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A Dish of Rice and Beans Heats Up Latino TV


May 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

MARÍA CELESTE ARRARÁS, who was once asked to give up the anchor's chair on a New York news program because she was deemed unglamorous, opens the heavy wooden door of her hacienda-style mansion wearing red bell-bottom pants, a skin-tight red top with a plunging V-neck, red high-heeled patent leather shoes and a fake ruby choker with earrings to match. In one of her perfectly manicured hands, she holds a Diet Coke.

It is not yet 9 in the morning.

But for Ms. Arrarás, 41, a hugely popular Spanish-language television personality, it might as well be time for lunch. She has been getting up at 4:30 these days, sweating out the details of "Al Rojo Vivo," her one-hour daily show on the Telemundo network, a mixture of news-you-can-use, entertainment and offbeat stories whose name can be loosely translated as "Red Hot." The program made its debut last Monday at 5 p.m., just two months after Ms. Arrarás's departure from the rival and higher-rated Univision network.

The announcement of her jump to Telemundo came on the day NBC won government approval to buy the Spanish-language network, which is seen in all major United States cities. So Ms. Arrarás, who was born in Puerto Rico, suddenly became not only a trophy for Telemundo but also NBC's first coup in the Latino media.

"She is a star, along the lines of talent like Diane Sawyer and Jane Pauley," Andrew Lack, the president of NBC, said. "I have confidence that she will bring her enormous talent to some of our programs in NBC." Her contract includes stints on other NBC programs.

A colleague of Ms. Arrarás recently joked that her show could soon be known as "Red Hot With María Sky-Blue," a literal translation of her middle name, and she laughed it off. But the joke is not far from the expectations that NBC has for Telemundo and, specifically, for Ms. Arrarás, who seems unfazed by the prospect of crossover fame.

"I'm not the kind of person who melts to be in English-language television," she said. "I'm quite comfortable with my audience, and Telemundo is my rice and beans."

Ms. Arrarás views the NBC deal as the icing on the cake of a long-cherished dream. It is nice, she said, that NBC has left the door open for her to appear on other programs, but after years of chasing stories all over the world, all she wanted was what she now has: her own Spanish-language show and, as managing editor, the control over it.

She knows that her show will not break new ground. But she plans a few new touches, like "Al Sur de la Frontera," a report of the news south of the border, and a feature on a day in the life of an ordinary person. She will interview stars, show provocative videos and chase the occasional sensational story. She will also have traditional fare, like sports and health news and advice segments. On the first day of the show, a sexuality expert gave advice to a viewer who wrote in asking if he should share his wife to spice up their sexual life. The answer was no.

"I'm convinced there is nothing like this in English-language television," she said.

In heavily Latino cities like Miami or Los Angeles, her life is followed like episodes of a telenovela – her wedding to a real-estate lawyer, Manny Arbezú; her first child; her baby sitter horror stories (she caught a nanny on videotape hitting her 7-week-old son); the adoption of a baby from Russia; the building of her house in a leafy area of south Dade County; and the first steps of her baby daughter.

For her fans, her decision to leave Univision was startling, like Diane Sawyer's leaving CBS and "60 Minutes" for ABC in 1989. And that is how Joe Peyronnin, who worked for CBS for 25 years and is Telemundo's executive vice president for news and information programming, sees Ms. Arrarás, a talent who could help him shore up his network and deliver viewers to his newscast just as Ms. Sawyer did for ABC.

Ms. Arrarás, always aware of her image on and off camera, is intent on lowering those expectations. "When you lower expectations, it is easier to pleasantly surprise and you are less likely to disappoint," she said.

With her new show, she wants the audience to see her as a flesh-and-blood personality who sometimes has bad hair days. "I'm not the greatest anchor in the world," she said, "but what I lack in talent I make up with honesty. Viewers appreciate that. In my show, eventually, I want to tell my viewers that I'm not feeling well, that I have a cold, that I lost my voice. I want them to see me as I am."

