Ellen DeGeneres' most controversial moments

For a television host known for asking her viewers to "be kind" to one another, Ellen DeGeneres has courted her fair share of controversy over the years. The comedian-turned-TV phenom is an undeniable Hollywood success story, with her net worth allegedly approaching $500 million as her groundbreaking The Ellen DeGeneres Show changed guests' lives and churns out uplifting moments. DeGeneres famously risked her career to publicly come out as gaya gamble that didn't prevent her from becoming one of the entertainment industry's most successful contemporary figures.

And yet, whispers of DeGeneres' alleged lack of empathy have followed her as her career has expanded, with public outcry against DeGeneres reaching a fever pitch in 2020 over a string of embarrassing controversies. Is DeGeneres the same kind-hearted TV host as she's presented on her talk show? Or do the disgruntled celebrities and former employees who've spoken out against DeGeneres make a convincing case for her disingenuous ways? Be the judge of DeGeneres' character by learning more about the controversies the star has weathered during her time in the public eye.

Ellen DeGeneres' coming out moment brought out haters

Ellen DeGeneres made history in 1997 by confirming rumors that she was gay, doing so on an episode of her ABC sitcom Ellen. In a much-hyped April 1997 episode, DeGeneres' character of Ellen Morgan came out of the closet, with DeGeneres following the TV reveal by appearing on the cover of TIME under the headline, "Yep, I'm Gay." 

DeGeneres' move was accompanied by plenty of backlash. An ABC affiliate station in Birmingham, Ala. refused to show the episode, and DeGeneres' co-stars even endured threats to their lives for starring alongside her. Televangelist Jerry Falwell called DeGeneres "Ellen DeGenerate" in response to the episode, with DeGeneres responding in a TIME interview, "Really, he called me that? Ellen DeGenerate? I've been getting that since the fourth grade. I guess I'm happy I could give him work." DeGeneres also urged the country to move on from seeing her sexuality as a fascination. "I mean, I understand the curiosity and I understand the not understanding of it," she said, adding, "But let's get beyond this, and let me get back to what I do. Maybe I'll find something even bigger to do later on. Maybe I'll become Black."

To this day, the episode is still seen as a boundary-breaking Hollywood moment and a meaningful controversy for DeGeneres, who would be accused of some less-uplifting dramas in the decades to follow.

What happened between Ellen DeGeneres and Kathy Griffin?

Ellen DeGeneres and Kathy Griffin's alleged feud stretches back years, beginning with some late-2000s drama in which DeGeneres claimed Griffin lashed out after she didn't book her on The Ellen DeGeneres ShowIn a 2007 interview with W, DeGeneres called Griffin "very mean," and claimed, "She did a whole thing that I banned her from the show. I didn't ban her from the show, because first you have to be on the show to be banned." 

The drama resurfaced when Griffin claimed in her 2016 book Kathy Griffin's Celebrity Run-Ins: My A–Z Index that "a certain beloved daytime talk show host" with "short blonde hair," had her "kicked out" of an Emmys dressing room and "has a mean streak that all of Hollywood knows about." Griffin later confirmed to the Daily News that she was referring to DeGeneres. Shortly after, Griffin told Access Hollywood that DeGeneres called her up, "furious" about her claims, and that Griffin was left "sobbing" after the conversation. Griffin also incorporated her beef with DeGeneres into her set on her 2018 Laugh Your Head Off tour. Per Variety, Griffin spoke about fighting with DeGeneres over the recent death of Joan Rivers, with DeGeneres allegedly saying about Rivers, "There's a difference between mean and funny." Griffin recalled lashing back at DeGeneres, calling her an "untalented hack."

Conservatives hated Ellen DeGeneres' J.C. Penney sponsorship

Ellen DeGeneres, who once worked at the department store J.C. Penney as a sales associate, partnered with the chain in 2012 for a sponsorship deal, a move that prompted outrage from anti-LGBTQ critics who called for boycotts of the store and for DeGeneres to be cut loose from the deal. The conservative group One Million Moms was explicit in its disdain, writing on the group's official website (via Yahoo! Life), "Funny that J.C. Penney thinks hiring an open homosexual spokesperson will help their business when most of their customers are traditional families. The majority of J.C. Penney shoppers will be offended and choose to no longer shop there." 

In response, J.C. Penney issued a public statement standing behind the company's choice of DeGeneres, with DeGeneres defending herself on an episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, claiming that the idea of her leading a "pro-gay bandwagon" was a fallacy. "(One Million Moms) wanted to get me fired and I am proud and happy to say that J.C. Penney stuck by their decision to make me their spokesperson," she told the audience (via Reuters), joking that "being gay or pro-gay isn't a bandwagon. You don't get a free ride anywhere. There's no music. And occasionally we'll sing 'We Are Family' but that's about it."

