The Serious Side Of
From the Winter '97 issue of Radiance
Newsweek recently hailed Rosie O'Donnell as "The Queen of Nice," a credit she richly deserves. But there's more to the feisty stand-up comic, turned actress, turned talk show host than a nice disposition.
Just ask any of the 250,000 people who attended the Children's Defense Fund's Stand for Children Rally in Washington, D.C., this past June. Or ask anybody who watched Nickelodeon's "Body Trap," a special edition of Linda Ellerbee's Nick News in which O'Donnell joined in with a panel of ten children to discuss the importance of a positive body image and the need to get beyond our society's narrow definition of what is beautiful, healthy, and worthwhile. Or you could ask any of the six thousand people who attended President Bill Clinton's fiftieth birthday celebration at New York's Radio City Music Hall in August, where O'Donnell was part of an all-star lineup to raise money for the Democratic party.
In fact, you could ask just about anybody who has seen Rosie O'Donnell in action, and you'd find out that there's more to her than the genuine niceness that has rocketed her to the top of the daytime talk show circuit. Recently, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to talk to Rosie.
Gloria: Given that the readers of Radiance are primarily large women committed to overcoming negative stereotypes concerning size and body image, I'd like to start off by asking you about your involvement in the Nick News special edition: "The Body Trap." How did you get involved in that project?
Rosie: Linda Ellerbee told me that they were going to do a piece on body image after she got a letter from a ten-year-old girl who said that she hated herself because she weighed 98 pounds and most of her friends were 76 pounds. Then she got another letter from a girl who was in the hospital near death with anorexia. Linda didn't realize that this was a problem among ten-year-olds, but she did some research and found out that the average age for the onset of anorexia is eight, and that it's largely due to the media's images of women, especially white women. The amount of anorexia in the black community is minimal when compared to the white community, because they don't have a lot of black role models who are supermodels. For little black girls, when you ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they say, "unique," "individual," "myself." When you ask young white girls, "What do you want to be?" they say, "a model," "pretty," "skinny." So I though it was really fascinating and since I am in the media, and have influence over people who watch me, or maybe not influence, but an effect on the people who watch me, I've always been conscious of not playing into the idea or the thought that we all have to be the same size. So when they asked me to do "The Body Trap" panel, I said yes.
Gloria: What kinds of responses have you gotten on "The Body Trap?"
Rosie: I've gotten great feedback from moms and kids alike. I've always gotten letters from kids: little girls who are tomboys who used to be teased because they like to play baseball, and now the other kids call them Rosie. Or little girls who say, "I'm chubby, and I used to feel bad, but I'm funny like you." I'm not your average movie actress physique. I'm not the usual celebrity size. And I think that people who like to see images of themselves reflected back feel strongly connected to me. Often times we'll have women in the audience who say, "Everyone says I look like you." Some people have said to me, "Doesn't it bother you when people who are a lot larger than you say that they look like you?" And I say, "No, it doesn't bother me at all." Who am I to say that a woman who's a 22, or 24, or whatever, doesn't look like me? I can see she's got a round face, she's got brown hair, brown eyes, she looks Irish. And we're both bigger. It doesn't embarrass me. When we got the letter asking if I wanted to do an interview in Radiance, my publicist said, "I don't know if you want to do that." And I said, "Yes, I want to do that. You know why? Because that's my audience and that's me!" I'm one of those people. I don't want to shun the people for whom weight is an issue. People come to my show and say, "Hey, I have that struggle like you do." I always think it's a positive thing instead of a negative thing if it makes people feel inspired in some way or at least represented.
Gloria: Did you have any problems with your own self-image when you were growing up?
Rosie: No, I wasn't really heavy until I was older. I was the homecoming queen. I was on every sports team. I was the senior class president. I was very popular in high school. It wasn't until I became an adult and wasn't doing as many sports that my weight became more of an issue. As I grew up emotionally, all of the issues surrounding weight that deal with emotions came to the forefront for me. As I became a grown-up, I had to deal with these issues, and with them came weight, because the way that people deal with problems is often with food, which is a symptom of another thing.
