After her parents divorce, DeGeneres, 13, uses her comedic talents to help her mother Betty recover. "I was helping [my mother] cope with a broken heart. It brought us closer together and made me realize the power of humor," DeGeneres tells Teen People in 2006.
DeGeneres and her mother leave New Orleans for the small town of Atlanta, Texas. Her older brother Vance, 18, stays in New Orleans with their father, Elliott, an insurance salesman. In Texas, DeGeneres is secretly molested by her new stepfather as her mother struggles with breast cancer. After she graduates high school and moves back to New Orleans, she finally tells her mother the truth.
Brother Vance hits New Orleans' New Wave rock scene and attracts the attention of local girls. "Everybody knew who he was," DeGeneres later tells PEOPLE. "That's what motivated me to do something, because I watched him get all this attention and glory." After a semester at the University of New Orleans, she drops out to pursue comedy.
DeGeneres, 21, develops a relationship with Kathy Perkoff, 23, a poet. "They were two very creative people, crazy and young and very much in love," Perkoff's sister Rachel remembers. The pair's happiness is abruptly cut short when Perkoff dies in a car accident. Afterwards, DeGeneres writes her first monologue, "A Phone Call to God," about mortality, and performs it at her first stand-up job, emceeing at a New Orleans comedy club. Her performance wins her the 1984 Showtime's Funniest Person in America award.
DeGeneres begins the first of many tours, criss-crossing the country to perform in small bars and clubs. "You have to be really, really tough-skinned," she tells W. "There's lots of traveling, lots of being by yourself, lots of really rude drunk people. You're not just in big cities; you're in small towns, mini malls, strip malls...lots of places where, literally, the soup of the day got top billing. There would be a chalkboard on the sidewalk and it would say: SOUP OF THE DAY: BROCCOLI. AND ELLEN DEGENERES."
DeGeneres becomes the first female comedian Johnny Carson invites for a chat on the couch on The Tonight Show. "I'm sitting on this mattress infested with fleas [in 1980], and I thought, 'I'm going to do this on Johnny Carson, and I'm going to get called over to the couch, and I'll be the first woman in history ever to get called over,'" she says on Today. "I had created that experience because I wanted it."
DeGeneres expands her repertoire to television with the Fox sitcom Open House, which features her as Margo Van Meter, a sparky receptionist at a L.A. real estate firm. The show lasts one season, but it introduces DeGeneres' observational, oddball sense of humor to Hollywood execs. "In Open House I was trying to be this goofy character," she tells the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "She was so over-the-top and so weird."
DeGeneres finds her niche in the ABC sitcom These Friends of Mine as bookstore employee Ellen Morgan. The show, which costars Jeremy Piven and Joely Fisher, is revamped in its second season as Ellen. It enjoys huge success and earns DeGeneres four Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy nominations, a writing Emmy win, and three Golden Globe nods in its five-year run.
DeGeneres publicly comes out on the cover of Time, making her TV's first openly gay star. Conservative Rev. Jerry Falwell proclaims her "Ellen DeGenerate," while the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation later gives her a special honor. "I didn't choose to be anything other than a comedian," she tells Time. "I just happen to be gay, and I didn't feel like keeping it a secret, so I announced it. It all turned into this whole big political thing."
A record 42 million people tune in as DeGeneres' TV persona "comes out" on Ellen that features Oprah Winfrey. After religious groups protest the show, ABC cancels Ellen in 1998. "I tried to incorporate educational things about what people actually go through when they're coming out, and it wasn't funny," DeGeneres tells the New York Times. "Because it's not funny."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): SETH POPPELL/CLASSMATES YEARBOOK ARCHIVES; Photofest; Touchstone Pictures/Everett; Buena Vista Pictures/Everett