by Natalie Finn | Wed., Jan. 24, 2018 6:00 AM
None of those things are big anymore, but behind the scenes at VH1's Big in '04 Awards something much more momentous was brewing.
Well, neither of their lives would ever be the same, because they've been together ever since, but de Rossi emerged like a butterfly from her chrysalis, slowly but surely and finally embracing who she was.
The star of Ally McBeal and Arrested Development hadn't been avoiding relationships with women. Not since her 1999 divorce from Mel Metcalfe, anyway. (She says she married him for the green card, but in the end she couldn't bring herself to take advantage of their "great, caring relationship.") In fact, she was in a relationship with writer and filmmaker Francesca Gregorini when she met DeGeneres.
But as she would soon admit, as she tottered into the real-deal spotlight as the partner of one of the most famous lesbians in the world, she hadn't really been living her life all the way out.
De Rossi let photographs taken of her with Gregorini over the course of their two-year relationship, during which they lived for a time together in Vancouver, do the talking for her. But she herself would change the subject when interviewers asked if she was gay. She didn't talk about that part of her private life at all, at least not publicly, until she was with Ellen.
"I was thinking, Well, the people who need to know I'm gay know, and I'm somehow living by example by continuing on with my career and having a full, rich life, and I am incidentally gay, but it's not a big political platform. I justified it in so many ways," de Rossi told The Advocate in the summer of 2005. "Believe me, I had a very, very long and difficult struggle with my sexuality."
She revealed that just days beforehand she had come out to the last person on her list, her 98 1/2-year-old grandmother in her native Australia, who initially thought she said "Alan," not "Ellen."
Ellen DeGeneres' public coming out, meanwhile, occurred on the April 14, 1997, cover of TIME magazine, so she was fully aware of how much of a conversation just living one's truth could start.
"She was so courageous and so loud in '97, and now she is doing something that is more subliminal," de Rossi said admiringly. "She's changing the world, she really is, and it's exciting to be a part of that." She admitted to The Advocate, "It's hard having a relationship that's public. It's hard living a life that's somewhat public, and hard when you put that life together with someone who is so famous and so loved and admired. It's also real exciting."
After dating Anne Hechefor a few headline-making years, DeGeneres first met de Rossi in 2000. The actress recalled to The Advocate, "I really never stopped thinking about her, because I just haven't felt that kind of energy with anyone in my life. So there's that." Then they saw each other again at a photo shoot in early 2005, and "she took my breath away," de Rossi recalled. So when they reunited at the Big in '04 Awards, that was that.
By the end of 2005, they were sharing a two-bedroom home in L.A. and parenting three rescue cats. (London's Evening Standard, reporting in 2004 that Gregorini was devastated by the sudden breakup, said that de Rossi had moved right in with DeGeneres two weeks after the award show.) They had also recently bought a 120-acre ranch, de Rossi being an avid horseback rider.
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"It's the first time that I've known in every cell of my being that I'm with somebody for the rest of my life," DeGeneres told People in November 2005. She had been in a relationship with photographer Alexandra Hedison for four years when she and de Rossi got together.
"We were just supposed to be together," Ellen added. "It was a tough decision. I was physically getting sick because I was trying not to say anything. So I told Alex and she told Francesca. It was really hard to uproot everything."
Gregorini admitted to The Advocate in 2014 that her breakup with de Rossi was "pretty harrowing. I've never really talked about it, and, I want to be respectful to all the players, and, to be honest, I've definitely made my peace—Portia and I are friends, I'm friends with Ellen."
"Everything turned out as it was meant to," Gregorini added, "but it definitely, at the time, it was a very harrowing experience, because heartbreak is harrowing. Any breakup is just awful, but then to be dragged through the press, while it's happening, in real time, it's definitely not a picnic. It did make me stronger. I definitely went down for the count, for a couple months there, but, it definitely gave me a resolve to pick myself up, and make something of myself, and my life...
"We were meant to be together for that point in time, and, and then not, and I think she's found a great partner for her. I think they're really well matched."
Back in the earliest days of their relationship, DeGeneres, who's 15 years older than de Rossi, took a "never say never" approach to the two of them having kids. Instead, they've devote their lives to their various rescue pets (both are dedicated animal lovers; de Rossi went vegan around 2007), and shooting her talk show obviously takes up a hefty amount of Ellen's time.
Lara Porzak Photography via WireImage
"It's the hardest job I've ever had, but it's the most satisfaction I've ever had, so I'm sure it's like being a mother," DeGeneres told People in 2005, when Ellen was only in its third season. "It challenges you every day."
Now a 29-time Daytime Emmy winner, Ellen is, to many, right up there with Oprah Winfreyin terms of no-last-name-needed pop culture titans. She's flipped 12 properties since first finding success as a comedian and sitcom star, including a $40 million mansion she sold for $55 million.
But though they didn't have kids, another milestone that DeGeneres had hoped for in 2005 did come to pass: On May 15, 2008, after the California Supreme Court struck down a law blocking gay marriage as unconstitutional, DeGeneres announced on the air that they were planning to tie the knot. She and Portia got married on Aug. 16, 2008, at their Beverly Hills estate, both wearing Zac Posen for their big day.
Michael Rozman/Warner Bros
Like any famous couple, however, Ellen and Portia's soul-mates-finding-each-other story hasn't excused them from the annoyances of being in the public eye. They've been the subject of as many split rumors as anybody, triggered by anything as innocuous-seeming as a missed award show or a bare ring finger, enough so that DeGeneres joked about them on her show in 2013.
She said she had been flipping through a tabloid that put on its cover that her marriage was crumbling, only to find that article ripped out. "I will never know what's tearing my marriage apart," she quipped.
But when stories that they were going through a messy split wouldn't go away, Ellen was compelled to speak out more forcefully in March 2014.
"The truth is, and this is corny, I fall more in love with Portia all the time. I really do," she insisted to People. "She surprises me all the time. It's what anyone experiences when you find that person that gets you, wants to take care of you, wants the best for you. We're really lucky because we know how rare it is."
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In 2016 the rumor mill was at it again, however, prompting DeGeneres to tell People, "I can't imagine not being married. I have my best friend, the person I want to spend time with more than anybody else in the world."
She and Portia remained as devoted to each other as ever, she said, and they readily put in the work that any committed relationship requires.
"Our priorities are each other too," DeGeneres said. "If we had kids, then I'm sure they would be, but we are. And that's important."
On their ninth wedding anniversary last August, she wrote on Instagram alongside one of their wedding photos, "Being her wife is the greatest thing that I am."
Domestic life has proved harrowing in recent weeks, however, though through no fault of their own. The couple were among the thousands of residents who had to evacuate their home in Montecito, Calif., when the Thomas fire blazed through the area on its way to becoming the largest wild fire in California history.
The fires were followed by killer mudslides that left 20 people dead in the Montecito area. DeGeneres and de Rossi had been back in their home for 10 days when they evacuated again.
Talking to Extra last month about their last-minute change of plans for the holidays, which they'd planned to spend in Montecito, Ellen put it all into perspective.
"We'll just lay low and just, you know, be grateful for having our pets with us and Portia's horses are evacuated and we're hoping to get them someplace soon and it's, you know, it takes something like this to just remember, you know, just how fragile life is, and how you should never take anything for granted," she said. "I'll be counting my blessings for Christmas."
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