The Power of Cristina

Cristina Saralegui is simply “that blond lady on Univision” to many television viewers. For a legion of others, however, she’s a maternal figure and indispensable mejor amiga who dispenses easy laughs and the occasional motherly reprimand to everyday people and celebrities each Monday night at 10 p.m.

El Show de Cristina, the program Saralegui has been executive producing and hosting for some 4,000 episodes over the past 18 years, is more than just an hour of entertainment. It’s a weekly platform for Saralegui to reach out to 3.3 million Spanish-speaking Americans and an estimated 100 million viewers around the world.

“It’s about being able to get in there with some information that I think is needed, but to entertain at the same time,” she said. “Being able to influence public opinion as a mom and, as of three months ago, a grandmother is important. That’s why I stick around.”

Saralegui, 59, a Cuban-born mother of three grown children and grandmother of one, will be presented with a Lifetime of Achievement Award in Hispanic Television by Multichannel News and Broadcasting & Cable on Oct. 4 at the fifth annual Hispanic Television Summit.

Saralegui has never shied away from important but difficult topics. This past April, for instance, she broached a subject not often discussed in the Latino community: anorexia. The show, which some people close to Saralegui urged her not to run, pulled a 20 rating among Hispanic households, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Years earlier, she was among the first TV personalities to discuss HIV and AIDS. And her show regularly focuses on sex and relationship issues, which were considered taboo on Spanish-language TV until she stepped in.

“That, to me, is one of the biggest contributions she has made,” said Hector Orcí, co-founder of Los Angeles-based La Agencia de Orcí. “Latinos are very private and generally hold onto the intimate details of their lives. In the case of Cristina, she handled it sensitively and she made it relevant. Now, we can talk about these things in relation to her program.”

Saralegui, a history buff who squeezes in History Channel DVDs whenever she gets a chance, continues to focus on hot-button issues, including her home country, Cuba, and her father’s one-time friend, Fidel Castro. She said: “This man Fidel, who doesn’t need to go by his last name anymore, is a very charismatic leader. I don’t think his brother or anybody they have in place will fill the vacuum he will leave.”

She also regularly discusses immigration on her show, pointing out that she’s had “about a million” episodes focusing on it, including speaking with Latinos who hate Latinos.

“She explores subjects and themes that have never been discussed on television,” said Univision president and chief operating officer Ray Rodriguez. “She sees her mission as much more than just entertainment, but also as an opportunity to inform and motivate her audience.”

Saralegui has capitalized on her fame to become a crusader for issues important to her, notably AIDS. She was on the board of the American Foundation for AIDS Research for many years. And she and her husband, Marcos Avila, a founding member of Gloria Estefan’s band, Miami Sound Machine, in 1996 created the AIDS foundation Arriba la Vida (Up With Life).

“When I started [in TV] in 1989, I had a 3-year-old and an 8-year-old,” she recalled. “I thought, 'Kids will never stop making love.’ They need information, so they can go out there and remain well. That’s why we chose AIDS.”

Cristina, the show and the person, don’t take themselves too seriously, though. It’s not uncommon to see her laughing and dancing as she interviews guests, such as the cast of Univision hit La Fea más Bella, Madonna, Salma Hayek or Jennifer Lopez.

It’s Saralegui’s approachable, easygoing style that has attracted millions of viewers to her show for nearly two decades.

“You just feel she could be your mother, your sister or your friend,” observed Veronica Harris, a 50-year-old viewer in Los Angeles whose grandmother emigrated from Cuba. “She has that vibe about her.”

As Saralegui’s reputation has grown, so has her influence on Latinos throughout the world.

In 2004, 80% of Hispanics 25-54 polled by Chicago-based research firm Synovate said they trusted Saralegui, and 70% considered her a role model.

That level of trust has helped her ease into the role of product endorser. She is now a spokesperson for AARP and her own home furnishings line, Casa Cristina, and in the past has done the same for other advertisers, including a decades-long run with AT&T.

“The community pays attention when she endorses a product or service,” said Ken Cervantes, vice president and activation director at MediaVest’s multicultural agency Forty-Two Degrees. “Because of this, I believe that she is very aware of what she endorses. If she doesn’t believe in it, she doesn’t do it.”

Still, the TV show remains Saralegui’s primary focus.

The weekly hour-long series had an average audience of 3.3 million viewers for the period Sept. 18, 2006, through Aug. 26, 2007, up 4.3% from the year-earlier period, according to Nielsen. And it’s been attracting about 3.6 million viewers in recent weeks, comparable to the audience for syndicated shows like Live With Regis and Kelly.

Moreover, the show generated $44.1 million in ad revenue in 2006, up nearly 12% from 2005, according to ad-tracking firm TNS Media Intelligence. That’s about one-fifth the revenue of top-rated daily talk shows like Dr. Phil.

Saralegui says she’ll keep going with the talk show until someone at Univision asks her to leave. That’s not likely to happen for many years.

But she has been scaling back in recent years.

For the first 12 years it was on the air, Cristina was a Monday-Friday talk show. But six years ago, Saralegui was feeling spread thin by a number of ventures.

She had a magazine, Cristina La Revista, for 15 years. It was read by more than 3.3 million people in its last six months, according to Simmons Research’s National Hispanic Consumer Study. The magazine’s final issue was in December 2005.