Social media called Ellen DeGeneres racist over a tweet

Ellen DeGeneres landed in hot water in 2016 for a tweet about the Jamaican runner Usain Bolt, who had appeared on DeGeneres' talk show in 2015. After an image of Bolt smiling as he crossed a finish line went viral during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, DeGeneres shared a Photoshopped image of her riding on Bolt's back, accompanied by the caption, "This is how I'm running errands from now on." Backlash arrived swiftly after DeGeneres shared the post, with Twitter critics branding the tweet as racist. "So the first thing that pops in your head when looking at this pic is 'Oh let me jump onto his back like he's a common mule?'" one commenter wrote, while another tweeted (via ABC News) that "despite its intentions this pic has ugly connotations (coming) from a rich white lady."

Following the wave of social media criticism, DeGeneres responded to the negative buzz in an additional post, writing, "I am highly aware of the racism that exists in our country. It is the furthest thing from who I am." Bolt, who retweeted the image, apparently didn't have any hard feelings towards DeGeneres, appearing on another episode of her talk show that next month.

Employees called working for Ellen DeGeneres 'hell'

Rumors began to surface in 2017 about unrest on the set of Ellen DeGeneres' talk show, which would reverberate around Hollywood over the next several years. In a 2017 R Online report, sources painted a picture of DeGeneres as an on-set tyrant, who "treats staffers as if they are her peasants" and doesn't allow employees to speak to her "or even look her in the eye."

Reports of tensions between DeGeneres and her staffers resurfaced when Hollywood shut down in spring 2020, with a scathing Variety report claiming that DeGeneres kept her crew members "in the dark" regarding their job status, and hired "non-union" workers to replace the majority of her employees when she launched her remote broadcasts. Despite the fact that some of her crew had been with the show since its premiere in 2003, DeGeneres allegedly only brought back several of her team members to film from her mansion.

To make matters worse for DeGeneres, around the same time as the reports of her staffing drama emerged, a Twitter thread also went viral that collected stories of DeGeneres' alleged Hollywood rudeness. Calling DeGeneres the "meanest person alive," the thread included accounts from former employees claiming DeGeneres "never once said hello back" to staffers, fired them after their maternity leave and "created the most toxic environment for her staff." 

A Bachelor star called Ellen DeGeneres 'very aggressive'

Ellen DeGeneres isn't as kind to her on-screen talk-show guests as she may appear, according to Corinne Olympios, the Bachelor star who appeared on DeGeneres' show in February 2017. Months later, in November 2017, Olympios recounted her experience with DeGeneres on The Morning Breath podcast, which was later wiped from the internet after hosts Claudia Oshry (aka Girl With No Job) and Jackie Oshry came under fire for anti-Muslim social media posts. Via Life & Style, Olympios claimed that her time on-set of DeGeneres' show "made [her] so uncomfortable" and that DeGeneres was "very aggressive."

Olympios also remembered a particularly unnerving moment when she saw DeGeneres backstage. "She was very cold when I saw her before the show, which I don't think I was supposed to, because everybody got very nervous when we bumped into each other and you could tell they were like, 'Oh, sh*t,'" Olympios recalled, before backtracking, claiming that she "still loves" DeGeneres. 

Ellen DeGeneres was slammed for helping Kevin Hart's redemption tour

Ellen DeGeneres, one of Hollywood's most high-profile LGBTQ personalities, received widespread criticism in January 2019 when she came out in support of comedian Kevin Hart (pictured above with his wife Eniko Hart, left, and DeGeneres' wife Portia De Rossi, right) after he lost his upcoming gig hosting the 2019 Academy Awards over homophobic comments he'd made in the past. Among Hart's controversial comments was a joke he made in 2010 about his son Hendrix, claiming about the three-year-old, "If I can prevent my son from being gay, I will." 

After Hart stepped away from his Academy hosting role, DeGeneres invited Hart onto her show in a public show of forgiveness, revealing that she had contacted the Academy in an attempt to help Hart win back the hosting job. "I believe in forgiveness. I believe in second chances. And I believe in (Hart)," she later wrote in a tweet featuring the interview clip. Following the interview, some voices on the Internet smeared DeGeneres as a hypocrite and claimed she wasn't a true advocate for LGBTQ issues, with Vogue asking, "Why is Ellen DeGeneres trying to rehab Kevin Hart as Oscars host?" and The Ringer calling their conversation "a baffling exercise in celebrity self-preservation." Over on Twitter, critics called Hart's mea culpa "bullsh*t that Ellen let him spout uninterrupted," and asked DeGeneres, "How do you, a white woman, decide who gets to receive an apology where you were never the target of the comments?

