Actress-comedienne Ellen DeGeneres broke new ground for women in the world of comedy: one of the most successful female stand-ups of her generation, she parlayed her club success into television, movies, records and even books, later making history for her portrayal of TV's first openly gay lead character. Born January 26, 1958 in Metairie, Louisiana, after graduating high school DeGeneres worked a variety of odd jobs in the New Orleans area before making her stand-up debut at an area coffee house's amateur hour in 1981. A year later, she won a "Funniest Person in America" competition sponsored by the Showtime cable network; buoyed by her success, DeGeneres moved to San Francisco— at the time a hotbed of stand-up clubs — and launched a comedy career largely steeped in observational humor. However, it was a more personal tour-de-force, a telephone conversation with God inspired by the accidental death of a close friend, which became the centerpiece of her act and won her an invitation to perform on NBC's The Tonight Show in 1986; DeGeneres was so well received that host Johnny Carson even invited her over to sit on the studio set's couch, a career-making boost for any comedian. She was the first female comic ever to earn the invitation during her debut appearance on the program.
Within months DeGeneres was a headliner on the national stand-up circuit, and she soon starred on a number of cable specials. In 1988 she accepted a supporting role on the Fox sitcom Duet, and as her stature as a comic continued to grow she was besieged by other television offers. After rejecting a role on the series which became the blockbuster Friends, she accepted a starring role in the sitcom These Friends of Mine, a series clearly modelled on the success of Seinfeld. By the following season, the show had undergone a complete supporting cast overhaul and also received a new title, Ellen. While not the smash many expected the program to be, DeGeneres became a star; she headlined a romantic film comedy, 1996's Mr. Wrong, and even authored a best-selling book, My Point...And I Do Have One. She also recorded a comedy LP, Taste This. However, nothing in DeGeneres' career ever earned so many headlines or sparked so much controversy as decision to out her Ellen TV character as a lesbian, the first homosexual lead character ever depicted in an ongoing series. At the peak of the media frenzy, the real-life DeGeneres also admitted to being gay in a Time magazine cover story, ending months of media speculation; she soon began a very public romance with actress Anne Heche.