Our Dear Aunt Rosie

Rosie O'Donnell returns with a new HBO special | By David Helton

Everybody knows that Rosie O’Donnell has a big mouth.

Everybody also knows that Rosie O’Donnell has a big heart.  Over her career, O’Donnell has developed a reputation for raising funds and dedicating her own personal philanthropy to charitable causes. In May 1996, Warner Books advanced O’Donnell $3 million to write a memoir. She used the money to seed her For All Kids Foundation to help institute national standards for children’s day care across the country.

Since 1997, Rosie’s For All Kids Foundation, overseen by Elizabeth Birch, has awarded more than $27 million in grants to over 1,400 child-related organizations, and that’s just one of her many impressive activities on behalf of children.  Honored by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Rosie has also given millions to Early Childhood Care and Education program grants to over 900 additional nonprofit organizations.

San Francisco public relations firm Fineman Associates awarded top prize to Procter & Gamble’s designation of O’Donnell as “unkissable” in a promotion for Scope mouthwash on the 1997 annual list of the nation’s worst public relations blunders.   In response to the promotion, O’Donnell partnered with Warner – Lambert’s competitor Listerine who donated bottles of mouthwash to the studio audience and donated $1,000 to charity every time a hosted guest would kiss her in exchange for O’Donnell promoting their product.  On occasion, the guests would offer multiple kisses and People Magazine reported that O’Donnell “smooched her way to more than $350,000!”

In 2003, O’Donnell and then partner Kelli O’Donnell collaborated with Artistic Director Lori Klinger to create Rosie’s Broadway Kids, dedicated to providing free instruction in music and dance to New York City public schools or students. Rosie’s Broadway Kids serves more than 4,500 teachers, students, and their family members at 21 schools.  She is a tireless advocate for musical education and exposure for children who otherwise wouldn’t get it at all.

However, her outspoken political views and issues in her personal life often take center stage, overshadowing some of the more important work that Rosie does.

Most notoriously is Rosie’s very pubic battle with blow-hard Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.  Trump’s tussle with O’ Donnell dates back to 2006, when the then-co-owner of the Miss USA pageant decided not to fire crown-holder Tara Conner after revelations of drug use and underage drinking. O’Donnell, a co-host on The View at the time, blasted Trump’s decision and compared him to a “snake-oil salesman on Little House on the Prairie.” She also said he went bankrupt and criticized his multiple marriages: “[He] left the first wife – had an affair. [He] had kids both times, but he’s the moral compass for 20-year-olds in America. Donald, sit and spin, my friend.”

Recently Fox News’ Megyn Kelly unintentionally reignited the feud at a Republican debate in August, where she grilled Trump about the derogatory words he’s used to describe women. “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” she began.

“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump interrupted.

Which prompted this tweet from O’Donnell: “try explaining that 2 ur kids.”

She got her big break in 1996 when The Rosie O’Donnell Show was launched and proved to be very successful, winning multiple Emmy Awards.  It also earned O’Donnell the title of “The Queen of Nice” for her style of light-hearted banter with her guests and interactions with the audience.  With New York City as the show’s home base, O’Donnell displayed her love of Broadway musicals and plays by having cast members as guests, encouraging the audience to see shows, premiering production numbers as well as promoting shows with ticket giveaways.

The Rosie O’Donnell Show was a huge hit.

I was just out of college in the 90s and working in San Francisco, struggling to find my way as a gay person.   As strange as it may sound, Rosie O’Donnell has felt like a family member to many of us who grew up watching her show.  She’s like the fun aunt you can’t wait to spend time with.   She can cheer you up and make you laugh just when you need it most.  However, I was disappointed in Rosie.  I personally felt like her show could have been the perfect platform for LGBT advocacy.  However, that never happened.   While the show was a lot of fun to watch, it was scrubbed clean of anything gay.   Rosie would later redeem herself after coming out by taking a stand politically and becoming a very respected and revered mouthpiece for the LGBT movement.


In her January 31, 2002 appearance on the sitcom Will & Grace, she played a lesbian mom. A month later as part of her act at the Ovarian Cancer Research benefit at Caroline’s Comedy Club O’Donnell came out as a lesbian, announcing “I’m a dyke!”

