Univision fired Emmy-award winning Spanish-language television personality Rodner Figueroa after he said on air that First Lady Michelle Obama looked as if she were a member of the cast of the Hollywood film Planet of the Apes.
Figueroa, known for his biting fashion commentary, made his remarks Wednesday during a live segment of the show El Gordo y la Flaca in which the hosts were discussing a viral video that shows a makeup artist transforming himself into different celebrities, including Michelle Obama.
“Well, watch out, you know that Michelle Obama looks like she’s from the cast of Planet of the Apes, the movie,” Figueroa, 42, said with a giggle.
When hostess Lili Estefan countered with, “What are you saying?” and host Raul de Molina said Obama was very attractive, Figueroa defended his remark, saying “but it is true.”
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In a statement Thursday morning, Univision condemned Figueroa’s comments.
“Yesterday during our entertainment program El Gordo y La Flaca Rodner Figueroa made comments regarding First Lady Michelle Obama that were completely reprehensible and in no way reflect Univision’s values or views,” the statement said. “As a result, Mr. Figueroa was immediately terminated.”
Figueroa, who lives on Fisher Island in Miami, apologized Thursday in an open letter to Obama posted online Thursday.
In the letter, the TV star said his comments were directed at the makeup artist, not Obama’s looks. He apologized for the offensive comments and took responsibility for a failure in judgment, but said he is not racist.
“I come from a bi-racial Latino family with family members, like my father, who are Afro-Latino. I am the first openly gay Hispanic TV presenter and am an activist for minorities who, like me, have been discriminated against,” he said, adding that he voted for President Barack Obama, who he believes respects minorities.
He also criticized Univision for the manner in which he was fired. Figueroa said he was notified verbally of his termination and told that it came following a complaint from the White House.
“Due to an information leak from Univision’s executives, I am being condemned on social media sites trying to destroy my career in an unjust manner, without written notice and without an investigation to clear up the situation,” he said.
The website for People en Español quoted Figueroa colleagues Estefan and de Molina as saying that Figueroa’s comments were “a mistake” but that he is not a racist.
“I definitely believe that Rodner made a mistake, but to characterize him as a racist is ridiculous. Rodner is someone who makes fun of himself. For those who don’t know, his father is black,” Estefan told People. “The problem is that with the type of show we do, there’s a very fine line between making you laugh and crossing the line.”
De Molina said he has known Figueroa for 20 years.
“I don’t think his commentary was racist; of that I’m sure. Rodner is indispensable to El Gordo y la Flaca,” he said.
Figueroa began at Univision as a producer for El Gordo y la Flaca and went on to join Estefan and de Molina. He also filled in when de Molina was on vacation. The show is popular with its Spanish-language audience and has been on the air for more than 16 years.
He also hosted the Sunday night show Sal y Pimienta, along with Lourdes Stephen, and had been involved in special programs, including Nuestra Belleza Latina.
Figueroa is an Emmy-winning Spanish-language television personality. He’s also active in charities, attracting many Latino stars to different charitable causes. In October, he held a party for the founding of I Love Venezuela, “an organization that provides care and resources to multiple social projects for Venezuelans,” according to a statement from the agency LatinWE at the time.
Univision is the largest Spanish-language network in the United States, reaching an estimated 94 million U.S. homes. Among all television networks, Univision ranks fifth in the United States.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.