The most chaotic, dramatic story in television right now is whatever’s going on offstage at The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Reports of a toxic work culture, discrimination, and sexual harassment are tarnishing the 17-year-old, feel-good talk show’s reputation as a dreamland where celebrities become our closest friends, donations change lives, and a lot of clunky dancing takes place.

The cracks in this veneer started off thin and narrow: As the show became a daytime TV juggernaut over the past two decades, rumors simultaneously circulated that DeGeneres was not as nice in person as the show portrayed her to be. But the cracks have spread over the past year, and became glaringly obvious during a memorable, uncomfortable interview on her show in November; months later, former employees began speaking up about what a terror it was to work on the show.

The discourse kept growing. Celebrities chimed in, some defending DeGeneres and some affirming what former staffers had said. Other previous employees went on the record to address their own negative experiences with DeGeneres.

And finally, in July, two scathing reports of a nightmare workplace and producers sexually harassing their junior staffers were published, leaving the public image of the show — and DeGeneres herself — in disarray.

DeGeneres acknowledged that the show had its faults.

“On day one of our show, I told everyone in our first meeting that The Ellen DeGeneres Show would be a place of happiness — no one would ever raise their voice, and everyone would be treated with respect,” DeGeneres wrote, apologizing in a letter to her staff about the reports’ allegations. “Obviously, something changed, and I am disappointed to learn that this has not been the case. And for that, I am sorry. Anyone who knows me knows it’s the opposite of what I believe and what I hoped for our show.”

That letter preceded the report in which allegations of sexual misconduct against her producers was published.

Though she hasn’t been directly accused of outright malpractice, every part of the show operates under DeGeneres’s name and specific brand of relentless kindness. At best, the patron celebrity TV host of niceness just may not have known what was happening to her staffers. At worst, she knew and ignored — or even participated in — what a toxic workplace her show had become.

There’s now a question of whether or not the show will go on. And if does go on, will people still watch it?

Dakota Johnson’s confrontational interview left a big crack in Ellen’s facade

DeGeneres’s reputation began showing wear months ago.

A pivotal moment in the dismantling of DeGeneres’s persona as TV’s friendliest talk show host happened in November during an interview with actress and celebrity scion Dakota Johnson. The interview, like most of DeGeneres’s interviews, seemed to be casual, as if DeGeneres and Johnson were old friends. But this typical pattern was subverted and dove into awkward territory when DeGeneres asked Johnson about why she wasn’t invited to Johnson’s recent 30th birthday party. The implication: Dakota Johnson is too cool for nice Ellen, or maybe she’s even a mean girl.

“Actually, no, that’s not the truth, Ellen,” Johnson said about the supposed diss. “Ask everybody. Ask Jonathan, your producer.”

Off-camera, a staffer confirmed that Johnson was right. DeGeneres had been invited.

“Why didn’t I go?” DeGeneres asked out loud, admitting defeat. “Oh yeah, I had that thing.” To keep the ball in her joking court, she added, “[The party] was probably in Malibu. That’s too far for me to go to.”

DeGeneres’s whereabouts on October 5, the day of Johnson’s party, are not publicly known. But she was spotted in Texas the next day, sitting beside George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys game. The October 6 appearance caused an online backlash because of DeGeneres’s apparent willingness to be friendly with a former president whose administration supported anti-LGBTQ policies (DeGeneres is gay) and failed to act in the face of Hurricane Katrina (DeGeneres was born in Louisiana).

Through admonishing Johnson, DeGeneres was caught fibbing and inadvertently drew attention to her controversial hangout with Bush. For DeGeneres, who has built her career on being seen as authentically nice, her fib tarnished her reputation even more than watching a game with George W. Bush did.

Stories about not-pleasant encounters with DeGeneres started surfacing on Twitter soon afterward, and some of DeGeneres’s past, incredibly awkward interviews with celebrities have been touted out as evidence that DeGeneres was never as nice as she wanted us to think. The Johnson interview and the many memes it inspired about how DeGeneres wasn’t telling the truth and trying to embarrass Johnson left a permanent mark on DeGeneres’s record.

Months later, in March, podcast host Kevin T. Porter posted a dare about DeGeneres that would go viral. He promised a $2 food bank donation for every mean story someone had about DeGeneres. Porter called the submissions at roughly 300, donating $600.

Granted, there’s no fact-checking when it comes to those stories on Twitter. But the allure of finding a disconnect between DeGeneres’s onscreen persona and her real-life actions drove people to the thread. Over 71,000 people liked Porter’s tweet, more than 18,000 retweeted, and a little more than 2,900 replied to it.

More stories of the show’s poor environment quickly followed. Weeks later, on April 16, Variety reported that various crew members from DeGeneres’s show were frustrated after a lack of communication and lack of transparency when it came to getting paid. The show was being done remotely and only four core crew members, according to Variety’s sources, were retained. Many staffers saw a drastic pay reduction without any clear communication and were surprised to see DeGeneres film remotely from her home. Variety reported:

“When returning from break, the crew was paid the week of March 30th despite having no firm plans for production to resume,” the spokesperson said. Pay reduced to 8 hours from 10 hours per work day for the week of the 30th, insiders said.

As of April 10, crew was told to expect a reduced compensation of two, 8-hour work days per week.

DeGeneres’s show often features her being generous and donating money that goes a long way to helping people’s lives. Not retaining her staff and keeping them in the dark about their salary cuts during a pandemic doesn’t match up with the person who’s so kind to charities and disadvantaged guests on her show. Exacerbating matters, DeGeneres tweeted on April 9 that quarantine was like “being in jail.” The comparison was called out for being inappropriate, lacking in self-awareness, and from a place of privilege.

