There’s a reason Cristina Saralegui is known as the Spanish-language Oprah Winfrey. She is a dominant TV presence and a famous celebrity, a multimedia dynamo with a brand name who is probably as well-loved among fans around the world as is Ms. Winfrey. Ms. Saralegui, host of the popular Univision talk show “Cristina,” is one of six Latino stars who have been chosen to receive Leaders of Spanish-Language Television awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. She is the first Latina TV personality to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is an icon throughout the world. In anticipation of her honor, Ms. Saralegui spoke with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about her career and legacy.
TelevisionWeek: What is your reaction to winning this special award for your work in Spanish-language TV?
Cristina Saralegui: It shows that I’m getting on in years. When you’ve been doing the same show for 18 years, it’s like every day you wake up thinking, `Oh God, the kids are growing up and the show is growing up.’ I just can’t believe all these years have gone by.
TVWeek: You have been called the Spanish-language Oprah. What do you think when you hear that?
Ms. Saralegui: I’m really embarrassed by that. At the beginning I used to worry that Oprah would think that I made this up. But I realized that when you have a new product, like in 1989 when we first started the show, nobody knew what to call me. So they started calling me Oprah with salsa. That was in the first Univision press release. And now 18 years later, here I am.
TVWeek: What’s been Oprah’s reaction-do you know?
Ms. Saralegui: Oprah is very generous. I remember one time when I was in Chicago trying to rent her studios and we were at her show. At the end of the program, she said to me, “Cristina, stand up. They say you are Oprah with salsa, but I am the black Cristina!” She was very cool about it. She’s very generous.
TVWeek: Among Hispanic viewers, you are one of the most trusted personalities-like Walter Cronkite was for many years in America. Is that a responsibility you deal with?
Ms. Saralegui: Yes, it weighs a lot, because nobody’s perfect. I make mistakes on the air, just like I make them bringing up my three kids at home. So not every show has been something I love, but I realize that I’m not a priest, I’m not in a church. This is television and you have to give people what they want. What they want is a relief from all the bad news, they want entertainment … So in between what they want, I give them a little bit of what I think they need. Still, once in a while, you go home-especially when the show was daily (for 12 years)-and your conscience is heavy. You really don’t know if you helped more than hindered, or vice versa. It’s like how many times you scream at your kid and then you feel horrible.
TVWeek: You’re in charge of your show….
Ms. Saralegui: I’m very responsible for everything that goes on the air. I’ll tell you something else. I was looking at a press release about the show and it doesn’t say that I’m the executive producer. I am the boss of the producers. I have been since 1989, show No. 1. That is a big responsibility. I explain to them what to tape, how to tape it, what angle to give it, and then they convince me and I convince them … because it’s also their dreams, and they want to put on the air what they care about, why they studied mass comm. That’s another aspect of my responsibility.
TVWeek: Is there a temptation to follow the lead of “The Jerry Springer Show” or “Maury Povich” to do outrageous content? Mr. Springer told me his show is not to be taken seriously. What do you think of that?
Ms. Saralegui: I don’t know Mr. Springer. I don’t know Maury. But I think if Jerry said that to you, he is certainly not a responsible broadcaster. As far as my people are concerned, you know, everybody wants to sell the Hispanic market something. But they are really a conglomeration of 23 countries that are living in the States adapting to life in a different environment with the language and all that. I saw my parents do that when they came to America from Cuba in 1960. But I think with all the violence and the gangs in the urban Latino neighborhoods, the black neighborhoods, it is irresponsible to show violence on television. Totally. Especially TV that is real, like the people and panelists on my show. We’re not just doing a movie where everybody understands that it’s fiction. So I never show violence on my show. If guests start fighting, we stop the taping. The guards come in and when everybody’s calmed down, then we proceed. I say no to violence. Flying saucers, that’s OK, because am I going after the ratings? Yes, because if you don’t take care of your ratings, you’re dead. It’s like circulation. I was a magazine editor for many years, and if you don’t circulate, honey, nobody hears your message. The ratings are the lifeblood of television, but it doesn’t mean you have to go so low to get them.
TVWeek: Your father was a publisher. Did you learn a lot from him?
