Born Amanda Rogers, this model and actress picked an Italian stage surname from the credit roll of a film to match the name she chose from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In the Shakespearean stageplay, the character of Portia was the leading lady who disguised as a man in order to argue in court as a lawyer—saving her love from execution. Appropriately, Portia de Rossi’s star-making role was that of a lawyer in the courtroom drama-comedy television series, Ally McBeal. As the story of her life behind the scenes would unfold, her love would save her from death.
Unlike her Shakespearean namesake, the young Portia de Rossi’s disguise was not a one-time trick but a way of life. On The Oprah Winfrey Show, de Rossi spoke about realizing her sexuality. “I had always really loved men, and still do, and just kind of assumed that I would be straight. I think everybody assumes that you’re going to be heterosexual,” de Rossi said with a brittle smile. “And the thing that made me think that I wasn’t, was that I developed very strong feelings for my best friends—for my girl friends—that were stronger than friendship. And I had a series of mini-heartbreaks throughout my teens, because my fantasy of what life could be like with my best friend, uh, wasn’t shared.” At the age of eighteen, she realized that the fulfillment of her love life would have to be with a lesbian.
De Rossi recounted how she would later pretend to drink to inebriation to seduce her straight female friends.
“Here’s the thing. I thought that if I was just kind of experimenting with another straight girl, that I wasn’t gay. We were just two straight girls, experimenting. But I was afraid of being around lesbians, because I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to be experimenting with a lesbian…must mean I’m gay’ and I didn’t want to be gay.”
Portia de Rossi
Lesbianism would be disastrous for an actress in the 1990’s, even one participating on a show such as Ally McBeal where transsexual characters and experimental kisses between high-powered professional women would make the occasional feature. When Ellen DeGeneres came out, De Rossi (who had not yet met DeGeneres in person) watched DeGeneres’ career with baited breath.
“If someone as charming and wonderful as Ellen DeGeneres can’t pull this off, and keep her career? It’s not going to work for me.”
Portia de Rossi
Portia de Rossi went on to star as Lindsay Fünke in the award-winning sit-com Arrested Development, and eventually met and married Ellen DeGeneres. She authored a memoir entitled Unbearable Lightness.