By Ken Kerschbaumer -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/23/2005 8:00:00 PM
Oprah with salsa. That's what Univision called Cristina Saralegui when it was trying to give the wider public a sense of what the host of a Spanish-language talk show was all about. But it was Winfrey herself who put the proper spin on her while Saralegui was in Chicago at a taping of Winfrey's show. The queen of daytime TV told the audience that there was a woman in the studio who is known as Oprah with salsa.
“But that's a lie,” said Winfrey. “I am the black Cristina.”
“I was so red,” recalls Saralegui of the moment. “But I've been honored to be compared with Oprah. And it's definitely better than being called Donahue in drag.”
Since Univision launched The Cristina Show in 1989, Saralegui has made the transition from high-energy publishing magnate to someone who has not only a weekly talk show, a Web site and a magazine but also a sportswear line. And a home-furnishings line. And a furniture line.
And, in a definite first for a B&C Hall of Fame inductee, a mattress line.
“Two years, my husband [Marcos Avila] said we had a media brand through owning our studios, a production company and a magazine,” she says. “So why not extend the brand into products? Martha Stewart hadn't done too badly with it.”
Having a furniture line and making guest appearances on shows like The George Lopez Show and Hollywood Squares is a long way from Saralegui's childhood in Cuba. Born in Havana, Jan. 29, 1948, Cristina left the country with her family in 1960 to settle in Miami's newly formed Cuban ex-pat community. It was there, with the help of her grandfather, her family and her own sheer determination, that Cristina began a journalism career that has been transformed into a multimedia empire.
Saralegui's rise in the industry shouldn't be a surprise given her lineage. Her grandfather, Don Francisco Saralegui, was a magazine publisher whose empire was so large he was known as “The Paper Czar” throughout Latin America and Cuba, and he owned the company that imported all of the newspaper and magazine paper into Cuba.
“When I was a child, I would go with my dad and granddad to see the printing press. I grew up smelling ink,” she says. “Being in print was all I ever wanted to do in my life. When I told my dad that I wanted to be a journalist, he said I was going to starve because they don't make any money. But it was a passion.”
In college, she turned that passion into an internship at Vanidades, the top women's magazine in Latin America, which her grandfather had created years earlier. The print medium laid an important foundation for Saralegui's skill set. In 1979, after spending time working on three Latin American publications at the same time, she was named editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan En Español, the Spanish-language version of Hearst's popular magazine circulated in Latin American countries and the U.S. She held that post for 10 years until she resigned to become executive producer and host of The Cristina Show.
As editor of a provocative magazine, she made guest appearances on the hugely popular Sabado Gigante with Don Francisco. She was so good on her first appearance that she was invited back for 10 straight weeks. “I thought, if I can promote Cosmo, I'm there,” she says. After the 10-week stint, her own show was born.
“I'll never forget my first contract,” she says. “It had the word 'talent' on it, and to me talent meant you're good at something. But, for them, it meant you stand there and everybody else makes decisions for you. We spent the little money we had to get our lawyer to take 'talent' out of the contract. Since then, I've been executive producer.”
After 12 years of hosting the program every day, Christina found herself burned out and bored. “And when you're bored, you become boring,” she says. She also had three children—Cristina, Stephanie Anne and Jon Marcos—who were all growing up (they're now 27, 22 and 19, respectively). She wanted to spend more time with them, and she wanted to dip her toes into some new business ventures.
The show now airs just once a week, as her media presence grows larger. “Right now, I love doing what I'm doing,” she says. “Working with the different businesses, I travel a different circuit than the TV industry. It's not such a dog-eat-dog world.”
She's well aware that a major reason for her success is that she's a straight shooter. “I have no connection between my brain and mouth so whatever I want to say comes out unedited,” she says. “It's my biggest defect but also my biggest virtue.”
It also helped her break down the stereotype of Latinos as being unwilling to discuss sensitive topics like homosexuality or AIDS. “People told me it wouldn't work because Latinos would not discuss private matters on TV,” she says. “But it was like uncorking a bottle of champagne because they were dying to talk and ask about those issues.”
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