In Any Language, It’s More Than Idle Chat

Kevin Baxter is a Times staff writer

A suite on the top floor of a luxury hotel might seem like a strange place to be broaching the subject of respect, but then Cristina Saralegui has rarely taken the conventional approach to anything she’s done.

“I’m not afraid to say I’m a very intelligent woman,” she says. "[Latinas] cannot say that they’re intelligent. They can be beautiful, but they cannot be intelligent.

“And they cannot brag about it and say, ‘Yes, damn, I am smart and I am a woman,’ because we couldn’t get married. . . . I’ve been called an egomaniac so many times that’s it not funny,” she goes on, her voice rising in indignation. “Would you call Emilio Estefan self-absorbed? Would you call him too ambitious for his own good? Would you actually dare to interview somebody like Emilio and tell him, ‘Hey, man, what else can you want?’

“No. Because he’s a guy. But all this stuff gets dumped on me because I’m a woman.”


Respect. Aretha Franklin sang about it; Cristina Saralegui craves it. And as the principal player in a multimillion-dollar media empire, the Spanish-language talk-show host certainly seems to have achieved it. But this battle stopped being about one woman’s fight for recognition long ago. Now it’s a quest, a crusade, on behalf of women--and all Latinos--everywhere.

As the host of the top-rated U.S. show on Univision, the nation’s fifth-largest television network, Saralegui is arguably the country’s most influential Spanish-language media personality. Once a struggling magazine writer sharing a cramped apartment with her sister and choosing which debts to pay by drawing them from a hat full of overdue bills, Saralegui now draws an annual salary of more than $6 million and lives in a mansion called Villa Serena on Miami Beach’s exclusive Palm Island.

But money, she’ll tell you, cannot buy respect. That’s something she’s had to earn. And she’s done that, her supporters say, by doing more in the last 10 years to dismantle damaging Latino cultural norms than anyone else in the United States. Since 1989, when “El Show de Cristina” debuted, she has used that platform to preach, cajole, console and educate her 100 million viewers worldwide on such subjects as infidelity, homosexuality, incest and AIDS, subjects that were largely avoided in the Latino community before Saralegui made them respectable topics for discussion.

“There’s no one really doing what she’s doing,” says Alex Nogales, chairman of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a broad-based organization that tracks portrayals of Latinos in the media. “Is she sensationalistic? Yeah, to a degree. Has she done her job in trying to educate? . . . She has done precisely that.”


She’s done it so well that Nogales will present Saralegui later this month with his group’s Impact award for educating while entertaining. “Once you meet her and you are around her, you realize that this is a woman of integrity,” he says.

And accomplishment. A 50-year-old self-exiled Cuban with an iron-strong will who didn’t finish college, Saralegui took control of one of the most-read magazines in the Spanish-speaking world by the age of 30. And it’s that kind of dichotomy that still defines her television persona.

On one hand, she’s the caring friend, the understanding neighbor, the faithful confidant never too busy to lend a sympathetic ear. And please, call her Cristina, the name she’s affixed to her TV show, her monthly magazine and her daily radio commentaries, which are heard in more than 90 countries. At the same time she’s also the strict parent, the unsmiling schoolmarm, the stern boss who--shall we say it again?--demands respect.

“She’s very strong and she knows what she wants,” says Marcos Avila, a founding member of the Miami Sound Machine and Saralegui’s husband of 14 years. “She doesn’t go around and try to get an answer. She’ll ask you point-blank. But she’s very fair.”


Still, she has her detractors, critics who argue that she’s done little more than debase her race with frank, nationally televised discussions of promiscuity, homosexuality and women’s equality, still controversial subjects in many Latino homes.

“I have to teach Latinos it’s OK to talk about this stuff,” she has said. “I have strong views. And I’m not scared of sharing them.”

Not that others haven’t tried to frighten her.

