From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
There are times when Ellen DeGeneres just has to dance. And then there are times when she actually, y'know, just wants to buy some bread. "I'm at the grocery store and people will go, 'You're not dancing!' I'm like, 'That's because I'm shopping for groceries!' " says the comedian, who has made her feel-good footwork the hallmark of her daytime talk show. On this warm autumn afternoon, DeGeneres is in weekend mode, relaxing on the patio of the two-bedroom Los Angeles home she shares with her girlfriend of nearly one year, actress Portia de Rossi. With de Rossi out horseback riding, DeGeneres hangs with the couple's rescue cats Charlie, George Jackson and Chairman Meow Tse-Tung. "This is my priority," she tells PEOPLE, surveying her tranquil two-acre estate. "If everything else went away, as long as I've saved enough money that I can live with trees and animals around, that's the most important thing to me." Suddenly, with a burst of energy, Charlie—the newest of the brood—takes a flying leap. DeGeneres laughs. "From a milk crate to this," she says to the cat. "It's a good life."

No doubt about it. Upbeat, loose—despite the fact that she is on day 6 of quitting smoking, no patch necessary ("I had an eye patch on last night, but that's a different story")—DeGeneres has plenty of reasons to kick up her signature sneakers: The Ellen DeGeneres Show, now in its third season, has earned nine Daytime Emmy Awards, and—along with her recent Emmys hosting gig—has solidified her standing as comedy's top female voice. Personally, DeGeneres says she has found her soulmate in de Rossi, 32: "It's the first time that I've known in every cell of my being that I'm with somebody for the rest of my life." All of which means that at 47, DeGeneres is feeling so footloose that she is even confident enough to take a playful jab at her daytime rival Oprah Winfrey. "I just think that she should retire," says the comedian, clad in a button-down shirt, jeans and one of her 15 pairs of Vans. "I mean, Oprah, take a rest! Go and relax and enjoy your life! But no, if it wasn't her, there's going to be somebody. You're always going to be up against somebody."

It is a lesson DeGeneres has learned well during the fluctuations of her 25-year career, which stalled after her famous "Yep, I'm Gay" outing eight years ago. "When I first announced I was doing [a talk show], everybody was like, 'Why would you do that? Everybody fails,' " she says. "You have to do things that it doesn't matter how many people failed. You have to take chances."

DeGeneres has heeded that same advice about her own love life, which underwent a major upheaval last December, after she hit it off with the Australian-born de Rossi, who currently costars on the FOX sitcom Arrested Development, at an awards show. At the time both were in long-term relationships: DeGeneres had been dating photographer Alexandra Hedison, 36, for four years; de Rossi had been with singer Francesca Gregorini, 37, for more than two years. "She had a girlfriend and I had a girlfriend, but it wasn't like, 'Oh, we're going to have an affair,' " says DeGeneres, whose high-profile romance with actress Anne Heche had ended in 2000. "We were just supposed to be together. It was a tough decision. I was physically getting sick because I was trying not to say anything. So I told Alex and she told Francesca. It was really hard to uproot everything."

For her part, de Rossi told The Advocate in September that her relationship with DeGeneres is "very loving, peaceful," adding, "I really feel not alone for the first time in my life." Says DeGeneres's mom, Betty, 75: "They are an amazing couple. It seems written in the stars. They just glow."

The pair—who wear platinum bands on their left ring fingers—have talked marriage and kids. "If it were legal, we would be married, but it's not legal," says DeGeneres. "I hate politics, but I think everyone should be treated equally. If I die tomorrow, everything's taken away. We've taken precautions for that and she's taken care of, but because we're not married, the taxes would take everything."

As for having kids, "never say never," says DeGeneres. Although their 15-year age gap rarely comes up—"I forget how old I am," says the comedian—when it comes to starting a family, "that's the only time I think about age; I think we should do it soon. Poor kid, 'Mama's going to break her hip again if you don't move those toys!' When I'm around babies, I just melt. [But] it's a big responsibility."

The same could be said for her high-energy show, which films four days a week in L.A. "It's the hardest job I've ever had, but it's the most satisfaction I've ever had, so I'm sure it's like being a mother," says DeGeneres. "It challenges you every day."

Given her current sense of security and confidence, it is only recently that the star has felt able to open up about a painful chapter from her past. Growing up in a poor Christian Scientist family in New Orleans, DeGeneres moved to Texas with her mom after her parents divorced when she was in high school. (Her brother Vance, 51, now a producer, and dad Elliott, 80, a retired salesman, remained in Louisiana.) When she was 16, DeGeneres says, she was molested by her mother's second husband after Betty had undergone surgery for breast cancer. Even today, she and her mother "don't talk about it much because she feels really, really guilty," says DeGeneres, her eyes welling with tears. "The fact is that it was a horrible situation for me, and to not know anything about my body at 16 years old, to be raised a Christian Scientist, to not know that everybody's breasts are different, and this man is telling me he needs to feel it because he thinks he found another lump in my mother's breast. I didn't know. I wasn't educated." The day after the incident, DeGeneres told her best friend's mother what had happened. "She said, 'Don't tell your mother because it's just going to upset her.' So I didn't tell."

DeGeneres says the abuse continued on and off. "My grandmother was sick, and my mom was having to fly back to New Orleans and leave me alone with him," she says. The abuse, she says, escalated into his trying to break down her bedroom door and once humiliating her by forcing her to clean the toilet with a toothbrush. She moved back to New Orleans following her high school graduation in 1976; only a year or two later did she finally tell her mother. "Of course she was shocked and upset and she was going to leave him," says DeGeneres. "But then she stayed for another 10 or 12 years. She didn't want to believe it." Says Betty: "There aren't any words to describe it. It was a process. The amazing thing was that Ellen was able to be understanding in my process. It was a terrible time, but we both came through it with our love intact and stronger."

These days her daughter "is in such a good place," says Betty. DeGeneres says that she and de Rossi are "maybe" in the market for a new house, but despite reports, she says they are definitely not buying the $28 million Beverly Hills mansion for sale by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. ("It's a whole lot of money. And it's way too big.") They pamper themselves by getting Thai massages, and they recently purchased a 140-acre ranch outside of Los Angeles, where DeGeneres is gamely attempting to take up her girlfriend's passion for riding. "Portia just bought me a quarter horse named Puff," she says. "She's been searching for the bombproof horse, so she found one that's really gentle." Also, "we're getting cows," says DeGeneres. "One just had a baby so we're going to have a baby cow!"

When they're not at work or at the ranch, the couple "just watch TV, talk about our days," says DeGeneres, who likes to work out on an elliptical machine while watching Animal Planet. "You have to be with someone who's social to force you to go out, and we both would rather be home and talk and dance with each other." Speaking of which, DeGeneres says that she has no plans to retire her dancing shoes or her "kah!" shout-out any time soon: "When I'm 80, I'm going to be dancing with my walker going 'kah!' like a crazy person. But it really is fun. What's great is that there's no one way to dance. And that's kind of my philosophy about everything."

Michelle Tauber. Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

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  • Julie Jordan.