Because O’Donnell arranged the talent, the ship is teeming with gay and gay-friendly celebrities. Cyndi Lauper is set to perform. Sharon Gless of Cagney & Lacey will screen an episode of Queer As Folk. Mario Cantone will be spotted in line at the chocolate buffet (“I’m just looking, I’m not eating anything”).
Easily the most anticipated event is Rosie’s Variety Hour in the Stardust Theater, on night two. O’Donnell takes the stage to thunderous applause, and then she brings up Tom Cruise. At the time, O’Donnell’s beloved friend had just attacked Brooke Shields for using Paxil to treat her postpartum depression.
“Cuckoo!” she screams, and the crowd goes bonkers. “He says there’s no such thing as a chemical imbalance? He should come over on a Friday night, and I won’t take my meds!” She paces the stage. “I’m very concerned that my Tommy went off the deep end. I saw him with Matt Lauer, and I had to take a Xanax right after. He looked like he was having a bipolar episode right there.”
Over the next six days, ten couples will get legally married on Pier 21 in Halifax, extra chairs will be brought out for the jammed Surrogacy and Egg Donation workshop, and little kids will wave glow-sticks during “If You Were Gay,” performed by cast members of Avenue Q. Cruise passengers typically stay in little pods, maybe meet a few couples. On this trip, just about everyone on the ship has bonded. When it’s time to go, many of them cry and cry.
Besides launching the cruise line, O’Donnell has donated or raised millions of dollars for dozens of charitable groups, from the American Cancer Society to Broadway Cares to the Red Cross. Her foundation Rosie’s Broadway Kids, which offers theater instruction to underprivileged kids, recently bought a building on 45th Street; a $4 million renovation is in the works. O’Donnell’s life’s dream is to revamp the nation’s foster-care system. “The gay community can help solve the foster-care problem, because they are dying to parent and they know what it’s like to be unwanted,” she says.
“What I like about Rosie,” says her friend Madonna, “is that she has taken all her pain and reinvented it as compassion. She is generous to a fault.”
O’Donnell says her munificence has an edgier, more selfish side. “Overly generous people, people whose need to give is nearly pathological, there is something behind that, an unworthiness, a sense of guilt that they shouldn’t have as much as they do,” she says. Her mother’s death, she says, also explains why she does so much to help others, especially kids. She blurs the line, she says, between herself and them.
O’Donnell is back in her crafts studio, painting. She’s developing a sitcom, she says, with Alice Hoffman. It’s about an Erma Bombeck–esque Newsday columnist who has lost her girlfriend to breast cancer. She is also set to star in an upcoming Broadway drama, Folding the Monster, with Danny Aiello.
O’Donnell insists, however, that she no longer wants to be seen mainly as an entertainer. “When everyone wants to relate to you as that one slice of pie that they’re seeing for an hour a day—I mean, that part is true and real, that’s not a con. But, you know, there’s twelve pieces in a pizza. There are other parts—there is the political part, the gay part, the depressed part. There’s the overweight part. There’s the happy part. There are all different parts, like everyone.”
O’Donnell puts down her paintbrush. She wants to be a philanthropic brand, à la Paul Newman, she says. Other than that, she has no plans. “My whole life was, my mother died before she was 40, so I thought if I got to 40, I might be able to make it. I might be able to live like my grandmother to 78,” she says. O’Donnell likes to ask people this question: If you could be guaranteed to live to a certain age, what number would you take? “I’d take 78 right now, you kidding me?” she says. “I always ask everyone that, and they go, ‘I’ve never thought of that.’ I’m like, ‘It’s all I think about!’ Would I take 63 as a guarantee? Let’s see. I’m 44; at 63, my daughter Vivie will be 22. To guarantee I’d get there? I might.”