“I have had bomb threats in Barcelona [and] in New York. I’ve been picketed,” she says. “I’ve had my children attacked, my parents attacked. All verbally.


“Also I have been able to speak in the United Nations in the General Assembly. [And] my kids get privileges because of me. So, in other words, it’s a two-edged sword.”


Saralegui’s midday press conference at a trendy Westside club is already 30 minutes behind schedule, and the guest of honor hasn’t even shown up yet. All the seats were taken long ago, so now gaps along the walls and between the tables are filling as late-arriving TV crews set up their cameras and sound equipment.

They’re here to ask Saralegui about her autobiography-cum-self-help book, “Cristina: My Life as a Blonde,” which quickly landed on the Spanish-language bestseller lists after its release last spring. But Cristina is running late, so the crowd will simply have to wait.


“Well, she sure seems to like herself,” harrumphs one impatient magazine editor as she skims the book. “She seems very arrogant.”

It’s a charge that Saralegui has heard before, yet it’s one that still angers her. The criticism, she says, is often fueled by jealousy over her privileged background or disgust over seeing a woman succeed.

“I know it’s hard to understand, but I am a person,” she says with a sigh. “I have a heart; I have a brain. I can’t help being a woman. This is what I have to do in this lifetime.”

Her family life is a little more complicated. Her grandfather, Francisco Saralegui, publisher of several of Cuba’s leading magazines, was once among the richest and most powerful men on the island. In the years before the revolution, his family lived in a spectacular seaside mansion in exclusive Miramar, a Havana neighborhood now dominated by the two-block-long Russian embassy.


Cristina’s father, who was being groomed to take over the family business, was a classmate of Fidel Castro and willing participant in an underground movement against the Batista dictatorship. But just weeks after the rebel victory, he turned against the new government and, within months, the family decided to flee, leaving behind their power, prestige and a considerable fortune to start over again in South Florida.

Saralegui was weeks past her 12th birthday when she last saw Cuba.

“It’s been very hard not being able to go back,” she says. “I want to visit my country. But if Fidel can get somebody like the pope to do PR for himself, imagine what he can do with somebody like me.”

“This is my country now,” says Saralegui, a naturalized U.S. citizen. “Cuba’s my roots.”


Her father earned--and lost--millions over the next 30 years, with Saralegui riding the waves of those successes and failures. When things were going well, she attended elite private schools; when money got tight, she was forced to drop out of college nine units shy of a degree in communications because her father couldn’t pay the modest tuition.

Nevertheless, her father’s name helped her land her first job--at Vanidades, a magazine he once owned--where she was paid $40 a week to write copy and work in the archives. When Cosmopolitan launched a Spanish-language edition in 1973, Saralegui was hired as its first staff writer. Six years later, she was named editor of what had become one of the most prestigious magazines in the Spanish-speaking world.

Outside the office, things weren’t going nearly as well. Saralegui’s first marriage--to a firefighter and real estate agent named Tony Menendez--was heading toward divorce, and her 80-hour workweeks were keeping her away from her young daughter. The long hours were also keeping her away from exercise and a decent diet so, fueled by junk food from the office vending machine, the 5-foot, 4-inch Saralegui soon ballooned to a size 18--from a size 6--and continued to wear her maternity clothes long after giving birth.

By the age of 30, she had complete control of one of the hemisphere’s most influential journals but absolutely no control over her own life. For Saralegui, the predicament provided an important lesson.


“I learned that you never marry . . . anyone unless it’s for love,” she says. “The reason why I made that big mistake is because I did not believe in love. I was cynical.

"[But] you learn from your hurts and your mistakes 10 times more than you learn from your wins.”

When Joaquin Blaya, then CEO of Univision, approached Saralegui with the idea of jumping to television 10 years ago, it was a tough sell. Although the Spanish-language network was nearly 30 years old, it still lacked a domestic presence, because the vast majority of its programming was imported from Mexico and South America.

