Unsinkable Rosie O'Donnell
Advanced TV Herstory knows you’re curious about Rosie O’Donnell. Depending on your age, your questions range from Who is she – to what has Rosie been up to lately? Depending upon what you already know and your source of news, you might wonder what’s the connection between Rosie O’Donnell and presidential candidate Donald Trump?
This segment of Advanced TV Herstory seeks to answer all those questions about America’s EveryWoman, Rosie O’Donnell. Why this is important is that it doesn’t take a billionaire to put smart money on the fact that Rosie will be a participant in American dialogue well into the future.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
Rosie O’Donnell got her start in stand up comedy. She’s a native of Commack NY – which happens to be the town next door to my husband’s home town. Rosie is basically his age, so with that small connection, my view of her is that she’s deep down, just plain folk.
In the 80s, she was a refreshing change from other emerging and established comics. She was candid about aspects of her childhood – her mother’s death, life in the suburbs, TV – that made American women, in particular, appreciate her presence on TV.
She had a few small roles in TV sitcoms, and you might remember she was the wise-cracking 3rd baseperson of the World War 2 women’s professional baseball team from A League of their Own – Doris Murphy. Alongside Madonna, Geena Davis and Tom Hanks, Rosie’s performance lives up to the movie’s tagline:
Once in a lifetime you get a chance to do something different.
1992 was a long time ago, but Rosie is still going strong.
She’s an actress, comedian, writer, blogger, speaker and entrepreneur who is known for her candor. In fact, when you hear about some of the instances when her candor rankled the establishment or the status quo, you have to think that Rosie more often than not is on the right side of herstory. Sometimes she’s just a few years ahead of the times.
Let’s look at the high profile clashes that highlight of her career. She’s no stranger to controversy – or – in another way of thinking – she gives as well as she gets. In the corporate world, she’d be known as a change agent. And if she was a man, she may not have been pegged with nearly as much negative baggage as she has.
From 1996 to 2002, Rosie’s award winning TV talk-variety show made her a household name. Whether in her opening monologue or through her selection of guests, we got to know Rosie as Every Woman. She shared her loves and losses, her crushes and moments of awe.
The show, its crew and Rosie won multiple Daytime Emmys in the talk show category during its run. Rosie’s guests were occasionally brought into controversial topics – whether they were prepared for it or not is another story. If unprepared, it was spun by the media as an ambush or dust up. Rosie had opinions about guns, war, parenting – a whole host of topics that she felt didn’t get discussed with nearly the intensity – on American TV – as it should. She had 1193 episodes to work with and many, including her, report that she was burning out and losing her grasp toward the end of the show’s run.
Those final years, punctuated with politically charged rants or aggressive interviews with guests earned her the reputation for being difficult to get along with – a label placed on many more women than men in this world.
She was straddling the demands of her show and fame with her true values that helped her get to her position – from her desire to create a loving healthy environment for her family to delivering high quality performances, like those of her idols.
In her 2007 book Celebrity Detox, Rosie writes that quote
- six years of celebrity-hood had left me depleted and I had to find myself, find my art, find my family again. I went off the air so I could touch down on the ground.
In 2016, is this book even relevant to media studies and our interest in celebrities? Yes. Is it relevant in understanding sexism in media? Yes. How many other women, whether they are in politics or not, can withstand the criticism for her opinions and perceived “dust ups” with others? Not many.
So really, do yourself a favor and read or listen to Rosie O’Donnell’s Celebrity Detox, published by the Hachette Group in 2007.
The book does a great job of reminding us just how real Rosie is, even today. She provides us context into her awe of Billie Jean King, Barbara Walters and Barbra Streisand. She reveals the encouragement she remembers from her mother, who died young, that a working class girl could make it in America.
And Rosie shares real encounters with celebrities. Very fun.
