Ellen DeGeneres is a sweetheart of American television and popular culture. Or should that be was? For over the course of the past 12 months, DeGeneres has seen her reputation tarnished. It’s certainly been a whirlwind fall from grace for the star – but some of the allegations made against her go back decades, in fact.
Until recently, DeGeneres – known almost universally just as “Ellen” – was on top of the world. A multi-award-winning comedian, TV star, actor and champion for LGBTQ rights, DeGeneres also has a happy personal life, having been married to Portia De Rossi since 2008. Moreover, DeGeneres has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2016.
DeGeneres has achieved so much. But her rise to fame started in the inauspicious surroundings of coffeehouses as she began doing stand-up. The Louisiana native had previously had stints as a decorator, salesperson, waiter, recruiter and even legal secretary. Moreover, she’d long since decided against pursuing an early ambition to be a vet as she didn’t consider herself to be bright enough academically.
It all worked out for the best, of course. After being invited to appear on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, DeGeneres started to do regular gigs on the talk show scene. And her warmth and wit charmed audiences. Indeed, it wasn’t long before she had her own sitcom, the eponymously titled Ellen.
Ellen ran for four years. As well as being recognized with a number of nominations and awards, the series – and the star of the show herself – created a greater legacy. That’s because in 1997 DeGeneres came out as gay in an episode that mirrored her personal life. It was a landmark moment for primetime television in America, as well as for the LGBTQ community.
Despite some initial blowback and criticism, Ellen subsequently became a champion for gay rights in America. It’s a cause she’s never shied away from, and the star wed her girlfriend – fellow actor Portia De Rossi – in 2008, only a short time after the legalization of same-sex weddings in California. In addition, her career continued its stunning upward trajectory with the success of her own series The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which has won a host of awards since first airing in 2003.
Following on from her commitment to LGBTQ rights, DeGeneres has set up a host of other initiatives. The star famously signs off each episode of her talk show with the words “Be kind to one another” and sells a subscription box – also called “Be Kind” – that raises funds for worthy causes. These are words and a sentiment that DeGeneres seems to love to preach and live by. She once stated that she wanted her show to be “a place of happiness”.
Recent allegations, however, have begun to erode DeGeneres’ carefully cultivated public image. A BuzzFeed article was the first to include claims that the star’s hit TV series has in fact been produced in a far from ideal atmosphere. Ten former workers and one current staff member from The Ellen DeGeneres Show came forward with a number of claims regarding the series’ producers, as well as some aimed at DeGeneres herself.
“Some of the producers talk openly in public about addiction and mental health awareness, but they’re the reason there’s a stigma,” an ex-staff member said while discussing their own experiences. “They definitely don’t practice what they preach with the ‘be kind’ mantra.” Another source added, “That ‘be kind’ [stuff] only happens when the cameras are on. It’s all for show.”
A different ex-staff member spoke about The Ellen DeGeneres Show being “the definition of a toxic work environment.” This time, the individual was referring to how they’d been made to feel bad for requesting leave to go to the funerals of family members.
Some of the allegations aimed at producers on the show are so serious that they’ve already resulted in people losing their jobs. Those include reports of sexual harassment, racism and bullying, among other incidents. Three high-profile producers were suspended and subsequently fired as the various claims were investigated. It’s all a far cry from the environment DeGeneres claimed she wanted to create.
DeGeneres apparently organized a video conference meeting with employees to address the issues that had arisen behind the scenes of her award-winning show. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the comedian and chat show host told those on the call that she was “so sorry for what this has become”. However, the star herself has been far from immune from criticism.
In the same video meeting, DeGeneres addressed a rumored “no eye contact rule” that was said to have been implemented behind the scenes on her show. “I don’t know where it started. Please talk to me. Look me in the eye,” the star is said to have pleaded with staff, as reported to Page Six. “It’s crazy, just not true, I don’t know how it started. [It’s] not who I am.”