Ms. Saralegui: Oh yes, my father, my uncle and my grandfather. When we came from Havana, the family magazine was called Vanidades. It’s still around, over 100 years old, and it’s the No. 1 Spanish-language ladies’ service magazine. My family owned that magazine, and that’s why I wanted to become a journalist.
TVWeek: How did you make the transition from magazine editor to talk-show host?
Ms. Saralegui: I made it in a very different manner than kids that start as producers or on news desks. I started when I was very young in print and worked my way up. Our magazine had the peculiarity in that it circulates all over Latin America, not just in the United States. Basically, I had to learn to write and edit the other writers in a Spanish that really doesn’t exist anymore. You can’t find it in any dictionaries, it’s colloquial, so it doesn’t sound like a textbook, but everybody understands it. That’s very tricky-it’s a very different use of language. We learned how to do that. And what I did, I translated that into the TV show. The words I use in TV are the same that I used to write. I was the editor for Cosmopolitan en Espanol, the Latin American Cosmo. I adapted everything that I did in the magazine to the television show.
TVWeek: What TV personalities or broadcasters have inspired you?
Ms. Saralegui: My mentor is Miss Helen Gurley Brown, editor in chief of Cosmopolitan. Helen is still doing all the international editions even though she’s semi-retired, I believe. Thirty years ago she taught me that you could be hard-hitting and still be a professional woman. She said you could still raise a family, do other things and have a well-rounded life.
TVWeek: You have many other interests in your life, in addition to the show, like your new decorating company, Casa Cristina. How do you keep it all in balance?
Ms. Saralegui: It helps that the kids are grown up, because when they were little, it was a nightmare. It also helped a lot that I picked the right guy. The secret is to get a partner for life. I’ve been with my husband for 23 years now. You know, there are women who will fret about what dress to wear to a party, but they won’t pay half as much attention to whom they will be with for the rest of their lives. You can’t pick someone because he’s cute or he dances great.
I always tell the professional girls that work for me that they have to be careful with who they pick a partner, because it can be sabotage at home or it can be living with a full partner who will take kids to doctors, etc. In other words, to take turns in careers. That is what I am teaching my daughters.
TVWeek: Tell me about Casa Cristina, which is a home decorating line of furniture, linen, rugs, etc.
Ms. Saralegui: A few years ago, my husband [Marcos Avila]-who is also my partner in all my businesses-told me that we have a brand. We had a magazine, Cristina, which lasted for 15 years, also the radio show and the TV show. We own our own studios. In other words, we had a media brand. So he said, “Should we try our luck with product and extend the brand
?” And I said, “Yeah.” We started with furniture, and from there it was home accessories, then rugs and lamps and now kitchen textiles and sheets and towels and linens. It has only been two years but it’s going really well. I’m really enjoying it because it’s so totally different from being a TV producer.
TVWeek: It sounds like a big job …
Ms. Saralegui: Yes, but it’s beautiful because it’s a side of me that doesn’t get nurtured very much, the girly side. I’m a frustrated interior designer. I love the little flowers on the nightstand and the music and the candles. Usually, I’m always on a plane or I’m screaming and telling people what they have to do. Casa Cristina is something completely different. I didn’t know it was going to grow so fast and give me so much satisfaction.
TVWeek: You’ve crossed over to American TV on occasion, like “The George Lopez Show” and “Passions.”
Ms. Saralegui: I like acting because it’s the exact opposite of what I do. On my show, I work two cameras and it’s completely unscripted. When you act, you read the script, and you’re rarely allowed to improvise, and you cannot even look at the camera. It’s fun and relaxing. George [Lopez] is a personal friend, so with him I had a blast. But the most fun of all was doing “Hollywood Squares.” Henry Winkler was the producer then and he had me do 10 shows. Even now, people will stop me on the street and say, “You’re Cristina from `Hollywood Squares!”‘
TVWeek: How do Spanish-language fans react when they see you out of the studio?
Ms. Saralegui: It’s very seldom that I get an incensed person. I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s our audience, but they are very respectful. I don’t know if other Spanish-speaking stars have the same reaction that I do, but with me fans don’t want an autograph-they want a hug. They feel like they know me because it’s been three generations.
TVWeek: Are there any dreams you haven’t yet achieved?
Ms. Saralegui: Personally, yes. I want a grandchild! I tell my daughter, “You’ve been married two years, come on.” She says if I want a baby that bad, I should have it!