"El Show de Cristina" bids a star-studded farewell Monday, but host and executive producer Cristina Saralegui says you shouldn't believe everything you read. Despite Univision's claims that the 21-year-old groundbreaking hit show is ending because Saralegui is retiring, she says that she did not quit and that she'll work until "I rot."
In fact, the 12-time Emmy winner already has landed a new job, which she can't disclose until her contract with Univision ends Dec. 31. But she says she will be back on TV in March.
"It's been very hard," she said by telephone from her Miami production studio. "This isn't a joke. Not just for me and my husband and my children but for my staff and their children. After 21 years, they called me up and asked me to come in, and in 20 minutes they threw away 21 years."
During that brief August meeting at the network's Miami headquarters, Saralegui says Univision's new management essentially fired her, asking her to drop her weekly talk show but to do two specials a year "for a pittance, a salary that I consider a tip for a woman who has been doing a job for this many years."
"They said they wanted to give the network a new image," she added. "They want new people. I also was the only person in the entire network that had complete creative control over a show. And because of that, and because I'm old, I lost my job."
Saralegui says she and her husband, Marcos Avila, her manager, were initially in such "shock" that she went along with Univision's press release stating that she was retiring. But later she decided her viewers needed to know the truth.
A Univision spokeswoman declined to make executives available for an interview Friday, opting to release part of the same statement.
"When we left there, we went to our favorite restaurant, and Marcos drank a double whiskey and I drank a martini," she said. "I don't know how I didn't go into some sort of arrest."
"El Show de Cristina," estimated to have 100 million viewers worldwide, offered the Spanish-speaking audience unabashed interviews with A-list celebrities, prominent Latino politicians and other notable figures. The program began as a daily talk show in 1989 and went to a weekly format in 2001. Because of Saralegui's optimism, her intimate interaction with her studio audience and her powerful connections, she became dubbed "The Spanish Oprah."
In the U.S., "El Show de Cristina" maintained a top 10 ranking for many years among Spanish television programs. This season, the ratings in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic are down 13%, though the show still attracts more than 2 million viewers a week.
Saralegui decided not to move forward with the specials Univision offered her, opting instead to make a new start elsewhere.
"Since this happened, our phones have not stopped ringing," she said. "Pretty much every company with the syllable 'tele' in it has contacted me. I'm considering doing radio again. I've been offered two book deals, which I'm going to do. There are even some magazine offers. But I already have a new job — and much better than the last one."
But first she agreed to do two goodbye shows (the first aired Oct. 25), following the advice of her husband.
"He asked me what I was going to accomplish [by not doing them], and I realized it was true," she said. "I still have a lot of fight in me, and I didn't want to give the wrong impression that I'm leaving. But Marcos reminded me that my audience was very sad too. He said, 'They want you to close this chapter of your life and feel good.'"
The "bittersweet" final episode, which airs Monday, includes visits from frequent guests and friends — "Sábado Gigante's" Don Francisco, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and Cuban actor César Évora, among many others — who offered words of support and gratitude. Univision anchor Jorge Ramos taped a message that spoke to Saralegui's lasting contributions.
"Thanks to you, I can be here," Ramos said from his anchor chair.
Producing the emotional episode was "horribly difficult," but Saralegui said she was proud she went through with it in the end.
"I've been very sad, but I am not resentful or angry," she said. "I left many friends and family members in that building that was my home for 21 years. It was very much like leaving Cuba."
Saralegui concluded each episode with her signature thumbs-up and the Cuban expression "Pa'lante, pa'lante, pa'tras ni pa' coger impulso," which translates loosely as "Forward, forward; don't step back, not even to catch momentum."
She ended her Times interview by taking her catchphrase to a new level.
"¿Pa'lante? ¡Pa' la estratosfera!," which translates to "Move forward? To the stratosphere!"
"The next show is going to be even better," she said, "because now I want it even more."