Billie Jean is the real deal. It’s like befriending your teacher in a way – no matter how familiar she becomes to me, I will always slightly be mystified that I am near her. Billie Jean King inspired me, to try, for sure, walking onto the court with Bobby Riggs, a loudmouth, old man tennis player who hated everything Billie Jean was. He called her names, taunted her, teased her; he challenged her to a game of tennis. - Rosie O'Donnell, Celebrity Detox, page 31
He was her Trump. Billie Jean’s Trump, only Riggs had actual talent… Rosie goes on to recount her memory of watching the Battle of the Sexes on TV in 1973. She has since spent countless hours in King’s presence.
By the time she had written Celebrity Detox, Rosie’s initial feud with Donald Trump was history. She recounts its beginning on page 143…
The night of December 19, Kel (Kelli Carpenter) and I were relaxing, watching TV and on came Trump in a press conference about his benevolence vis-à-vis Miss USA and her expected recovery from an alcohol problem. I have a problem – SHE WRITES – with the whole notion of Miss USA as it’s defined and enacted by men like Donald, taking twenty year old girls, parading them around onstage in bikinis while he and a bunch of other old men give them a score, and if they win, then what? The become Donald’s own doll for a year, his brand for 365 days, because he’d bought the pageant, which means to me at least, he’d bought the girls and buying people, especially young nubile ones who probably make you far more money than you pay them to do your bidding – of course I have a problem with this.
So that’s where it started and there’s no need to go into he said-she said details. This happened more than a dozen years ago. Remember by then, the luster of beauty pageants had worn off. Women saw through the rewards… the scholarships. Delta Burke had been held up to a high standard as she, who is just one of many pageant winners who has attempted to cross over into TV. The Designing Women star gained weight in the show’s second and third seasons. That’s covered in another segment of Advanced TV Herstory.
With beauty and the tiara come high expectations.
Rosie wasn’t having any of it. And once provoked, neither was Donald. In 2006 – yes a decade ago, someone uploaded to YouTube an edited down version of a no-holds-barred interview Trump gave Entertainment Tonight.
If there’s any doubt that he made those statements only once and then regretted them – well there is no doubt. In fact, he doubled down on the controversy – reveled in it in a little bro-chat with David Letterman on The Tonight Show.
Okay, let’s take a deep breath or a shower – whatever you might need to remove those sounds from your head.
If I were more of a cynic, I’d say the feud was a staged set up of two cons who like to hear their own voices and think that because of their fame, their opinions matter more than yours or mine. Stoke the coals of controversy to keep your name on the nightly Entertainment Tonight Show, to grab the paragraph in People Magazine…
But at what cost?
I and really all of American – okay now that Miss Universe is involved – all of the world’s womanhood should give Rosie credit for, in that moment, calling out the pageant circuit for what it is. Moreover, as the economics of the pageant industry had changed, thereby allowing them to be bought out by a wealthy lewd billionaire – her voice was essential. And she had the bully pulpit to do it. So it was the right thing.
And in 2016, maybe we respect her a lot more for spending a bit of her celebrity capital on that important issue.
Because when the TV show that bears your name runs nearly 1200 episodes over 6 years, you spend a little, you earn a little.
Like this wonderful bit with Bea Arthur, who tells a story of Rosie being Rosie. The Rosie who came from the Long Island suburb a few miles from my husband old ‘hood.
The book Celebrity Detox is a candid expression of the ups and downs of fame. And Rosie’s fame, at the time she quit her show, was tied more to controversy and conflict than it was her consistent delivery of a quality product. She cared a lot about many topics of importance to American life, but from a public relations perspective, I would say she was using the wrong tools to express those concerns.
She burned through her capital quickly because she was using the wrong tools and methods for her messaging.
Rosie withdrew from the spotlight, took care of her kids, found balance. She invested in a cruise line offering for gay families.
And then one of her childhood idols, a woman who defined perseverance and class in Rosie’s eyes, asked her to join The View. Barbara Walters asked Rosie O’Donnell to resume her place in the spotlight.
Full disclosure, I’ve never been a View fan. I like the women who are on there as entertainers. But it’s largely through their fame as entertainers (Barbara Walters and a handful of journalists are the exception) that they have access to be on this show.