For Blaya, a U.S.-based talk show was a cheap, easy way to give the network that presence as well as a forum for discussing issues affecting Latinos in this country. And who better to host it than the outspoken Saralegui, Latin America’s No. 1 Cosmo girl? With her, Univision would get both tongue and chic.


It turned out to be a groundbreaking endeavor for Spanish-language television. Although Telemundo, Univision’s chief rival, had recently launched its own talk show, “Cara a Cara” (Face to Face) with Maria Laria, the network failed to grasp the show’s potential. The program was taped on a dark, painfully small set at Telemundo’s Glendale affiliate, KVEA-TV, before a live audience of about two dozen. “El Show de Cristina,” by comparison, is filmed in suburban Miami in a bright three-level studio with room for nearly 200.

Saralegui clearly saw English-language rivals, not Laria, as her real competition and borrowed heavily from such established programs as “Donahue,” “Oprah Winfrey” and others, discussing topics such as child abuse, incest, infidelity--even staging a gay wedding--with little interference from the front office.

Viewers began tuning in in record numbers for Spanish television--some in disgust, others in amazement. But they were tuning in.

“What we’ve been trying to do with the show, basically, is open minds,” Saralegui says. “That’s a big responsibility.”


And it’s one she takes seriously, which is why her show sometimes displays all the moral ambiguity of a professional wrestling match, with the lines clearly, almost comically, drawn between good and evil.

“I’ve been a firm believer that human beings learn from good and bad examples,” she says. “I believe that if you present a very bad example that has bad consequences, people are going to go, ‘Oh no. If you smoke a lot, you’re going to get lung cancer. If you have indiscriminate sex, you might get AIDS.’

“If you present the real picture, I think they’re going to learn a lot more than if you just try to sanitize everything.”

The show also has its share of celebrity guests, such as Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, who was in the studio in early October. Some of her highest-rated episodes have featured one-on-one interviews with Spanish-language singers or soap opera stars.


Saralegui’s early success was so dramatic, CBS-TV was soon knocking on her door and offering a 13-week trial to see if the program would cross over. Language wasn’t a problem for Saralegui, who still prefers to read in English and who couldn’t write well in Spanish until she was into her 20s. Nor, apparently, was the show’s audience: Although it ran on weekday mornings during the summer of 1992, the “Cristina Show” received good reviews and decent ratings.

Money, however, was a problem. When CBS offered to extend the show but not increase its budget, Saralegui packed up and went home in what turned out to be a momentous decision for Univision. Today the network is the fifth-largest in the United States and its programming has made significant inroads in some of the nation’s largest markets. The evening newscasts in New York and Los Angeles, for example, outdraw their English-language counterparts, and last April, Miami affiliate WLTV became the first non-English-language station to win a sweeps period in a major market.

“Cristina: Edicion Especial,” the Monday night prime-time version of “El Show de Cristina,” is the network’s top-ranked domestically produced program, drawing a whopping 21.3% of all Hispanic households each week--about 2.6 million viewers. (Her afternoon viewership averages about 1.3 million viewers a day.)

But the Nielsen ratings measure only U.S. viewers, and Cristina’s show--and influence--are felt throughout the hemisphere. She’s seen in Europe and in nearly every country in Latin America--except her native Cuba. In some nations, among them Nicaragua, the show airs in reruns twice a day, giving her a worldwide audience that her management company estimates at 100 million per day. “Oprah Winfrey,” the top-ranked English-language talk show, is seen by about 6 million U.S. viewers on a daily basis and its worldwide audience has been put at 30 million.


Still, Univision almost let her get away. Saralegui and husband-manager Avila talked with Telemundo this summer before eventually signing a new three-year contract with Univision just after the fall season began.


You can see forever from the 24th floor of the Hilton Universal City, but after a week in her suite, Saralegui has grown tired of the view. Instead, she’s trying to focus on something that seems near enough to touch, but which she still can’t quite make out clearly: her future.

