By Michael E. Miller
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The idea for a talk show with a priest as host came to Nely Galán while on a spiritual retreat in Mexico in 1995, before she joined Telemundo. "I thought, How come nobody has ever tried to do a show with a priest?" she remembers. "In our [Hispanic] community people don't go to shrinks; they go to priests. And I got to thinking, Isn't a talk show like a confessional in a way?" She envisioned a show that would focus on solutions rather than problems, and where the priest would help people lead better lives.
Ever pragmatic, Galán shelved the idea as impractical. "But really what am I going to do?" she remembers thinking. "Go sell a priest talk show to an American network? I don't think so."
If anyone could have done it, though, it would have been Galán, whose meteoric rise and precocious reputation are startling even by the youth-obsessed standards of television. As a two- year-old in 1965, Galán and her parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba. Raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, her big break came at age fifteen. When a nun at her Catholic school accused her of plagiarism, she retaliated by writing a satirical article about why parents shouldn't send their kids to an all-girl Catholic school. She sent the story to Seventeen magazine and she won the attention of the editors, who hired the teenager as a guest editor. Attractive, sassy, with a larger-than-life persona, she soon found herself with her own television program on PBS. From there she moved behind the camera. By age 22 she was manager at WNJU, New Jersey's leading Spanish-language television station.
She has worked for a variety of networks including Fox and HBO, starting their Spanish-language channels as well as producing her own shows. In her heart she says what she really wanted was to create programming for Hispanics like herself. "It is kind of depressing when you turn on the TV and there is no sign of you on TV," she complains. "There is nothing that looks like you, feels like you, has lived your life. Nothing. On American TV or Spanish TV. I guess that has kind of been my calling for a while."
Her desires dovetail with a rapidly changing U.S. Hispanic demographic that has advertisers salivating. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the year 2045 the Hispanic population will be larger than that of non-Hispanic blacks, Asians, and Native Americans combined. Eighty percent of that population will be born in this nation. Many of them will be bilingual and bicultural. To date most of the Spanish-language programming offered to Hispanics in the United States is made in Latin America. "For us who have grown up here, it's like, 'I got to tell ya something. If we don't do it, who the hell will?'" Galán asks. "I feel like if we all just settle for importing products, then what kind of industry are we going to have in twenty years?" So when Sony bought Telemundo and offered her a job that would allow her to create original programming, she took it despite reservations about working in a corporate environment. "I just felt like somebody needs to go in there that really has a vision, that really can cross both worlds," she says. "And also somebody that knows how to fight."
It would take a pushy, pugnacious attitude to convince Telemundo higher-ups to embrace her wild idea of a priest talk show. "It was a hard sell. I don't have to tell you," she says, pausing at the absurdity of it. "I kept saying for the whole year, 'We are working on this priest talk show,' and everybody looked at me like, 'Oh my God, she is losing it.' "
The show never would have happened, she admits, if they hadn't found the right priest. Telemundo launched a national search and interviewed 500 clerics. The priest had to be fluent in Spanish and English. He had to be a traditionalist but also hip and current. Hungry for a younger demographic, Telemundo executives wanted a priest who worked well with youth, but also someone who conveyed spirituality and earthiness.
When Galán first met Cutié the similarities between the two were striking. "I call her 'Nely-girl,' the priest says with a grin as he begins the story of their first meeting. "I meet this Nely girl and she is so Cuban and so overwhelming. I thought I was overwhelming. She beat me."
He then goes into an imitation of her, flailing his arms and talking a mile a minute. "I want a priest. I want a ... but you're too young. I want someone with gray hair," he parodies.
Galán's main problem, he says, was with his hair. "She didn't like my Fred Flintstone haircut; that's really what it came down to," he recalls.
Today Cutié sports a hairstyle combed up in a retro way that makes him look like he stepped out of the '50s.
"I am credited with hipping up Father Albert," says Galán.
She recalls with enjoyment the first meeting between the two kindred spirits. "I was like, 'Excuse me. I want to know everything about your calling, your mission, because this is my mission. If you don't have the same mission, it is not going to work.' I was really tough. He must have been like, 'Oh my gosh, this is like one of those head nuns.'"