The real Rosie

365 days of amazing challenges and feisty decisions turned America’s sweetheart into the fighter she’s always been—and The Advocate’s leading lady for 2002

BY Judy Wieder

December 24 2002 12:00 AM ET

First of all,
there are not two Rosies. She was never the “Queen of
Nice,” and she’s not the “Queen of
Mean.” That’s just our media selling
tickets to its own headlines. Sure, she’s a
complicated bunny, but there’s still only one
Rosie, and one’s enough! Passionate, boisterous,
creative, sad, fun, generous, and genuine, she is The
Advocate
’s Person of the Year for many
reasons—not the least of which is that she
survived the year at all!

An authentic
Rosie Hood for the underdog, this woman had it all when 2002
began—except what she treasured the most: the ongoing
connection to those who have nothing. And that
included the Rosie she still remembers: the isolated
child who grew up in Commack, Long Island, whose cherished
mother died when she was 10 and whose father was never
emotionally hers. The kid who ran all the way to
Broadway to find her feelings but lost her soul on the
wild, empty fame ride.

Exaggeration? A
little, but not much. For the rich and famous Rosie, the
gap had grown too wide. She missed herself. So starting with
her book, Find Me, she decided to put herself
back together in an open, honest way.

When Rosie came
out this year, she became the most famous gay person in
the world. For years her daily daytime TV show made her a
regular guest in millions of homes. Her magazine,
Rosie, with her name and face all over it,
followed suit. Nobody of her stature had ever come out
before, and I, for one, can understand her looking at it
from all angles before leaping off the cliff.
Fortunately, she finally collided with an offer she
couldn’t refuse: the chance to be on Diane
Sawyer’s TV special and discuss what it was
like to be a gay parent, as did Steve Lofton and Roger
Croteau, the gay couple suing Florida to overturn its ban on
gay adoption. Not only is Rosie gay and a huge child
advocate, she lost her own bid to adopt the daughter
she’d fostered in Florida because of this law.

“I
occasionally tell Bert [the son Lofton and Croteau are
fighting to keep] that he outed Rosie,” Roger
Croteau jokes. “But really, she did the perfect
thing for the issues and the children on that show. Prior to
that the media was clueless and uninterested; now they
cannot get enough.”

Asked about the
biggest impact Rosie’s had on their personal lives,
Steve Lofton refers to Rosie’s quiet
generosity: “When Rosie found out we
didn’t have a television, she sent the kids a TV and
cable. Now they can choose between a TV movie and a
cable movie once a week.”

Unfortunately,
the good vibes of Rosie’s coming-out took a quick
turn south when Gruner + Jahr USA, the publishers of
Rosie, allegedly thought their star was looking
too much like (gasp!) an activist. They worried
whether she was still the right figurehead for this onetime
McCall’s readership. In the end, they wanted
her name but not her. Rosie saw things differently.
This was her name. They got both, or neither.
That’s when the real circus started.

“It
wasn’t the gay thing, ” Rosie says, “it
was the magazine stuff. That’s when the
tabloids went nuts. That’s when they started in about
my hair and me being a man and so tough and
scary.”

Tough and scary?
Not really. You can tell a lot by being in someone’s
home. Rosie’s is warm and easy. Her girlfriend and
children adore her, and she brightens whenever
they’re around. And when they’re not, she goes
looking for them. After viewing Rosie’s unexpectedly
cathartic art pieces in her studio, I sat down with
Kelli Carpenter, Rosie’s partner of five years,
and discussed why she thought Rosie should be The
Advocate
’s Person of the Year.

"So much! Her
ability to effect change and open people’s
minds—not just in the big world but in my
life,” Kelli says. “She was able to
change my parents’ perspective on being gay and how
gay relationships work, that it didn’t mean you
have to be alone all your life. That was their biggest
fear. But there she was.”

And there she
still is. Vaulting across the family room, trying to get
her youngest son, Blake, to sing “It’s the
Hard-Knock Life” for us—both of them
laughing too hard to sing anything.

The following
interview took place in Rosie’s Manhattan offices and
in her home outside New York.

So how was your year, Rosie?
Oh, boy, it’s been very eventful, I can
say that. My whole life and career—I was
focused on just that, my career. And the first break in that
came when I adopted my son [Parker], and the second break in
that career focus came when I met Kelli, and I knew
that this was, as I told Parker, the puzzle piece that
matched my heart.

Why?
Kelli is an unbelievable person. She was just
the piece that fit. She’s part of the real
grace that comes from being able to live the truth.
It’s too hard to describe.

How did you two first meet?
My brother Danny, who’s gay, met her
at—[calling out to Kelli in the
kitchen
] what event was that, honey? It was some gay
function in New York, and he met Kelli because they
were at the same table. She had just moved from
Chicago and just broken up with someone. She asked him, did
he know anybody who was single.

Kelli [moving
into the conversation from the kitchen
]: I asked him
to introduce me to a nice attorney.

Rosie [rolls
her eyes
]: Right. And then he called me and said,
“I met the perfect girl for you.” And I
thought, Naw, I’m never going to meet anyone! I
never really was a dater, you know?

Kelli: Then there
was another event where you—

Rosie: No,
no—I know what it was! I buy tables to a lot of
charity events, but then I don’t go. I send
other people instead. I’d rather stay home at
night. My brother Danny was going, and he told me Kelli was
going, so I told him and everybody else going to
“check her out!”

