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The Original Gossip

The Original Gossip


In her heyday, Rona Barrett got in bed with Cher, reported on the antics of Patty Duke, and even got Burt Reynolds to address those gay rumors. Now, Barrett looks back on her career with

During her heyday from the 1960s to the early '80s, entertainment reporter Rona Barrett's name was as synonymous with Hollywood as any of the A-list stars she interviewed. Born a grocer's daughter with a form of muscular dystrophy, Barrett found escape from her difficult life in Queens watching Shirley Temple movies. As a teenager, Barrett decided to turn her love of cinema into a career. When her column about young film stars in Photoplay magazine became a sensation in the late '50s, Barrett moved to Los Angeles. Over the next decade, Barrett would become the first woman to bring entertainment reporting to television. Besides a string of popular movie magazines and numerous TV specials bearing her name, Barrett was also a regular contributor for Good Morning America , the Today show, and Entertainment Tonight , among others.

Nearly every major star of the era revealed their deepest secrets to Barrett. Carol Burnett spoke publicly for the first time about her family's tragic history of alcohol abuse. Cher disclosed what she needed in a sex partner. John Travolta was so comfortable with Barrett that he kept his obligation to be interviewed by her just hours after his mother's funeral.

Her new DVD compilation, Rona Barrett's Hollywood: Nothing But the Truth , offers 10 of her favorite sit-down chats from her private archives. One dollar from each DVD sold will be donated to the Rona Barrett Foundation, which helps senior citizens who are unable to afford assisted-living care.

"I came to Hollywood to help the younger generation," says Barrett, "and now I'm trying to help the older generation."

Over an afternoon coffee at the equally iconic Farmers Market in Los Angeles, Barrett speaks with about her renowned career, outing closeted celebrities, and what she'd ask Britney Spears. How did you get such big stars of the day to not only open their homes to you, but to be so frank in front of the cameras? You even interviewed Cher in her bed.Rona Barrett: [ Laughs ] I think they sensed that I wasn't just there to ask them a question but to know something more about them as people and what made them tick. When I had an important question, they felt I was their friend and would tell me what I wanted to know. I would never ask a question that I wouldn't answer myself.

Was any subject considered taboo by your network? If it was, there were people in broadcast standards who would watch for it in the taped interviews and my reports before they went on the air. Once I was reviewing a film and I said something like, "Clint Eastwood brought out his big gun." The lady at standards said, "I don't think you can say that." I had to convince her that it wasn't a euphemism [ Laughs ].

In your interview with Burt Reynolds he actually addressed the rumor that he was gay. That seems a bold topic for TV in the mid '70s. I'd met Burt Reynolds when he was a stunt person before he went into acting. He'd dated a girlfriend of mine. Whenever I needed to ask an important question, he was there to answer it. I broke a lot of the original guidelines. People had never asked those questions before about a star's sexual life.

What's your opinion on outing closeted celebrities who you know are gay? I'm totally against it. We all knew Rock Hudson was gay. I always felt that was something personal. When Ellen DeGeneres came out and said she was gay, it was her right. It's not my right or any journalist's right to out them. I saw no purpose in it. [Sexuality] is just something that is. You accept it and get on with it. I've always believed in letting people live and be who they want to be.

Did you ever protect celebrities that you knew were gay by printing cover-up stories? I probably did once or twice, but not a lot. I would always go to the person or their representative and say, "Look, someone is going to do this story. If it's true, you're better off putting it in my hands than someone else's." If I'd slipped in a line about the marriage of Rock Hudson and Phyllis [Gates, who married Hudson to cover up his homosexuality] being a lie, I couldn't get away with it then, but now you can. I even made a big apology on television more than once.

To whom? Patty Duke was one. There was a time when she was having a lot of problems. None of us recognized that she was bipolar, but every night on the news I was reporting another antic that she had done in public. It became my prerogative as a reporter to talk about what they did in public. What they did in their private homes -- unless they wanted me to know what was going on -- was none of my business.

How do you feel about today's more aggressive brand of gossip columnists and paparazzi? They're crazy and too aggressive. It's all about money. A photographer who gets a photo of someone can walk away making a half million dollars in one afternoon, so everyone wants to do it. It's a paparazzi war out there. When you have stars like Britney Spears or personalities like Paris Hilton doing the kind of nonsense they've been doing, they love it. But celebrities realize there is no privacy, and everyone needs some private space. The intrusion has gotten so overbearing and it bothers me. I think the new journalism is not what anyone wants because we never get the full story.

Which of today's celebrities would you like to interview? I'd love to have a very in-depth conversation -- if it is possible -- with Britney Spears. I think she has been misunderstood like Patty Duke. I think Britney had a serious problem. I'd like to know whether she understands now how the problem started and what caused it. I don't think we've really heard that side of her story yet, from her. There's no room for in-depth interviews on television anymore. It's all two-minute sound bites.

What do you miss about reporting on the entertainment industry? Once in while there's a story I'd want to cover. If I had been on the air during this period with Britney Spears or Madonna I would like to have reported it, but I would have gotten the story from all points of view and then put it together. Sometimes I miss that. I like to give credit to Walter Cronkite, who said, "Some days there are some stories that are so unbelievable I feel like I'm a firefighter and I put on my slicker, slide down the pole, open the front door, and realize I have no fire truck."

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