Rosie O’Donnell, it turns out, decided to give fame the finger. Yes, she admits that the film and TV offers slowed after the trial and Taboo debacles, and, yes, with millions in the bank, she can afford the luxury of dropping out. But while other smacked-down celebrities would have begun feverishly engineering their comeback, O’Donnell retreated to her home upstate, along the Hudson River, where she began spending most of her time with her partner, Kelli O’Donnell (the two were married in 2004 in a civil ceremony in San Francisco), and their four children—Parker, 10, Chelsea, 8, Blake, 6, and Vivienne, 3 (the oldest three are adopted; Vivienne was born to Kelli in 2002).
O’Donnell had set up a crafts studio a short walk from the house that she, Kelli, and the kids live in, and after Taboo closed, she hunkered down there for hours a day. For the better part of a year, she used art as therapy, painting and sculpting furiously, taking the most brutal press clippings and making them into découpages and collages. Soon enough, she had piled up more than 5,000 works. During that time, O’Donnell reached a conclusion she had been slowly arriving at for years: She was going to be fully herself.
Now, instead of being a multiplatform, global entertainment-and-lifestyle brand, the 44-year-old O’Donnell is doing pretty much whatever she damn well pleases. If she wants to hang out with Kelli and the kids, she hangs out with Kelli and the kids. If she wants to paint, she paints. If she wants to do a little Broadway, she does a little Broadway. If she wants to blog, she blogs. If she wants to launch, say, an all-gay family cruise line, she launches an all-gay family cruise line (R Family Vacations, founded by O’Donnell, Kelli, and Gregg Kaminsky, a travel-industry friend, staged its first cruise, to the Bahamas, in 2004; the trip is the subject of the HBO documentary All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise, airing April 6).
O’Donnell says she does not miss her old life. She says she always had a plan of doing the talk show for five years, then getting out. It stretched to six, and then she was done. “Six years of megastardom, that was intense,” she says. “I needed to refuel myself with real life.” She says she can relate to Dave Chappelle’s rejection of a $50 million deal from Comedy Central, especially because the popular assumption is that if you walk away from a pile of cash that massive, clearly you have gone coconuts. “There’s only one goal in show business, and that’s more,” O’Donnell says. “You can have an Oscar and you need more. It’s gross excess.”
O’Donnell’s goal, she says, has always been to reach 40—her mother died from breast cancer at 39—then retire and have the next part of her life be the one that her mother did not get to experience. “How do you want to spend your life?” she says. “Would you like to be adored by the masses or known by your children? Because you can’t really do both.” Early retirement, in fact, has been a lifelong dream. “I used to say in my act, before I had my TV show, ‘Why isn’t Oprah Winfrey on an island in Barbados with Stedman?’ ” she says. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, when you get there, you wouldn’t do it.’ Uh, yes I would! I would take Stedman and go, ‘Honey, come with me, we’ve just bought Hawaii. We never have to work again! Cheers, Stedman!’ That’s what I would do. But I’m not her.”
The door is open at Rosie O’Donnell’s crafts studio, a bright, modern space with high ceilings and huge picture windows, perched above the Hudson. “Isn’t this great?” O’Donnell asks. “It’s like I created my own playroom for grown-ups.” An explosion of artwork covers the walls: huge paintings in blue, green, and yellow, collages, shadowboxes, wire sculptures. Paint cans, colored pencils, and beads are neatly arranged on a shelf; there’s a potter’s wheel and stacks of canvases.
O’Donnell, makeup-free, is wearing a black T-shirt, blue Adidas track pants, and yellow gardening clogs. “I’m cheap on clothes,” she says. She would never pay $200 for a pair of jeans, she says, preferring instead to spend money on computer equipment (for her blog) and cameras (to take pictures of her kids). She recently dropped quite a bit of weight. “I lost 25 pounds during Fiddler,” she says, sticking a Yaz CD into a player. “I’m under 200 now.”
O’Donnell looks around the room with satisfaction. “When little kids come in here, they lose their minds,” she says, taking a seat at a table and picking up a brush to paint white dots on a box. “Of course, my kids think it’s totally normal to ask for a six-foot canvas and have every paint color they want. I think it’s going to ruin their lives. We can’t get our 10-year-old to behave at school. And every other parent goes through this in America, just so you know.”