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.

Years later, Cristina's new marriage would lead to a major career change. In 1989 Univision executives spotted the couple as guests on one of their variety shows and were so impressed by her gift of gab that they offered Cristina her own talk show.

Cristina was petrified. "I didn't know a thing. … I was perspiring so heavily from the nerves. Because I was very shy about public speaking, then, that I thought, I wonder if this mike, this thing can electrocute me."

But those jitters didn't last long. In less than a year, Cristina's new show was a bona-fide hit and a new talk show queen was born, one who relished controversy.

A New Forum for Hispanics

She tackled homosexuality, teenage sex, AIDS, gay marriage — topics not generally spoken about freely in the Hispanic community. The response was phenomenal.

"People told me, 'Hispanics are not ready for this. They won't talk about this.' You know what I found out, they were wrong, they had never had a forum," Cristina said.

And Cristina sure offered one. A gay wedding on her show led to a protest, but it also sent ratings through the roof. Suddenly, viewers couldn't get enough of her.

Cristina's used this forum as a means to promote AIDS education, a subject she's passionate about. She founded her own AIDS foundation — and talked about it at the United Nations, describing herself as "the lady who fights AIDS in Spanish."

Moving to Prime Time

Last December Cristina announced that her daily show would go off the air, to be replaced by a weekly program in prime time. Cristina said she was "physically exhausted" by doing a daily show for so long.

Cristina, savvy with every career move, said she wasn't too worried that the press or her fans would think the change suggested she was washed up. "They said it: 'She's been here too long.' And then we started getting the highest ratings of the network."

Her ratings are indeed soaring on her new prime-time show. This is due in no small part to the show's revved-up raciness — some say raunchiness.

"What we have now is comedy," says Cristina. "We have raunchiness, we have slapstick. We have strippers. We have funny stuff for the 10 o'clock adult. … And I think it's fun to be raunchy."

Beating the Boys

Cristina, now 54, says her show has also helped her become a better mother and wife. She and Avila have raised three children together and have now been married for 18 years.

The couple are also business partners, with Avila co-executive producer of Cristina's TV Show. Together they've created a media empire — a multimillion-dollar business that also includes a syndicated radio program and the monthly magazine Cristina, which she launched before Rosie or Oprah began theirs.

Off the air, this fun-loving businesswoman is deeply serious about her career. She's built a new $10 million film and TV studio, one of only a handful of women in history to do so. She and her husband hope to develop major projects. They've already sealed a deal for a movie, with Whoopi Goldberg set to star.

Cristina relishes her incredible success and wealth. "I love beating the men," she says. "When I beat 'em in the ratings, when I beat 'em in the salary, I always say, 'One more for the girls.' "

Although Cristina is living the high life — she's in love, rich, she's earned 11 Emmys and even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — she still has another dream. She wants to break through to English-speaking audiences.

Her friends who have already succeeded in crossing over wish her well.

"I hope that she crosses over into this market a little more," says Lopez. "I think it would be an asset to the American community or the English-speaking community to have her."

Considering some projections that in about a decade the United States will be the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, Cristina thinks the timing is just right for a crossover success.

"The time is now," she says. "And watch out, world — here I come."