“I don’t know why people make such a big deal about the gay thing. … People are confused, they’re shocked, like this is a big revelation to somebody.” The announcement came two months before the end of the hosting of her talk show. Although she also cited the need to put a face to gays and lesbians, her primary reason was to bring attention to the gay adoption issue. O’Donnell is a foster and adoptive mother. She protested against adoption agencies, particularly in Florida, that refused adoptive rights to gay and lesbian parents.

Diane Sawyer interviewed O’Donnell in a March 14, 2002, episode of PrimeTime Thursday. O’Donnell told USA Today that she chose to talk to Sawyer because she wanted an investigative piece on Florida’s ban on gay adoption. She told Sawyer if that were done, “I would like to talk about my life and how (the case) pertains to me.” She spoke about the two gay men in Florida who faced having a foster child they raised removed from their home. State law won’t let them adopt because Florida bans gay or bisexual people from adopting. O’Donnell’s coming out drew criticism from some LGBT activists who cited her repeated references to being enamored of Tom Cruise on The Rosie O’Donnell Show as deceptive.   She responded in her act stating, “I said I wanted him to mow my lawn and bring me a lemonade. I never said I wanted to blow him.”

Rosie was slated to host an event here in San Francisco, but at press time, she was in the midst of rescheduling.  However, she was kind enough to take a call and chat for bit.  She has to know that San Francisco loves her.

“And I love San Francisco and can’t wait to get back!” Rosie said cheerfully in our recent phone call.

Suddenly it feels like I am talking to my gay aunt Rosie.  She’s warm and familiar and, as always, unapologetically honest and open.  There is something really genuine about Rosie O’Donnell.

I recently watched your Barbra Streisand interview from 1997… it was such a sweet, genuine moment in television history.  We all know you are a Barbra super-fan and everyone, including your sister Maureen, was there that day to support you.  Do you miss having a daytime talk show?  Do you miss having that daily outlet?  I can’t even really watch the Barbra Streisand clip because I still get emotional about it.  I mean, that was what I dreamed of as a little girl.  That was the moment that my dream came true.  I dreamed that I would meet her and know her and be friends with her.  It’s so trippy now to watch it.

It was such an innocent time back then.  It’s funny.  I don’t really miss it [the talk show] in my life now in February 2016.  There weren’t other delivery platforms and a thousand YouTube channels and the internet hadn’t really exploded yet in the 90s.  This crazy celebrity, pop-culture addiction that America has fallen into wasn’t really a thing back then.  It was so innocent.  I guess I don’t miss having it today because I think it would need to be a completely different show in 2016; I miss it for what it was back then.  It was an exciting, beautiful time in my life.

Barbra was a source of comfort for you.  In your recent stand-up special on HBO, you also spoke about a 7th grade teacher who ‘loved you back to life.’  That was a really touching way to describe it.  I think a lot of us, including myself, who grew up in a motherless home tend to be very maternal towards our friends and loved ones by nature.  You have done so much for children’s charities as well as your own children.  You also use Broadway and musical theatre as a platform to educate and excite children.  What was the moment in your childhood that ignited that love of theatre?  It was my mother.  My mother was obsessed with Broadway.  I was the only 1st grader who knew all the words to the songs in Oklahoma and South Pacific <laughs>. Remember, this was pre-VCR and On-demand; you couldn’t just watch whatever you wanted whenever you wanted.  You know, my kids still can’t believe that I lived in such a dark time <laughs>.

The Sound of Music came on TV maybe once a year around Christmas, remember?  And we would all gather around the TV as a family.  We’d adjust the wire hanger and tin foil on our black and white TV to get the picture to stop doing that weird scrolling thing <laughs>

Dear God, we had that same TV.  <laughs> My son and I went to see ‘Bridge of Spies,’ the new Tom Hanks movie.  It’s set in the late 60s and my son turns to me and asks ‘Mom, were you alive back then?’ <laughs>.  They really can’t believe how old I am.  I can’t believe it either!

Anyway, my mother loved musical theatre and musicals and Broadway – and I got it from her.  She bought all the cast albums.  When a new show opened she’d run out and get the record so we could all listen to it.  I knew when I came home from school and I could hear Barbra Streisand or some musical soundtrack playing that my mother was in a good mood.  Sometimes you’d hear Simon and Garfunkel, and you’d be like ‘Uh Oh… this isn’t gonna be good’ <laughs>.  I mean the soundtrack of our home was really a Broadway musical, Barbra Streisand and the music of the day.

