Mark Harris (quotes reported by Kristen Baldwin, Clarissa Cruz, Mike Flaherty, Dave Karger, Laura Morgan, Brian Raftery, and Tom Sinclair)
OCCUPATION: Actress, comedian
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: By coming out in real life and on screen in 1997 (on her ABC sitcom Ellen), she became TV’s first openly gay lead character, paving the way for the NBC hit Will & Grace. PROPS: “She had the courage to present a real, truthful, funny, and, most importantly, flawed individual. Not only did she make it a million times easier to bring gay characters to television, she also set the standard for how it should be done.”
-Greg Berlanti, executive producer, Dawson’s Creek.
A movie packs theaters on its opening weekend. A TV sitcom climbs to No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings. A new novelist hits the best‑seller lists. A singer goes on tour. Julia Roberts finds a new leading man.
These are the events that Entertainment Weekly covers every week ‑the meat‑and‑potatoes stuff of which pop culture is made. Now, let's throw in a couple of twists. That new hit movie? Let's say the director ‑who's African‑American‑ becomes the youngest man ever to receive a Best Director nod. The star of that No. 1 sitcom? Gay ‑and so is the character she plays. (Ditto, by the way, for Julia Roberts' costar) That best‑selling novelist? An Asian American, writing about both halves of her heritage. The singer? On her tour, she's the Boss ‑and no boys allowed.
Ten years ago, the above roster of achievements would have been unimaginable. But in the 1990s, so many surprising tributaries flowed into the river of entertainment that the very definition of "mainstream" changed forever. With Boyz N the Hood and Waiting to Exhale and Malcolm X and Bring the Pain and entertainment ranging from hip‑hop to Whoopi, African Americans redefined the center of pop culture. Openly gay entertainers, who were barely a collective whisper when k.d. lang graced the very first cover of EW, are now as out‑loud‑and‑proud as their gay audiences ‑and, from Rupert Everett to Ellen DeGeneres to Elton John to Melissa Etheridge, they didn't do too badly with straight fans either! The 1990s were the decade of Sarah McLachlan and Terry McMillan, of Arsenio Hall and Russell Simmons, of Ricky Martin and Amy Tan and Gloria Estefan and Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, of vampire slayers and stereotype destroyers, and of the woman who seems to be at the center of the entire entertainment universe, Oprah Winfrey. Ten years ago, a few voices dared to hope that some of the previously disenfranchised groups these names represent would break into pop culture. They did, and more: They tore down some of the walls that had been keeping them out in the first place. On the following pages, we pay tribute to those who broke through and remade the decade in their own images.