Ellen Rakieten, her friends and coworkers will tell you, does not appear to sleep. Bleary-eyed colleagues say it’s not unusual to find an e-mail from Rakieten—longtime producer at The Oprah Winfrey Show and now Jerry Seinfeld’s executive producer on The Marriage Ref—pop up in their inbox at 3:30 in the morning. And unlike her colleague Seinfeld, who likes to focus on a single thing at a time, Rakieten is a serial multi-tasker.
Seinfeld has his own way of describing Rakieten’s work ethic: “She’s superhuman.”
“She’ll be editing a show and at the same time will be figuring out what to wear to a Sunday Hollywood fancy-shmancy shindig while also on the phone signing off on another project she’s working on,” adds Gina Sprehe, another former Oprah producer who has joined Rakieten in New York for Marriage Ref.
For Rakieten, the secret is simple: “I thrive under pressure, I thrive under deadline, I don’t get easily rattled,” she says. “It all comes with years of doing a daily television show under the world’s eye.”
Working with the highly passionate, demanding, self-proclaimed perfectionist isn’t for the faint of heart. (“You have to be able to keep up with her, and not everybody can,” Sprehe says.) But it’s no wonder her work producing one of the most successful talk shows in American history has won her a devoted and enduring line of mentees who consider themselves fortunate—regardless of how little sleep they get.
“She really does push me to be the best producer I can be,” Sprehe says. “I would follow her to any project.”
Rakieten’s career in television began when she graduated high school early and started working for a Minnesota morning show called Good Company in the mid-1980s. She then graduated from the University of Minnesota, taking her last classes via correspondence so she could continue her work in TV.
In 1986, she got a call to interview for a startup talk show in Chicago with a host named Oprah Winfrey. The two bonded over a Sea Breeze, a concoction featuring vodka and cranberry and grapefruit juice. It led, appropriately enough, to a working relationship that was both strong and sweet.
Rakieten was an influential shaper of Oprah and a force behind the show’s success, working with a team primarily made up of young single women. “We just did the show based on experiences in our lives because we felt if it was happening to us, it was happening to people in the rest of the world,” she says.
From 2003 to 2006, executive producer Rakieten led Oprah to its three highestrated seasons. In 2006, she became Harpo Productions’ first executive VP of creative development, a position she held before striking out on her own with Ellen Rakieten Entertainment in 2009.
Rakieten, who says that she has remained friendly with Winfrey, met Seinfeld through his wife. The comedian believed Rakieten could make his foray back into TV “livable.”
“We totally respect each other’s viewpoint on every issue,” Seinfeld says. He also appreciates that Rakieten had never worked in comedy before: “Me and the writers really enjoy having that easy laugh around.”
The Marriage Ref isn’t half of what Rakieten has on her plate. Her company just signed an exclusive multi-million-dollar deal with Relativity Media’s production arm, Relativity Reel. She is an executive producer on Losing It With Jillian and recently published a book, Undateable: 311 Things Guys Do That Guarantee They Won’t Be Dating or Having Sex, with her friend Anne Coyle. The book is being made into the VH1 series Undateable, which premieres on May 10.
If it sounds like Rakieten has no downtime, she doesn’t. “Free time? I wouldn’t know what that is,” Rakieten says. “There’s no cooking classes or leisurely bird-watching.
“The truth about my career is that it all just happened,” Rakieten adds. “I was in college dating boys, and that was my plan. Oprah has always said to me that I was born to do this….so many people never really discover their passion, and I got really lucky.”
Founder, Ellen Rakieten Entertainment; Executive Producer and Creator, The Marriage Ref
B.A., University of Minnesota
The Oprah Winfrey Show: producer, 1986-2003, executive producer, 2003-2006, creative consultant, 2008-2009; Harpo Productions, executive VP of creative development, 2006-2009; Ellen Rakieten Entertainment, founder, 2009-present; The Marriage Ref, executive producer and creator, 2010-present; Losing It With Jillian, executive producer and creator, 2010-present
Married to Peter; two sons, Zack and Nicky
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