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TODAY

Friday, October 18

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Airbags

We all have celebrities we loathe. (Don't we? If you don't, don't tell me. I like to think I'm normal.) For whatever reason — whether it's actual events or lasting impressions — a mere glimpse or mention of certain individuals puts us on edge, causing our teeth to grind and our bile to rise. The most recent chart-topper of my Celeb Shit List is Rosie O'Donnell. Yes, O'Donnell runs several charitable foundations for children and is (now) an outspoken representative of gay rights. But she is also, to me, a nasty, unapologetic hypocrite who often can't see beyond her own agendas.

I didn't always feel this way. I occasionally watched her talk show not long after in debuted in 1996; her positive attitude set her apart from usual daytime fare (although I didn't understand her Tom Cruise crush). She shared her love of Broadway by inviting her favorites to perform, which introduced New York theater to those who might not normally see it. Newsweek infamously crowned O'Donnell the "Queen of Nice." Remember back that far? When she was considered an American sweetheart?

Well, people change. The first crack in O'Donnell's happy-go-lucky façade was during a 1999 interview with Tom Selleck. He was on the show to push his latest film, but O'Donnell took the opportunity to promote her views on gun control instead. (Selleck had recently joined the National Rifle Association.) At about the halfway mark, a visibly frustrated Selleck said, "Don't put words in my mouth. I'm not a spokesperson. Remember how calm you said you'd be? Now you're questioning my humanity." O'Donnell didn't back down, however, and the discussion remained heated until its tense conclusion. It was a markedly different side of the woman who regularly shot Koosh balls into her audience and giggled on air.

An even nastier whirlwind centered around O'Donnell's remarks to a marketing executive at Rosie magazine, formerly McCall's. During a court battle in which O'Donnell and the publisher sued each other, a cancer survivor testified that O'Donnell told her, "You know what happens to people who lie. They get sick and they get cancer. If they keep lying, they get it again." O'Donnell claimed she apologized for the remark, but any claim to likeable royalty was now firmly on the sideline. After she left her talk show, O'Donnell returned to stand-up comedy, got a radical new haircut, and funded a failed Broadway show starring Boy George. She starred in the TV movie Riding the Bus with My Sister, apparently thinking that the best way to play a mentally challenged adult was to scream every line. Although, to be fair, she was acting opposite Andie McDowell. Maybe it was the best way to cope. In September 2005, O'Donnell joined gabfest The View, replacing Star Jones. Almost immediately, O'Donnell began dominating conversations and taking charge.

On The Rosie O'Donnell Show, O'Donnell regularly shared intimate details of her children's lives but chose not to disclose her sexual preference, although it was "known" for several years in entertainment circles that O'Donnell is gay. O'Donnell only announced she was a lesbian to the rest of the world near the end of her first run as a daytime TV diva, perhaps because she no longer had to worry about advertisers or answer to the network. She had no obligation to come out, of course. But considering how she now sees herself a spokesperson for the gay community, O'Donnell might have been able to use her first show as a platform for social and political change.

In November 2005, O'Donnell commented on an incident in which singer Clay Aiken, as a guest host on Regis & Kelly, put his hand over Kelly Ripa's mouth as she asked a question mid-interview. Ripa made a face at Aiken and commented, "I just don't know where that hand's been, honey." I think a majority of people, gay or straight, wouldn't want Aiken to touch them anywhere. But O'Donnell immediately took offense and spoke out on Aiken's behalf, saying, "Now listen, to me that was a homophobic remark. If that was a straight man, if that was a cute man, if that was a guy that she didn't question his sexuality, she would have said a different thing."

So O'Donnell not only "Lanced" Aiken on a national level, but she called him ugly to boot. With friends like that… Ripa called The View within minutes and rebutted the accusation live. After the women said they loved each other (yes, really), Ripa said, "To imply that it's anything homophobic is outrageous, Rosie, and you know it." O'Donnell replied, "from where I sit as a gay person in the world," Ripa's remark was anti-gay. The conversation continued for several minutes, but both women kept their cool. (For the record, Aiken has not commented publicly about this incident or his sexuality.)

Two weeks later, O'Donnell did a jaw-droppingly racist impression of a Chinese newscast by repeating the words "ching chong." At first, she dismissed the criticism, with a spokesperson issuing the statement: "She's a comedian in addition to being a talk show co-host. I certainly hope that one day they will be able to grasp her humor." She compared it to doing "an accent," saying that she herself was Irish and made drunk jokes all the time. But after the Asian American Journalists Association issued a statement denouncing her, O'Donnell offered the following "apology":

"This apparently was very offensive to a lot of Asian people. And I asked Judy, who's Asian and works here in our hair and makeup department. I said, 'Was it offensive to you?' And she said, 'Well, kinda. When I was a kid, people did tease me by saying ching-chong.'

"So apparently 'ching-chong,' unbeknownst to me, is a very offensive word or way to make fun, quote-unquote, or mock…any Asian accent. To say 'ching-chong' to someone is very offensive. And some Asian people have told me it's as bad as the n-word. Which I was like, really? I didn't know that.'

"But to anyone who felt offended at my Chinese-Asian pseudo-Japanese sounded-a-little-Yiddish accent that I was doing, you know, it was never intend to mock anyone. And I'm sorry for those people who felt hurt or were teased on the playground. But I'm also gonna give you fair warning that there's a good chance I'll do something like that again… Probably in the next week. Not on purpose! Only 'cause that's how my brain works. I do accents of everyone."

She claimed that because the audience laughed at the time, it was a little bit funny. Which makes it okay, apparently. Then Joy Behar pointed out two Asian women laughing in the audience. Gah.

First, does this actually count as an apology? Second, how is this different from O'Donnell taking offense at Ripa's remark? O'Donnell's impersonation is arguably more offensive. Finally, how is a racist slur "doing an accent"? I shudder to think of how O'Donnell would react to someone doing a stereotypical "queeny" accent — no doubt she'd cry homophobia louder than anyone.

Last week, O'Donnell picked another target: American Idol judge and former Laker Girl/choreographer/pop "singer" Paula Abdul. Although O'Donnell criticized Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson for being cruel to contestants, she reserved a special zinger for Abdul. "If you keep serving people crap, they're eventually going to think it's a meal. Three millionaires…one probably intoxicated. So sad." True, Abdul was a hot mess during promotional interviews before AI's sixth season premiered, including slurring her words, not answering simple questions, and appearing to fall asleep on camera. Keep in mind, too, O'Donnell's performance in Riding the Bus with My Sister. If that wasn't "serving people crap"…

Then there's the yet-to-end feud between O'Donnell and Donald Trump, her equal in tastelessness. In December, she called him "a snake-oil salesman" and mocked his infamous hair; he retaliated by calling her a "fat slob." Aw. These two kids deserve each other! Insulting someone by criticizing his or her personal appearance is the weakest move in any good bitchfight. The situation devolved into a hot mess, with a side dish of O'Donnell screaming at Barbara Walters backstage. Walters publicly defended O'Donnell; after all, any buzz for The View is good buzz, right? But I wonder if Walters misses Jones. Just a little.

Trump now blames the press for the escalation (or maybe I should call it the "surge") of the disagreement. This is after he went on several entertainment and talk shows to plug the latest season of The Apprentice. It's hard to pick a side in this battle; I find both O'Donnell and Trump odious, and to give them any more thought plays right into their need for attention and the last word.

So here's mine: Word is that O'Donnell in talks to start up her own daytime show in several months. I won't be watching.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the CW's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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