Queen Cristina

updated 04/13/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THESE DAYS THEY CALL HER THE Hispanic Oprah. But back in 1988, when Cristina Saralegui, then editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine's Spanish-language edition, declared she was going to have her own TV show, one of her writers called her something else: crazy. "I never thought of her as someone who would be on TV," explains Luz Maria Doria, recalling a frumpy boss with a bad red perm who thought nothing of wearing maternity dresses to work even after having a baby. "But a year later," says Doria, "there she was—beautiful, thin and on TV."

Call it blonde ambition. Today, as the glamorous, platinum-coif fed host and executive producer of El Show de Cristina, Saralegui is seen daily by 100 million viewers—more than five times Oprah's audience—in 15 countries, including the U.S. Based in Miami, her media empire also includes a magazine, Cristina La Revista (The Cristina Magazine) and a daily radio show, Cristina Opina (Cristina's Opinion). And now she has an autobiography, Cristina! My Life as a Blonde, published (in both English and Spanish editions) by Warner Books. "I am very, very persevering," says Saralegui, 50.

She also welcomes the comparison with Oprah, though she admits there's a major distinction to be made. "The difference between Oprah Winfrey and me," Saralegui jokes, "is about $200 million." Still, the similarities are undeniable. Like Oprah—who once said, graciously, "I'm the black Cristina"—Saralegui earned her one-name status by wading through her live studio audience, mike in hand, eliciting spontaneous thoughts and feelings. The two even share the same birthday, Jan. 29. But unlike her counterpart, Saralegui, mindful of Latin taboos, introduces topics like gay marriage and sex addiction to her audience with a simpatico touch—as she does her celebrity guests. "I'm always terrified of television," says fashion designer Carolina Herrera, an old friend and frequent guest. "But not when I'm with Cristina. I always knew she was going to be a great success."

So did Saralegui, but it didn't come easy. Born in a wealthy Havana suburb, the oldest of five children, Saralegui saw her childhood dream of becoming a writer interrupted by Castro's revolution. When she was 12, her family fled to Key Biscayne, Fla., but for Saralegui, a scion of Cuba's foremost publishing dynasty, a personal revolution was needed. When her father, Francisco, helped reestablish the family business in the U.S., Cristina was not invited to participate. Told by her mother, Christy, that the Latina woman's proper role was to "work in the house," Cristina rebelled—first by enrolling at the University of Miami, then by becoming a journalist, decisions her folks ultimately supported. (Another of the Saraleguis who entered the publishing field is Cristina's first cousin Alvaro, 41, PEOPLE's vice president.)

She broke again with tradition when she left her unhappy first marriage to Tony Menendez, a fireman and real estate salesman, in 1983. Married seven years, the couple had a daughter, Cristina Amalia, nicknamed Titi, now a 20-year-old college student in Upstate New York. In '79, Saralegui took over at Cosmopolitan en Espanol, and four years later met her second husband, Marcos Avila, now 39, a cofounder of Gloria Estefan's Miami Sound Machine. They married in 1986.

At first the ponytailed pop bassist, 11 years her junior, might have seemed an unlikely match. But today, hearing them tease each other playfully in the bayfront mansion on Miami Beach's Palm Island they share with their son Jon, 11 (Stephanie, Avila's 15-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, visits on weekends), it seems obvious their romance is still working. "We fight a lot," she admits, "but we have huge love for each other." And despite an ill-fated English-language version of her show, which ran on CBS in '92, both are optimistic Cristina will find a growing audience in the U.S. "Americans have changed a lot in the last five years," Cristina says. "They know salsa is something that Cubans dance and Mexicans eat."

ALEC FOEGE
GRACE LIM and ANA RHODES in Miami

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