Gloria: What would you say to Radiance readers who are still struggling to reach an acceptance of their bodies?
Rosie: By no means do I want to suggest that I've conquered it. I struggle with it every day. And when I read in the newspaper that some radio jock says, "She's so fat and gross," it hurts my feelings. I sometimes get out of the shower and think, Oh, boy, I have to do something. And then I have to work hard to stand in front of the mirror after that image goes through, and say, This is who you are, and this is where you are. You're okay in this body, and you're a great, healthy, lovable, and loving person, and go forward with love. And that's what I try to do. I've never gone on any kind of drastic Opti-Fast type of diet. I just try to accept myself for where I am. I don't always succeed, but I try, especially in what I present to the media, because I know little kids are watching.
Gloria: That's one of the things I find so exciting about your comedy. When you do make references to your weight, it's never done in a self-deprecating way. It always has that undercurrent that says, This is me and if you don't like it, that's your problem.
Rosie: Well that's always where it comes from, but I've had people say that they don't see it that way. I did a benefit for a women's organization and I said something about my weight, and somebody said, "Boo." And I said, "Why are you booing me?" This is my life and my reality. It's what I struggle with and I in no way demean myself because of it. You can't ask me to ignore one of the major issues in my life. You can condemn me if I say it's bad to be this way, but I don't. I say, "This is the struggle that I have." So, I don't find it self-deprecating , but I suppose there are people who do.
Gloria: Viewers who watch your show were recently shocked by a remark that Donny Osmond made about your weight. What exactly did he say, and how did you respond to it?
Rosie: It was the first week of the show, and I don't think he had seen it before. He's on the road doing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I believe that when he came out and saw my albums and my Donny Osmond doll, he thought I was going to ridicule him. I don't think if he were booked on the show now, after it's been on for forty-five days, that he would ever do what he did. Instead of seeing what I was doing as a reverential tribute - which it was, because I honestly do like Donny Osmond and his music, and I did have the doll - I think he thought I was going to be aggressively poking fun at him. So what happened was, I was saying, "Oh, Donny, you have to go and do this dangerous stunt out in Utah, and God, I'm worried about you. You know what, don't you go on that helicopter. I'll go and be your stuntperson. I'll be your double, and I'll do it for you." And he said, "I don't think the helicopter can handle that much weight." So I took a moment and I went "Whoooa!" For a moment I thought, Does he mean me and him together on the helicopter? Or does he mean me separately? That comment became the bane of his existence, because everywhere he went, people were saying, "How could you?" And I didn't let up on it. The next day, I did the show and I said, "Can you believe that Donny Osmond called me fat?" I went out to LA that weekend for a funeral, and there were a lot of people there who had seen the show. One of them was Roseanne, who said, "I can't believe he said that. I saw your face." I think anyone who has ever had weight be an issue in their life felt the pain of having lived through that. He did apologize profusely during the commercial, and afterwards. I don't believe it was necessarily malicious: it was just stupid of him. I think he thought that this would be his shot and that because I'm a comic, I could take it. He came back on the show because we were getting so many letters, literally thousands of them, saying, "I'm burning my albums." He was getting booed on stage, apparently, and I didn't want it for him either. I mean, one stupid comment shouldn't end your career. So we had him come back, and I thought he was a real sport to play along. In the end,it was okay. I don't think he was mean-spirited in the sense of somebody like a Howard Stern, whose agenda it is to be mean and hurtful. I don't think that's Donny Osmond's agenda. I think he was just a little nervous and defensive, and he didn't think.
Gloria: You mentioned the word agenda, and I think that's an important word for a talk show host. How would you describe your agenda?
Rosie: Well, I'm trying to bring back the kind of show that I grew up watching - the kind of show that brought the entertainers that I loved into my living room every day. The kind of show that I could watch with my grandmother and my little sister, and everyone got something out of it. And that's what I'm trying to do. I don't think I'm trying to save TV, or be the antithesis of sleaze TV shows. I'm just trying to do Merv Griffin for the '90s, and I do genuinely have an appreciation of celebrities, of talent, of musicals. It's genuine. When I say that I want to have somebody on the show, and the producer asks, "Why?" I'll tell you why. It's because they did this series and that series and I remember this Movie of the Week, and I think they're great. So my agenda is just to make a fun, entertaining family show that you can watch generationally in your house.