“I wrote the book at 50 because it’s a perfect time for a woman--not just a professional woman, for a woman--to look back on what you have accomplished . . . and sort of wrap it up and see what the hell you want to do with the rest of your life so it matters,” she says.


Up close, Saralegui is shorter and stockier than she appears on television. And her signature blond hair? It came from a bottle. Though 50, she could easily pass for 10 years younger, thanks in part to a face lift and chin implant she had done six years ago.

On the air she’s witty, funny, sarcastic and always direct. Off the air she’s, well, witty, funny, sarcastic and always direct. But there is another, albeit slender, side to her.

“There is a side where she’s shy,” says Luis Medina, a local promoter who has known Saralegui for 18 years. “When the cameras are not there, when the lights are not there, [there] are sides that not many people get to see.

“You can laugh and you can cry and get into trouble with her--everything--with one answer or one question.”


With most celebrities, as their profiles have grown, so has their power. With Saralegui, it was the other way around. Only recently has her stature come to match her strength. Even before she taped her first program at Univision, she was a holdout, insisting that the network improve, not simply match, the $130,000 annual salary she received at Cosmopolitan. And then, before signing, she paid a lawyer to make sure the document referred to her as a journalist and not as “the talent,” as most standard TV contracts do.

“I had never done a talk show. I had never done any show,” she says. “I’d been a journalist for 20 years, and that’s what I wanted in my contract, because I needed some respect.”

There’s that word again. But four months later she had more than respect--she also had the title of executive producer. “I call all the shots,” she says. “I even decide what airs and what repeats.”

As a result, her favorite themes, among them homosexuality and AIDS, receive frequent airplay. That both remain highly controversial topics only strengthens Saralegui’s resolve.


“I believe that gay people were made by [God] the same way we were made, and who am I to judge God?” she says. “Why did he make a flower blue instead of yellow? Why did he make somebody gay instead of straight?

“That’s the thing I want most in life to explain. When my son, who’s 12, comes to me and says, ‘Mommy, what’s gay?’ I tell him, ‘Well, it’s like having blue eyes or blond hair, being fat or being skinny. It’s just genetic.’

“And it’s amazing how tolerant the other kids are of gay kids. The problem is the adults. It’s our issue.”

It’s certainly Saralegui’s issue. In addition to raising public consciousness on the air, she’s helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars off the air for AIDS research and treatment facilities in Mexico and the U.S. She’s even created her own foundation, Up With Life/Arriba La Vida, dedicated to AIDS awareness and education in the Latino community. (All proceeds from her book will go directly to the foundation.)


“I don’t want to ram my views down anybody’s throat,” she says. “But everybody should have the privilege of saying whatever’s in their heart. That’s why my parents left Cuba.”

Her concerns reach far beyond AIDS awareness and free speech. She’s also launched or supported campaigns to boost literacy among Latinos and to open doors for young people interested in working in the media, for example. And she’s used her show to call attention and marshal support for countless other projects of concern to her community.

She insists it’s those efforts, not just one successful talk show, for which she wants to be remembered. Besides, if things work out as she hopes--and they generally do--the most recent contract she signed with Univision may turn out to be her last as a talk-show hostess. She has books to read and others to write. Plus there is much work she’s left undone.

“I’m getting on in years and certainly one of the things I want to do is encourage young . . . people--young producers, young directors--to come on in, the water’s fine,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of lip service that is paid in general to being the best that you can be. But nobody tells you how. Nobody opens a door for you or gives you a phone number.


“What I would like to do is get a little bilingual media company happening. There’s so much talent out there--new talent, Latino talent. And they have no outlet. There’s just so many young people out there that want to do what I do. So what I want to do the rest of my life is not only to be concerned about one talk show but see how we can expand that base.”

It’s a goal worthy of respect.


“El Show de Cristina” airs locally at 4 p.m. weekdays, with an evening segment Mondays at 10 p.m., on KMEX-TV.