Rona Barrett Interview: Pioneering Entertainment Journalist Found Success Despite Numerous Obstacles
Written by Melissa Parker, Posted in Interviews Journalists
Throughout her career spanning more than 30 years as a vastly successful entertainment reporter, commentator and producer, Rona Barrett has been both an eyewitness to and an expert on the ever-changing world of entertainment and celebrities in the news including sports figures and political leaders.
A true innovator in this challenging landscape, Barrett was the first to recognize there was a new and larger generation of young people with interests in stars and celebrities different from their parents. She called them "Young Hollywood" and began covering stars like Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin, Fabian, Natalie Wood, Frankie Avalon, and many more.
"I faced hardships and obstacles. There was something in my personality and in my being that just always said, 'There’s no obstacle that you can’t mount and find a way around.' That’s been my philosophy my whole life."
Barrett was the first to bring in-depth entertainment reporting and celebrity interviews to the world of morning television when she helped inaugurate Good Morning America in 1975 as its Arts and Entertainment Editor, the first entertainment journalist to edit a stable of magazines bearing her name, and is also an author of three books including the “tell all” autobiography Miss Rona.
This pioneering journalist fought through a physical disability to achieve her dreams and is now taking her show on the road to discuss her travails and accomplishments in a one-woman show entitled “Rona Barrett: Nothing But the Truth.” Proceeds from the shows will benefit the Rona Barrett Foundation, which provides various forms of assistance to seniors.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Ms. Barrett, I remember buying the magazines Rona Barrett’s Hollywood and Rona Barrett’s Gossip in the 1970s.
Rona Barrett: Oh my gosh, you’re of that vintage (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, we could not wait to find out what celebrities you were talking about.
Rona Barrett: Well, that’s very nice. It seems like a long time ago.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a young girl, you were interested in famous people, but you also had a great curiosity to find out about what made them tick.
Rona Barrett: Absolutely. I think most of it stemmed from my physical disability. I couldn’t do all the things that young children could do because I was born with a muscular deficiency. It kept me a loner, as I had to watch kids play games through my window knowing that I could not go out and join them.
One day I just decided I was going to make something of myself, and go somewhere where I wouldn’t be called names like “fatty” and “cripple.” I just concentrated on getting myself out of my home and making myself independent. That’s how it all began.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You lived in Queens and would travel to Manhattan. How did you begin speaking to the stars?
Rona Barrett: One summer my parents were invited by friends to a very famous resort up in the Catskill mountains and they took me with them. That evening after dinner there was a big show. A young man came out and started singing. I thought he was God’s gift to humanity and I’d never felt like that before in my life. I turned to my mother and said, “Oh mom, I’m going to have to do something to help this man become very successful. Isn’t he gorgeous?”
I got this incredible crush and the crush turned out to be on Eddie Fisher. When I saw him on television that Fall, I don’t know what prompted me, but I called the TV station to ask if he was still there. They told me he had left, but gave me the name of his management company. The next thing I knew I was telling them I’d like to come to talk to someone about helping Eddie Fisher.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How old were you then?
Rona Barrett: I was 12 and a half. I had never walked up a flight of stairs in my life. I usually had to crawl or something like that just to get up a flight of stairs. My parents were extremely protective of me. But, this time I was going to lie to them and say that I had to study with a girlfriend.
I found myself at the elevator train and managed to climb all of the stairs but it took forever to do it. What should have been a 15 minute ride to Manhattan turned out to be 2 and a half hours. When I finally arrived at Eddie’s management office they were ready to close. I was told to come back another time. I said, “No I can’t.” I don’t know what the receptionist saw in me but she asked me to wait. A man came out and said, “I hear you want to do something with Eddie Fisher.” I said, “Yes I do.”
The man ushered me into his office and said, “We’ve been thinking of starting an international Eddie Fisher fan club. Would you like to do something like that?” I said, “You bet!” He said, “I’m glad you want to do that because this job doesn’t pay anything.” Of course I didn’t care, but the whole time I was thinking, “How in the world am I ever going to make it back to Manhattan every day after school?” But that was the beginning of the experience of meeting so many new people and one thing led to another.
Then I went off to college. My father wouldn’t send me to any of the colleges I had applied to or that I had gotten scholarships to because they were too far away. So I went to New York University.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you still having problems with Muscular Dystrophy?
Rona Barrett: Yes. I still have it to this day.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was your major in college?
Rona Barrett: I took a number of different courses. I wanted to become part of the communications world but I knew my parents wouldn’t like that. So I started into pre law and pre med, but I couldn’t stand the thought of going to school 10 or 12 more years so I switched to a Bachelor of Science program.
