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Entertainment journalist Rona Barrett has seen it all during her long, illustrious career. And written about most of it. She was blazing trails through Hollywood long before celebrity bloggers like Perez Hilton were even a twinkle in their daddies’ eyes—and with much more integrity and compassion.
She spent three decades of her life on television, starting her career on the local Los Angeles station, KABC, graduating to their five owned and operated stations around the country and finally to the network in 1975 where she inaugurated Good Morning America. Thirty years with a discerning eye turned on the ever-evolving world of entertainment and celebrities in the news has resulted in a wealth of experience in the industry.
Innovative and daring, Rona achieved a number of firsts in her rise to the pinnacle of this challenging landscape. She coined the concept ‘Young Hollywood’ after recognizing there was a new, larger generation of people with interests in stars and celebrities different from their parents. She was also the first in her field to cover the ‘business of show business’ as well as publisher of Hollywood’s first insider newsletter, The Barrett Report.
Rona’s intimate interviews with Hollywood greats in their homes, revolutionary at the time, paved the way for Barbara Walters and other notable entertainment reporters. She somehow encouraged celebrities such as Lucille Ball, Burt Reynolds, John Wayne, Donna Summer and the like to open up about their lives in unprecedented ways.
When asked what made her so good at her job, a quiet laugh escapes, barely audible over the phone during an interview with her from her ranch near Santa Barbara.
“That’s a good question,” she says. “People have said that to me many times, but I would have to say that [it’s because] I wanted to know what made people tick. I always thought that perhaps the image on the screen didn’t match who the person was in real life. And I was always asking those kinds of questions and seeking those kinds of answers, and I think people recognized that I cared and that I was interested.”
Describing herself as a “detective at heart,” Rona says she was always searching for the truth. “I guess I had a way of delivering the information that people found appealing, but more, they knew I was telling the truth. They knew I wasn’t making it up. They knew that I knew these people, that I knew this industry.”
While she is quick to point out the positives of the internet in its ability to instantaneously disseminate information, she is apprehensive of it too—for very much the same reason.
“There aren’t many people around who fact-check what most of these people are saying and many times, especially on the 24-hour cable news shows, you will hear them apologize for some story they broke that they now realize was not true,” she says. “The need to [file] the information and the greater need for a station to make money is really what is behind all of this. If people had the time, and the information wasn’t out as quickly as it’s needed today, people would go back, I think, to the old form of journalism where you really had to check out stories. Today anybody can say just about anything, and if nobody is fact-checking then suddenly these stories are out all over and this is what I then call, really, gossip. We have lots and lots of information without verification.”
As for where entertainment journalism—the niche she worked so hard to create and define—has gone, Rona laughs and teasingly responds, “To hell in a handbag?”
Perez Hilton and paparazzi aside, Barrett does believe that when you become famous you automatically give up a modicum of privacy, but hardly all of it—a point which seems sadly lost on entertainment reporters and photographers today.
“I think if celebrities perform outside in the public where more than another person is viewing what they are doing, which may be wrong, then they have to expect that the press is going to write about it or put it on the internet now,” she explains. “Or if somebody’s got a little handheld phone with a camera snapping away, the next thing you know it’s on YouTube or something like that. That’s the part of privacy you have to really understand once you become a celebrity. However sometimes the pendulum swings so far to one side or the other that it becomes a tragic situation and it really isn’t any form of what one would call good journalism.
“On the other hand,” Rona continues, “if people need to compare their lives to the lives of the celebrities who they admire and aspire to be like … it’s so prevalent these days because we’re living in such uncertain times. It’s a measuring device, so if somebody that’s famous can go crazy you think to yourself, ‘Okay I can go a little crazy too, because I’m feeling a little crazy inside.’ So I say that it’s both a good thing and a bad thing. I do not believe that every celebrity should have to give up any part of their real personal lives … but they should know that today is very different than it was 20 or 15 years ago, and with all these different sites that allow you to put personal things on the internet… It’s a very scary situation, I think, and can really get out of hand. One never knows where it will take you in the end.”
The integrity that has been Barrett’s personal and professional barometer coupled with an affable mien and commitment to the truth resulted in a career that encompassed more than 1000 interviews with celebrities from all facets of life— from sports figures and rock stars to political leaders. She’s explored the psychedelic psyche of a young Mick Jagger, picked the creative brain of Hollywood black sheep Roman Polanski, and dug deep into the depths of Priscilla Presley’s life with the King. The common denominator, she notes, is that they all responded to her one-on-one interview format favorably—revealing a little bit more of the person behind the persona.
“For reasons I cannot quite explain, you put these people all in the same room at the same time and you see a different side of them coming out,” she says. “I guess it’s to protect their security or protect their insecurity—it’s a combination of both, of where they are in their career and how they jockey for position. That’s what I saw a great deal of and that was what was different than when you had a one-on-one conversation with many of these people. In a room they were like little tigers and in person they were little pussycats.”
