Just over a year ago, Rosie O'Donnell had a heart attack.

"The doctors told me when I woke up in Recovery, 'You definitely should have died. People don't survive with what you had, and we don't know why you did'," the 51-year-old comedian-actress-author-activist-mother explains down the line from her New Jersey home.

"I was pretty overwhelmed by that, and so my wife and I were in the intensive care unit, and I was like, 'Let's make a bucket list!'. She had been sick all summer with some tumours in her stomach, and then I'd had the attack, so it seemed like we needed to do one. And number two on the list was go to Australia and New Zealand, not necessarily to do stand up, but just to do it."

O'Donnell had hoped to come to New Zealand for years, but had never made it. She recalls knowing little about Australia or New Zealand as a child ("As an American, we don't seem to learn a lot of geography - I thought Australia was like Austria.") but as she read more about the Antipodes, she became captivated. Then she met the husband of her children's first nanny, a Kiwi named Lenny.


"He's one of the craziest, most wonderful guys I know. For instance, about three years ago he called me up and we were chatting, and then he said, 'Oh and I'm going to go run the New York marathon tomorrow', and I was like 'What? But have you done any training?' And he was like, 'No, but one of my mates, he can't do it, so I'm going to run it for him. It'll be great'. And Lenny finished it, did the 26 miles, and got shin splints, and had to be in a wheelchair for nine weeks, but he was like, 'Yeah, that's just kind of how we are in New Zealand'. So I always wanted the chance to come and see the people and country who made Lenny who he is."

After her heart attack, O'Donnell found herself writing stand-up material again, prolifically.

"I had all these new opinions, and perspectives and world view as a result of the heart attack, and it really worked. And I realised I had a whole hour of new material, and when I spoke to my agent and said, 'Let's go on tour, I want to get back out there', she said, 'Okay, where do you want to go?' And kidding around, I said, 'How about Australia and New Zealand? And she said 'No problem'. I was like 'Seriously?!'

"I know that The Rosie O'Donnell Show wasn't on TV down there, and so I didn't know if I was even known enough to sell tickets, and she said, 'No, you'll sell tickets. I think you'll do well there'. So I thought, 'Why not? Let's try it'." Although The Rosie O'Donnell Show, which ran from 1996 to 2002, isn't a show many Kiwis will have seen, there have been many other opportunities for New Zealanders to become fans during her 35-year career.

She's appeared on sit-coms such as Will & Grace, Spin City, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and had major roles in Sleepless In Seattle, The Flintstones, and Now and Then, among others. She made herself a target for controversy with her public views on gun control, the invasion of Iraq and LBGT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, was named one of Time Magazine's most influential people, has written three books, and established herself as a generous philanthropist.

But the talent that kick-started her career was a knack for making people laugh.

She wrote skits for the seniors in high school, but never thought about a career as a comedian until she was invited to perform in a small comedy club in her home town of Long Island."I never wanted to be a comedian or talk show host. That was never my goal. I didn't grow up listening to Johnny Carson. I wanted to be on Broadway. I wanted to be a Bette Midler back-up singer, one of the Harlettes ... but when you're 16, you're kind of fearless."

She remembers her first night being brilliant, because half her high school was in the crowd, but when she had to perform to a bunch of strangers, it all went wrong. So she decided to memorise jokes she saw Jerry Seinfeld telling on TV. That didn't last long, of course, and with her own jokes, she was soon picked up as an opening act, and made a reputation for herself. Then came Star Search, a hugely popular US TV talent show, on which O'Donnell reached the final round. She lost, but made a bunch of cash, and suddenly found herself with headlining offers.

"I think my old stand-up routine was all about getting laugh after laugh after laugh, laugh, laugh," she says. "But this time I think it's a little more poignant, talking about what it's like to grow older, to be 50, to have been divorced, to fall in love again and be remarried, to be the parent of teenagers, to have had great success and fame, and to let that go again.

"It's about facing the challenges that come, whether it's menopause or your eyesight not really working, and how humiliating it is to have to say to a 6-year-old, 'Does this say Xanax or Ambien? Can you read that right there on the bottle? Does that start with an X or an A, honey?' The type gets smaller on everything, and you seem to just get larger." One source of constant inspiration and amusement is her five children, who are 18, 16, 14, 10 and 1.

"My 10-year-old daughter doesn't remember me ever being famous. She knows people know me, but she never saw me on TV or anything, she doesn't have any memory of that. And she said to me, 'Mum, why can't you be like Ellen?' And I had to say to her, 'Well, I actually was like Ellen [DeGeneres], before Ellen was Ellen'. And she was like, 'But why can't you be like Ellen now? Ellen has an app and she was in that Nemo movie, and she got to meet OneDirection, and, why can't you be like Ellen?'."

O'Donnell's quite happy not being Ellen. Though she has dabbled in talk show hosting since The Rosie O'Donnell Show finished, she doesn't miss the role.

"I think, when I was first doing it there were very few of those type of shows, and now there are plenty. And also back then, celebrity wasn't quite the same addiction for the nation that it is now. We didn't have such access to celebrities back then, before Twitter or Facebook or TMZ or Perez Hilton, and I think it would be pretty different now. I feel very lucky, though, that I was able to hit it at the right time, and it has afforded me a life of luxury, really. I haven't had to be absent from my family at all."

However, she will leave them behind for her Australasian tour.

"They're all very angry about it, but I've said, 'Should it go well, next year I'll rent a house for like a month, and we'll get you tutors, and we'll come and spend, say, February down there'. So they're all going, 'Well, you better be funny, so we can go back'. 'I'll try my best, children, thank you for the support'. 'Can't you be like Ellen?' 'Oh shut up'."

Who: Comedian and actress Rosie O'Donnell
What: New stand-up show
Where and when: Performing at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington on Friday, January 31, and at Vector Arena in Auckland on Saturday, February 1.

- TimeOut