Thriving Miss Daisy

From MTV Veejay to Model to Actress to Talk Show Host, Daisy Fuentes Is Always Seeking New Worlds to Conquer
| By Shandana A. Durrani | From Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

"I would be either a rocket scientist or brain surgeon," Daisy Fuentes says with a laugh, tossing back her glossy brown mane. The MTV host, Revlon supermodel and former cable talk show host is mentally thumbing through some of the careers she hasn't tackled at the age of 31.

Sitting in the back seat of a Lincoln Town Car as the driver traverses Manhattan, the 5-foot 10-inch Fuentes is rushing to an appearance on "The Rupaul Show" on VH-1, where she will be picked at and prodded before her on-air interview with the famous drag queen. She has just spent more than six hours with a TV Guide photo crew, being picked at and prodded for a handbag spread in the magazine.

In addition, cameramen from E! Entertainment Television have shadowed Fuentes all day as part of its popular "MODEL" series, in which they capture the day-to-day life of supermodels. For most, this pace would be stressful, but Fuentes carries it off with casual aplomb.

"It can get hectic," she says, with a sigh. "When I am in New York or Miami or L.A. for work, I am usually there for a week and we try to really pack up that week. We try to get as much done at each place as possible."

Dressed in a short white miniskirt, black tank top and sandals, Fuentes leans her long frame back against the leather seats of the town car and relaxes. Though extremely busy, she has time to chat. She greets you in a warm, Latin manner, as if you are a long lost friend, and it becomes immediately apparent that she is genuinely as nice as she appears on television.

Fuentes begins to talk at length about her great loves: television and music. Then there is her other great love, Latin crooner Luis Miguel, her boyfriend of three years. Although she is mum about the details of their relationship, she does say that she is extremely happy and in love.

Fuentes is also quite willing to talk about her newfound appreciation for cigars. From an early age, she was surrounded by the cigars her father and grandfather smoked. She would steal puffs and ask them for details about the smokes. But it wasn't until recently, with the cigar boom, that she developed her own affinity for cigars. She now enjoys smoking premium cigars and drinking fine Cognac in laid-back moments with her close friends.

"I always thought it was so interesting," she says. "It is such an art and there is so much history to it. And once you learn about it, you have a respect for it."

Fuentes' palate is attuned to such mild brands as Macanudo and Dominican Romeo y Julieta, but give the girl a Cuban Cohiba and she is in heaven. "I just smoked a Cohiba the other day. It was great," Fuentes enthuses. "You have to appreciate everything that cigar is."

Hectic and fast-paced days are nothing new for Fuentes, whose life has been bustling since 1988, when, as a fledgling television personality (she was a weather girl for a Univision affiliate), she sent a Spanish audition tape to MTV. The music channel was at its peak in popularity, and Fuentes hoped to combine her love of television with her love of music. When MTV didn't respond immediately, Fuentes gave up hope. Then, six months later, MTV called and asked the Cuban-born beauty if she would audition for a south-of-the-border version of MTV. Fuentes auditioned and earned a job on the weekly syndicated "MTV Internacional," the success of which led to the creation of a separate channel devoted to the Latin music scene, MTV Latino, for which Fuentes was a major player as a host and a veejay. With her beauty, poise and natural rapport with the camera, MTV U.S. soon called her to audition; she eventually landed the plum job of MTV veejay.

"I thought that I had died and gone to heaven," she recalls. "I thought that I was going to have to pay them to do what I wanted to do, that was how much fun I was having. I mean, you're 20 years old and you're hanging out with rock stars and going to fabulous parties, and then you talk about it!"

While many of her peers were studying for exams, Fuentes became an overnight sensation. She hosted the MTV "Top 20 Video Countdown," "Mt. MTV," "Beach MTV" and MTV "Rock and Jock Softball" and "Rock and Jock Basketball." She became a household name among the under-25 set and a role model for many young Latinas.

