Recently I had the chance to sit down with ‘America’s Mom’ Betty DeGeneres, mother of Ellen DeGeneres, for an interview with Boston Spirit magazine. Betty was in Boston to speak at the 10th annual Pride and Passion fundraiser benefiting Greater Boston PFLAG.
Upon arriving at Betty’s hotel room I found myself sitting next to her on a couch watching the Ellen show in what can only be described as a ‘surreal moment.’ When I asked if the day’s episode was “a good one?” she replied—as only a mother can—“aren’t they all?”
Boston Spirit: Tell us a little bit about your upbringing and life prior to being “Ellen’s Mom” to the entire world.
Betty DeGeneres: Well, I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, as was my mother. My father moved there when he was three, so we are all New Orleanians. I am the youngest of three daughters. I went to LSU [Louisiana State University], and finally finished and got my masters after I turned 50.
BS: Before Ellen’s coming out, and all of your subsequent fame, what was your experience, or interaction, with the LGBT community?
BD: Zero. Before Ellen came out to me, which happened when she was 20 years old—and now she is 54—nobody talked about it back then. So, as far as I knew I had no interaction with anyone who was gay or lesbian.
BS: When Ellen did come out to you—now more than 30 years ago—what was that conversation like? What was your reaction?
BD: She cried when she told me, because she didn’t know what I would do. And I hugged her, and I thought she’ll suddenly be an object of discrimination and bigotry and that was not okay. But we had a very, very good relationship, a very close relationship, and that helps tremendously. I think if people come out to their parents and they don’t have a close relationship to begin with, that can make it very hard.
BS: What about the rest of the family and friends?
BD: They were fine. At first we didn’t tell anybody else. But then we told my sisters and my mother and everybody in the family, and everybody was just fine. My mother was in the Catholic Church, as was one of my sisters. My other sister was Episcopalian and very active. But everyone just loved Ellen.
BS: I assume you knew before the rest of us that Ellen was going to make her ‘coming out’ announcement on her old show. Were you worried about what might happen?
BD: You know, she had so many professional people around her at that time, so she didn’t say ‘mother what do you think?’ She said, ‘mother this is what we’re doing.’ She just had to do it. She was tired of dancing around the subject, and it just wasn’t a healthy way to live. Nobody should have to do that.
BS: Were you worried?
BD: No. I was too dumb to be worried. I figured, if she does it, it’s all right. It’s what she felt she had to do. And, of course, she lost the show. She lost her career for a while. But, as she says, she doesn’t regret it for a minute because she felt so free. So you can’t be sorry about that. And it worked out rather well.
BS: How has all of this changed you? These days you speak at PFLAG events and attend GLAAD and HRC events. These are organizations you had probably never heard of before, and now you are immersed in all of them.
BD: You’re right. I had never even heard of the Human Rights Campaign and they were the first ones to contact me. They asked me to be their first non-gay spokesperson for their national coming out project. That’s what launched me on this late blooming career, speaking at their dinners all over the country. Then universities started asking me to speak, then corporations. So it’s been 15 years of a lot of speaking, and traveling, and educating, and it’s been great.
BS: How does it feel being up there with Cher and Lady Gaga as a straight icon in the gay community?
BD: I am not. I’m just Ellen’s mother!
BS: You’re America’s mother!
BD: Yes, people always call me ‘mama.’ The woman in the airport yesterday called out ‘Hey mama’.
BS: What is like to go from a ‘normal, regular everyday person, kind of life’ to the life of celebrity and fame?
BD: It happened gradually, thank goodness. When Ellen came out on her show, I had just retired from Cedar Sinai Medical Center in L.A., and I was looking forward to a lazy life. And, like I said, it grew rather gradually and it’s been wonderful.
BS: Do you ever get used to it?
BD: I guess I’m used to it now. Although last month I spoke at Lockheed Martin in Bethesda, Maryland, for goodness sakes. It was huge! So sometimes I’m a little stunned by the places where I speak. But it’s wonderful to bring this message.
BS: We just sat here together and watched your daughter on TV. She is one of the most famous people in the world. I have a seven-year-old daughter and cannot imagine what that must be like.
BD: Well, if I had known she was going to grow up to be Ellen Degeneres, I would have taken more pictures (laughing), so take a lot of pictures! Ellen’s brother is three years older and, oh, do we have pictures of him! Ellen gives me a hard time all the time because we don’t have that many pictures of her.
BS: Do you ever have moments when you are watching Ellen on TV, or sitting in the studio audience, when you think to yourself, ‘I still can’t believe I’m watching my daughter on television?’
BD: The thing is, when I sit in the studio, the audience just goes crazy. And it’s such a cross section of America in the audience. You have older couples, every ethnicity, race, and it’s really wonderful and they love her message of happiness and joy and positive energy.
BS: What was the house like when your kids were growing up?
BD: Well, their dad is very funny, so Ellen and Vance [Ellen’s older brother] grew up hearing funny remarks about everything, so it was natural to them. Vance is very funny. He used to be on the Daily Show, and he and his roommate created Mr. Bill for Saturday Night Live. When Ellen and Vance are together it is very funny because they are zinging each other back and forth, and it all goes right over your head if you’re not paying attention.
BS: Did you have any inkling when Ellen was in high school and growing up that she would be a world famous comedian?
BD: No. She was very funny, but it was a quiet funny not a class clown. And she didn’t know it either. She had so many jobs after high school, and she tried college for a couple of months but that didn’t work and she just kind of fell into this. She performed at a high school fundraiser and someone was there and told her, ‘you should get an act and perform at the coffee house at the University of New Orleans.’ And she did and then little by little …
BS: Last question, if you had the opportunity to speak to any parents whose kids have come out or are coming out, what advice would you give them?
BD: If they need a pep talk, I would tell them to make sure they are thinking for themselves, because I think a lot of people are just brainwashed about this subject. And the only unconditional love there is, is the love that a parent has for a child. No matter what, we love our children. So don’t forget that.
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