Ellen DeGeneres' awkward interview with Dakota Johnson went viral

In November 2019, a segment on Ellen DeGeneres' show blew up for all the wrong reasons, mobilizing actress Dakota Johnson's fandom against DeGeneres while raising questions about DeGeneres' seemingly-kind appearance. During the interview, DeGeneres attempted to rib her guest, commenting to Johnson about how she "wasn't invited" to her birthday party. DeGeneres' jab proceeded to blow up in her face when Johnson pushed back, telling DeGeneres, "Actually, no, that's not the truth, Ellen, you were invited." Johnson went on to painstakingly recreate the sequence of events, claiming to DeGeneres, "You gave me a bunch of sh*t about not inviting you" the year before. "I didn't even know you liked me," Johnson told DeGeneres, before dropping the bomb that "I did invite you (to the party), and you didn't come... ask everybody, ask Jonathan, your producer." DeGeneres' producers confirmed to her that, indeed, DeGeneres was "out of town" at the time of Johnson's party.

But the issue wasn't put to rest after the extremely awkward interview concluded, with the internet seizing on the clip and holding it up as proof of DeGeneres' alleged disingenuous ways. Vox declared that Johnson "won her birthday feud" against DeGeneres, pointing out that DeGeneres was also cold towards Johnson in the actress' 2018 appearance on DeGeneres' talk show. The Telegraph went a step further, claiming that the interview provided proof that "DeGeneres' halo has slipped" in Hollywood.

Ellen DeGeneres' friendship with George W. Bush set the internet ablaze

In October 2019, TV cameras spotted Ellen DeGeneres sitting in box seats at a Dallas Cowboys game next to former President George W. Bush, with the duo smiling and laughing together. DeGeneres drew sharp criticism for the appearance, with the internet pointing to Bush's opposition to marriage equality and wars in the Middle East as reasons for DeGeneres not to be goofing around with the former president. "Sorry, until George W. Bush is brought to justice for the crimes of the Iraq War, (including American-lead torture, Iraqi deaths & displacement, and the deep scars—emotional & otherwise—inflicted on our military that served his folly), we can't even begin to talk about kindness," DeGeneres' fellow Hollywood personality, actor Mark Ruffalo, tweeted about her appearance next to Bush, referencing DeGeneres' frequent on-air request for viewers to "be kind." 

After the footage of her appearance next to Bush went viral, DeGeneres took a moment during her talk show to defend herself, telling the audience, "I'm friends with George Bush. In fact, I'm friends with a lot of people who don't share the same beliefs that I have. We're all different, and I think we've forgotten that that's okay, that we're all different."

Ellen DeGeneres apologized for comparing her mansion to 'jail'

Ellen DeGeneres drew jeers online after a comparison she made about her lavish home studio, where she began broadcasting after filming in Hollywood shut down in March 2020. In a clip from the April 2020 episode, which has since been removed from streaming (via CNN), DeGeneres joked, "One thing that I've learned from being in quarantine is... this is like being in jail, is what it is. It's mostly because I've been wearing the same clothes for 10 days and everyone in here is gay." Critics responded by tweeting photos of DeGeneres' cliffside, palatial five-bedroom, ten-bathroom estate in Montecito, Calif, which she and her wife Portia de Rossi allegedly purchased in 2019 for $27 million. "People in jail can't practice social distancing, don't have enough water or toilet paper and are going to die at exceptional rates from Covid-19," read another critical tweet, which added, "Except for that, Ellen, your quarantine experience is just like being in jail."

DeGeneres struck quite a different tone in the clip from the episode that remained online, clapping and telling the camera, "Usually I walk out and people applaud me, but today I'm applauding you, nurses, doctors, hospital staff, first responders, supermarket employees, truck drivers, everyone who keeps us going, thank you so much."

Ellen DeGeneres' Black Lives Matter tweet trended for the wrong reasons

Count Ellen DeGeneres among the celebrities who landed in hot water after their social media posts supporting the Black Lives Matter movement backfired. Via Insider, DeGeneres wrote in a since-deleted tweet in May 2020, "Like so many of you, I am angry and I am sad. People of color in this country have faced injustice for far too long. For things to change, things must change." DeGeneres' vague language was lampooned on social media, with one critic writing, "Can't stop thinking about Ellen tweeting 'For things to change, things must change' it's just so powerful," while another claimed that "this statement is meaningless."

DeGeneres responded to the backlash by deleting her original post and sharing a new video in June 2020, saying she'd been refraining from broadcasting about Black Lives Matter. "I don't know what to say," she told the camera. "I am so sad, and I am so angry, and I know I'm not going to say the right thing — I know that a lot of people are going to be in disagreement with what I say." DeGeneres proceeded to post an additional clip from a forthcoming talk show broadcast, acknowledging that she's capable of doing more work to "educate [herself]" and claiming, "I want to learn how to be a better person."