Long before TMZ, Perez Hilton, "Access Hollywood" and "Entertainment Tonight" invaded Hollywood, there was "Miss Rona."
With her distinctive voice and fashionably short hairdo, Rona Barrett was one of the first celebrity journalists to become a celebrity herself. She broke ground in the 1970s by pioneering the concept of in-depth, one-on-one TV interviews, inviting stars to share intimate and sometimes painful details of their lives.
Barrett interviewed Cher as they both sat on her bed and gossiped about Sonny Bono. The late Richard Pryor told Barrett how much he loved cocaine, just a short while before he would set himself on fire in a drug-related accident. The Beatles, Robert Redford, Robin Williams, Clint Eastwood and numerous others all sat down with "Miss Rona." In addition to her TV work, she edited a slate of magazines, and helped launch ABC's "Good Morning America" with her Hollywood reports.
In 1991, Barrett, now 73, stepped away from the show business whirlwind and moved to Santa Ynez, devoting her energy to her family and her nonprofit Rona Barrett Foundation, dedicated to assisting seniors.
But Thursday evening, Barrett returns to her familiar stamping ground in Beverly Hills to premiere her one-woman show, "Rona Barrett: Nothing But the Truth" at the Paley Center for Media. The performance will include recollections about her life and career, plus several clips from her interviews.
Her return to the spotlight has Barrett a bit nervous — but not too much. "I'm surprised that I'm doing it, but I've been thinking about it quite a lot," she said as she sipped one of her favorite drinks — a Japanese cherry latte — in one of the Paley's exhibition rooms. "What I really want to do is bring more awareness to baby boomers and others about seniors in need, so this will be a fundraiser. It's what's most important to me."
But she's also eager to take her audience with her down memory lane: "I do want to share the history of the glamour of Hollywood, my own life story, what motivated me. What I'm most proud of is that I opened so many doors for women in broadcasting."
Her fascination with Hollywood was sparked when she was a little girl and first saw Shirley Temple larger than life on the silver screen, "seeing her dance up and down those stars. There was something so magical about her." She maintained that interest in Hollywood and saw an opportunity when she began her professional career as a journalist.
Said Barrett: "I realized that the entertainment industry is the number one export in the world. It has tremendous influence everywhere." She attributes her journalistic instincts to her reaction when she learned as a youngster that she had a rare form of arrested muscular dystrophy. "I couldn't do things other kids could do, and because of that, I was always fascinated by what made other people tick."
She focused on celebrities: "I wanted to explore the 'real' behind the 'reel.' I knew that everyone had a story — though getting to that story was not always easy."
But as her profile grew, Barrett also became a target of comedians and others who made fun of her voice and mannerisms. "They mimicked me," she said with a smile. "I didn't really have a problem with that. But when I was called bad names, it bothered me. That was the last thing I thought I was."
Though she canceled her subscription to the Hollywood trades long ago, Barrett said she does keep track of Hollywood by websites such as TMZ and TV entertainment magazines.
She is not impressed.
"For the most part, it's pure trivia," she said. "It's just a bunch of PR people dishing information out. I don't see true in-depth reporting. That voice is gone from Hollywood."