Saralegui, Cristina: 1948—: Journalist, Talk Show Host, Publisher, Author
Cristina Saralegui: 1948—: Journalist, talk show host, publisher, author
Cuba native Cristina Saralegui has achieved the American dream with a little bit of clout and a whole lot of perseverance. She was the first and in 2002 only Latin woman to create a media empire that included a number-one talk show, a widely circulated magazine, a successful radio show, and her own production company. One of the Hispanic-American community's most powerful women, she has been hailed as the Latin Helen Gurley Brown and Oprah with salsa, but to millions of Hispanics she has simply become known as Cristina.
Cristina Maria Saralegui was born in Havana, Cuba, on January 29, 1948, to Francisco and Cristina Saralegui. Far from a typical Cuban family, hers was one of wealth and prosperity. Her grandfather, Francisco Saralegui y Arrizubieta, was known as the Paper Czar, having founded three leading Spanish-language magazines—Bohemia, Carteles, and Vanidades —and monopolizing Cuba's newspaper imports. Fidel Castro's revolution ended the family's prosperity in 1959 when their spectacular seaside mansion in the exclusive Miramar district was seized. They fled to Miami's Cuban exile community in 1960 when Cristina was 12 years old, leaving behind their power, prestige, and a substantial fortune. "It's been very hard not being able to go back," Saralegui told the Los Angeles Times. "I want to visit my country. But if Fidel can get somebody like the pope to do PR for himself, imagine what he can do with somebody like me."
Started a Career in Magazines
Born into a media family, Saralegui fancied herself a natural communicator. She attended the University of Miami, majoring in mass communications and creative writing. Her graduation plans were thwarted when her father lost most of his money in a bad business deal, an occurrence that forced her to drop out. Saralegui was nine credits short of her degree, but he had decided that it was more important for her brother, Paxti, to go to college and he could only afford to send one of them. "He called me up and he said, 'Look, as a Cuban father, I have to send your brother to college. He's going to have to support someone someday, and somebody's son will support you.' That's called machismo," she told National Public Radio.
Determined to overcome this crippling sexism, long rooted in the traditions of the Latin culture, Saralegui vowed to work twice as hard to prove herself. She ended up taking a $40-a-week job in the photo library at Vanidades, one of the magazines started by her grandfather. "At the time it was a huge challenge," she recalled in her 1998 autobiography My Life as a Blonde. "I had to teach myself to write in Spanish. Having attended high school and college in the United States, and receiving all my formal training in English, I was more fluent in the English language." By 1973 she had acquired a staff writing job at the Spanish-language edition of Cosmopolitan, but soon quit to give newspaper journalism a try. After a short stint at the Miami Herald, where she realized that daily journalism wasn't for her, Saralegui went back to Vanidades. Within a year she was asked to take over a small magazine called Intimadades, which soon began to outsell Vanidades. By 1979 she received the top post at Cosmopolitan-en-Español. "I was terrified," she recalled in an interview with the Boston Globe. But her mission to liberate Latin women paid off. "In ten years under my direction Cosmopolitan became the second most important magazine in Latin America. We passed Good Housekeeping. We left the housewives behind."
At a Glance . . .
Born January 29, 1948, in Havana, Cuba; married Tony Menendez (divorced 1983); married Marcos Avila; children: Cristina Amalia (Titi), Jon Marcos. Education: Studied mass communications and creative writing at the University of Miami. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Vanidades Continental, Intimidades, and Cosmopolitan-en-Español, editor-in-chief, 1979-89; Blue Dolphin studios, founder; El Show de Cristina, executive producer and host, 1989-01; Cristina la Revista magazine, creator, 1991–; host, radio show Cristina Opina and weekly prime-time show Cristina: Edicion Especial; author, Cristina! My Life as a Blonde, 1998.
