HERS WAS THE MOST CELEBRATED COMING OUT SINCE Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was a debutante. Despite the carefully placed rumors and coy denials (it is the '90s, after all), when TIME magazine put Ellen DeGeneres on its April 14 cover, announcing, "Yep, I'm Gay," it marked a pop-culture milestone. Three weeks later, Ellen Morgan, the character the New Orleans-born comedian plays on her ABC sitcom, became the first openly gay series lead in TV history. DeGeneres, says the show's coexecutive producer Vic Kaplan, "is a trailblazer. She's opening up new territory." But the most important thing, says the 39-year-old star, is that Ellen will "make some changes in people's attitudes."

Although advertisers Chrysler and Wendy's avoided the episode and the Rev. Jerry Falwell exhorted his flock to boycott the show's sponsors, Ellen was praised by Vice President Al Gore for its clear-eyed take on sexual orientation. Ratings are up 15 percent over last year, and gay groups applaud Ellen's progress. Says Chastity Bono, a spokeswoman for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation: "I wish we had a show like this when I was a kid."

For better or worse, the spotlight also focused on DeGeneres's private life with her live-in lover, actress Anne Heche (Volcano), whom DeGeneres calls "the most perfect, special, intelligent, strong, straightforward person I've ever met." Still, says DeGeneres, "anything we do is controversial, and I look forward to the day that it's not." But a rough ride, including a recent battle with the network over slapping a parental advisory on her show, doesn't dissuade the comedian. "It's like a rodeo," she says. "You hold on as long as you can and hope the clown distracts the bull."