Until the age of thirteen she had lived a quiet life with her parents and older brother in Metairie, La. – just outside of New Orleans. The family – Christian Scientists – attended weekly services together. There, the signs on the wall touting the Golden Rule – treat others as you wish to be treated – left a lasting impression on her. She had a deep rooted love for animals – all animals – and briefly considered a future as a vet. While she didn’t go out of her way to be funny, she noticed that people around her laughed – a lot.
Somewhat abruptly things changed – her parents divorced. Her brother, Vance, stayed in Louisiana with their father while she moved with her mother to Atlanta, Texas. She used her knack for comedy to keep things light and help her mother through that difficult stage. Her mother remarried, introducing a stepfather into her life – a man who secretly molested her.
She graduated high school, moved back to Louisiana and enrolled at the University of New Orleans. Her talent and passion for comedy moved her to leave school to pursue that career path. Things, once again, were going well – her comedy was being well received as she worked to hone her craft. She found love. Once more things changed – an auto accident took the life of her love.
The tragedy sparked a monologue called “A phone call to God” which she performed as emcee at a New Orleans club. From there she traveled all over to play at clubs, small bars – even restaurants. Her commitment – and her talent – paid off when in 1984 she was named the Funniest Person in America by the Showtime Network.
As a young comedian, she would watch the Tonight Show and tell herself that not only would she be on the show, she would be the first female comedian called over to speak with Johnny Carson. Years later – in 1986 – that exact scenario played out. Her career continued to gain momentum – and in 1994 she landed the lead role in a sitcom named for her. It was wildly successful – she won an Emmy for writing, three Golden Globes and five Emmy nominations for outstanding lead actress just from this show.
Once more, things were about to change. Even with her tremendous success, she realized that she wasn’t being totally authentic – so she did something about it. On April 17, 1997 she was featured on the cover on Time magazine announcing that she was gay – the first openly gay television star. Her character on the show followed suit shortly thereafter – an episode which drew over 42 million viewers. Conversely, the network promoted the show less, various groups called for a boycott by viewers and in 1998 the show was canceled.
Losing everything has its silver lining – it gives one time to reflect. She noted that nothing about herself had changed – yet everything else did. The reward was quickly apparent – she could now live with the gift of being completely herself – every day. Her career was impacted, but not destroyed – not by any means. Today she has the number one ranked daytime talk show. She’s won twenty-five Emmy wins, People’s Choice and Teens Choice awards, Producers and Screen Actors Guild awards. She’s had several movie roles both on-screen and as voice characters. She has hosted both the Emmy and the Oscar awards shows. She is one of the most popular talents in the entertainment industry.
These awards and accolades are quite impressive but they aren’t what defines a fearless brand. They are the result of Ellen DeGeneres embracing her passion and honing her immense talent – but most importantly, her success has exploded exponentially because she had the insight and courage to be authentic.
Fearless Brands live the adage “To thine own self be true.”
Currently Ellen’s show – aptly named The Ellen DeGeneres Show – continues to top the daytime ratings. She is the face of Cover Girl. She is the host of a new reality television show which focuses on interior design – a passion of hers – which she has produced and launched. She holds the record for having posted the most retweeted Twitter post in history – a group selfie taken as host of the Oscars. Her fun side really came out that night when she ordered pizza to be delivered to the entire audience. Ellen DeGeneres is a beloved celebrity and truly a fearless brand.
Ellen’s path to stratospheric success has not been an easy one – there were major challenges throughout her journey. There’s very little doubt that she will face even more challenges as she moves forward. What impresses about DeGeneres is how she has handled those situations. Throughout her life she has had the ability to realize that what’s done is done – she has learned the lessons and has been able to turn her attention and effort to the future with a positive outlook.
The greatest gift she’s given herself – and in turn to all of her millions of fans – is allowing herself to be herself – to be authentic. She was able to free herself of the secrets which held her from being completely genuine. She eventually told her mother about being molested. She ‘came out’ in a major way – being on the cover of TIME magazine will certainly destroy any secrets. Ellen knows that she is a comedian who just happens to be gay.
What really makes, defines and differentiates Ellen? When asked about her greatest attribute her answer isn’t that she’s funny or talented or popular – it’s that she is kind. The signs on the wall of her childhood church made an impression – she lives the Golden Rule. She’s funny, quirky, silly, loves to have fun – and she’s kind – and that brings her greatest satisfaction.
What should you learn from Ellen when building your own fearless brand? It’s rather simple –
Be authentic! – The absolute core element of any successful brand – any fearless brand – is authenticity. Embrace who you are, what your company or product or service genuinely are. Free yourself from any secrets.
Create an emotional connection – Authenticity guarantees that you will be able to connect with the people, prospects, fans or customers you are trying to reach. Those are the ones who define your brand. They’ll know if you’re genuine and relevant – and they’ll know equally well if you’re not.
Not everyone reading this post is going to be a fan of Ellen. Some won’t find her funny. More won’t be able to accept that she’s gay. But everyone can – and hopefully will – learn from her experience, her actions, her success and her happiness. Want to be a fearless brand? Be kind. Dance a little. Laugh a lot. Above all – be authentic.