100 Most Influential Women in Advertising

The Unlikely Success Story of Ellen DeGeneres

By Published on .

Ellen DeGeneres

Host and Spokeswoman, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show"

When Ellen DeGeneres and her sitcom alter ego came out in 1997, JC Penney disappeared from "Ellen" ad breaks like a set of $3 curtains on clearance. Along with Chrysler, the retailer bowed to pressure from the American Family Association, the Christian fundamentalist group recently in the news for supporting U.S. Rep. Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin.

Flash forward 15 years: Ms. DeGeneres has been hired as JC Penney's spokeswoman and, once again, someone's panties are in a bunch. The pressure this time is from One Million Moms, a creation of the AFA that 's trying to get Ms. DeGeneres fired. Meanwhile a bolder JC Penney holds firm, with CEO Ron Johnson taking to the airwaves to say, "We think Ellen represents the values of our company and the values that we share."

For her part, Ms. DeGeneres devoted more than four minutes of her usually controversy-free talk show to, as she put it, "her haters." In her typically restrained and low-key way, Ms. DeGeneres stated her values, poked fun at One Million Moms and plugged Penney in one fell and funny swoop.

It's not often that progressive social issues and good old-fashioned capitalism come together happily, but Ms. DeGeneres is adept at making it happen. The 54-year-old recently embarked on the 10th season of her popular daytime talk show and is enjoying her third major endorsement deal. She's won more than 30 Emmys and hosted the Academy Awards. And anyway you cut it, the first openly gay TV star remains one of the most-powerful women in entertainment. She makes it look so easy, it's hard to remember that wasn't always the case.

After the coming-out episode of "Ellen," ratings plummeted and the show was canceled. Ms. DeGeneres was left to endure a few years of unemployment that , reportedly, came close to leaving her broke. Then daytime TV came calling. She quickly mastered the format and became one of the segment's top performers in ratings . According to Kantar Media, only Oprah's final go-round earned more than the 2011 season of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." New commercial deals have accompanied, with Ms. DeGeneres dancing goofily for American Express and on the catwalk for Procter & Gamble's Cover Girl brand.

What explains her success? The self-described "chapstick lesbian" is , to some degree, the lesbian that America needed. Squeaky clean and with a record of dating women who appeal to both genders, she is nonthreatening and typically apolitical. (The Hollywood Reporter reported she's been trying to book Mitt Romney and/or Paul Ryan, who may be charmed by the fact she backed off Sarah Palin in 2008.) But her success and longevity are nothing to sniff at when you consider how halting America has been in its journey to accepting gay cultural figures.

See more: Most Influential Women in Advertising: The Groundbreakers
Most Popular