Fuentes received a phone call in 1993 from the office of Ron Perelman, the chief executive officer and chairman of Revlon. The same Ron Perelman who is chairman of Consolidated Cigar Corp. Fuentes thought the call was a joke and didn't respond. Perelman persisted. Fuentes, realizing the interest was genuine, met with him and other Revlon officials. After several meetings, the cosmetics giant signed her to a multiyear contract to represent a line of grooming products and to be a Revlon spokeswoman at events across the United States. Fuentes refuses to comment on the amount or specific details of the deal, but it changed her life as much as MTV did, making her an even bigger star.

Besides Revlon, Fuentes has had a string of other endorsement deals, including M&M Mars and American Express. She has also appeared in long-running Pantene shampoo and conditioner commercials, which were created for both the English and Spanish markets. Fuentes is also considering other endorsements, which she will not discuss before the deals are made final.

In 1994, cable channel CNBC asked Fuentes to host a talk show. Fuentes accepted the job because she wanted to show people that she was more than a pretty face, that she could do something other than just present a video. She signed a one-year contract with CNBC, which gave her the freedom to choose many of the guests on the show. Fuentes interviewed such legends as Patti Labelle and Aretha Franklin. It was a dream come true for her.

"I love sitting down and talking to people," enthuses Fuentes. "CNBC gave me a chance to do it in a way that I liked. They gave me a chance to also develop the skills to learn from my mistakes and also to have a lot of people that I genuinely loved and that I was really interested in," she says. "It really helped me learn how to do a really good interview. You have to be truly interested in the person. And being able to do it with people that you really admire and like, that helped me learn and understand what I have to do for a television show."

Fuentes left CBNC in 1995, after a year on the air. She has no regrets, noting that CNBC was really good to her but that there wasn't much room there for her to develop her career.

After her departure from CNBC, Fuentes landed guest spots on such hit shows as HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Dream On," and CBS' "Cybill," mostly playing Daisy Fuentes. In 1996 she landed a small but featured role in the Quentin Tarantino-produced dark comedy, Curdled, co-starring as Clara, a service worker who cleans up crime scenes. The film also starred William Baldwin and Angela Jones, and although Curdled didn't break box-office records, Fuentes feels that it was a positive learning experience.

"I auditioned for it because I thought it was an interesting and good way to start [my film career]. I was able to feel the atmosphere around me and see if I was comfortable," she says. "If I had had more responsibilities, then I think I would have been so much in awe of the movie set, the people and what everybody's job was, that I don't know if I would be able to concentrate on how to do the character."

Fuentes has no plans to parlay her success on television to the big screen. She is quite content with television, which has brought her international celebrity, and she continues to expand her roles. Although she is still a fixture at MTV, she no longer hosts the "Top 20 Video Countdown" or the other shows she did early in her career. Last year, when her contract with the station was about to expire, she won the hotly contested position as the host of MTV's popular monthly fashion show, "House of Style." Like the first "House of Style" host, supermodel Cindy Crawford, Fuentes has a natural charisma that translates on camera. And, unlike her predecessors, models Amber Valetta and Shalom Harlow, Fuentes' name and face are easily recognizable to the MTV crowd. While she may have seemed the natural choice to follow in Crawford's footsteps, it took a lot of persistence for Fuentes to get the job.

"Even though I knew her [executive producer Alisa Belletini], I still had to go in there and meet with her because she was auditioning every model in the universe for it," says Fuentes. "Of course she didn't say, 'Oh, Daisy can have it because I know her.' Basically she told me that she was looking to change the show, to give it a little bit of a revamp. I spoke to her about my interests in the show. She wanted to really make sure that I was genuinely interested in the show and what I would do with it, if I had any ideas or comments. I gave her my input and told her I was really passionate about doing it."

Fuentes has more on her plate than just the "House of Style" gig. In July, she was named the new host of "America's Funniest Home Videos," replacing Bob Saget, who had been the host for more than eight years. Although the long-running show isn't on ABC's fall lineup, it is slated as a midseason replacement. Fuentes didn't initially want the job, but the creators persisted and eventually won her over.