Gloria: Who are the most interesting people you've interviewed so far, and who are you most looking forward to interviewing?
Rosie: Well, we have Bette Midler coming up, and she's the best. She's been a huge inspiration to me personally, and I'm really looking forward to that. And I think the Cher interview was pretty wild and mildly scary for me in some ways because, well� she's Cher, and to me she will always be Cher. So I think in some ways that was the most interesting. And I loved having Anne Rice on, because I'm a huge fan of hers. And Pat Conroy. Believe it or not, the people who excite me the most are the authors. Although that's not what the producer would love to hear, it's the truth. When I got my own show I thought, I have to get these authors I adore, so that I don't have to stand in line at the bookstores anymore!
Gloria: Who else do you have coming up that you're excited about?
Rosie: Prince is going to be on the show. I can't wait to interview him. And Wynona Ryder. I'm a huge fan of hers.
Gloria: Has Elton John responded to your Elton John Day?
Rosie: No, he hasn't, but he's in London right now. His publicist sent him the tape, and he thinks he's going to do the show. Our Barbra Streisand Day was a bust.
Gloria: I missed that one.
Rosie: Thank God. I hope she missed it, too. That was the day with Meat Loaf and Richard Simmons, and it was Chaos Central. But I'm sure we'll have Elton John on the show.
Gloria: I'd like to switch gears here. I was at the Stand for Children Rally in Washington, D.C. this past June, and I thought your speech there was very important and deeply moving. I'd like to hear about how you got involved in that event.
Rosie: I've always been a fan of Marian Wright Edelman, who founded the Children's Defense Fund. I think it's a wonderful organization, and in our country I think we really do a disservice to our young, especially children who are poor. And when you have celebrity in America you also have a tremendous amount of power and influence, and you have to make a conscious decision about how you're going to use that power. My goal is to establish a national day care system for our country - a national standard so that all day cares that are set up in private homes have to be registered and have to meet qualifications that are appropriate for the people who are taking care of that next generation of citizens. So if there's anything I want to do with my celebrity, it's to make the world a safer place for kids. I'm very proud to be involved with The Children's Defense Fund and its offshoot, which was the Stand for Children Rally, in which we were trying to bring attention to the issue of children in a nonpartisan way.
Gloria: Is that going to be an annual event?
Rosie: I don't think so. I think it was done in this election year to try to bring those issues to the forefront and prevent the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill, which, in regards to poor children in America, is literally heinous. I don't know what they think is going to happen in five years when these mothers who are on welfare get a job at McDonald's at minimum wage, because they have to, because they are no longer getting welfare, and they don't make enough money to keep their children in day care. Who will watch the children? Not our government. To me, it's horrible.
Gloria: Have your feelings about these issues become stronger as a result of having adopted your son, or did your decision to adopt grow out of the same impulse?
Rosie: I think my activism came from my childhood. I grew up in a home that was not ideal. We were neglected in many ways. I always knew that I had an affinity for children, and I had a desire to touch and inspire them in the way that entertainers touched and inspired and provided me solace in a less than happy childhood.
Gloria: How does your family feel about being part of your comedy routine?
Rosie: They don't really mind it. The stuff about my dad is all made up.
Gloria: You mean he doesn't sound like the Lucky Charms elf?
Rosie: No, he has a very mild brogue. You can hardly even hear it. You know, you make it up. Your job as a comedian is to take a point, exaggerate it, and reflect it back to people in a way that's hopefully relatable. So I don't think my family minds, especially when it's made up. They've had to get used to it, as I had to get used to it. It's definitely an intrusion having somebody become famous and using you as fodder for their act. But I've never done a bit that I wouldn't do to their face. I'm protective over the things that they've asked me to be protective over. But it's hard; I think fame is the weird part for them.
Gloria: You're so nurturing in the way you treat your guests. Do you think that being a mother has influenced the way you approach your show?
