the presence of Portia and vice versa. When she first walked into the shoot, your face lit up. Tell me about this relationship and how it has enlightened your life.
Ellen: Well, we're perfect for each other. She is so beautiful and so smart and so funny, and with her, I have that sense of "I'm done now." I'm settled. I know that part of my life is taken care of. I've got love. I've got someone who will be with me till the day I die.
Oprah: Is that why you wanted to be married?
Ellen: Getting married was more important to her, really. She says all the time how lucky we are that we had each other in that short window of time when it was legal to marry, because a lot of people hadn't found their person, and then suddenly that right was taken away. I'm tearing up thinking about it—we got to get married, and have a wedding. I grew up thinking I'd never get to do that.
Oprah: What do you refer to each other as—"my partner"?
Ellen: No, it's "my wife." She says "my wife" and I say "my wife."
Oprah: So there you are on your farm with your wife and your horses and your dogs. So balanced. But are you going to be able to maintain this balance, this time for yourself, with the American Idol schedule?
Ellen: Well, look at you! I don't have a radio show or a magazine. For a couple of months, I'll just fly out and do those audition things.
Oprah: That's what I can't wait to see—you, on the road for those auditions.
Ellen: I'll start live on the air in February. But I'm going to look at the tapes to see if they missed people who I would have put through.
Oprah: Fantastic. You're not afraid of confronting!
Ellen: That's right. And I'll be careful about hurting people's feelings. I know what it's like to stand up there and perform.
Next: Ellen talks more Idol
Oprah: Did the Idol people come to you, or did you approach them?
Ellen: They came to me, and it was a total surprise. I like to try new things because I get bored so easily. And I like the show, so I thought it was a great idea.
Oprah: Okay. So when you're at home, you're not dancing, are you?
Ellen: I'll dance if there's music on. I like dancing.
Oprah: I should have said, when you're home and not shooting covers with me. Speaking of which, how did you come up with this whole get-on-the-cover-of- O idea, anyway?
Ellen: It got started because I was in a CoverGirl ad that was on the inside cover of your magazine. I held it up on my show and said, "I'm on the cover of O ! I'm on the inside cover, but I'm on the cover!" And that rolled into, "Well, if I'm that close, I might as well be on the cover cover!" and I started the campaign. And I guess you felt so guilty about putting Michelle Obama on the cover that you decided you had to put me on the cover, too.
Oprah: No, this is what happened. We had already planned the cover with Michelle. And then you started your campaign, and I was like, "Well, is she really serious?" So we waited a couple of weeks, and I decided you were.
Ellen: I was not serious, though, because I didn't think it was going to happen! No one had ever been on the cover with you, so I really thought it was just a joke. But then once the Michelle Obama cover came along, that's when I really started going after it. And I was shocked and thrilled when you actually went for it.
Oprah: It was fun. Tell me, are you having as much fun as you appear to be having?
Ellen: It's a lot of work to put a brand-new monologue and a brand-new show on the air and find comedy every single day. It's challenging and it's the hardest thing I have ever done, but it's the best-suited thing for me. The more relaxed I get and the more confident I feel, the more I get to play and be myself and say whatever I feel like saying and not worry about whether I'm being a good interviewer. Although sometimes, I admit, you're talking to people and you're like, "Oh please, have something to say!" But in general I'm just more and more confident that if I'm myself, people are going to enjoy it more.
Oprah: You get paid for being yourself.
Ellen: It's amazing. It's crazy.
Oprah: That's what happens when you tell the truth. You open that door for that bird to fly out.
Ellen: It's so weird because I love you so much, and to come to this place and do a photo shoot with you—I'm not surprised I had a brightness in my eyes.
Oprah: Well, I'm happy to be able to call you my friend. But I know you have to get back to work, so either I'm going to have you up to my house for dinner, or you guys are going to have me down to yours.
Ellen: You have an open invitation.
View the ideas Ellen had for her O cover!