Awards: Union of American Women of Puerto Rico Merit Award for Women's Rights, 1981; Legendary Woman of Miami Award, 1983; Greater Miami Chapter, Women in Communications Award, 1986; State of Florida Hispanic Heritage Award, 1990; Emmy Award, The Cristina Show, 1991, 1992; Certificate of Appreciation from the U.S. Surgeon General, 1992; Council on Women's Issue Bio Award, "No Nonsense American Women", 1995; Congressional Record from the Hon. Robert Menéndez of New Jersey, 1996; AmFAR Research Foundation Honor, Los Angeles, 1997; TV's Most Glamorous Hispanic Woman Award, Glamour en Español Magazine, 1998; Elena Mederos Award for Leadership Contribution to the Hispanic Community, National Association of Cuban American Women of the U.S., N.J. Chapter, 1998; National Leadership Media Award, AIDS Action Annual Leadership Awards, Washington, D.C., 1998; Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for Her Outstanding Service to the Community, 1998; Community Service Award, National Council of La Raza/Kraft Foods ALMA (American Latino Media Arts), 2000; Gracie Allen Tribute Award, 2001; numerous others.
Adddress: Office— Blue Dolphin Studios, 2520 NW 112 Avenue, Miami, FL, 33172.
During her ten years at Cosmopolitan, Saralegui's personal life suffered. In 1983 she divorced her husband, Tony Menéndez, a real estate agent and firefighter, and slipped into a depression. Married seven years, they had a daughter, Cristina Amalia. But it was the combination of her success, her absence at home, and her husband's machismo that destroyed the marriage. "We were divorced because he wasn't ambitious and I was, and it really bothered him that I worked so hard and aspired to so much," she wrote in her autobiography. In an effort to cheer her up, longtime friends Gloria and Emilio Estefan invited her to tour with their then unknown band the Miami Sound Machine. She found her soul mate in the group's pony-tailed bass player Marcos Avila, and they married soon after.
Made Career Move to Television
The Hallmark Corporation established the Univision television network in 1988 with the goal that it would stop relying on foreign programming and be American, but in Spanish. In 2002 it was the fifth-largest network in terms of viewers and outranked the likes of HBO, ESPN, and the WB. Saralegui started working with Univision on a variety show called Sábado Gigante, where she was contracted for ten segments to address issues from her magazine. The segments were so popular that she was asked to host a woman's magazine show. Saralegui didn't agree with the male executive producer's stereotypical ideas, and she complained in a memo to the network. She was soon offered the $3,000-a-month job of executive producer for the program TV Mujer.
In 1989 she established herself as the host of her namesake show El Show de Cristina (The Cristina Show). She was offered a $130,000 annual salary, the same amount she was getting at Cosmopolitan. Avila, well versed in show business, was furious at the low offer and became her manager. Together, they created Cristina Saralegui Enterprises, which handled all of her operations and business ventures. Still, her biggest obstacle with the show was keeping creative control. "On the television planet, where men make up the tribe, the law of the caveman rules. So, for a woman coming from another world, without experience or cunning, to succeed gradually in gaining control over what is taped, what goes out over the air, what is said without censorship, is an epic feat," she wrote in her autobiography.
Broadcast from Miami, El Show de Cristina was not an instant success. She had to fight hard to make people understand that a very blonde and very white Cuban from Miami could represent Hispanics anywhere. "We used to get hate mail when we went on the air at the beginning," she told National Public Radio. "My own people were saying things like, 'Oh, my God, how dare you say you represent us when, you know, you're not brown?'" But within six months the show climbed to first place and went on to win ten local Emmy Awards.
Sought to Educate Hispanic Community
Saralegui hosted the top-rated Spanish-language talk show, seen by an estimated 100 million people in 18 countries throughout Latin America, Europe, and the United States, for twelve years. Covering topics ranging from homeless children to alien abductions, Sara-legui was frequently compared to Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue, two hugely successful daytime TV hosts. "I am not Oprah with salsa," she said in an interview with the Boston Globe, "I am not Phil Donahue in drag. I am Cristina Saralegui." In fact El Show de Cristina had a viewership of five times the amount of Winfrey's audience.
Saralegui felt that her greatest challenge was to educate and open the minds of her audience without offending them, an almost impossible feat when attempting to appeal to 100 million people. It was a homosexual wedding on her show in 1996 that generated the biggest outburst of disapproval in a widely publicized hate campaign. Saralegui persevered and went on to receive an award from the National Gay and Lesbian Alliance for the show. She believed the controversial shows were the most important ones she'd done, seeing herself as an educator of the Hispanic community. She also felt responsible for entertaining her audience without "taking the low road" like so many other daytime talk shows. "I control what's on my show," she told Hispanic Magazine in a 1998 interview. "There's no violence or vulgarity. If it seems like it's getting to that level, I stop taping."
