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Saturday
May052012

Ellen DeGeneres Reflects on Coming-Out Episode, 15 Years Later

Noel Vasquez/Getty Images for Extra(NEW YORK) -- Ellen DeGeneres is a powerhouse name these days, associated with a successful talk show, awards shows and talent competitions as well as a serious love for dancing -- something she's even shared with President Obama.

But 15 years ago, on ABC's "20/20" in April 1997, days before the airing of the episode in which she announced that she was gay, the funny, kind, brave and huge star of her own show shared her fears of coming out.

"If they found out I was gay, maybe they wouldn't applaud," she said. "Maybe they wouldn't laugh. Maybe they wouldn't like me if they knew that I was gay."

During that April 30, 1997 episode of "The Ellen Show" -- called "The Puppy Episode" -- DeGeneres sat across from her psychiatrist, played by Oprah Winfrey.

"It's not like I'm looking for perfection," DeGeneres' character said. "I just want to find somebody special, somebody that I click with."

"Has there ever been anyone you felt you clicked with?" Winfrey's character asked. "What was his name?"

"Susan," she replied. Laughter and applause followed.

Advertisers such as JCPenney and Chrysler, though, decided not to buy airtime during the episode. Wendy's decided not to advertise on "The Ellen Show" at all.

A lot has changed since the day that show first aired.

JCPenney has tapped DeGeneres as its spokeswoman and supported its decision even when One Million Moms, a "pro-family advocacy" group, threatened to boycott the national retail chain for refusing to fire her.

In 1996, a Gallup poll showed that the public approval rating for gay marriage was 27 percent. It is more than 50 percent today.

And there are now 34 shows featuring gay characters in leading and supporting roles -- not including reality TV -- compared to only 11 shows in 1997.

In the "20/20" interview, DeGeneres said she was willing to risk people knowing.

"I decided this was not going to be something that I was going to live the rest of my life being ashamed of," she said.

She said she came out on the show for the teenagers who contemplate suicide when they realize they're gay -- and for the young, confused girl she once was.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio