When fans encounter Cristina Saralegui, the vivacious, sometimes ribald talk-show host of the weekly prime-time El Show de Cristina, they tend to ask for hugs, not autographs. Her mix of glamour, humor and kitschiness, developed over 16 years of doing the program on the Univision Network, endears her to viewers, though her penchant for the provocative has shocked them at times. On the air, she has revealed her cosmetic surgery, given condom demonstrations, bemoaned her menopause symptoms, even "married" gay couples. The latter event drew bomb threats and 1,500 protesters to her Miami studio. "I have gotten into a lot of trouble in my life for being brutally honest," she says. "Sometimes I put both my feet in my mouth. But like Elton John, I'm still standing."
She's doing better than that. Saralegui, who came to the U.S. from Cuba at age 12, now sits at the center of a Hispanic empire. Like Oprah Winfrey, to whom she is often compared, Saralegui, 57, has become a brand, which includes Cristina La Revista, the magazine she started in 1991; a talk show, which has won 11 Emmys and an estimated 100 million viewers worldwide; a Miami television studio; Casa Cristina, a furniture line; an upcoming clothing line; and a burgeoning acting career that has included an appearance on ABC's George Lopez. Her bilingual website receives an average of 50,000 hits a day. Her book Cristina! My Life as a Blonde is out in Spanish and English. And she runs a foundation, Arriba la Vida/Up with Life, which aims to educate Hispanics about HIV. "Kids can diet, stop smoking, but they will never stop making love," she says.