Star Fish

Ellen DeGeneres is one of our Entertainers of the Year

In 2003, Ellen Degeneres parlayed everything that made her famous in the first place — the relatable anecdotes, the rambling humor, and an underdog’s sense of bewilderment — into four successful projects: an HBO special (Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now), her second best-selling book (The Funny Thing Is…), a raucous vocal turn in Disney’s $340 million animated smash Finding Nemo, and a hip daytime talk show. With little hype and unfussy swiftness, she ushered in one of the greater second acts in recent Hollywood memory.

”In my mind, I had already surpassed everything that I could have imagined,” says the 45-year-old multimedia sensation. ”So when I started to ‘come back,’ I was really just trying to continue with my career.” By shifting her comedy away from its political musings of the past few years, DeGeneres reconnected with audiences. ”[The talk show] is not hard work, but it’s exhausting and relentless. It’s nonstop. I keep comparing it to being a new mother.”

Baby DeGeneres has earned solid ratings and is growing into quite the crowd-pleaser, thanks to Mom’s sunniness and a guest list that is alternately top-notch (Elton John, Jennifer Aniston) and kitschy (Kathie Lee Gifford, The Rock). ”I see different kinds of people responding,” she says. ”When I’m out in public and I have everyone from that guy in Buckcherry to Slash to grandmothers and wealthy women and kids telling me that they love me, then I’m happy.”

That contentment may be enhanced in January, as DeGeneres is being pushed as an Oscar contender for her animated, scatterbrained alter ego Dory in Finding Nemo. ”I thought it was just talk,” she says. ”Can that happen? Can people really nominate me? God, I didn’t expect this.”

Who did, really? Over the past year, DeGeneres seems to have come to terms with audiences’ fickle tastes — case in point: ”Unless I’m playing a fish, I’ve found I’m not too successful with movies” — and, more important, herself. ”It took a while to get back on track, but I was able to do it,” she says. ”It’s been very gratifying.”