I loved your HBO special, A Heartfelt Stand Up – it was so, so good.  I have to admit though, I was nervous for you.  I get nervous for you.  Why?! <laughs>

I get nervous because every time your name pops up in the news, it’s always attached to something so ridiculous.  I always feel like ‘Oh, for God’s sake, what now? What the hell has Rosie done now? Who is she apologizing too now?’ <laughs>  But honestly, I usually read the articles and often I feel like most comedians get this license to be on stage and not be taken so literally — I don’t think you get that freedom anymore.  I think people rarely lighten up with you and give you the room to simply be funny without taking everything so seriously out of context.  Do you ever think in your own mind ‘I really should not be saying this right now… I am gonna get in sooo much trouble later.”  You know… <laughs> No, I don’t.  It’s kind of a curse really.  My ex used to say to me ‘Is there ever a thought that goes through your brain that doesn’t come out of your mouth?’  I mean, no.  There isn’t.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me?! <laughs> Sometimes, I would love to have a filter and be able to stop myself but I just can’t.  It’s how I have lived my whole life.  The kids and I were recently stuck at an airport for five hours and I was chatting with the people around me and the kids were like ‘Jesus, can you please shut up?’ — No!  I can’t!  I am just too curious.  I see someone and we make eye contact and I just blurt out ‘Why are you in that wheelchair… what happened to you?’ <laughs> I’m a curious person.  I have always been curious about the people around me – not in a bad way.  I am absurdly honest.  It’s sometimes detrimental to what people perceive as my career but I don’t think my day to day life is my career.  I am living my life and whatever happens to me, well, happens.  And I talk about it.

You’ve been a pioneer for women in comedy since you started in the business.  Even though you weren’t really ‘out,’ I think that everyone who knew you from the comedy clubs already knew you were a lesbian.  No offense, but I don’t think you were very good at hiding it.  I honestly didn’t think you were hiding it until I saw your talk show.  Do you regret not coming out sooner?  I do.  Yes.  Sometimes I do.  But when my show came on the air in 1996 there was no Will & Grace.  Ellen was not out yet.  When Ellen did come out she was put through hell.  It was an unimaginable thing back then to be publicly out.  No one believed that you could be out and honest and also still have a successful career in daytime TV.  By the time I did come out, I knew it was the right time.

You came out publicly in 2002.  Why?  It was about an issue more important that just my sexuality. It was about our basic human rights, particularly the right to adopt children. Listen, sexuality is a hard thing for so many people.  For me, my childhood was so much more difficult than anything I faced in adolescence.  I needed an adult to speak for me then.  Now, as an adult, I want to use whatever voice I have to speak for those children.   I had to do it when I was ready.

Look, you can’t just look at a rose and say ‘Bloom!’ – that’s not how it works.  When the rose is ready, when it’s had enough sunlight and water – only then will it open.  For me, the issues of gay adoption was worth me coming out for.  That’s how it happened.  That’s when I bloomed.  Sometimes I do wish I had done it sooner.  But in reality, I don’t think it would have been possible.

I came out in 1992.  It was hard then.  Now in 2016, kids are out in high school and it’s not a big deal for them.  It’s so difficult to convey to the younger generation just how hard it was to say those words out loud in the 80s and 90s.  It’s true.  The new Matthew Shephard documentary was on a few months ago and I was watching it with my 13yo daughter, who is very smart and articulate and emotional.  Like any 13yo girl, she is very sensitive.  We were watching it and suddenly she pauses it and turns to me and was like ‘Wait a minute.  Are you telling me they tied him to a fence and killed him for being gay?!’

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She couldn’t fathom that it was a life-threatening thing to admit back then.  And she was like, ‘This is while I have been alive?!’  Yes.  In her lifetime – this happened.  They don’t have a frame of reference for never seeing a gay person in a positive way or hearing the word gay in a positive way – or even in a neutral way.  I am going to be 54 years old in March.  But only in the last 20 years have we evolved as a culture and as a minority and as a presence in the world.  I am so grateful and proud that I have lived long enough to witness it.  I never thought I would.  My God, it has been in leaps and bounds.  It’s thrilling.

I think the Supreme Court ruling changed everything for us.  Absolutely.  I was so emotional. What I learned from that was that until you are served a full meal, you don’t know that you have been surviving on crumbs.  I didn’t realize how badly I felt about not being seen as a whole person and as an equal human by my government until my government finally saw me as one.  Then I was overwhelmed with emotion. I felt recognized and awake.  And very, very proud of my country.

