Look Out Oprah: Here Comes Cristina

Jennifer Lopez calls her somebody to "look up to." Antonio Banderas thinks she's "the most popular star in the Spanish community." Like her American counterparts — Rosie and Oprah — she's known on a first-name basis. She's Cristina.

For 12 years, this platinum-blond dynamo's talk show has been the hottest thing on the United States' largest Spanish-language network, Univision. She's captivated some of the most popular Latino stars, along with millions of viewers in the Spanish-speaking world.

Cristina is now famous around the world for doing in Spanish the same kind of provocative talk show Americans are addicted to. She gives her audience programs on cheating spouses, sexual abuse and of course interviews with big-name celebrities.

People have described her show as groundbreaking, empowering, raunchy, and soul-baring. Cristina says it as all of those things.

The ‘Spanish Oprah’

To Latino stars, the show is also hugely influential. Actress Salma Hayek says she landed a big break after an appearance on Cristina's show, and Lopez credits the show with boosting her singing career. "An appearance on her program … your album will go up. Everybody trusts Cristina," Lopez said.

Singer Gloria Estefan, a close friend of Cristina, agrees. "It's great to have someone like her in the Hispanic market that has the same commitment that Oprah does to her market," Estefan said.

Banderas even spilled the beans on his love life with Melanie Griffith on the Cristina show, before it became public knowledge. He said, "I've known very little interviewers on TV that have that capacity of making you feel so comfortable and so — you — yourself."

Latino stars aren't the only ones singing Cristina's praises. Rosie O'Donnell is a fan and a neighbor in South Florida.

O'Donnell said, "I go to Home Depot in Miami with the kids getting light fixtures and who walks in is Cristina and everybody says, 'Ahhhh … Cristina' and I'm like, 'I'm on TV. Does anybody know me?' "

O'Donnell thinks it's a smart idea for any hopeful performer to land an appearance on Cristina's show, because, she says, "It reaches millions of people that you'd never get to reach."

From Cuba to Hollywood

Such bold success is the last thing Cristina Saralegui's family expected when they settled in Miami 40 years ago after fleeing Castro's Cuba. Cristina, one of 5 children, was raised by strict, traditional parents.

Women, she was taught, should take a back seat to men. That lesson was made clear to her in college, when with just nine credits to go before graduation, Cristina got some devastating news from her father.

Strapped for cash, her father told her he felt it was his duty to give her brother an education before he gave her one. From that point on, Cristina said she made a decision never to depend on a man for her income.

That independent streak spurred Cristina on to seek out her own career. She became a writer, eventually working her way to the top post at Latin Cosmopolitan magazine. Along the way there was a marriage, the birth of her daughter and a shattering divorce.

Cristina focused mainly on her career until her friends, up-and-coming musicians Gloria and Emilio Estefan, introduced her Marcos Avila, a bassist in their band. Eleven years younger than Cristina, he swept her off her feet.

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