She had a daily four-minute radio show, Cristina Opina, which for several years aired on stations around the country. In 2001, she and her husband opened their own production studio, Blue Dolphin in Miami. Saralegui became the first Latina to own her own studio and only the fourth woman to own one, joining the ranks of Lucille Ball and Oprah Winfrey.

She had also spent years writing her autobiography, My Life as a Blonde, published in 1998 in English and Spanish by Warner Books. She had begun branching out into acting, with stints on shows like ABC’s George Lopez. She was also developing a sitcom based on her life and a film about the late salsa singer Celia Cruz.

And, in 1998, she launched the bilingual Web site

In the past few years, she folded the magazine and dropped the radio and film projects. She also trimmed her show from five days a week to one.

“Now, what keeps me going is that we’re weekly,” she said. “For the past six years, I’ve had a lot of flexibility with my schedule, and the fact that we have our own studio helps a lot.”

But “scaling back” is a relative term.

In 2004, she launched Casa Cristina, with about 15 manufacturers now creating furniture and home furnishings that bear her name. The furniture line, manufactured by Pulaski, is launching its fourth line this month, Costa Dorada.

Slowing down isn’t the nature of her bloodline.

Born in 1948 in Cuba to parents whose families had come from the Basque region of Spain, Saralegui was born into affluence. That came courtesy of the media empire created by her paternal grandfather, Francisco Saralegui y Arrizubieta, who had a monopoly on paper distribution on the island nation and co-owned magazines like Vanidades in the pre-Castro era. Her father, Francisco “Bebo” Saralegui, was also a magazine publisher.

Saralegui and her two brothers and two sisters grew up with personal nurses and servants. They were surrounded by celebrities and political figures her grandfather entertained at his seaside mansion. She describes herself at the time as spoiled, immature and shy.

In 1960, when she was 12 years old, her family fled Cuba, first for Trinidad then Florida, once Castro’s Cuba morphed from a promising democracy into anything but.

Her family struggled to reclaim their position of wealth in the U.S. by again building a publishing empire. Among other titles, they launched a revamped version of the magazine Vanidades.

Her father later took over Vanidades and invested in real estate, building up a large enough fortune to build a mansion in Key Biscayne near Miami. He eventually lost that fortune through a series of missteps.

By the time Saralegui was a young woman striking out on her own, she and her family had little money.

Saralegui’s career began in the early 1970s as a journalist, first writing for Vanidades, after her father had sold it. More than a decade in the U.S. by then, her ability to write in Spanish was so spotty she initially wrote in English and had her father do the translation.

She bounced around a handful of magazines in the 1970s before marrying her first husband and having a baby. Struggling with finances, Saralegui, her husband and daughter for a time squeezed into an apartment that her parents moved into after her father lost his fortune and sold the mansion.

Saralegui decided it was time for her to take charge of her life. That led to juggling two jobs — as a writer for Vanidades during the day and as editor of Intimidades at night.

In 1973, she became the first staff writer of Cosmopolitan’s second international edition: Latin America. She later worked for The Miami Herald’s El Nuevo Herald. In 1979, she was named editor in chief of Cosmopolitan en Español, where then-editor Helen Gurley Brown was building Cosmo into a publishing empire.

Saralegui divorced her first husband and, as Cosmo en Español editor, became a fixture of the Miami social scene. She befriended celebrities like singer Gloria Estefan, whom Saralegui describes as her best friend for the past 30 years. Saralegui married Avila, who had a child from a previous marriage, and together they had a third. She also became an occasional guest on Univision’s Sabado Gigante with Don Francisco, a former recipient of the Lifetime of Achievement in Hispanic Television.

At Cosmo, Saralegui initially bumped heads with Brown, who had — and still has — an intensely focused vision for the magazine, which essentially amounts to encouraging women to take charge of the lives, notably their sex lives.

Saralegui didn’t want to simply rehash Cosmo for Latin America and, instead, created her own magazine that directly spoke to Latinas. She and Brown eventually became close friends. Today, Saralegui says Brown is a mentor.

“She was so good so soon that I would have been crazy to do any complaining,” said Brown, who oversees Cosmo’s 59 international editions. “She didn’t have a lot of experience when she got there, but she just knew what she was doing. When she left and we needed to get another editor, it was a real challenge because she had been so fabulous.”

Univision asked Saralegui to host a show in 1989. But while she left Cosmo, she didn’t stray for too long away from publishing. She launched Cristina La Revista two years later. She is in the early stages of planning a re-launch of the title.

Television is her second career but her first love, she noted.

“I was petrified in the beginning because I’m really shy,” Saralegui said. “But then I realized it was a lot of fun and I was better doing that, naturally, than facing a blank magazine that I had to fill up.”

Saralegui has created an empire, a word that makes her cringe. She said: “Napoleon had an empire. I am short, but I think that’s a super exaggeration. What we have is multiple jobs.”

Despite all the ventures she’s involved in, Saralegui will always be best known for Cristina, the show for which she’s picked up 12 Emmys.

“I had no clue I’d go into television,” she said. “Sometimes we have our goals, like five-year plans. But we’re not driving the bus. Someone else is.”