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Out?

Ellen DeGeneres hints that her prime-time persona might realize she's gay

That Ellen DeGeneres — she can be such a tease. Way back in July, during ABC's preseason schmooze-the-press party at Los Angeles' House of Blues, the sitcom star dropped some tantalizing hints about the future of her perpetually single character. ''It's not just 'Ellen buys a table' this year,'' she told Entertainment Weekly. ''Ellen starts reexamining her life. She goes on a personal journey. She finds out who she is — which I think was lacking from the show all along...the public may have to stretch a little.''

Reexamining? Personal journey? This about a skirt-eschewing, makeup-free character who has zero chemistry with guys, and from an actress who has been the source of endless speculation from the tabloids. Beep, beep, beep went the gay-dar.

Then came the red alert: Through a leak to the media — conveniently timed to coincide with the sagging sitcom's Sept. 18 season premiere — America learned that Ellen's goofball main character may come out as a lesbian this year. (The writers have even reportedly scripted some preparatory scenes, including one with DeGeneres' Ellen Morgan telling her divorcing parents, ''What if I said something shocking to you. Like my whole life has been a lie, and I'm really...left-handed.'') No doubt about it: It would be landmark TV — a queer Cosby, a lesbian Lucy. Cut to the season debut — and possibly the gayest half hour of prime time since PBS' documentary on Stonewall. Wearing her trademark pants a little baggier than usual, Ellen peppered the show with subtle-as-a-sledgehammer jokes about her sexuality, even singing in the opening scene: ''I feel witty and pretty and...hey!''

The teasefest accelerated last week. In an appearance on Good Morning America, she said the whole thing ''got totally blown out of proportion.... We're adding another character — a guy, and his name is Les Bian.'' That same evening, chatting with David Letterman (who seemed more of a cheerleader for lesbians on TV than DeGeneres herself), she pulled a similar routine: ''The character does find out she's Lebanese.''

This game of will-she-or-won't-she has put Disney (owners of ABC and the show's producers) in an awkward position. What's a family-friendly entertainment conglomerate to do? If they forge ahead with the lesbian plotline, Mouse execs risk advertiser pullouts, boycotts from the religious right, affiliate complaints, and an unknown impact on the ratings. As of press time, Disney and ABC were still waiting to see how the idea of a gay lead character plays in the public and media. ''They're a little freaked out,'' understates one source close to the situation.

The hint dropping, however, may have taken them past the point of no return. Now that it's open a crack, the closet door is going to be mighty hard to shut. As any comedy writer knows, a setup demands a payoff — and quickly. Even the tentative plan as of early September to out Ellen during February sweeps (assuming Disney and ABC agree to go in that direction) now seems ridiculously drawn out. In the words of Ellen fans in cyberspace, ''Come on out and play!'' ''Just relax and do it!'' And perhaps most astutely, ''What's the big deal? Laverne came out of the closet every week in the opening sequence of Laverne & Shirley.''

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