Rosie: Well, I think that's always been my nature, and my having a child doesn't really change that. But now that people know that I am a mom, I think they just define that as a maternal quality. If I didn't have my son, I don't think people would necessarily see it as a maternal quality, but instead they'd think she's nice or she's kind. But now that I have a baby, I think it appears maternal because of the connection. I don't think that the show's different because of him, but I know that my life sure is. I always had a problem with things that I would and wouldn't do before he was here in my life. For example, in the movie Hocus Pocus, I didn't want to be the witch that killed and ate the kids. I've had movies sent to me and thought, I don't want to be involved in that kind of thing. I've always had to answer to myself pretty stringently just because it makes it easier to sleep.
Gloria: Who have you looked to as role models?
Rosie: When I was a kid, it was Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler in the entertainment arena. And in real life, it was my eighth-grade math teacher, Pat Marivel, and she sort of took me under her wing and mothered me and helped me through all those adolescent girl things.
Gloria: Of the movies you've made, which include Sleepless in Seattle, League of Their Own, Beautiful Girls, Exit to Eden, and Harriet the Spy, to name a few, which is your favorite?
Rosie: League of Their Own is probably my favorite. And there's a new movie coming out called Wide Awake, which is about a little boy whose grandfather dies, and he goes in search of God. I'm one of the nuns in his Catholic school. I saw it the other day, and I was really touched by it. I thought it was a great movie, and I'm really proud of that one. But I definitely think League of Their Own is the best.
Gloria: Is it true that you were offered the part in Exit to Eden after Sharon Stone turned it down?
Rosie: Yes, that's true.
Gloria: In that movie you had to wear a very tight fitting leather dominatrix costume, and I imagine it called up a lot of issues concerning body image. Was that a difficult part for you?
Rosie: I took that movie as a way to approach those problems that I had with my body image. I took that movie knowing full well that I had to wear that outfit, and knowing full well that it was going to be tough for me. Emotionally, it was very hard. The first few days on the set, I was really nervous and upset, but the crew was just great and they kept saying, "You look good in that, Rosie," and I just thought, What? But soon, I was wearing it all the time, and they'd say, "But Rosie, we're not doing that scene today." And I'd say, "Yeah, I know, but don't I look good?" And I was thinner then. I tend to go up and down, and I was fairly thin when I did that movie. The problem for me is that I generally don't realize that I'm gaining weight until I've gotten to a point where nothing fits. I can convince myself, as I gain ten pounds, Oh, I didn't. And then it's fifteen pounds, and then twenty, and then it's, How did I get twenty-five pounds fatter and not even know it? So that's the startling thing. Because when I am there, I think I'm the same as when I'm 185! So, it's hard.
Gloria: Getting back to your show, are there some lines that you won't cross when interviewing a guest?
Rosie: Yes. There are issues that celebrities don't want to bring up, and I can understand why. They ask beforehand, and I call and say, I would never bring up this tabloid story or that reference. And I won't do it, in the same way that I wouldn't want an interviewer to do it to me. But then there are certain situations, for example, if you book Kato Kaelin. Or if you book O. J. Simpson, you're not going to talk about his football career. But you know what? I would never book those people, so I don't get into that problem.
Gloria: As executive producer, do you have a lot of control regarding who you have on the show?
Rosie: Yes, I do.
Gloria: Do you write a lot of the material?
Rosie: Well, the opening part where we just talk before the jokes is all improvised. And then we have six writers who write the jokes that are actually in the newspapers. But the stuff like when I drink that really bad soda, that's all just made up. I just take what I get in the mail and bring it onstage and see what happens.
Viewers of The Rosie O'Donnell Show know that what happens is a wonderful opportunity to sit back and enjoy the kind of fun and family entertainment that she has identified as her goal. But the next time you see Rosie shoot a Koosh ball into the audience, remember you're watching someone who has made a decision to use her humor and her fame to make positive changes in our society - whether the issue is body image, the needs and rights of children, or how we look at and treat one another. And as all those headlines will tell you� that's nice!
GLORIA CAHILL is director of community service projects at New York University. She is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona and is writing a dissertation titled Body Image in Contemporary American Literature.
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