Bullying allegations were soon added to the mix, but this time in an altogether different environment: DeGeneres’ home. A former household worker at the star’s mansion in California spoke to the Daily Mail about the military-style “boot camp” conditions that staff were apparently put through. The source, who remains anonymous, painted a pretty unflattering picture of work conditions under DeGeneres.
“Ellen was a hero of mine. I thought she was an amazing person. But before I took the position, people were warning me not to take it,” the unnamed source explained. “I was told that she had a very high turnover and that I should stay under the radar as much as possible, avoid as much direct contact with Ellen as possible. Working there was described as being more like a boot camp.”
Things had begun well for the ex-employee. “When I interviewed with Ellen and Portia I felt much better about the job. They were both charming, funny and perfectly lovely. I was a little bit nervous but it was well paid,” the source added. However, according to this former worker, things soon turned sour.
The anonymous source, who the Daily Mail report wishes to remain unnamed because of the prospect of potential legal action from DeGeneres, proceeded to make a number of allegations. “Ellen is terribly obsessive compulsive and if anything is out of order in her environment she gets upset,” the ex-employee stated.
So, what sort of things did the former staffer claim DeGeneres would become upset about? “There might be 20 to 30 things every day,” the source said. “We are talking about the finest, finest details here – a salt shaker out of place or a light switch left on. She wanted the coffee-maker deep cleaned every day after complaining that there was too much or too little froth on her latte.”
But even after emploees improved their standards, the source claimed that it still wasn’t enough for the star. “The staff was getting better and better and making fewer mistakes but she couldn’t help herself so she would lay traps. She would actually leave matchsticks around the house, behind cupboard doors, cushions or books to see if the staff was cleaning and moving things,” the source claimed.
The source then went on to recount how the matchsticks had been identified. “One day the staff found around eight of them, all in weird places. The rest of the day became a race to find them all before she got home and fired someone,” the insider added. Again, it must be stated that as things stand these are all just allegations and none of the stories have yet been verified.
The same Daily Mail source then related these claims of irrational behavior by DeGeneres back to the set of the star’s hit talk show. “I have a friend who was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show one day who told me a story about how Ellen pointed out a production assistant and said, ‘Get rid of her. I don’t like the way she looks at me.’ I heard that story from two separate sources. It didn’t surprise me in the slightest,” the ex-employee added.
The Daily Mail source also alleged that DeGeneres had a penchant for firing people. “There were numerous people that she fired, rehired, then fired a second time. I heard about a manager who started on a particularly bad day and was fired in the first two hours,” the ex-staffer, who was herself allegedly fired, claimed.
When asked to respond by the Daily Mail, “sources close to DeGeneres” denied the claims. Nonetheless, it isn’t just former employees who’ve been critical of DeGeneres’ behavior. Singer Mariah Carey, for example, told Vulture how DeGeneres forced Champagne upon the singer shortly before announcing Carey’s pregnancy on the show. “I was extremely uncomfortable with that moment is all I can say,” Carey stated.
And Brad Garrett, a comedian who’s best known for his appearances on the hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond also waded into the debate. “Sorry but it comes from the top at The Ellen DeGeneres Show. [I] know more than one who were treated horribly by her. Common knowledge,” Garrett tweeted.
All in all, then, these allegations paint a pretty grim picture of the TV star. And the reports are perhaps even more unflattering in light of DeGeneres’ apparent commitment to kindness. Is it a case of failing to practice what she has for so long been preaching? For the moment, nobody can be sure. However, further allegations have now come to light that suggest that the star didn’t always behave well long before she became the toast of Los Angeles.
And these further allegations are particularly unpleasant because they’ve been made by an individual who claims he was just 11 years old at the time. Ben Gravolet, who’s now 52, knew DeGeneres before she was famous. Back in the early 1970s, seemingly when DeGeneres was just 20, she worked for Snelling Personnel, a recruitment agency based in New Orleans.
