Lunch with Lydia: Cristina Saralegui’s comeback

Life after television: After the cancellation of her popular Univision show, Cristina Saralegui faced an onslaught of personal and family problems. Now 66, she has a project in the works with Siriux XM Radio.
Life after television: After the cancellation of her popular Univision show, Cristina Saralegui faced an onslaught of personal and family problems. Now 66, she has a project in the works with Siriux XM Radio. El Nuevo Herald file

Cristina Saralegui, one of the Spanish-speaking world’s best-known personalities, had been somewhat off-grid the past few years. But she’s back, speaking about recent rough patches in the pull-no-punches style that has been the cornerstone of her career and pitching a new book, Rise Up & Shine! (Penguin Group), that could be called part memoir, part self-help tome for the woman who not only wants to have it all but keep it, too.

Saralegui was at the top of her game when her life suddenly began to unravel in 2010. That’s when Univision dumped her still-popular talk show, El Show de Cristina, which had won 12 Emmys and was in its 20th year. She moved to the competing Telemundo, but the new format and time slot didn’t bring expected ratings, and it didn’t see a second season.

When she was editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan en Español, she was known as the Spanish Helen Gurley Brown. Later, she was called the Spanish Oprah. Suddenly, at 62, she was simply too old, she says.

“You can’t ignore the obvious. Women after a certain age are believed to be good for nothing in the entertainment field, especially in the Latin world. Don Francisco, who is a good friend, is older. But he’s not in danger of losing Sabado Gigante because of his age,” Saralegui says on a recent day of back-to-back interviews for her new book at a Wynwood production studio. At 6:30 p.m. Monday, she’ll appear at Book & Books in Coral Gables to read and sign copies of Rise Up & Shine! (published in Spanish as ¡Pa’rriba y Pa’lante!).

It wasn’t just her age (and slipping ratings in the coveted youth market) that prompted new bosses at Univision to can the show without warning, Saralegui believes.

“I was the only person at Univision who had complete creative control of my own show, by contract. They didn’t like that. I was the executive producer, I owned the studio where we taped, I decided who went on my show and who didn’t. The new executives thought I set a bad example. The show’s ratings were still very good, and they said they weren’t canceling the show because of the ratings. But they pulled the rug out from under me.”

Saralegui fell into a state of “deep shock.”

“It wasn’t until much later that the pain and depression would set in and penetrate every fiber of my being,” she writes in the book.

But suddenly finding herself erased from network television was the least of her heartaches. While Cristina and her husband, Marcos, also her longtime manager, were at an event celebrating the launch of Casa Cristina, her line of furniture and home décor, their teenage son Jon Marcos, triggered by a breakup with a girlfriend, drove to the fifth floor of a parking garage with the intention of jumping.

He didn’t. Instead he drove to a nearby hospital for help. Psychiatrists there ultimately diagnosed him as bipolar.

But there were other suicide attempts to come. Jon Marcos took to sleeping with knives under his pillow, Saralegui writes. Once, he walked into her bathroom and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills in front of her, before she could do anything to stop him. That attempt led to more hospitalizations and long-term treatment at a Massachusetts facility.

Jon Marcos is now 27, feeling like his old healthy self and moving forward, Saralegui says. “But when you have a child who wants to take his own life and you feel powerless, nothing else in life matters.”

There were other problems. Saralegui had started drinking too much, even before her show was canceled and her youngest child became troubled. After those two blows, the drinking got worse.

“I wasn’t an alcoholic, which I say because I met so many alcoholics during my years doing the Cristina show,” she says.

“I wasn’t an addict who couldn’t stop. And I did stop one day. I didn’t drink at all for more than a year. Now, no more hard liquor. I’ll drink a glass of wine with dinner. But when I was really drinking, my husband said to me one day, ‘When you drink you get pesada [unbearable].’ There were so many things going wrong in my life that I would have abused anything that served as anesthesia. I just wanted to not feel. I wanted whiskey to fix everything.”

The drinking, coupled with the stress of producing her TV show, a magazine (Cristina, La Revista) and radio, among other projects, contributed to making her not so easy to be around at work or at home, she acknowledges now.

“I would fight with everyone. My husband, my family, my editors. I did stupid things. I came to be very arrogant. But when I stopped drinking, I suddenly stopped feeling so angry.”

At 66, Saralegui says, she has found peace. She suffers from severe arthritis and ataxia, which affects coordination, but she still enjoys traveling overseas with her husband.

When she’s home, she devotes herself to her grandchildren. “They spend the weekends at my house. We run around. We watch the same movie 17 times.”

Money, she says, hasn’t been an issue. There are other projects, such as her own Sirius XM channel, Cristina Radio. But would she like to return to being in front of the camera?

“Absolutely I would. Though there is still the problem of being a woman and being 66. I’m looking into possibilities. But at this point in my life what I am above all is grateful. I’m happy. I’ve had a great career. I adore my family. My closest friends from decades ago remain my closest friends.”

She still sports the blond bob that has been her trademark since the early days of her career. But she has put on a little weight. Saralegui being Saralegui, she jokes about it.

The day before, she appeared on Univision for the first time since her program was canceled. There she was on Despierta America, the network’s morning show, chatting with the corpulent Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro — when the couch they were sitting on gave out.

“We’re so fat we broke the couch! But I’m celebrating today because I’ve just lost 20 pounds,” Saralegui says. “I’ll call Glorita [Estefan, one of her oldest friends], and she’ll say, ‘Are you eating carbs tonight?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yes, how about you?’ She’ll say, “I’m eating all the carbs tonight.’ And we’ll laugh. She just turned 57. I’m 66. Can you believe it?

“There’s no way around it. We’re grownups now, and it feels great.”