Part of her success was largely due to the exploding Latino population in the United States, where she was watched in two million homes. "Americans have to understand that we are here, and we are Americans," she told the Boston Globe. "In a few years we will outnumber African Americans. Americans have to wake up and realize we're not going away. We're not foreigners. This is our country." In fact, she has been credited with Americanizing Latino culture and breaking down certain Latino cultural norms by engaging in traditionally taboo subjects such as machismo, domestic violence, and menopause.
Built a Media Empire
Since starting El Show de Cristina in 1989, Saralegui has built a media empire and demands respect for her accomplishments as a Hispanic woman. "I'm not afraid to say that I'm a very intelligent woman," she told the Los Angeles Times in a 1998 interview. "[Latinas] cannot say that they're intelligent. They can be beautiful, but they cannot be intelligent. And they cannot brag about it and say, 'Yes, damn, I am smart and I am a woman,' because we couldn't get married … I've been called an egomaniac so many times that it's not funny." In 1991 she started the monthly Cristina La Revista (Cristina the Magazine), which has a circulation of more than 160,000 in the United States and Latin America. She also has a daily radio show, Cristina Opina (Cristina's Opinion), in ninety countries including the United States, and hosts a weekly prime-time show Cristina: Edicion Especial (Cristina: Special Edition), which has been a huge ratings success. In 1992 Sarelegui attempted an English-language version of her show on CBS. Despite positive reviews, she opted out after 13 weeks because she was offered less money to produce her show in English than she was getting from Univision to do the show in Spanish. Still, she hopes to go bilingual again one day.
In addition to her television and publishing ventures, Saralegui has appeared on many national and local television programs, including the Univision soap opera Amandote. She has also served as national spokes-person for AT&T for nearly a decade and has appeared in television, radio, and print ads urging women to take charge of their health. In 1997 Saralegui created a non-media role for herself when she licensed her name for the first time. Although she had been approached in the past to license her name to products ranging from clothing to perfume, she went with eyewear. The Cristina Collection, distributed by the Miami-based Cadore Moda USA, is targeted specifically to Hispanic women.
When she wasn't working on building her empire, Saralegui spent a great deal of time pursuing philanthropic ventures and accepting awards. She has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for AIDS research and treatment facilities in Mexico and the United States, and in 1996 she started an AIDS organization, "The Arriba la Vida/Up With Life Foundation," which is dedicated to providing information, medicine, and support to Hispanic people afflicted with AIDS. Additionally, she has served on the council for AmFar (the American Foundation for AIDS Research) since 1993 and worked to boost literacy among Latinos. Among a multitude of awards presented to her, Saralegui received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999, was named one of the "Legendary Women of Miami," received the "Corporate Leader Award" from the National Network of Hispanic Women, and received the 2001 Gracie Allen Tribute Award, which honors women in the entertainment industry.
In May of 2001 Saralegui opened Blue Dolphin Studios, a $3.1 million, 500,000-square-foot production facility in Miami to house all the branches of her media empire. Just seven months later, she left El Show de Cristina. It was difficult for Saralegui to leave her daytime talk show, but she wanted time to develop new projects, including more books, new television ventures, and a movie on the life of Cuban singer Celia Cruz. She's also given acting a shot, with recurring roles in the NBC daytime soap Passions and on the Nickelodeon kid's series Taina. "To realize the American dream, the most important thing to understand is that it belongs to everybody," she told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. "It's a human dream. If you understand this and work very hard, it is possible." For Saralegui, perseverance has certainly paid off.
Boston Globe, February 10, 1998.
Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, September 28, 2001.
Hispanic Magazine, April 1998.
The Miami Herald, November 28, 2001.
New York Daily News, December 14, 2001.
People Magazine, April 13, 1998.
National Public Radio, Morning Edition, August 27, 2001.
—Kelly M. Martinez