"[At first] I said, 'No, thanks,' because I just thought that it wouldn't be some-thing that I would be comfortable doing. It just really didn't fit with my personality and so we [she and her agents] passed on it. The producers kept trying. They looked for a replacement but kept coming back to me," Fuentes says. "They called me and said, 'We want to have a meeting, we are changing the whole show and we know why you are passing on it, but just give us a meeting.' Finally, I just went in and talked to the producers, and they basically gave me an offer that I couldn't refuse."

The producers are allowing Fuentes to bring as much of her personality to the show as she wishes, as well as approval to change the show's format as much as she wants. She hopes to make it easier to watch, to make it more comfortable.

Fuentes is also working on a syndicated talk show. She won't disclose the details, other than to say that she has some solid ideas, is looking for suitable writers and producers, and hopes to complete a television special by the fall of 1998.

Fuentes was born in Havana, Cuba, on Nov. 17, 1966, to a Cuban father and a Spanish mother. Her parents, Amado and Mary, fled Cuba in 1969 with three-year-old Daisy. Her family left behind everything they owned, including a ranch and a supermarket, where her father and grandfather worked. Choosing Spain because of the ease of immigration, they settled in Madrid with Daisy's mother's family. While in Spain, Daisy's father worked two jobs to support the family, and her mother gave birth to Fuentes' younger sister, Rosana. After five years there, the Fuentes emigrated to the United States, moving to Newark, New Jersey, and eventually settling in neighboring Harrison.

She and her sister had a typical Latin-Catholic upbringing, Fuentes says. Her parents instilled in them very traditional values. The girls had to show respect for their elders and act with decorum at all times. Her parents taught her "how to be a good person, not to be judgmental and not to be mean. Fits did not go over well in my house," she says. "There was a lot of discipline and obedience and you had to be very ladylike. Ladies didn't curse and I still don't curse in front of my parents."

Her parents also refused to allow Fuentes to date in high school. "When I was a junior, boys were allowed to come visit me at the house. We could sit on the porch until about 8 o'clock at night; that's when it started getting dark. That was it. You are not alone with a guy until you are a proper age. You don't go to certain levels with men until you are married or you have a certain relationship."

At 16, Fuentes got her first taste of her future when she fell into modeling--purely by chance. Her next-door neighbor, a fashion designer named Dmitiri, was short a model one day and asked the statuesque teenager to fill in. Fuentes soon became the designer's house model.

Several years later, at a cocktail party, she caught the eye of the wife of Ivan Egas, the president of Univision, the largest Spanish language network in the United States. Raquel Egas asked Fuentes if she had ever considered doing Spanish television. Fuentes hadn't, so Egas suggested that Fuentes audition for a job as an on-air personality. Fuentes did and landed a job as a weather girl for WXTV-Channel 41, Univision's affiliate in New York. At the time, she was 19 and a communications student at Bergen Community College in New Jersey.

"[Raquel Egas] took it upon herself to take me under her wing and kind of guide me and tell me what to do. She was there when I went to the audition and was very helpful. She calls me every now and then and tells me how she likes my hair. She has been a total stage mom," says Fuentes.

Not long afterward, Fuentes landed her MTV Internacional job, on Telemundo, Univision's chief competitor. She left college behind and has never looked back.

She credits her success to equal parts luck, coincidence and drive. "I think that it takes a lot to keep you in there [at the top of your profession]. It is a tricky business and the whole negotiating aspect of it can drive someone insane," she says. "It is nasty. You can think that you know someone in this business and you really don't. You can be stabbed in the back very easily. You can be praised very easily. It doesn't matter who you are or what you do. It is like being in school. You have got to pay attention, you have got to study and you have to do your homework and, when the time comes, you have to score higher than everybody else. Otherwise, you are not going to go on to the next grade and somebody else will. And there is always somebody there waiting to take your place."

Fuentes has somewhere to go. She bids farewell and with feline grace, slides back into the Lincoln Town Car. As the sun sets over New Jersey and the car speeds away, it is the end of another work day for Daisy Fuentes. But she's already planning her tomorrows. *