How The Rosie O'Donnell Show changed celebrity culture forever
The show pioneered the notion that stars could feel like relatable everyday people — on both sides of the desk
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
On June 10, 1996, pop and celebrity culture changed forever. Following over a decade of stand-up comedy, appearances in cinematic masterpieces like Sleepless in Seattle and A League of Their Own, and roles in a bevy of sitcoms, Rosie O'Donnell was finally given her own TV show — and The Rose O'Donnell Show era began.
The show brought with it a sea of critical praise, a slew of Emmy wins, and the media-appointed title "Queen of Nice." Even though I was 10 when it premiered and obsessed only with choreographing roller skating routines set to the Grammy Nominees soundtracks, by the time her first season ended, my adoration of Rosie had caught up to that of my classmates. Rosie wasn't like any other daytime talk show hosts. She didn't banter with a much-older co-host who seemed like a grandfather. Her subject matter never needed vetting from our parents. And above all, she felt like a regular person just like us, effectively serving as the catalyst for a new way in which to relate to celebrities.
Because holy shit, was Rosie O'Donnell ever relatable. Even though she was already a well-established celebrity herself, her monumental cultural clout was really only discussed when her celebrity friends joined her for a segment — and even still, they bantered with Rosie the way two regular pals would, never once acting like they were somehow above the people at home watching. Her relationship with Madonna? It went back well before they co-starred in A League of Their Own. Her banter with Tom Hanks included a handful of references to their past work, but somehow parlayed into a bit about how well he napped. (Why I've retained this, I have no idea.) She even shared her signature Koosh ball-tossing with any famous person willing to slingshot one at the camera or into the crowd.
I mean, yes, Rosie was successful and famous and any lifelong fan of The Flintstones knew it (one weekend my best friend and I watched that movie no less than 15 times — not just to impersonate Rosie's flawless take on Betty Rubble, but also so we could learn the steps to The B-52s' "Bedrock Twitch"). But that fame or those connections were rarely alluded to. At my Nana and Papa's over Christmas and March breaks, I'd pour two mugs of fruit punch and bring them to the living room, preparing to pretend I was joining Rosie for an interview about my latest project.
It never dawned on me that I was delusional, or that her relatability was a testament to her professionalism or background as an MTV VJ. I was just certain that should the day come to banter with Rosie O'Donnell, there'd be much to talk about. And Rosie liked to talk. She spoke loudly, quickly, wittily, and with abandon. She didn't seem to care what anybody thought, joking around with her band leader and then making fun of herself enough to make you feel like she wasn't really a part of this fancy famous world. She amped up her obsession with/crush on Tom Cruise, making my own feelings for Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio feel normal and justified; she celebrated the show's first appearance from Barbara Streisand with the same enthusiasm some of us (me) reserved for making Spice Girls scrapbooks. She was the premier superfan, making all of us everyday superfans feel like we were doing the right thing. In a way, she was less the Queen of Nice and more just a woman who'd mastered the art of practicing genuine inclusivity and kindness (as opposed to someone like Ellen, who we've learned is allegedly not very nice at all). Plus, she was hilarious.
Of course, her realness did come at a price. She drew ire from the NRA and its supporters for rallying against gun violence and gun possession in the wake of the Columbine tragedy in 1999. Then, in 2002 — two months before the end of her show — she came out as gay, explaining to Diane Sawyer in March of that year that she wanted to put a face to the cause of same-sex adoption. This led to her being criticized for her public adoration of Tom Cruise when she was (and is) a lesbian woman. (Said Rosie at the time: "I said I wanted him to mow my lawn and bring me lemonade. I never said I wanted to blow him.") Ultimately, the more she worked to be herself, the more controversy followed.
But that didn't stop her. As Rosie moved away from her former daytime persona, she consistently seemed to prioritize realness as an essential component of being. No, she wasn't seen as the Queen of Nice anymore, but she also wasn't fake. And instead of pigeon-holing herself in order to continue to be perceived the same way (again, like someone like Ellen), she chose to evolve instead. It probably would've been easier to keep herself in the same harmless-seeming box from 1996, but she refused to be anybody but herself. She understood the value of genuine authenticity. And after cementing her legacy as a daytime TV host, she graduated into another life phase instead of trying to delicately control her image so she could remain America's Sweetheart forever.
As we've gleaned from visiting her television legacy, Rosie O'Donnell's impact on the way we consume celebrity culture has been gargantuan, paving the way for daytime and late night talk show hosts to create shows and brands that are less under the expectations of networks and audiences and more under the umbrella of who they are (or maybe just Who They Are™, depending on where you stand on this). She pioneered the notion that stars are — or could and should be — just like us, provided they're willing to abandon all egos, at least on TV. And she made superfans (like wee baby tweens named Anne) feel like they weren't alone in their celebrity obsessions.
Of course, it's easy to glean all this from the perspective of a now-mid-30s woman whose work is nestled in the warm embrace of finding the best parts of pop culture and over-analyzing them. But it's also another nod to the TV host who instilled such a sense of excitement over the arts and adjacent celebrities that we're still vying for relatability in the era's biggest names. And that's still a legacy worth noting. Or at least slinging a Koosh ball at.