Last I checked even with modern conveniences, I only have 24 hours in a day. I don’t need to hear from Elizabeth Hasselbeck about anything. She’s a softball player who led her Boston College team to victory, later married a football player, was a tennis shoe designer for Puma for five minutes and otherwise has simply carried talking points for a conservative agenda.
If she was my neighbor, I’d be nice to Elizabeth Hasselbeck. I’d lend her my folding chairs or picnic cooler. I wouldn’t get involved in a conversation that included news of the day, politics or religion.
So that’s why I don’t watch The View and never will. Moreover, I don’t like it when women OR men speak over each other and interrupt each other. This is theater. It’s disrespectful theater that only sets the example for younger viewers that conversations are more about who can get in the louder word, the last word, the more provocative word.
But Rosie was known for being provocative, for being loud and for caring enough about many, many issues to return to the spotlight.
Unlike her own show, Rosie had little control of The View’s production. That was Barbara Walter’s area. It essentially was Barbara’s show. Rosie saw opportunities for improvement, but at a table of Alpha Women, did she really expect that her ideas would be warmly received?
So initially, Rosie filled the role as a progressive feminist with strong interest in women’s issues, families, safety and peace. Her first celebrated day on The View - - She’s returned a few times now – she was cordial and measured, but strong and opinionated.
The table of Alpha Women known as The View maybe was never given a credible metric for success or ever really understood. Rosie’s addition, according to her book Celebrity Detox, helped ratings immensely.
The View’s groundbreaking format was an intentional sense that the conversation was candid and directly from the women seated in the chairs. Rosie resisted wearing the audio device in her ear by which she and the other women took direction from producers. Should we be disappointed to learn that the facts, points and statistics these entertainers-turned-policy analysts rattled off weren’t even in their brains to begin with?
Rosie didn’t want others to program or direct her part of the conversation. She had led her own show and conducted her own interviews.
So the controversy started brewing. Rosie fell out of Barbara Walters’ good graces. She was the bad girl. Was this just another fabricated measure of controversy, like the Trump & Rosie feud could have been, to keep the show in the public conversation?
Here’s how Entertainment Weekly covered it…
The View EW
In the study and teaching of leadership, you have leaders and followers. Leaders must lead, regardless of how large their egos are. Otherwise things falter. Barbara and Rosie clashed and while yes, ratings equate to money, Barbara’s command of her show and resistance to changing it may not have made her the best role model.
Alpha Women are much more effective when they have a common enemy than when they are simply placed at a table and provided topics that are beneath their talents and intellect.
A look at this stand which Rosie took with Elizabeth Hasselbeck is out there for the public record. It puts Rosie on the right side of history.
Catching a few clips on YouTube while reading Celebrity Detox is quite a walk down memory lane. Rosie’s show and even The View contained moments that make me proud of the role women have played in TV. Taboo topics land front and center. Tough points get made. Progress. And as the controversial one, Barbara’s nemesis, the one who asked pointed questions of her own guests, Rosie has been in and out of the spotlight. She’s taken a lot of heat and sometimes, the spotlight is even too bright for her.
Yet, battle-tested is a valuable adjective when the moment calls for it. In 2016, Rosie made headlines again…. Okay, small-ish headlines. It was Donald Trump who raised memories of their longstanding feud in the first presidential debate. In this moment in time, Alpha Women across the country – indeed around the world – join together in a shared cause of not only electing the first woman president but also for calling out sexism and racism that stands in the way of equality for all.
Giving as good as she gets and never backing down from a fight, Rosie O’Donnell has joined the esteemed club led by Senator Elizabeth Warren – of prominent women who tweet and taunt – releasing hot air out of a balloon that seems to refill every day – as herstory counts down to Election Day.
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Rosie O’Donnell has written two books, but I confess I only read the more current of the two – Celebrity Detox. Audio clips used in this segment come from montages compiled by and clips posted by other YouTube account holders.
When it comes to the untold stories of women in and of TV, there’s no shortage of content. Big thank you to David Brown, who makes this content sound better with every show. So stay tuned… and thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.