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
“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
And, in a definite first for a B&C Hall of Fame inductee, a mattress
“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.”