She may now be one of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars, but in her teenage years, Ellen DeGeneres liked nothing more than a smile horseback ride and doing “the bump” in discos with her high school sweetheart, strapping football player Ben Heath.
“We had fun times, whether it was dancing or horseback riding, the kind of stuff us country guys do,” says Ben, who reminisced with Star about his time with Ellen in his first ever sit-down interview. And while one might expect that the openly gay talk show host would have been unhappy with a man back then, the truth — like growing up itself — is far more complicated.
Ben and Ellen met during their junior year in high school, when Ellen was the new kid of town, having just moved from New Orleans after her parents’ divorce. They quickly bonded over their mutual love of sports and Saturday Night Live.
“I remember on some dates we went to an old club in Texarkana,” Ben recalls. “She wasn’t old enough, but she could talk her way in. We’d go up there and go dancing, do the bump to the old David Bowie songs, that kind of stuff. Obviously, she was a lot of fun — her wit and humor, she always had that. That kept things alive, kept hte conversation good.”
Ben is quick to add that, despite two years of dating, they were never intimate. “It was very proper,” he admits. “It was just the way it should have been done. I’m very pleased to look back and say that.”
The pair split when Ben went off to college, and told Ellen he wasn’t ready to get married. She moved back to New Orleans, had her first relationship with a woman, and started to realize her sexuality. “I’m sure I’d have a nice place with Ben somewhere, and we’d have kids, and I wouldn’t have known,” she said in 2007. “I could have chosen to live my life in a way just to fit into society. But I would not be happy.”
Ben, a successful farmer in Texas, wasn’t surprised when Ellen later came out in 1997, and says he is glad she felt comfortable enough with herself to make such a brave move. He hadn’t heard about Ellen’s marriage to Portia de Rossi because he “doesn’t keep up” but wishes her happiness all the same.
“I’d feel like we’d have been good friends if she’d stayed here,” Ben concludes, “regardless of her sexual orientation.”