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FEATURE – Rosie: How my heart attack changed everything
Talk show host, actor, vocal gay rights activist – for fans here in Australia, it might be surprising to learn that the constant through Rosie O’Donnell’s prolific career has been her passion for stand-up. Early next year, the 51-year-old brings her stand-up comedy show down under for the very first time – and we have a near-death experience to thank for the visit.
Q: Rosie, why has it taken you such a long time to visit Australia?
A. Well, for a long time I thought Australia was Austria. I had no idea it was so tropical and beachy, I imagined snow and skiing! But I’m not much of a world traveller. I don’t really travel often, or to other countries – I’ve only ever been to Italy, Ireland and England, that’s it. This will be, by far, the furthest I’ve ever travelled.
Q. What made you decide to start travelling more?
A. I had a heart attack last August, and I re-evaluated a lot of things in my life after that happened. I made a list when I was in intensive care, and travel was on the list – and Australia was the first place I wanted to go.
Q. That seems to tie in with something you said after you had the heart attack, that it’s common for women to ignore the signs because they aren’t used to putting themselves first.
A. Definitely. I’ve been raising kids for 18 years and like so many women, that’s the priority. You need to take some time to remember you deserve as much attention and nurturing as you give out. Like many women, when I had a heart attack I did not call 911. That’s a very sad and scary thing – women think ‘I’ll be OK, I don’t want to bother the 911 people, I don’t want to scare my children…’ Women do that, and they die. I’d always considered myself a tough, feminist, hard-edged New Yorker who stood up for herself, and here I was doing what everyone else does, saying ‘Oh, I won’t bother anyone’.
Q. Your current stand-up is informed by that near-death experience – how long after the heart attack were you able to start seeing the humour in the situation?
A. Right away, I think. When I was in intensive care, I had an allergic reaction to eating a cherry – I’d eaten cherries my whole life but suddenly in hospital I ate one and I went into anaphylactic shock. It was like a comedy skit – they wanted me to wear a Medic Alert that said ‘cherries’ on it! How much of a wimp do you have to be? ‘Allergic to cherries, princesses and fairy dust…’
Also when I was in the hospital, half out of it, my friend asked a nurse how I was doing. The nurse said ‘excellent’, and my friend asked how she could judge that, how I compared to everyone else who had what I had. The nurse said ‘Because everyone else is dead’. All we could do was laugh. The nurse said, ‘Well, I guess it is kinda funny…’”
Q. Here in Australia we know you from everything from The View to A League of Their Own – but fans won’t have seen much of your stand-up.
A. It’s been there since the very start, and it’s something I really miss doing – once I feel like I have something to say on a particular subject, I almost have to do it. I’ll go into a small club and ask to go on stage for a few minutes. My stand-up is very different to my TV work. When I had my own show in America, the magazines dubbed me ‘The Queen of nice’, which I always found so funny, because my stand-up is anything but nice. It’s all stuff that makes me angry, social ills, things I want to share my opinion on.
Q. You’ve mentioned you sometimes feel like a ‘gay parade leader’ – you’re the celebrity the media keep on speed dial when they need comment on a LGBTI issues. Are you comfortable with that?
A. I kind of like it. The thought that there would even be these topics of conversations or a public figure to discuss? I didn’t think that would happen in my lifetime. In a parking lot recently I saw two teenage girls holding hands, and I stopped to chat to them – they’re out in school, their parents know…it made me tear up. It’s hard to believe we’ve had so much progress.
Q. Your own coming out happened quite far into your career, back in 2002. Did you experience any backlash?
A. I thought most people knew – I was surprised that so many people were surprised. I thought it’d be like Elton John coming out. But it wasn’t negative at all, it was very important to do. I wished I’d done it sooner, but I had to wait until I was ready.
INFO: Rosie O’Donnell plays Brisbane Concert Hall Feb 7, Melbourne Plenary Feb 8 and Sydney’s Star Event Centre Feb 9. Full tour dates at frontiertouring.com/rosieodonnell