When Oprah Winfrey agreed to guest-star on the groundbreaking "coming-out" episode of Ellen DeGeneres' sitcom "Ellen" in 1997, she did not expect to receive backlash and vicious racial slurs to be targeted at her.
The former daytime talk show queen made an appearance on the episode titled "puppy episode," in which she played a therapist who helped Ellen make the realization that she was gay - this episode also served as DeGeneres' real-life admission.
DeGeneres' bold decision to come out on national television blacklisted her in Hollywood. However, she wasn't the only one who received negative criticism. Winfrey told The Hollywood Reporter about the major backlash she received for supporting the LGBT community including being called the n-word.
"I did it because she asked me to do it and I wanted to support her ... It didn't occur to me that there would be a backlash," Winfrey told THR. The media mogul recalled the times she received malicious phone calls and letters after the episode, which brought in 42 million viewers. "I got all of the, 'N-----, go back to Africa. Who do you think you are?" Winfrey was taken aback by the racial slurs as she has never dealt with that before.
ABC's hit show lost plenty of advertisers and affiliates after the episode. Rev. Jerry Falwell nicknamed DeGeneres "Ellen DeGenerate." Religious groups staged protests and death threats were made.
Like Winfrey, DeGeneres was caught off-guard by the massive hate. She was visibly overwhelmed and shaken when she appeared for a post-episode interview on "Oprah" in April 1997. Winfrey recalled that "[DeGeneres] was pretty emotional that day -- kind of tense and not fully herself." She added, "It's one thing to be ready to step out, it's another thing to be ready for the thunderous explosion that occurred after she did."
Despite the years of pain and criticism, DeGeneres helped change television and is now the top earner in daytime TV. Fifteen years later, Winfrey believes that DeGeneres' daring and courageous move was worth it. "Being able to be free -- literally -- and to express herself in a way that she can be 100 percent truthful with the audience has allowed them to fall in love with her," says Winfrey. "Honest-to-God truth: I don't believe she would have been as successful as she has become had she not come out." She adds of DeGeneres, who is set to kick off her 10th season of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" on Sept. 10: "The reason why people love Ellen so much is because they see themselves in her. It's not about gender or sexual preference."
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