Rosie O’Donnell is standing next to Martha Stewart on the Chelsea set of Stewart’s talk show. O’Donnell is here on a frigid February morning to make a chocolate-pudding cake and to talk about Rosie’s Shop, an online store that benefits her children’s charity. They make an odd pair: The erstwhile host of The Rosie O’Donnell Show is loose and spontaneous, the class clown to Stewart’s student-council president.
“There’s a brand-new sign on the way into the studio,” O’Donnell announces to the audience. “It says WIPE YOUR FEET.”
“She hasn’t been to my house yet,” Stewart says. “Every door says REMOVE YOUR SHOES. All little notes, everywhere.”
“Do you think it’s rude to people?” asks O’Donnell, hastily sweeping up some cocoa that she’s spilled.
“Nope,” says Stewart. “I got a whole box of those little socklets that have the rubber on the bottom.”
“See, that’s why everyone in America loves you,” says O’Donnell. “Because you provide socklets with rubber on the bottom for people who come to your house.”
The crowd eats it up. “I miss Rosie,” says a woman in the audience. “I used to go to her show all the time. They put Drake’s cakes and milk on the chairs.”
After the show, Stewart retreats to her silent, austere office to check her computer before a meeting. “Rosie is always lively, always loud,” she says. “She’s incorrigible and lovely at the same time.”
Down the hall, in her dressing room, O’Donnell is surrounded by a pack of Martha staffers, many of them veterans from her own show. I ask O’Donnell what she and Stewart were chatting about during the commercial breaks (it was mostly O’Donnell doing the talking while Stewart would nod vigorously). “I asked her how the show was going, and she said she was very tired, and I said I understood,” O’Donnell says in her signature Long Islandese. “I told Martha I don’t have a mother and asked if I can call her, and she said yes, which I loved. And that I think I’m in perimenopause. I’m getting night sweats, and for two months, I thought I had aids, but I’m in a very low-risk group. Lesbians hardly ever get AIDS. I realized maybe it’s menopause. I think I have bird flu if I get a pimple. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. And I told her I got my skin tags cut off. She said, ‘What are skin tags?’ I was like, ‘Do you mean to tell me you’ve never had a skin tag, so I can feel worse about myself?’ ” She shrugs. “I wanted to ask her questions about my adult acne and stuff like that, but there isn’t time when you’re making chocolate pudding.”
The removal of her skin tags is actually not news to readers of O’Donnell’s year-old blog, rosie.com. Back in January, Rosie wrote, “last week i had 3 skin tags / removed / the dermo zapped em off / nearly pain free / as i applied the numbing cream as directed / pre visit.”
So that’s what Rosie has been up to.
Not so long ago, Rosie O’Donnell seemed destined to be another Martha Stewart. Or Oprah. She was funny and endearing and empathetic like few others in the public eye—an American Everywoman, the celebrity next door who loves Target, struggles with her weight, and, as she puts it, reminds you of “that girl down the street, Eileen, who’s on the bowling team. You know the one—she doesn’t have a boyfriend? She mows her lawn a lot.” As host of The Rosie O’Donnell Show, she was one of the most popular daytime-TV personalities ever. Good ol’ Rosie, collector of Koosh balls, belter of show tunes, doer of good deeds for underprivileged kids! Not for nothing was she dubbed “the Queen of Nice.”
Then her image took a series of major hits. She walked away from her talk show in 2002, even as Warner Bros. threw outrageous sums at her, exhausted by the grinding pace and sick of Hollywood phoniness. “When I did interviews, nobody really wanted to talk-talk,” she says. “It was all kind of short and surface.” At the time, her career plan was to put all of her energy into her namesake magazine, which she had started the year before. She also came out as a lesbian, promptly acquiring “the dykiest haircut you could get,” she says. In October 2002, O’Donnell found herself in an ugly breach-of-contract lawsuit with publisher Gruner + Jahr. During the trial, a number of embarrassing details emerged, including her now-infamous alleged “liars get cancer” remark to an employee. Then, in the fall of 2003, O’Donnell’s $10 million Broadway production of Taboo was fricasseed by critics and folded after three months. O’Donnell has surfaced since then—in last May’s TV movie Riding the Bus With My Sister; on Broadway, in Fiddler on the Roof, this past winter—but for the most part, she has been conspicuously off the radar. This from someone who had, over two decades, churned out a memoir, a monthly magazine, two books, three Broadway shows, two Christmas albums, and top-grossing movies—A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, and The Flintstones—three years running. In 2000, O’Donnell hosted the Grammys and the Tonys; she racked up six Emmys for her talk show, for which she was paid more than $25 million a year. Her net worth at the time was estimated at over $100 million. Then—poof.