Interview with Rosie O’Donnell

From the December 2011 issue of Michigan Avenue magazine


Rosie O’Donnell may prefer to wear Crocs, but there’s no denying that she cleans up well – provided she doesn’t dress herself.

Her photo shoot at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater goes well for one main reason: The photographer is fast enough to finish before Rosie has exhausted the “Fiddler on the Roof” songbook. Singing, she loves. Glamour?

“I hate it,” says Rosie.

Once upon a time she tried to fight the makeovers. “I have done that, but my publicist and everyone else gets in a hissy fit,” she explains. “They’re like, ‘You look like you don’t care.’ So, you know, I gave up. I gave in.”

At any rate, it’s hard to argue with the results.

“Holy crap, I look good in these,” Rosie says of the pictures.

And they’re for a good cause: to promote “The Rosie Show,” an eclectic mix of funny people, rowdy music, game show silliness, reality show segments and audience interaction. When Oprah moved out of her Near West Side Harpo studios, Rosie moved in.

“She gave me the keys to this huge car, right?” says the New Yorker turned Chicagoan. Now “The Rosie Show” is the Oprah Winfrey Network’s best hope for finding its audience – if the audience can find OWN, that is.

“People come up to me and say, I can’t find you,” says Rosie. “And I’m like, ‘Call your cable provider. I don’t know where you live. What do you have, digital? I don’t know what channel it is.”

Whatever the channel, the show airs live weeknights at 6 p.m. at the sacred studio. Many of Oprah’s former employees remain, but some things have changed. For instance, babies are welcome in the office.

“Yesterday I got to hold a baby for, like, an hour during the meeting,” says Rosie. “A newborn baby. I was thinking, this is the greatest job in the world. You can have a staff member come in and say, ‘Here!’”

Rosie had a deal all lined up with NBC to return to TV, but she hesitated to sign it. “I was nervous about it because the Jay Leno/Conan thing had just happened, and I was feeling like corporations don’t really care about people, and the integrity level is just based in numbers and ratings. I didn’t know if I could go back into shark infested waters.”

So Rosie called up Oprah to find out if OWN might be interested in a pro looking to get back into the game. “Her network was the reason I wanted to be back on TV,” says Rosie. I’m turning 50, I was home for a decade [raising kids], and that’s a long time.”

She has enough experience to know to ignore the ratings for now. “It’s a network that’s just been born,” says Rosie. “It took CNN what, five years to become a relevant force in the media world, and the same with Bravo – they were around for 10 years before ‘Queer Eye’ hit. I’m thrilled to be at the ground level and growing as the network grows. I believe in what Oprah stands for and what we’re doing here.”

Rosie’s first successful talk show debuted in 1996, before she had come out publicly. “Initially nobody reall asked [if I was gay],” says Rosie. “This was before internet, before Perez Hilton. It’s all changed in the last 20 years.”

In 2006, Rosie signed on as moderator of “The View,” creating buzz for the show with her liberal passions and sparring matches with Elisabeth Hasselbeck. Ratings rose by 27 percent, but so did Rosie’s temper. She parted ways with the show with just about everyone’s feelings hurt.

It was a time when Rosie preferred to be at home anyway, with future wife Kelli Carpenter and their growing family. Rosie, who lost her own mother at age 10, adopted Parker, 17, Chelsea, 14, and Blake, 12. Vivienne Rose was conceived via artificial inception and born in 2002. Rosie became a foster parent, too, and says she wants even more kids.

When Parker was a baby, Rosie would cover his face from the paparazzi. Now she invites the vivacious 8-year-old Vivi to perform cartwheels on the stage for the audience.

Her other show guests aren’t necessarily pushing their latest projects; Rosie’s looking, she says, for people she’d like to talk to. That’s it. Russell Brand (and Oprah) graced her first show, and since then she’s invited Sarah Ferguson, Phyllis Diller, Martin Short, Common, Criss Angel, Roseane Barr, Wanda Sykes and Nancy Grace.