Snelling Personnel was owned by Gravolet’s mom. As a result, the youngster used to head to the offices after school to hang out and do his homework. It was during this time that Gravolet alleges that he fell victim to DeGeneres’ behavior, which included claims of personal insults and other instances of bullying.
“I would dread going to [my mom’s] office to see her after school or on a day if I was sick and Ellen was there,” Gravolet claimed while speaking to the Daily Mail. “She would criticize my weight. I would try to do homework in the office. She’d call me stupid, she’d call me fat. She would criticize my clothes.”
What makes these allegations particularly unsavory, of course, is the relative ages of the two people at the time. “I was just a boy and this was a grown woman who took pleasure in seeing me become visibly upset,” Gravolet claimed. “I don’t think there’s any excuse for it. I was a defenseless kid. What could I have told her back?” he asked.
Gravolet said that he tried to make sense of this alleged behavior by DeGeneres. “It has an effect if somebody in a superior position to you, who’s much older, goes, ‘You’re fat. You might want to lose some of that weight chunky boy.’ I was always self-conscious about my weight and it made things worse,” the Louisiana native added.
Gravolet recalled a particular remark made by DeGeneres. “One incident stands out in my mind. I was sitting beside her desk,” the father-of-three stated. “I was drawing, and she criticized the drawings. She said, ‘I guess that would look nice if you could draw.’”
Gravolet’s mother – Tana Robinson – was DeGeneres’ boss at the time that these events are alleged to have taken place. “I think I probably fired her. Had I known that was going on, I’d have punched her and then fired her,” Robinson told the Daily Mail. “A bully is a good word for it.”
Gravolet admits it’s been difficult seeing DeGeneres’ career go from strength to strength after she left Snelling Personnel. “As I watched her meteoric rise to fame, people would say how great she was. And all I could think was she must be an incredible actor, because she was one of the most vile people I’ve ever met in my life,” Gravolet stated.
Moreover, Gravolet has his theories as to why DeGeneres behaved as she did towards him. “It appears to me that she hoards power over those that are lesser than her. It’s almost as if she has to feel controlling. It seems like she has to be superior, be better,” the former acquaintance of the star speculated.
There’s little doubt that allegations such as these could cause further damage to DeGeneres’ already-tarnished reputation. As yet, however, the star hasn’t responded to these fresh claims, although it’s important to note that there are plenty of voices that have come out in support of the under-fire star. Indeed, a host of celebrities have taken to social media to defend DeGeneres.
For instance, comedian and actor Kevin Hart tweeted his response to these claims against DeGeneres “Love you for life,” Hart wrote, alongside a photo of him and the host on the latter’s show. And singer Katy Perry was another high-profile figure who took to social media in apparent support of DeGeneres.
“I know I can’t speak for anyone else’s experiences beside my own but I want to acknowledge that I have only ever had positive takeaways from my time with Ellen and The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” Perry wrote in a two-part tweet. “I think we have all witnessed the light and continual fight for equality she has brought to the world for decades. Sending you love and a hug, friend.”
Actor Ashton Kutcher also tweeted in support of DeGeneres. “[DeGeneres] and her team have only treated me and my team with respect and kindness. She never pandered to celebrity which I always saw as a refreshing honesty,” the star of movies such as The Butterfly Effect and What Happens in Vegas wrote.
Of course, it’s difficult to know what to believe sometimes in such circumstances. We do know, however, that DeGeneres has tried to address issues of alleged improper behavior behind the scenes on her hit show. Indeed, three producers have been fired. Some may see that as perhaps being tacit acknowledgement that all has not been entirely well. As for these other allegations, for now it’s simply a case of who you believe.
It seems, in short, that DeGeneres is a divisive figure. While she’s proven popular with audiences for many years, there are also many ex-employees – and some current ones – who have come forward to recount negative experiences, albeit anonymously in most cases. It remains to be seen where DeGeneres will find herself when all the dust settles on this controversy now descending upon her.