Oh by the way...

03/07/2002 AT 12:00 PM EST

When Barbara Walters matter-of-factly declared on Feb. 14's The View that talk show host Rosie O'Donnell is gay, the news may have caught some of O'Donnell's fans by surprise. But for her lifelong best friend, Jackie Ellard, the revelation packed about as much punch as one of the comedian's signature Koosh balls. "I went into Rosie's office and went, 'Oh my God! You're a lesbian!' " says Ellard, to whom O'Donnell confided her sexual preference in 1980. "She said, 'Oh my God, I never told you?' We laughed."

Yep, she's gay -- and nope, O'Donnell insists, she was never hiding it. But if there were any doubts about her sexuality, they're being put to rest -- first in a March 14 televised interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer and then in the pages of O'Donnell's memoir Find Me, to be released in April. Five years after comedian Ellen DeGeneres landed on the cover of TIME magazine as the country's first openly lesbian TV star, O'Donnell is trying a more stealthy approach but is still left shaking her head at all the fuss. "I don't know why people make such a big deal about the gay thing," she declared onstage at Caroline's comedy club in New York City on Feb. 25. "People are confused, they're shocked, like this is a big revelation to somebody."

In fact, O'Donnell's homosexuality has long been regarded as one of show business's open secrets. She has frequently attended WNBA games with her girlfriend of 4 1/2 years, former Nickelodeon marketing executive Kelli Carpenter, 34, and she thanked Carpenter at the Daytime Emmy Awards last May with the words, "This is for Kelli. . . . I love you." O'Donnell, who turns 40 on March 21, "was not hidden at all," says Ellard, 39, a married mother of two who helps raise money for O'Donnell's children's charity. "(Her homosexuality) was always known."

To those around her, perhaps. But to the public? Despite occasional hints -- in 1996 she and a still-closeted DeGeneres joked on O'Donnell's show about being "Lebanese," and O'Donnell referred to actor Nathan Lane as her "beard" at the 2000 Tony Awards -- her on-air chattiness has never extended to her love life. Instead, viewers of her syndicated show -- which, after six seasons, will tape its last episode in May -- were regularly reminded of her infatuation with Tom Cruise (she calls him "my Tommy") and of her life as a single mom raising three adopted kids: Parker, 6; Chelsea, 4; and Blake, 2. When the cameras were rolling, "she never mentioned Kelli," says Ellard. "That was just a part of her private life that she wasn't going to discuss with everyone."

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