[can kill graf] Her dream guest would be Eminem, whom she admires for his rage-filled poetry. She proudly recites lyrics she wrote about her: “Then mosey on over to Rosie O’Donnell’s with McDonald’s/Jump in her lap and watch ‘The Sopranos.’”

“We’re not really doing pre-interviews with the guests, because I don’t want to have a show and then you see the guest on Letterman and they tell the same story,” says Rosie. “It’s not their fault. They’re actors, they’re not standup comics, and they have two funny stories, so they tell both of them. But when you already know where it’s going, you can’t really fake interest. You can’t listen when you already know the answer, you know? [can kill rest of graf] So before the show I just give them topics. ‘OK, we’re going to be talking about kids, being over 50, animals – is there any area you don’t want to go?’ If they say, ‘I don’t want to talk about my divorce,’ we just cross that off.”

For Rosie’s part, no topic seems to be off limits: her menopausal hot flashes, her ever-present Spanx, her new girlfriend Michelle Rounds, an information technology head-hunter who’s joined her in Chicago. They had a few months to settle in before the show geared up, and bought a $2.5 million house in the Lakeview/Southport Corridor neighborhood.

Like Oprah, Michelle believes in quality, so she’s dragged Rosie to Michigan Avenue for shopping, and to Gibson’s, the Salon Prive’s the Paris Club, Gino’s East and Naha. (“Naha’s my favorite,” says Rosie. “Best meal I ever had.”) They were even game enough to take a Segway tour of Chicago’s Museum Campus.

She’s had dinner with Oprah a few times, too. “We don’t, like, hang out,” says Rosie. “We’ve talked a couple times on the phone, but it’s not like we’re buddies and have beer and buffalo wings, you know? Although I’d love to, she’d be fun. But she’s got her own network. It’s a huge life, and I’m more grateful to her than I ever have been to anyone in my life. But I’m nervous around her still. I’m just trying to get over it.

“The worst thing that ever happened during my first talk show was the illusion that I was in competition with her. Because no one is.

“When she locks eyes with you it’s pretty intense. She’s a very powerful force, this woman. She is a satellite dish in a world of dial-ups, right? Everybody receives her signal. I don’t know a more powerful person in my era. Especially considering she’s not an entertainer – she’s herself.”

Between segments at an October taping of “The Rosie Show,” Rosie answers any and all questions from the crowd, even flashing her support garments.

Alexis Morris, 32, of Lake View has scored a prime seat: front and center. “I could never get tickets for Oprah,” she confesses. Alexis has been selected to participate in the game-show segment, a Rosie touch that’s endeared her to the audience.

How does Rosie’s show compare to Oprah? “I think it’s going to be way more fun, actually,” says Alexis. “I kind of like that she totally speaks her mind. She doesn’t care what people think. I love that.”

Also in the audience: A transvestite named Trixie has traveled from Pittsburgh to be here, along with other enthusiastic fans who are hoping to be “discovered.” Not too long ago, Rosie took notice of 28-year-old Hollee, an exuberant (and unemployed) member of the audience. Rosie promptly hired her to be the show’s announcer. Now the vibe in the studio is that anything, [ital]anything[unital] could happen.

Except maybe haute couture. “They tried to get me to do contacts,” Rosie says onstage before the show. “Not gonna happen.”

“You don’t like sticking things in your eye?” asks Hollee.

“Believe it or not, no,” says Rosie. “And they’re putting me in a lot of ponchos. But it’s a $600 poncho, they tell me, it’s in fashion! Fashion, my ass.”

She wears the fancy stuff well, but Rosie has only one sartorial wish: to be comfortable. “If I could only shop at Target for the rest of my life, I’d be perfectly fine,” says Rosie. “I can get anything I want in Target.”

With her 50th birthday coming up in March, Rosie vows that this is going to be the year that she gets it together – the show, family time, her weight — sounding not unlike her mentor, Oprah.

Rosie and her show aren’t quite there . . . yet. “It’s like a piece of clay,” says the craftsy Rosie. “You keep molding and molding. You know, we’re not ready for the kiln yet. We’re still molding, but I think we’re in a good place and off to a great start.”

Her job is simple, she says: “You just try to be truthful and talk about what’s going on.”


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