When I came out I had to tell my mother.  Back then, she flipped out and didn’t want to have anything to do with me.  Now, in 2016, she’s all ‘when are you getting married?!’  — I think a lot of us ruled that out.  We had believed that we’d have to live as second class citizens forever.  My family always knew I was gay.  Everyone in my life knew I was gay.  And even when I took the job at Warner Brothers for The Rosie Show I told them, ‘Look, I’m gay.’  I wasn’t going to talk about it publicly, but no one ever really had talked about it publicly at that time.  I did feel like they had a right to know because they were going to pay me all this money and I wanted them to know that someone down the line might ask me about it — and I wasn’t going to ever deny it.  They were like ‘That’s ok.’  Honestly, I had to tell them.  I was an investment for them.  I didn’t want to be duplicitous and I had to be up front.  It was a secret that everyone knew.  I mean, look at Richard Simmons.  <laughs> No one talked about the fact that he was gay back then – could a person be gayer?!<laughs>  You simply weren’t allowed to talk about whether or not Richard Simmons was Gay back then.  It wasn’t appropriate.

<laughs> Or Liberace!  I mean, come on!  Yes! <laughs> It was a very strange dance to do with the public then and with the people in your life.  Then we [LGBT Community] started to turn on one another and eat our own – making judgements on who did come out and how they came out and why the came out.

It’s true.  We started kicking down closet doors.  It’s interesting that as an insular community how much we tear each other apart.  I am happy now that with public approval in our favor that we all seem to be more bonded to each other as gay people. That’s inspiring to me.

We’re seeing a phenomenon in San Francisco where the young baby gays have no real need to be in the gay bars.  They go wherever they want.  I mean, it’s a blessing and a curse.  We got what we wanted.  We can go to any place we want and really enjoy ourselves.  But I sort of miss the days of just being with my tribe — spending time with just gays and lesbians.  You know?  Yeah!  It’s still weird for me to go to a restaurant and see a young gay couple holding hands and showing affection, simply being a happy couple – without apology or any fear for their safety.  Mind you, I live in NYC and Miami, I understand that.  Yet it’s astonishing for me to see these kids with so much certainty in who they are and so much pride.  It took me a long time to feel comfortable showing my sexuality in public in a way like that.  Holding hands with someone I love and walking into an establishment that is NOT a gay bar – that still took me some time.  It took me 54 years to get to this place.  I never thought I would.

It’s like being on a gay cruise and you look around at all the gays and lesbians being themselves without restraint and you think – ‘Holy shit.  This must be how straight people feel all the time?!’ <laughs> It’s liberating in so many ways.

Let’s talk about Broadway.  You just went to see On Your Feet’, the Gloria Estefan musical.  How was it?  Well, I went with my friend Jeanie – her husband recently passed away and it was kind of her first big night out in a while.  It was a beautiful show.

You wanted to get her ‘On Her Feet?’  <laughs> Yes!  Exactly. <laughs> In fact, we both needed to get ‘on our feet.’   I missed the opening of the show because I was dealing with some family stuff with my daughter – so it was a good night out for me as well.  I needed it.  However, I am lucky to know Gloria and her husband Emilio for 20 years in Miami.  We’re neighbors in Miami.  Their life story does read like an epic musical or movie.  They didn’t even put everything in there –  there is so much stuff about Emilio coming from Cuba and making such an impact on music.  Those are two of the kindest and most down to earth people you will ever meet.  They are incredibly loving.  Now, again, I am a neighbor – so I adore them.  It was a wonderful show and the two leads captured them so much.  They seriously sounded just like them!  The cadence of their voices and the way Emilio mumbles and you can’t understand him sometimes.  I was like ‘Holy shit!   These kids sound just like you guys!’

We’re not going to talk about Donald Trump.  Fuck him.  I have no interest in giving him any press.  However, Scalia is dead.  Found dead in a hotel room – just like Anna Nicole.  <laughs> If you could appoint someone to the supreme court right now, today – who would it be?  Barack Obama.

Really?  Obama?  Absolutely.  I think he would be fantastic.  Who would you pick?

Anita Hill.  <laughs> OMG!  Anita Hill!  Now THAT would be interesting.  She would be a great choice, but we would have to get rid of Clarence Thomas… and I am all for that!

Check out Rosie O’Donnell: A Heartfelt Standup on HBO & HBOGO

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