When the Duke and Duchess of Sussex made their dramatic move to North America in January, many expected the couple to fall into the welcoming arms of U.S. television before too long.
The Duchess, said friends, wanted a sympathetic ear for her tale of perceived woe at the hands of the Royal Family and the British Press.
And no one ‘does sympathetic’ or understands pain like Ellen DeGeneres, Queen of Daytime TV and a presenter with an unmatched reputation for saccharine niceness and empathy.
Her piercing blue eyes appear to be perpetually welling with tears of compassion, especially when she exhorts viewers to ‘be kind to one another’ — her trademark catchphrase, delivered at the end of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which has been running for 17 years.
She and the Duchess seemed to be made for each other. And, of course, they were already friends. DeGeneres, 62, visited the Sussexes in London and even got to hold baby Archie.
Meghan has credited DeGeneres with persuading her to adopt a dog when they once bumped into each other at a Los Angeles animal shelter.
As the Sussexes made headlines around the world for their decision to step down from royal duties, DeGeneres defended the couple on her show.
‘I see them get attacked and it’s not fair,’ she gushed. ‘They are two of the most down-to-earth, compassionate people; they’re doing so much good for the world.’
But she didn’t get the gig — so far no one has managed to secure a place on a sofa for that heart-to-heart with Harry and Meghan.
In Ellen’s case, it now looks as though she never will.
In the most vertiginous Hollywood fall from grace for years, Ellen DeGeneres, who is worth around £254 million, is being torn to pieces by the fans who once idolised her — particularly after she came out as gay in 1997, an admission that caused a temporary blip in her career trajectory but soon had her on the cover of Time Magazine under the headline ‘Daring to be Real’.
For it turns out that Ellen is perhaps not quite as nice as everyone thought.
Warners Bros, which owns the production company that makes The Ellen DeGeneres Show for NBC, has begun an investigation after at least 36 past and present staff accused her of presiding over a toxic workplace rife with racism, bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment, as reported by news website Buzzfeed.
The official investigation so far has found ‘some deficiencies related to the show’s day-to-day management’.
Some staff said they’d been sacked after taking days off to attend funerals. ‘Her “be kind” bull**** only happens when the cameras are on. It’s all for show,’ said an employee.
Warner Bros, which according to Forbes makes £27 million a year from her show, insists DeGeneres herself isn’t under investigation — three of her producers face accusations of bullying and sexual misconduct.
However, some allegations have focused specifically on her. She sent an email to staff, expressing surprise that their workplace wasn’t a ‘place of happiness’ and pledging to ‘correct the issues’.
DeGeneres is not accused of any of the offences, but she said in her email: ‘My name is on the show and everything we do, and I take responsibility for that.’
Several ex-employees told Buzzfeed they were surprised she hadn’t heard the rumours about the accused producers as she works so closely with them.
‘It’s very hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that she doesn’t hear the same whispers,’ said one. ‘Unless she really is in this bubble.’
Industry insiders insist DeGeneres will tough it out, but she’s reportedly ‘crushed’ by the controversy and the threatened demise of her glittering career as ratings plummeted from 4.2 million per episode to a record low of 1.2 million last month.
Replacement hosts including Jennifer Aniston and British comedian James Corden have been mooted although, as the show was DeGeneres’s idea, it might just be scrapped.
So where did it all go wrong? Ellen’s travails began in mid-March, as much of the U.S. went into lockdown looking for distractions.
American comedian Kevin Porter tweeted that Ellen was ‘notoriously the meanest person alive’, and offered to give $2 to charity for every example someone shared.
He said he made his fateful tweet for no particular reason, telling the New York Post: ‘It was just a thought I had rolling out of bed — it seemed like a fun, creative way to raise money for charity.’
Many assumed that Porter was joking — but as he received 2,700 responses to his request, the devastating stories came thick and fast. One woman, a former waitress, claimed DeGeneres had written to her boss to complain that she had ‘chipped nail polish’ when she served her.
A former producer on the show, Hedda Muskat, said she had noticed a ‘culture of fear’ when she started working on it as it launched in 2003. ‘I had never been around a toxic host,’ she said.
When a producer screamed red-faced at a crew member during a meeting, DeGeneres just ‘giggled’ and said: ‘Well, I guess every production needs its dog,’ Ms Muskat recalled.
Neil Breen, a former executive producer of an Australian breakfast show, claimed DeGeneres’s team gave him extraordinary rules for dealing with her when she appeared on his programme in 2013.
‘The producers called us aside and said: “OK, this is how it’s going to work here this morning, Neil — no one is to talk to Ellen. You don’t talk to her, you don’t approach her, you don’t look at her. She’ll come in, she’ll sit down, she’ll talk to Richard [the show’s host] and then Ellen will leave.”