Kelli
[laughing]: I had no idea this was going on.

Rosie: So they
all came back giving me the [makes “OK”
clicking sounds
]. But it was four months
before we had a date.

So people were reporting to you, but you still
hadn’t seen or spoken to her?

Rosie: Right. Then she called my brother and
asked for tickets to the show.

Kelli: My parents
were in town.

Rosie: So I was
like, “Red alert! Kelli Carpenter’s coming to
the show!”

You were really nervous?
Rosie: Well, I wasn’t really nervous, but
I looked out there during the show and saw her and
thought, Oh, my God, she’s so preppy! A-a-ahhh,
preppy, this is going to be impossible. So after the show I
made my assistant go tell her that if she wanted to
have a picture taken with Rosie or meet her, she
could. So Kelli was like, “Umm…I don’t
know.” But her mother said [yelling in a
Southern accent
], “I’d love to meet
her!” [Laughs] Little did I know what I was
getting into: Gomer Pyle as an in-law!

Kelli: We just
found that picture the other day.

Rosie: Yeah,
there we all are, posing before Kelli and I had ever even
talked. Then she got all flirty with me, saying,
“O-o-oh, you burned your hand. Does it
hurt?”

Wait a minute! More hand karma?
Rosie: Yes, that’s true. It started that way,
honey. Right up to this [holds up hand, wrapped
after still another surgery
].

Kelli: Yeah, but
she had four months of prep while I didn’t even know
what was going on.

Rosie: True
[laughs]. We were, like, totally setting it up while
I was checking her out. [Kelli returns to the
kitchen
]

Did getting together with Kelli push you toward coming out?
There were many people who said to me,
“Famous or not, why don’t you come
out?” and I always said, “I’m out
enough,” because I never pretended to have a
boyfriend. My crush on Tom Cruise is real—I never
said I wanted to have sex with him. It stunned me
when, after the Diane Sawyer interview, they did a
focus group and it said 60% of people didn’t know,
but I don’t believe that. I believe they
knew.

I disagree. As long as you didn’t say it, they
didn’t have to know.

I guess.

I remember having these discussions with Lily Tomlin. She
didn’t think she had to come out. She
thought she was out. Well, maybe in her world—

It’s not just my world. It was with
everyone: interns on my show. I felt that I never
compromised my integrity or my place in the gay community,
ever.

How did you see your place in the community before you
came out?

What I think the gay community needs to realize
is that all the members are in our dugout. Some are
playing on the field, but everybody’s in
uniform. And the person who’s pitching is not of more
value than the person in the dugout waiting for his
turn to bat. I waited until I knew it was my turn to
bat. And these men, [Steve] Lofton and [Roger]
Croteau—they were a gift from God: what they have
lived and the injustice of this law. I heard in my
head, This is the time.

Well, it would still have been a big deal if it had just
been about you.

But I didn’t want it to be about me.
Because it’s not about me. In the same way,
when they try to give me the Mother of the Year award, I
don’t want to take it. I’m a
multimillionaire. I have assistants and help. The
woman who’s trying to put sneakers on her three kids
and working three jobs deserves Mother of the Year.
Not me.

But certainly, coming out has changed you.
I will say this: Since doing it, I’m
shocked at the change: Everyone had told me this
[would happen]—from my brother to Ellen [DeGeneres].
Everybody who knows me knows that the main focus of my life
is the rights of kids. The biggest thing I ever had to
get over in my life was my childhood—not my
sexuality. I mean, the things that the gay community has
harped on me about, I find odd.

Like?
When Kathy Kinney came on my show and outed
Richard Simmons, I didn’t try to
“in” Richard Simmons. The gay community
accused me of in-ing Richard Simmons, like I was
trying to make people think that he was straight. I
will tell you this: If Richard Simmons ever wants to discuss
his private life with me on national TV, he’s
welcome to do so. It is not anyone else’s right
to do that before he decides it’s time. That’s
the reason I said to Kathy Kinney,
“We’ll be right back with a
commercial.” I’m simply saying that that
right belongs to him. [Loudly] And no matter what
community you feel he’s a part of or what he
represents to you, it is not as relevant as his own
truth.

Don’t get mad at me! The Advocate
doesn’t out people.

Well, that’s how I always
talk—this is why people think I’m maniacal.
This is how I talk. I should’ve been a lawyer.

[Laughing] It’s not too late. Look, if
someone isn’t ready—
But I also think it’s not fair to judge the
person as not ready when they may be living a life
that is just as out as yours.

Wait—I’m talking about being ready to climb
up on the cover of The Advocate and say,
“Here’s my life.”

Correct. Got it, got it. Yeah. Right.

What’s important is that you’re out and
that you did it in a way that is going to help
change the world. That’s why you’re the
Person of the Year for The Advocate.

I am? I didn’t know. They didn’t
tell me. That’s a huge honor, and I think
it’s wonderful.

And we don’t give this honor to people who
don’t deserve it.
[Quietly] No, I don’t think that of
you.

Why did you do a talk show?
Well, here’s what happened. Before my
talk show, I was a comedian. When you’re a
comedian, you have free rein to say anything you want. I had
a blank canvas, and I painted all the time, all over
the country, in Vegas and everywhere. I loved
it.

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