Folks who know me know that I like to dream big and set big, audacious goals for my business, my life and things that need to be fixed — like finding a cure for cancer.
Even so, this small-town Wharton, Texas boy never dreamed he would be invited to sit down and talk on national television with someone as famous as Ellen DeGeneres. And yet here we were on a picture-perfect California afternoon driving through the Warner Brothers Studio lot and straight up to the doorway marked “The Ellen DeGeneres Show – Artist Entry."
With me was my lovely wife, Sue, and my talented PR team, Trish Morille and Cherri Carbonara. Of course we all piled out and immediately began taking pictures like good Texas tourists.
As I heard the music, I started with a cha-cha and wiggled into a hustle as I approached her. That’s when Ellen started to hustle, too. And the first thing I was struck by was her musicality —she’s got rhythm and she’s got moves.
We were later told by the assistant producer (also named Ellen) that our entourage was small by Hollywood standards. Who knew? I thought four of us was plenty. I told them we could go round up some more folks if they wanted us to — and that got a laugh.
Hello Green Room
The first thing they did was escort us to our private green room. It’s like a small living room with a giant makeup mirror, a refrigerator and a really nice bathroom. But it wasn’t green. Well, I guess it was a soft, barely green color. But I was expecting something that lived up to its name.
My first hour was a steady stream of visits from young, enthusiastic Ellen show staffers. They took me to the make-up artist straight away. Probably making sure my bald head didn’t shine too much in the lights. Then the microphone man came and wired me up.
As Sue and Trish went off to join the audience, I was visited by assistant producer Ellen who sat down and reviewed the questions she thought Ellen DeGeneres was likely to ask me. She was very helpful.
I mentioned to her, as I had before, that I really wanted to dance with Ellen. She said “Great, you should enter dancing.” They had arranged to play my favorite song, “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, so I figured that would be the easy part.
The Big Dance
At last, the big moment came. They whisked me down an expanse of dark, padded 30-foot high hallway that felt like a canyon. I got one last backstage work over by the make-up person and then the music was on and I was dancing out to meet Ellen DeGeneres.
Going from that pitch-dark canyon into this incredible burst of light and sound is in itself an experience. It’s exhilarating. As I heard the music, I started with a cha-cha and wiggled into a hustle as I approached her. That’s when Ellen started to hustle, too. And the first thing I was struck by was her musicality — she’s got rhythm and she’s got moves.
As I sat down next to her, I can honestly say it wasn’t the lights, the cameras or the audience that made me nervous. It was the sheer wattage of Ellen’s brilliant blue eyes. I was staring into the face of one of the biggest celebrities in America and someone I greatly admired. And she had just locked gazes with me.
I can tell you that eight minutes on national television goes by faster than a cat can lick his tail. Even so, I bet you can guess my favorite part. It was my dance with Ellen.
It was one of those rare times I was at a loss for words. So I did the only thing I could think of as my mind went blank for two beats —I told her I was nervous. She gave me a big smile and never broke eye contact with me. She has a natural ability to connect quickly with people and put them at ease. Honestly, I wasn’t nervous after that.
I won’t recount the interview because you can see it on Ellen’s YouTube channel. It included some stories from my book, You Gotta Dance Like No One’s Watching. During the break, I was thrilled when Ellen complimented me on my book jacket and even asked me where I had it designed. You probably know that she has a very funny new book out called Seriously…I’m Kidding and has been doing the national media circuit. So I guess books are top of mind for her right now.
Our small talk also got around to her time living in Texas, somewhere around the Texarkana border area. Up close, Ellen is very petite, very attractive and genuinely nice. She’s a person you can have a down-to-earth conversation with and that’s pretty much what we had.
Looking back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing about the experience or anything I said. I loved announcing the Ellen DeGeneres Pink Well Award, presenting her with a check for her “Ellen for the Cure” breast cancer fund and the surprise check for “Gentle Barn,” a charity that cares for abused animals. I had done my homework and I know that Gentle Barn is an Ellen favorite.
I can tell you that eight minutes on national television goes by faster than a cat can lick his tail. Even so, I bet you can guess my favorite part.It was my dance with Ellen. I will remember it always. I danced like no one was watching — even though everyone was.
Lester H. Smith is an oilman, world championship ballroom dancer, philanthropist and author of “You Gotta Dance Like No One’s Watching.” He’s also the creator of the $1 Million Pink Well Challenge for breast cancer - pinkwell.org
See Ellen's interview with Lester: