Ellen DeGeneres’s Relatability Was Her Downfall

On the premiere episode of her daytime talk show in 2003, Ellen DeGeneres performed her very first monologue with more than a hint of nervousness in her voice. As she explained to an enthusiastic studio audience what a “mark” was and walked through the set of her new show (and then intentionally missed her mark), her palpable excitement made her instantly likable.

“This is my first applause break. My first laugh,” she marveled. She went on to explain that the show, its staff and its audience are “like a family.”

That disarming tone and Everywoman vibe — just as starstruck by her celebrity guests as we might be — helped turn Ms. DeGeneres into a household name with a daytime hit that has lasted nearly two decades. Her showcasing of regular people doing remarkable things was the strongest asset: From yodeling kids to star teachers, Ms. DeGeneres understood that the secret to her success was becoming a vehicle for everyday American exceptionalism.

But as her own fame and fortune grew, and stories emerged about her less friendly reputation behind the scenes, Ms. DeGeneres’s relatability began to look like a performance.

If many celebrities face questions about their authenticity, the widening gulf between Ms. DeGeneres’s approachable TV host shtick and her actual self created a cognitive dissonance — a problem that worsened as former employees described a toxic workplace amid all that sunny repartee.

That disconnect came to a head Wednesday when she announced that her show would end next year, after losing more than a million viewers — though she denied that the allegations about her show’s operations led to the decision, telling the Hollywood Reporter: “I need something new to challenge me.”

It’s easy to forget how paradigm-shifting “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” was at its inception. Six years after her coming-out as a lesbian on her sitcom “Ellen” drew praise in some quarters and also raised questions about her career future, Ms. DeGeneres reached a turning point with the talk show, as well as a milestone in the mainstreaming of L.G.B.T.Q. culture.

Her playful affability and ability to laugh at herself caught on quick with viewers. A palpable sense of joy, exemplified by the way she danced onto the set every day, stood out in a sea of stiff, old-fashioned daytime hosts. She became, if not America’s sweetheart, its lovable lady next door. Even as her star rose, she was able for years to maintain an identification with the normalcy of the audience — marveling at the celebrities who graced her couch, as awed by their charm and shiny hair as we might be.

Ms. DeGeneres’s aw-shucks humility also allowed her to bring an unthreatening version of progressivism into America’s living rooms, though her on-air politics were muted at best, often avoiding thornier subjects like race and sex. At the height of her influence, she was criticized by some as the kind of centrist, toothless liberal who could navigate controversy simply by avoiding it altogether. Meanwhile, her massive real estate holdings, star-studded birthday parties and a friendship with former President George W. Bush began to chip away at her ordinary-person image.

But it was last year’s outing of Ms. DeGeneres as a brute boss that ultimately unraveled that persona. With staff members describing a culture of stress, backstage bullying and racist microaggressions, her “Be Kind” branding and associated merchandise began to seem hollow.

“Being known as the ‘Be Kind Lady’ is a tricky position to be in,” Ms. DeGeneres said during her on-air apology after BuzzFeed News interviewed staff members who described a work culture of “racism, fear and intimidation.” “So let me give you some advice. If anyone is thinking of changing their title or giving yourself a nickname, do not go with the ‘Be Kind Lady.’”

While many of her celebrity friends stood by her, her image as America’s goofy gal pal was irrevocably lost. This disconnect was made excruciatingly explicit in a viral moment between Ms. DeGeneres and the actress Dakota Johnson in 2019. The host gently needled and then pestered Ms. Johnson about not being invited to her birthday party in Malibu. At first Ms. Johnson played along, but then shattered the veneer of Ms. DeGeneres’s outsider caricature by revealing that she had in fact been invited to the party, but declined to come. The tables were turned, and Ms. DeGeneres was caught in a silly lie.

The glee with which the clip was shared and embraced (and the fact that many on Twitter are now crediting Ms. Johnson for the end of the show), says a lot about how dramatically Ms. DeGeneres’s relatability has turned to phoniness for some.

There’s no question, in the end, that Ms. DeGeneres has had an incredibly successful run as an effervescent daily TV presence for many Americans. But she also serves as a reminder that even the most relatable celebrities are still putting on an act, still trying to sell us on an image.

It’s strange to feel — 18 years after that first monologue — that I still don’t really know who she is.

Amil Niazi (@amil) is a writer and producer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Cut, Refinery29 and Vice.

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