Although it’s been a long time since Rona has put a camera on anyone (she retired years ago to the Santa Ynez Valley to farm lavender and start the Rona Barrett Foundation to help seniors in need), she’s made available, for the first time since their original “air” dates, 10 interviews with some of the biggest stars of today and yesterday. Rona Barrett’s Hollywood—Nothing but the Truth features compelling conversations with such timeless stars as Raquel Welch, Richard Dreyfuss, Cher, Carol Burnett, John Travolta and others.
“I decided to do the DVD because [distributor] Infinity Entertainment wanted to do something for my foundation, which the mission is to help the elderly poor in this country, and they agreed that for every sale they made they would give a dollar to my foundation,” she explains. “That was a big plus for me to do this.”
Rona admits that this was not a simple case of dusting off the can and pulling out the reels. “Even though I had the rights to these interviews I never had the rights for distribution in DVD, so it took about six to eight months to get in touch with everyone and to ask permission to allow me to use these interviews,” she says.
What’s historically significant about the interviews is that they were done almost 40 years ago when no one was asking the kinds of questions Barrett asked. Questions, she says, that others perhaps felt they shouldn’t be asking.
“We never really got answers … people thought maybe the time wasn’t right to ask somebody about their personal lives and how their personal lives matched the roles they were playing on screen, trying to find out what made all these people really tick,” she recalls. “Why did they want to be the kind of people they were turning out to be? And so from that point of view, the DVD really was a look back to a time when no one was asking these types of questions. ... It’s a walk down a bit of memory lane and some of the things that people told me then were really so outstanding. Rick Dreyfuss and even Raquel Welch and a lot of people—all 10 people. Priscilla Presley, when I asked her if she was able to really take her troubles, her concerns, and have a discussion with Elvis about these things. She looked at me and she said, ‘No. Never. Never.’ There she was, basically a girl who was less than twice his age, who really had nobody to go to; she felt it was really a burden. And I thought those were interesting comments to make at a time when you really weren’t supposed to ask Elvis or Priscilla any kind of questions.”
A longtime fan of the desert, one of Rona’s favorite Elvis accounts took place right here in Palm Springs. It seems that Miss Rona, intrepid reporter that she was, was the first to break the news that Priscilla and Elvis were slipping away to Vegas to tie the knot.
“I had a home that was literally around the bend from Elvis, and I was able to see what was going on,” she says, laughing at the memory. “I knew something was happening when people started delivering flowers and limousines, clothing and things like that, that were being brought into the house that particular weekend. And due to a number of situations and circumstances I was able to track down stories and it all turned out to be true, so that made headlines around the country.”
Another Palm Springs story involved Natalie Wood and Warren Beaty and a table at Don the Beachcomber.
“I wasn’t really very well known yet at the time,” Rona remembers. “I was visiting Kirk and Anne Douglas who lived in Palm Springs for many, many years … It was one of those nights where it seemed like everyone from Hollywood was there. Sitting at a table [at Don the Beachcomber] was Janet Lee, Tony Curtis, Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty—a whole bunch of people—all sitting at one table, talking and having fun and telling stories.” She pauses for a moment. The mental files of someone with her life experience must be innumerable. “And the thing none of us knew was that on Monday morning there was going to be a headline that said Natalie and RJ broke up and that she was quietly dating Warren Beatty, who broke up with whomever he was with at the time, also someone very famous.”
Barrett’s love for the desert goes well beyond being a breeding ground for good gossip. “For many years I commuted back and forth between L.A. and the desert,” she says. “I had several homes here. The desert was the place to go to shed my stress.”
But the symbiotic relationship between Barrett and the “gay and gray” desert makes perfect sense, considering her work to help the elderly at need and her vocal position on LGBT rights, including marriage equality.
“We’re still fighting a civil war,” she says, her voice rich with emotion, “because until everybody has the same rights there’ll always be civil war going on. You cannot divide and separate, as much as some people would like to, and that’s only because they’ve been raised that way and don’t know any better…. Gays and lesbians should be treated equally to everyone else, like everyone else, and until that happens we will remain in some form of a revolution.”
As for Proposition 8?
“I was not in favor. I wanted it to go the other way,” she says. “My father gave me a very important lesson. He said, ‘Learn what it is you want to do and be, and learn it better than anyone and you will succeed.’ For the entire gay and lesbian community, and the elderly in the gay and lesbian community, just because you’re getting older, don’t stop the fight, because you will win.”
For more information about Rona Barrett and the Rona Barrett Foundation or to buy her DVD, Rona Barrett’s Hollywood: Nothing But the Truth, visit missronaslavender.com.