Ms. Arrarás was born in Mayagüez and grew up there and in San Juan. Her father, José Enrique Arrarás, was a university chancellor, and her mother was a chemist. Mr. Arrarás was also a politician, a housing secretary and a minority leader in Puerto Rico's House of Representatives. From her parents, but especially from her father, she learned the importance of setting herself apart from others.

"My father would tell me, `Don't bring a C to this house. You either get an A or an F, but never a C. You are either the best of the best or the worst of the worst,' " Ms. Arrarás recalled.

A gifted swimmer, Ms. Arrarás won a gold medal at the Central American Games in Cuba in 1971. When she was a junior in high school, she earned a place on the Puerto Rican team for the Olympics in Montreal in 1976, but she had to drop out a week before the games because she contracted mononucleosis. Around that time, her father, who owned a sports-oriented newspaper, asked her to write a column for young readers. Ms. Arrarás found that she enjoyed writing and the recognition that came with it. She decided to become a journalist.

"It was like `click,' " she said. "A light went on."

After a year at an all-news television channel in Puerto Rico, she left to anchor the local news program of the Univision station in New York, on Channel 41. Ms. Arrarás arrived in New York with great expectations. She knew her credentials were solid, but, it turned out, her wardrobe was not. The station's news director took her out of the anchor's chair because, she said, she did not look the part.

"He said, `I've handed you a bag of lemons. You can either get sour or make lemonade.' I chose to stay and make lemonade," she said.

About six months later, she became the network's bureau chief in Los Angeles. Soon, Miami called and Ms. Arrarás became anchor of Univision's weekend news broadcast. Eventually, she was offered the co-anchor job with Myrka Dellanos, a Univision star, in "Noticias y Más," an entertainment and news features show that became "Primer Impacto." Ms. Arrarás saw it as an opportunity to reinvent herself and try a looser style in a format that allowed her to relax, wear plunging necklines and make jokes. Ms. Arrarás found her stride.

"For the first time, I could smile on the air," she said. "It was refreshing and different, and it suited my personality better."

By the time Ms. Arrarás left "Primer Impacto" in February, she was a household name in Spanish-speaking homes across the country, and a darling of the Spanish-language media, which turned her into a cover girl for magazine articles that ranged from fitness to the supermom syndrome. Ms. Arrarás is rail thin but busty, because of a breast implant operation seven years ago, she said, and even though she has plenty of household help, she prepares breakfast and lunch for her children, ages 4, 2 and 1.

Conversations with Ms. Arrarás, always animated, are likely to segue into diatribes about animal rights; she is working to outlaw circuses in Puerto Rico that use animals. With equal fervor, she doles out career advice – periodically reinvent yourself is a favorite – discusses her heartaches at her parents' divorce when she was 10 and her qualms with television journalism these days.

"News directors are more concerned with ratings and the stock prices than journalism," she said. For Ms. Arrarás, there are no off-the-record comments and never a long silence, except when asked about the details of her contract, which she will not disclose.

Ms. Arrarás relishes the fact that her program is going head to head with her old show on Univision, which is still anchored by Ms. Dellanos, a friend. "When you go to war, you can't take any prisoners," Ms. Arrarás said. Her show is already getting better numbers in the Nielsen ratings than "Primer Impacto" in New York and Miami.

Ms. Arrarás, who is detail-oriented to the point of interrupting a conversation to ask a maid, politely and with a smile, to water the plants her way, obsesses over the numbers her show gets nightly and over the content of her competition's program.

She sees herself waging a battle with Univision, with her former show and, more importantly, with herself. From her first husband, Guillermo Ramis, an advertising executive, she learned long ago to see herself as she wanted others to see her, to imagine she already was who she wanted to be.

And so, how does she visualize herself now?

"I don't have to," she said quickly, keeping her eyes on the road from behind the wheel of her Jaguar. "I am who I always thought I would be."

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