Ellen DeGeneres has described herself as lucky to find love with her wife, Portia de Rossi, more than 13 years ago. After all, an early romance the comedian had ended in heartbreak after the woman died in a tragic accident.
On the Armchair Expert With Dax Shepard podcast, The Ellen DeGeneres Show host, 60, was talking about life before stardom and made a rare mention of her live-in girlfriend who died in a car crash. Ellen was just 20 at the time, living in New Orleans, and working as a waitress. It was also one of her first gay relationships; she dated men throughout high school. Needless to say, the woman’s passing — which took place while they were having a spat — had a tremendous impact on DeGeneres’s life.
“I was living with her, and when she was killed, I couldn’t afford to live where we were living together,” Ellen told Shepard. “So, I moved into this tiny little basement apartment that I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor infested with fleas. I thought, Why is this beautiful, 21-year-old girl gone and fleas are here? And I just thought it would be amazing if we could pick up the phone and call up God and ask questions and actually get an answer.”
DeGeneres put that thought to paper — and it turned into a comedy routine she used when she made her first appearance in 1986 on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which was a career-defining experience (and the end to that waitressing gig).
In a 1997 People article, the woman was identified as Kathy “Kat” Perkoff. Her sister told the magazine that Ellen and Kat, a poet who had been working at a bar in the French Quarter, “were two very creative people, crazy and young and very much in love… Ellen had a good influence on her — she was stabilizing and helped her focus on her art.”
Ellen previously spoke a little more about the loss of her young love on Oprah’s Master Class in 2015. The two were living together, but they had a fight which led DeGeneres to stay with friends. However, they both attended one of her musician brother’s concerts. The woman tried to make up with her, but DeGeneres blew her off. Her girlfriend died immediately after.
“We had been living together at the time,” Ellen recalled. “My brother’s band was performing. We had broken up — we had fought a lot — [and] she was trying to get me to come back home. I acted like I couldn’t hear her because the music was too loud.”
DeGeneres continued, “I was planning on moving back in. I just was trying to teach her a lesson and I was staying with some friends. So I just acted like I couldn’t hear her and was being just dismissive of her.”
The accident occurred on the way home. “She had left before us and as we were driving home we saw a car and it was split in two,” DeGeneres said. “We heard sirens behind us so it had just happened — nobody was [on the scene] yet — and we just kept going. I found out the next morning it was her in the car.”
DeGeneres said the heartbreaking loss changed her life — and she immediately regretted both the way she treated her at the concert and not stopping at the crash scene.
“That of course made me feel like I should have gone home with her that night,” DeGeneres said. “She wouldn’t have been with that person [who was driving]. I should have stopped. … All kinds of things. A lot of guilt. I think it made me realize how fragile and how easily you can lose somebody. Literally in an instant she just was gone. It was really hard, but it shifted my entire focus and my life.”
Ellen went on to have huge success in the entertainment biz only to have it all blow upwhen she came out as a lesbian and then find it again. Because she was the most famous lesbian in the entertainment business, her relationships have always gotten attention. That of course included her relationship with Anne Heche in the early aughts. She then had a relationship with photographer Alexandra Hedison (who went on to marry Jodie Foster). Since 2004, DeGeneres has been in a relationship with de Rossi, whom she married in 2008.
In December, Ellen gave her love a social media shout-out on the 13th anniversary of the day they met, saying, “I can’t imagine how I got this lucky.” After hearing her open up about her early lost love, the meaning runs even deeper.