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Vinay Menon: Ellen DeGeneres must now talk her way out of a sexual misconduct scandal

Vinay Menon: Ellen DeGeneres must now talk her way out of a sexual misconduct scandal
Entertainment
It might be a nice change from the water torture of scandal. Since the lockdown started, the daytime gabber has faced a drip-drip-drip of bad headlines. There was backlash when Ellen compared quarantine to prison. In April, Variety reported staff at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” were “distressed and outraged over their treatment from top producers amid the coronavirus pandemic.”

The issue was salary cuts and a lack of communication over how the show might go on.

But it seems this public airing of grievances was a harbinger of far more disturbing allegations revealed by BuzzFeed in July. In the first investigation, former staff alleged the talk show was a “toxic work culture,” including racism, sexism and bullying. Then this week, dozens of former staff accused executive producers of “rampant sexual misconduct and harassment.”

The allegations included unwanted touching, unwanted lewd jokes, unwanted offers of oral sex, and unwanted threats and intimidation. That’s a lot of unwanted. But what the reporting by BuzzFeed’s Krystie Lee Yandoli really did was bust the needle on the irony seismograph.

During the first staff meeting on the first day of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in 2003, the host promised her foot soldiers “a place of happiness.” For the industry, this is unusual. I have talked to enough TV people over the years to feel confident in saying happiness is usually the least of it.

But many who toiled on Ellen’s show sound more like traumatized hostages.

And that’s why this controversy has legs. Ellen’s public mantra is, “Be kind.” Her shtick is kumbaya. When she’s perched in her white love seat, she telegraphs compassion. The takeaway for viewers is she wants to have fun, right wrongs and make the world a better place.

The Hollywood Reporter obtained a letter she wrote to staff on Thursday. It included this passage: “It’s been way too long, but we’re finally having conversations about fairness and justice. We all have to be more mindful about the way our words and actions affect others, and I’m glad the issues at our show were brought to my attention.”

Warner Bros., the show’s distributor, has launched an internal investigation. Don’t be surprised if heads roll before Labour Day. But maybe it’s also time for Ellen to give her head a shake?

Yikes. Then there was Australian journalist Neil Breen, who this week recounted an incident from 2013, when Ellen took her show Down Under. Breen was producing a segment in which his presenter, Richard Wilkins, interviewed Ellen for a bit of cross-promotion.

As Breen recalled: “Because it’s the ‘Ellen Show,’ they controlled everything. They controlled the interview seats, the lights, how it would work, everything. The producers called us aside and said, ‘This is how it’s going to work here this morning. Ellen’s going to arrive at 10:15, and she’ll be sitting in this chair. And Richard, you’ll be sitting in this chair here. Neil, no one’s to talk to Ellen. You don’t talk to her, you don’t approach her, you don’t look at her.’”

As Breen noted: “I found the whole thing bizarre.”

That’s one way of putting it. Here’s another: while rising to the top, Ellen forgot her backstory.

When she came out in 1997 as a lesbian in her sitcom and Time magazine — “Yep, I’m Gay,” was the cover line — this was a watershed moment. It also nearly cost DeGeneres her career. ABC soon cancelled the comedy. In a culture far more conservative than now, observers bet she’d never work again.

As she wrote to her staff this week: “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. To think that any one of you felt that way is awful to me.”
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