The 21 Faces of Roseanne
What with her soul-baring, her break-ups, her make-ups, and her 21 personalities, there's always a party going on in Roseanne Barr's head.
October 1998
David A Keeps got himself an invite.
Photographs Mary Ellen Mark


The woman who opens the door is covered in freckles, glowing with the wellbeing of a Virgin Islands holiday. She wears a blue chambray shirt, tailored khaki trousers and understated loafers. She leads me into a tasteful living room. We sit on adjoining sofas. She offers pastries and pours coffee for me, camomile tea for herself. This is Roseanne 'The problem with these fancy hotel suites,' she says, looking around for something, 'is that it looks beautiful but then there's no fucking spoons.'

No, this is Roseanne. She's the rags-to-riches, one-woman variety show who pursues the truth like a heat-seeking missile regardless of the consequences. She's the housewife who turned America- then the world- upside down by becoming the fiercest, funniest, most feminist voice of the working-class woman on television. She's the much-married, often-controversial, uncensored queen of the tabloids. But she's also a mother who, at the peak of her fame, had the nerve to heal her inner child in public and talk about the parental abuse she suffered. In her pain, she inspired the world to laugh. She's admitted to having a multiple personality disorder but has managed to integrate her different selves into one whole, entirely human being.

The Roseanne I meet today is the one who will soon join Oprah in the great daytime television talkathon stakes with her own series. She got the idea about a year ago, when Mike Tyson asked her to interview him. 'We started in the garden and wound our way past the fountains and into the house as the conversation got deeper. When we got into the bedroom was when it got real heavy. One of the best parts of that interview was looking in his fridge and there was nothing in there, just sauces and yoghurt.'

Roseanne's cupboards are bare, too. She's just moved into a Georgian mansion in Beverly Hills, complete with pillars, rose garden and pool. 'Outside my bedroom I have a balcony,' she enthuses. 'That's the coolest thing. I sit on it and have tea and read the paper in the morning.' She can't see the neighbours and they can't see her. 'It's totally isolated and quiet, which is my true self.' This is where she and Ben Thomas, whom she married in 1995, will raise Buck, their three-year-old son conceived by in-vitro fertilisation.

When she was Buck's age, Roseanne knew her destiny. 'I used to perform in my grandma's house,' she recalls. 'She lived in an apartment building filled with survivors of the Holocaust. Every Friday night we would observe the Sabbath. And I would get up on the windowsill and do my Shirley Temple act.'


Q Is that your earliest memory?
A No. I remember looking up from my crib and seeing people making faces. I thought they were assholes.

Q Your rapier wit was quick to develop, then.
A I always thought I'd be a writer. I had my first joke published when I was two in one of the Salt Lake City papers. I had a cousin who was six months old. My grandma was saying how bright he was and I replied, 'What did he ever say that made you think he was so smart?' I wrote my autobiography at seven. It was about how I had been elected first woman President after I had discovered the cure for cancer. I had to create this persona that was so huge it could compensate for how small I felt.

Q Did you have a favourite toy?
A A doll who walked when you held her hand. I took her to the garage and drilled a big hole through her head. I think I felt she needed to have her cranial pressure released.

Q How did you learn about the birds and the bees?
A On the street and in the family. Certainly not in the Utah school system. I remember being in sixth grade and thinking that IQ meant intercourse and when they told you your IQ, that was how many times you were assigned to have intercourse. It was deeply disturbing. I could see you'd do it once if you wanted a child, but I thought people were sex maniacs because they wanted to do it so much.

Q What was school like for you?
A Horrifying. I was a weirdo. I was the Jew. During the Christmas play, I was invited to come up and explain why we didn't believe in Jesus. My grandma was an Orthodox Jew, but when I was young, I had Bell's palsy, and at first my mother called a rabbi and nothing happened. Then she called the Mormons and the next day it was healed. So my mother and I went around Utah; she'd play church organ and I'd speak about the miracle. And when I was 15, 1 found out it was a 48-hour condition. I'd already been raised in the Mormon church all those years. But I was also a Jew. It was a total double life that kind of set the archetype for many of my emotional disorders.

Q It sounds so lonely.

A Well, it's ideal for becoming a Hollywood celebrity. Fame is strange, because it seems like all the success is totally driven by self-loathing. And then you start getting accolades for hating yourself. I always wondered how many comedians were multiple personalities... But when I was young, I didn't have time for friends; I didn't need anybody because I had a whole party going on in my head.

By the age of 18, Roseanne had dropped out of school and had a child. She moved to Denver, Colorado, where she married William Pentland, a motel clerk. Seven years later, 'I was living in a trailer with three kids and a husband who worked nights, so I had to keep quiet all day and I wasn't allowed to drive or work. He was that kind of man.' Eventually, Roseanne got menial jobs and even sold her body, until someone suggested she take her wisecracks down to a new comedy club in town. She was an instant hit. 'One thing about being disassociative is that whatever job there is to be done, the right personality comes out,' she recalls. 'I just always kicked ass on stage. That's the only place in the world that I'm totally fearless.'

In the mid-Eighties, Roseanne relocated to Los Angeles and filmed a television special, which led to her own series in 1988. During its nine-year run, her perfectionism and unconventional life kept her name in the headlines. She fired most of her show's writers and producers. Then came her ear-splitting televised rendition of the American national anthem at a 1990 baseball game (an episode that was condemned by the President and which Roseanne credits to one of her 'multiples' - a six-year-old child), plastic surgery, publicly bared tattoos on her bottom, Vanity Fair photographs of her rolling in mud and a contentious four-year marriage to Tom Arnold (she'd already left Pentland, and a huge divorce settlement, behind).

