ELLEN DEGENERES
Talkshow host/comedienne

DeGeneres — distinguished by her quicksilver wit and versatility as a performer — has enjoyed a huge hit with “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” for the last three years, garnering a whopping 16 Daytime Emmys along the way, including best show.
Hers was the only veteran talker to see ratings growth over last year, up 10% to a 2.3, in the May sweeps. And right now, she’s content.
“I’ve never loved a job so much,” she says. “I describe it the way people describe being a new mom: It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but the most fulfilling.”
But her contentment these days is also based on a strength and sense of identity she found when the chips were down 10 years ago.
“I didn’t think I was going to work again,” she says, referring to the time when she came out personally and on her series, “Ellen,” and didn’t get a job offer for three years. The jokes about her didn’t help, either.
“It made me sit still and think, ‘Who am I without this business?’ “
She took a year to write a show, did it for HBO, and eventually Telepictures took a chance on her new talker.
“I don’t question what happened, but it was all meant to be,” says the celebrity, whose annual salary is estimated at $15 million by Forbes magazine. “I’m 48 and I feel like a kid.”

Career mantra: “I like making people happy. That’s initially why I became a comedian.”
Role model: “No one particular person, which is both confusing and ultimately good, because I didn’t have to emulate anyone. At the same time, I’ve been influenced by lots of people, from Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett to one of the people on the Nexium commercial, but I can’t remember which one.”
What’s next? “I really feel I’ve found what I’m supposed to do.”

— Annie Garcelon

RACHAEL RAY
Food Network star, bestselling author and budding talkshow host

Foodies like to poke fun at her use of vacuum-packed ingredients and a comfort-food bent that’s closer to Betty Crocker than Suzanne Goin, but the Food Network’s top-rated star exudes an enthusiasm that’s infectious and has gained her legions of fans.
“People have fallen in love with her because she’s authentic and likable and she cooks,” says Babette Perry, a VP at ICM who specializes in on-air experts. “So it’s really about their personalities.”
In fact, Ray, who has no formal culinary training, refers to herself as less a chef than a “common cook” and a “burger flipper,” which undoubtedly adds to her populist appeal. Now she’s gearing up to bring her down-to-earth humor and can-do energy to a new five-day-a-week, nationally syndicated talkshow, “Rachael Ray,” on Sept. 18.
“We’re not going to invite anyone who doesn’t want to have fun,” says the host of such shows as “30-Minute Meals” and “$40 a Day.” “We don’t want any criers or finger-waggers.”
“She just has that sparkle,” says Terry Wood, president of creative affairs and development for CBS Paramount and King World, which will distribute the show.
Meanwhile, Ray’s kingdom continues to grow, having launched lifestyle magazine Every Day With Rachael Ray and written 14 cookbooks, three of which debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. “I wrote all my shows and was doing 120 episodes a year, so it was pretty easy to turn it all into a book,” she explains.

Career mantra: “Can-do. I don’t want to be associated with anything that’s difficult, expensive or doesn’t have some sort of value to it.”
Role model: “My mother: terribly hard working, fast thinker, visionary, incredibly honest, hugely loyal.”
What’s next: “I don’t do that … I didn’t plan any of this stuff, and it turned out way better than I could have planned, wouldn’t you say?”

— Annie Garcelon

MEREDITH VIEIRA
TV host

Vieira has always put her career a distant second to her most important job: wife and mother of three. Now that she’s “The Today Show’s” new $40 million woman, nothing has changed. “They know all my issues,” she says. “Family comes first.”
Vieira’s arrival at 30 Rock in September caps a career she has carved out strictly on her own terms. On “Today,” for instance, she won’t be sticking around for the broadcast’s third hour and hopes “on most days to be gone by 10:30.”
It was considered revolutionary in 1991 when the Emmy-winning newswoman and then youngest correspondent famously bolted from “60 Minutes” when producer Don Hewitt balked at cutting back her sked so she could devote more time to child-rearing. “I never worried,” she says. “I knew there would be something else.”
A gig at ABC News kept Vieira on the air, but it wasn’t until 1997, when Barbara Walters tapped her as moderator and voice of the working mother for “The View,” that she returned to the limelight.
Vieira quickly adjusted to the chatfest’s format, balancing an objective, journalistic tone with frequent bursts of outrageous comments about everything from politics to her sex life and marriage to former news producer Richard Cohen. “It was very liberating,” she says.
In 2001, she did not jump ship when offered a spot on CBS’ perennially last-place “The Early Show.” Now that her kids (Ben, 17, Gabe, 14 and Lily, 13) are teenagers, Vieira says: “The time is right to try this. The show is a hybrid of news and entertainment, and that’s very appealing to me.”
Says former boss Walters: “Meredith is incredibly talented and very bright. There’s every reason to believe she’ll succeed.”
Vieira, who jokes that she’s “been around a long time,” is heartened to think her new-kid status at 52 sends a positive message to women. “Experience does matter in this business,” she says. “That’s great news for all of us.”

Career mantra: “These are wonderful jobs, but they’re jobs. At the end of the day, you go home to what matters in your life. I just try to keep it in perspective.”
Role model: “My family.”
What’s next: Joining Matt Lauer on “Today” Sept. 13 and hosting the next season of syndicated gameshow “Millionaire.”

– Diane Clehane

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