In that program was the study of motion pictures and the beginning study of television. I was just so enamored with all of that. I knew that’s where I wanted to me. I also wanted to be the next Walter Winchell and that’s how I got into journalism.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s an incredible story against all odds.
Rona Barrett: I faced hardships and obstacles. There was something in my personality and in my being that just always said, “There’s no obstacle that you can’t mount and find a way around.” That’s been my philosophy my whole life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Being female added to those obstacles.
Rona Barrett: Well, I don’t ever want to think about that (laughs). At that time you didn’t realize that very few women were doing anything of any importance. Little did I realize I was opening up the doors eventually for so many women to enter the field.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What were the main differences between your interviewing technique and Barbara Walters’ style of interviewing?
Rona Barrett: I think we had a similar way of doing things. My whole premise was being really interested in knowing how people tick, who they were. At that time no one was doing anything like that. No one dared ask those kinds of questions that we as young women were now asking.
I think a lot of it had to do with why I wanted to find out if I was really any different from any other person out there. Why did this happen to me? Later I realized, “Why shouldn’t it have happened to me?” It really gave me the motivation to want to make something of myself.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): This was the 1950s?
Rona Barrett: When I really started it was the late 50s and I was 13 years old. It was a whole different world. When I got to 1969, that’s when I was approached to see if I was interested in having my own magazine. I’d been on television 3 years by then and started making a name for myself. That’s when Rona Barrett’s Hollywood, Rona Barrett’s Preview, Daytimers, and Gossip came about.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you have actors coming on to you during interviews? Hugh O’Brien once said, “Just an inch Miss Rona, just let me put it in an inch.”
Rona Barrett: He didn’t say that. It was another famous actor. That was not Hugh O’Brien, although he did make a pass at me. What can I say? That was good old Hugh (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You moved to NBC in 1980 to co host Tomorrow with Tom Snyder and that had its own set of problems.
Rona Barrett: Yes it did. But again, it really had a lot to do with being a woman and Tom being part of the old boys network. It was just a very sad and unfortunate situation. I thought the two of us would have made a very good marriage on television. I was shocked and disappointed, but life goes on.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you make close friends over the years from the people you interviewed?
Rona Barrett: In the beginning I had an awful lot of friends because I was the same age as most of them. They were called the young Hollywood kids and that’s who I was writing about. But as the career got to be more serious I realized it was very difficult to be in someone’s home learning about his or her life and then walking outside and having to write about it.
That’s when I realized I was losing friends. They’d say, “Oh my God, I thought you were my friend.” My relationships later would not necessarily be with the stars themselves but with all the other people with whom I was growing up with who were now becoming the heads of studios and other executives within the business. They knew a hell of a lot of things and could guide you in the business.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Frank Sinatra didn’t like you.
Rona Barrett: That was also due to my relationship with his eldest daughter Nancy. She was like a sister to me and vice versa. Then some unfortunate personal problems happened. The Sinatras blamed me and that was the end of the friendship after a number of years.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you interview Elvis Presley at Graceland?
Rona Barrett: No, I never had a physical interview with Elvis. I’d see him at an event and he’d always be very polite. I had many friends who were dating Elvis so I got to be invited as a friend over to Elvis’ hotel suite and got to observe him from that standpoint. The funny thing is that we ended up living right around the road from each other in Palm Springs, which is how I got the tip on his wedding.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who was the most fascinating star you’ve ever interviewed?
Rona Barrett: There are so many. So many interesting things were said to me when people I interviewed didn’t realize they were saying some of the things that they said (laughs). I did a special that had Ann Margaret, Raquel Welch, Liza Minnelli, and Cher. When I sat down with each one of these women, we started talking about love, sex, and marriage. The next thing we knew we were discussing what it was like to have sex for the very first time. They were all honest and open about it. Those were the questions that people were dying to know the answers to.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why do you think celebrities draw so much public attention?
Rona Barrett: It’s a way of comparing their lives to a celebrity. I believe that many people think of celebrities as royalty. Because of the birth of all of the cable stations and various programming outlets, people became hungry for more information on these celebrities.
I’ve always believed that sociologically and psychologically what celebrities are often reported as having done or doing can have a tremendous influence on another’s person’s life. It’s a way for them to say, “Oh, if they can do it, maybe I can do it, too.” It was a way of comparing your life to someone else’s who had gained a great deal of fame, rightfully or wrongfully so.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You certainly paved the way for Barbara Walters.