It was after the reports of DeGeneres’s treatment of her staff that the narrative shifted into something more serious. There’s a difference between not gauging the Johnson joke and not paying your staff. Her staff’s horror stories about their salaries drove the narrative beyond gossip of Ellen not being the Ellen on her show and into the territory of DeGeneres’s competence as a boss and the consequences of her actions.

Ellen DeGeneres’s staff suffered from a toxic workplace. They’re the ones who had to call it out.

In July, BuzzFeed published two scalding articles by reporter Krystie Lee Yandoli. Yandoli spoke to former and current employees who say DeGeneres’s show was toxic and, in some cases, was a place where producers sexually harassed staffers. Those staffers said DeGeneres either had no idea of what was going on at her show or, worse, knew and did nothing.

The first BuzzFeed story featured accounts from 10 former employees, including a woman who said she experienced racist comments and then was chastised for voicing her opinion. She is Black, and said that coworkers distanced themselves from her when she raised concerns. BuzzFeed reported:

The former employee said she was also called into a meeting with executive producer Ed Glavin, where she was reprimanded for her objections to the term “spirit animal,” asking for a raise, and suggesting employees on the show receive diversity and inclusion training.
“He said that I was walking around looking resentful and angry,” she said.

DeGeneres addressed the workplace allegations in a letter to her staff on July 30. She took responsibility stating that there would be an investigation into the workplace practices. But she also said that she wasn’t fully accountable for the transgressions because she had put the show in the hands of producers who were in charge of the day-to-day. She wrote:

As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done. Clearly some didn’t. That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again.

I’m also learning that people who work with me and for me are speaking on my behalf and misrepresenting who I am and that has to stop. As someone who was judged and nearly lost everything for just being who I am, I truly understand and have deep compassion for those being looked at differently, or treated unfairly, not equal, or — worse — disregarded.

That same day, BuzzFeed published a second, follow-up article featuring interviews with dozens — the news outlet spoke to 36 people — of former Ellen Show employees, many of whom said that producers Kevin Leman, Ed Glavin, and Jonathan Norman engaged in sexual harassment and misconduct. Essentially, some of the people that DeGeneres herself said she put in charge and relied on took advantage of their subordinates.

BuzzFeed reported:

One ex-employee said head writer and executive producer Kevin Leman asked him if he could give him a hand job or perform oral sex in a bathroom at a company party in 2013. Another said they separately saw Leman grab a production assistant’s penis. …

BuzzFeed News spoke to 36 former employees, many of whom independently corroborated incidents of harassment, sexual misconduct, and assault from top producers like Leman. All of the ex-employees, many of whom had voluntarily left the show, asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution.

The producers in question either denied or declined to speak about the accusations, and the show’s distributor Warner Bros. said that it “hoped to determine the validity and extent of publicly reported allegations and to understand the full breadth of the show’s day-to-day culture.”

But the question remains about whether DeGeneres herself knew about what was going on, or didn’t want to know. The former employees are split.

“She knows,” a former employee told BuzzFeed of DeGeneres’s involvement in the toxicity. “She knows shit goes on, but also she doesn’t want to hear it.”

The story is so shocking because Ellen Degeneres made herself the face of unflinching niceness

At this point, more and more people are coming forward about how awful it was to work at certain television shows with certain actors, writers rooms, creatives, and Hollywood bigwigs, bringing the reality of what it’s like working in Hollywood to light. The stories about abuse and caustic workplaces seem like symptoms of a bigger problem — an industry with little to no oversight or protections for its workers.

But what makes The Ellen DeGeneres Show production team’s alleged transgressions more shocking is that DeGeneres has built an entire career and celebrity status by assuring us that she wasn’t like other celebrities. DeGeneres’s brand is about being so relentlessly kind and so interminably inoffensive that you didn’t have to worry about Ellen ever being problematic.

DeGeneres once admitted that her perceived “niceness” can feel like a cage — a cage built on the years of good deeds and good-natured humor DeGeneres has displayed.

“I wanted to show all of me,” she told the New York Times in December 2018, explaining the freedom of stand-up and how it allowed her to be more of herself. “The talk show is me, but I’m also playing a character of a talk-show host. There’s a tiny, tiny bit of difference.”

The problem for DeGeneres is: What happens when you take away the niceness that she built her empire on?

In the wake of the accusations against DeGeneres and the show, celebrities like Katy Perry and Ashton Kutcher have defended DeGeneres, saying they were never treated poorly or observed mistreatment. Some former celebrity guests, including Brad Garrett and Lea Thompson, said that they were treated poorly on the show and weren’t surprised at all by the ex-employees’ stories.

At the same time, on social media, detractors began dream casting possible replacements for DeGeneres. Although her show is in syndication and is not part of a larger franchise — The Ellen DeGeneres Show lives and dies by Ellen DeGeneres — the idea is that other hosts with more authentically friendly reputations are more deserving of the daytime TV throne. (Names like The Late Late Show host James Corden, a.k.a. Carpool Karaoke Connoisseur, were the ones most bandied about.)

But Ellen’s show doesn’t seem to be in any present danger. Andy Lassner, an executive producer on the show, tweeted on July 30 that the show would continue; it’s currently on a previously scheduled summer hiatus but is still scheduled to return with DeGeneres at the helm in the fall.

With the rise of social media and constant public contact, people don’t expect celebrities to be the most idealized versions of themselves 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some celebrities are even lauded for snapping and showing brief, maybe chaotic moments of vulnerability because it affirms their humanity.

Many people, including DeGeneres, knew she wasn’t ever going to be as nice as her talk show promised her to be. But I also don’t think anyone expected DeGeneres’s talk show to be as caustic and volatile behind the scenes as reported. And now the question isn’t if DeGeneres’s persona is fake, it’s whether her scores of fans can support a show that’s caused so many people that work there so much pain.

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