At her peak, as US television's biggest star, Roseanne entered group therapy. In 1994, she wrote her second autobiography, My Lives, a startling account of her childhood memories of verbal, physical and sexual abuse, her suicide attempt, a stay in a psychiatric ward, her teenage pregnancy (she gave the child, Brandi, up for adoption; they were reunited after the tabloids exposed' Roseanne's 'love child'), and her battles with obsession, depression and drugs. Her family hasn't spoken to her since.

Q Do you miss your family?
A It's not just sadness that I don't speak to them, it's sadness that I never had a family. I was never valued. Everything awful, all the hurt and pain, was turned into a joke so that you never felt the true impact of it, until one day you say, 'Jeez, that isn't funny at all.'

Q You got a bad press for talking about your abused childhood. How did it feel? A I think of the courage it took me to do it and I wasn't at all prepared for the incredible, horrifying backlash that came after. It's like they're trying to erase everything; they're trying to say it doesn't happen. They're also trying to say to abused children, 'Don't tell anybody - if you do, you're going to be publicly humiliated and nobody will believe you' - which is exactly why you're quiet in the first place as a kid. I just think of how many kids were hurt by that.

Q But the experience has probably made you a terrific mother.

A Well, I would never want to credit abuse with anything positive, because it can also make you a horrible mother. My whole life right now is about trying to get my three older kids independent. I've been trying to correct all the things I did wrong when they were little. I made so many mistakes. That's why I always snicker at all these young mothers in Hollywood, actresses who think it's so chic to be a mom now. These bitches have no friggin' idea. Until kids are 12, it's just cake. Go to the cocktail party and leave them with the nanny. That shit all comes back at 13 - every mistake you made, it's right there in the living form of your child. If you can get them to 23, God bless you.

Q You've been a mother almost 30 years.
A I've always felt like a mother. I was the oldest of four kids and I had to raise my siblings. I was the caretaker, but I was also the designated crazy one, the one that got blamed. And every relationship I ever had was just a recreation of that. Every bit of trouble I chose for myself always came from that victim mode, that Fuck you' mentality. On Roseanne I continually picked incompetent people so that I could stay pissed off all the time. I used to do everything myself because I honestly didn't feel that anyone else could - I made sure they couldn't. It wasn't even their fault, you know.

Q That probably also explains why your first two marriages were so difficult.
A Well, I always feared and loathed and was terrified of men. I thought they were just too weird. And I'd always choose the ones who couldn't deliver or were cruel to me, just to prove to myself that I was right.

Q What sort of a man would you be?
A I'd probably just scratch my balls a lot and stare off into space, watch sports and think about carburettors. You know, I had some jokes that were just horrifyingly anti-male. That was 20 years ago; it was so shocking then for a woman to say those things. Now I look at all these young women musicians; they're all doing the Roseanne routine from 1980.

Q You married your bodyguard. That must make you feel safe.
A My husband is a great fucking human being. He's gone through everything that I've gone through and more, and he didn't get stuck. With him, I worked through so much of my whole karma with men. I've come to a great reconciliation with myself as a woman and myself as a mother and a wife. I feel like I have something to say again. The things that I have to say now are going to blow people's minds

Q Do you mean your new spiritual side, the one that led you back to Judaism and the study of its ancient mystical text, the Kabala?
A It's kind of where everything came from. TM [Transcendental Meditation] is just a form of Kabalistic meditation. It's just being quiet and listening to the voice of God that's in all of us. The Kabala says that these days before the year 2000 are the age of miracles. The diseases that are being cured, space travel, the Hubble telescope, genes, particle physics, those are miracles. According to the Kahala, by the year 2000 we'll have discovered the gene of immortality. In fact, two years ago scientists isolated a gene that replicates itself and can't be destroyed, but it's within the cancer cell. The paradox of that is metaphysical, it's all about plucking the good from the evil.

Q That sounds like the Roseanne story.
A It certainly has been a metaphor for my life. I have been able to pluck the gene of immortality from the cell of death.

Lest you think that the latest incarnation of Roseanne has gained an inner calm at the expense of her wicked sense of humour, consider this: last year, she played the Wicked Witch of the West in a New York production of The Wizard of Oz. 'The most fun I've ever had,' she grins. 'As soon as I became the witch I really hated Dorothy and the dog. The director said, "Stop slapping that dog, it'll bite you" and I go, "Let it, and then I'll choke it to death and throw it in the orchestra pit."

She has abandoned her plans to do an American version of Absolutely Fabulous. 'The networks wanted to compromise it so much that it just died. 'She has a screenwriting deal, but her latest obsession is writing a sitcom.

'I gotta go to lunch,' she announces suddenly. Time for the really revealing questions:

Q What's your favourite food invention?
A Who thought of marshmallows? They're so awesome. The worst thing ever invented is cheese. First, you have to get the milk out of the animal, then let it sit and rot, then wrap it up in wax for years and then eat it.

Q Do you sleep in the nude?
A Yeah. I feel like I'm choking if I have anything on. It always goes up around my neck, even trousers. I'm better off not being choked in my sleep. I have enough trouble sleeping.

Q What keeps you awake at night?
A What I haven't done, what I have to do. Oh God - my kids, my career, my money, the year 2000.. My weight, my health, my age, my will...

Q What will be on your tombstone?
A I won't have a tombstone. I'm not going to die. Everyone needs to leave behind the consciousness of mortality. Then we won't have war or conflict or separation and we won't die.