Rona Barrett: I don’t think I paved the way for Barbara Walters. I give so much credit … she was doing The Today Show long before I finally went on television the first time. She’d already been on The Today Show for a number of years and was interviewing important politicians and actors.
When I came along I was far more psychological in my approach to questioning people. I was far more interested in who they really were. Were they anything like the people we saw on the screen or were they totally different?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will you be taking your one-woman show around the country?
Rona Barrett: Yes. I hope to do that because it’s also a way to raise funds for my foundation for seniors in need. I’m very excited about going on the road in the next few months and doing this one-woman show which is loaded with clips from behind the scenes, the story about my life, and a discussion on why we can’t throw away anybody who reaches a certain age because they either don’t have a voice anymore or they don’t know what to do. They need help. These are the very people that made this nation what it is today.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you suggesting alternatives to nursing homes?
Rona Barrett: What I’m suggesting … I’m in the midst of setting up a pilot program and a building facility that could be duplicated by other counties and cities across the nation. We are lacking in affordable housing and in assisted living places that are affordable for the elderly and for those who really don’t have anything but are still viable.
We are trying to build a place called The Golden Inn cottages and we’re getting very close to getting on a property and building the first model somewhere on the central coast of California. Then hopefully other people will see what it’s like and if the model is successful, they can do something similar in their communities.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s a great idea. Sometimes the elderly are shuffled off to nursing homes just because they are a “burden” to their families.
Rona Barrett: Well, I don’t think that’s the proper thing to do. I think they need a different way of life. We just can’t let them sit there or lie in a bed. I think it’s very important that seniors remain very active and that you keep their minds going even if they’re in the first phases of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
For those who cannot completely care for themselves there should be places for them to go where somebody could help them wash their hair, make sure they’re brushing their teeth and getting three meals a day. I’d like to show them what the golden years should be about.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That they are still important members of society.
Rona Barrett: Yes and that they still are people you cannot just discard. I don’t like the fact that we have so many orphaned seniors in this country and so many children don’t want to be bothered with their parents.
My other reason for taking the one-woman show out is to make people aware of the crises we’re facing among the elderly in this country. It we can do something about it, let’s do it. I have one program called Rona’s Warriors and it’s almost like trying to adopt a senior. I ask people to take some time and visit their local elderly care facility and volunteer. You have no idea how you’ll make friends, how much they’ll appreciate you, and how much you can learn from them.
Come and tell me your stories and experiences. Well put them on the website and see how we can grow this program. I know we are all having tough times. There are few people who haven’t been affected by this economic turndown, but it will make the soul feel really good to help another human being. That’s my passion.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s commendable; I wish you much luck with that.
Rona Barrett: Thank you very much.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there anyone you have not interviewed that you would have liked to?
Rona Barrett: Yes, a few people. I would have liked to interview Jacqueline Onassis. I would have loved to get to know her and really find out what she was like. Another person would have been Eleanor Roosevelt but I wasn’t around for that one (laughs). But in my time, I would have liked to interview Jackie. I wrote her a number of letters requesting an interview. I remember I received one letter back from her and it basically said, “If I start with you, I’ll have to start with everyone. Hope you understand my position.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So much has changed these days in the world of interviewing. Rarely will a celebrity do an interview if he/she is not promoting something; i.e., film, television series, book.
Rona Barrett: Yes, back then they were just interested in getting publicity for whatever reason. In those days you really didn’t have many private or personal public relations people. If you were a studio contract player, the studio was always there to get them publicity in movie magazines.
I discovered many times that what I was reading about a person and what was really true about a person was totally different. I had competition from the major magazines but no competition from other people in television and/or radio so it was a different time.
Today every celebrity is managed by a press agent or PR person, therefore, if you start asking the “wrong” questions they will stop the interview. I don’t know how I would fare today. But, I hope many people would say that I was always fair and would get all sides to the story.
I don’t think many people know how to extract answers from celebrities so the PR people are frightened. They are thinking they might hurt themselves because of the many outlets now and the Internet. I mean, you can say one thing and two minutes later it’s out there and someone has edited it in a way that represents something that you really didn’t say.
Few people have really taken the time to understand what some of these stars are all about. I feel very sorry for Lindsay Lohan because this is a sick girl! This girl needs help, not to be exploited on television.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you miss the interviews and being in the middle of it all?
Rona Barrett: No, not really. I often paraphrase what Walter Cronkite once said when somebody asked him that question. He said, “Well, every now and then I hear a really good story and I feel like a fireman. I grab for my yellow hat and my yellow slicker. I come down the fire pole, open the front door, and suddenly realize I have no fire engine.” That’s how I feel … every now and then.
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