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O'Donnell, Rosie (b. 1962)  
 
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Comedian, actress, television talk show host, and now openly gay mom, Rosie O'Donnell has achieved monumental success in her relatively brief career. Long rumored to be lesbian, she publicly came out in March 2002 in a much-publicized interview with Diane Sawyer on Primetime Thursday.

The host of The Rosie O'Donnell Show from 1996 to 2002, O'Donnell built a loyal following among viewers of daytime television, including many mainstream Americans. Debuting with the largest ratings of any talk show in a decade, The Rosie O'Donnell Show was a phenomenal success and made its host a genuine star. O'Donnell and her show were the recipients of numerous Emmy Awards.

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To her chagrin, early in her talk show career, Newsweek responded to her homespun humor by dubbing her "The Queen of Nice." Actually, however, her "niceness"--which is often communicated through Broadway show tunes--is an important key to her likeability and to her success in rescuing television talk shows from the shock and shlock in which many of her predecessors and competitors were mired. O'Donnell returned civility and fun to a genre that had become dominated by "trash TV."

For all her sentimentality and civility, however, O'Donnell has emerged as one of the most vocal, outspokenly liberal celebrities of the past decade. Devoted to figures such as Hillary Clinton and Barbra Streisand, she has brought before her audiences political discussions on topics as various as gun control, welfare reform, and Rudolph Guiliani. The cause she most passionately espouses is child advocacy.

Interest in the lives of foster children in Florida prompted her decision to come out. Learning of the plight of Steve Lofton and Roger Croteau, a gay couple unable to adopt a foster child in that state, despite having raised him from infancy when no one else would foster him, O'Donnell decided it was time the public added her face to their mental images of gay parents. As she told Diane Sawyer in March, "I don't think America knows what a gay parent looks like: I am a gay parent."

Cynics wondered if O'Donnell's timing depended on the scheduled end of her show in May 2002, and if her high-profile coming-out was part of the promotional effort of her new book Find Me (2002), but she maintained that she needed a specific political reason to disclose her sexual orientation publicly.

The staggering number of foster children in the United States motivated her to protest the state law barring gay and lesbian parents from adopting them. "I don't think," she said to Sawyer, "that restricting the pool of adoptive parents is beneficial."

O'Donnell's interest in children's welfare and her desire to provide a loving home for her own children stem from her own difficult childhood. The third of five children, she was born on March 21, 1962 to Edward and Roseann O'Donnell. She grew up in Commack, New York, on Long Island.

At the age of ten, O'Donnell lost her mother to cancer, although she did not learn of the cause of her mother's death until she was sixteen. She has described the period after her mother's death as extremely difficult and her father as having emotionally abandoned his five children. Out of her sense of loss evolved a fierce desire to create her own loving family, regardless of her sexual orientation.

O'Donnell also credits her difficult childhood in part for her interest in the entertainment industry. In high school, she masked her unhappiness with humor. She was not only homecoming queen, prom queen, and senior class president, but also class clown. She attended college briefly after high school (at Dickinson College and Boston University), but soon left to begin working comedy clubs.

In the mid-1980s, after winning comedy champion five times on Star Search, she hosted and produced Stand-Up Spotlight on VH-1. The secret to her success as a comedian was her ability to relate to other people and to project an empathetic, non-threatening persona, the same qualities that made her a successful talk show host.

In the early 1990s she landed her first film roles in A League of Their Own (1992) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), in which she became known for playing the no-nonsense best friend to the female star. Other films include Another Stakeout (1993), The Flintstones (1994), Exit to Eden (1994), and Harriet the Spy (1996).

She has also appeared on Broadway in a revival of Grease (1995), among other productions. Her support for Broadway manifests itself not only in her vast store of Broadway tunes, but also in hosting the Tony Awards. Among her television acting appearances have been guest spots on Stand by Your Man and Will and Grace.

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Rosie O'Donnell presenting an art piece at Lambda Legal's fund-raising auction in 2003. Photograph by Angela Brinskele.
  
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