‘I don’t know if she’s a nice person or not . . . but I can tell you, the people who worked with her walked on eggshells the whole time.’
Others have simply confirmed that DeGeneres’s alleged ‘unpleasantness ‘is one of Hollywood’s worst-kept secrets.
‘When you move to LA, the first two things that happen are you get a parking ticket and someone who once worked for Ellen will tell you a story about how she’s a monster,’ said writer and comedian Dan Sheehan.
The celebrities who have weighed in against DeGeneres dispel any notion that it’s simply disgruntled staff trying to bring her down.
Brad Garrett, star of the hit comedy series Everybody Loves Raymond, claimed on Twitter that her unpleasantness was ‘common knowledge’. He said: ‘Sorry, but it comes from the top. Know more than one who were treated horribly by her.’
Actress and director Lea Thompson, who starred in the Back To The Future films, agreed with him, saying: ‘True story, it is.’
Unfortunately for DeGeneres, the row has broken just as ordinary Americans have been infected by a new mood of cynicism towards their usually revered celebrities, who have shown how out of touch and pampered they are as the rest of the country suffers.
During lockdown, her staff complained that she had hired a cheaper, non-unionised freelance crew to record her segments from home while they were expected to take a 60 per cent pay cut even while the show was still airing.
DeGeneres, who reportedly earns $50 million (£38 million) a year from the show plus some $40 million (£31 million) from other sources, caused further annoyance when she compared being stuck at home to ‘being in jail’ — just as she posted smug Instagram videos of the £20 million Balinese-style mansion, near Santa Barbara, that she shares with her actress wife of 12 years, Portia de Rossi, 47.
Last October, she was spotted laughing and chatting with former President George W. Bush at an American football game, causing gay rights campaigners to attack her for socialising with a president who had opposed gay marriage.
In contrast, when DeGeneres had Caitlyn Jenner on the show, she berated her for being a Republican.
The star who, until recently, could do no wrong in the eyes of liberal America can now do nothing right and talk on social media revolves around whether or not she can avoid having her show — and indeed her status — ‘cancelled’.
The daughter of a speech therapist mother and insurance agent father, both of whom were Christian Scientists, DeGeneres has previously revealed how her step-father molested her when she was 15 or 16. She started out as a stand-up comedian in her native Louisiana, breaking into film and TV in the late Eighties.
In 1997, her sitcom, Ellen, was at the height of its popularity when she decided to come out as a lesbian on the ABC show — which was a surprise even to her mother.
The TV network put a parental warning before each episode and the following year, cancelled the series amid rumours that family-friendly Disney, ABC’s owner, was uncomfortable about her sexuality.
DeGeneres, who often cites her personal woes when under attack (as she did in her latest email to staff), complained to an interviewer that she’d always felt like an outsider.
Within six years, however, the ‘outsider’ was back and soon dominated the daytime TV schedules.
In her present predicament, whinging about her personal strife is unlikely to play well — given her vast fortune and a power list of friends that includes the Obamas and Bill Gates.
America is reeling in shock at revelations about the dark side of a much-loved celebrity, but to be fair the clues have long been there.
In December 2018 she told an interviewer she was bored of being ‘nice’ and felt “boxed in” by her reputation for kindness’ — although she dismissed rumours she was horrible to her staff as ‘lies’.
Her passive-aggressive streak often shows itself on screen, such as when she relentlessly badgered singer Taylor Swift to reveal who her boyfriends were, bullied Mariah Carey into admitting she was pregnant, or when she hauled an embarrassed member of the audience on stage after she was secretly filmed taking more than her allotted share of Ellen-related freebies before the show.
Occasionally, her high-handedness has backfired, such as when she pulled up Fifty Shades Of Grey star Dakota Johnson for not inviting her to her 30th birthday party.
‘Actually, that’s not the truth, Ellen — you were invited,’ Johnson corrected her sweetly but firmly. Ellen was visibly rattled — and particularly when it emerged she’d been heading that day to Texas for that football game with Mr Bush.
A string of past celebrity guests — including singer Katy Perry and actors Ashton Kutcher, Diane Keaton and Alec Baldwin — have rallied in support of DeGeneres, but their protestations that she was never nasty to them has only hardened the current anti-celebrity feeling. Of course DeGeneres is going to be nice to big stars, chorus her detractors.
Being an insufferable diva is hardly unusual in Hollywood but DeGeneres seems to have sealed her fate by basing her appeal on being the exact opposite. But then Tinseltown has an inglorious history of tolerating monsters — as long as they’re successful.
TV industry observers believe Warner Bros will, for the moment, do its level best to keep DeGeneres on air. However, expecting her to deliver her ’be kind to one another’ homily with a straight face after this farce may be a step too far.