In February 2004, Kelli Carpenter O’Donnell stepped out of anonymity and earned national headlines when she married her girlfriend, talk show host Rosie O’Donnell, in San Francisco. Six months later, the California Supreme Court nullified their marriage license, but the O’Donnell clan had long been set in stone. Four children, two job changes, one GLAAD Media Award nomination and an Emmy nod later, the former Nickelodeon marketing exec, who proudly guards her privacy, talks to GO about the success of her company R Family Vacations, her 4-year-old secretary, her first (blind!) date with Rosie and why they wouldn’t marry again.
GO: You’ve expanded to two cruises a year with R Family Vacations, and you’re going to Philly this month—the first land trip. Why land vacations, and why Philadelphia?
Kelli O’Donnell: Yes, we’re growing, but we’re going to grow slowly. There’s four of us in the office and people like that we all answer the phones. We talk to all the passengers who are booking, and I’d like to keep that intimacy. People were saying the cruises were expensive, so the weekend trips are more cost-effective. Philadelphia has great gay outreach, and they approached us. We’re also taking over Family Week in Provincetown [Mass.] this summer with the Family Pride Coalition.
Do couples get married aboard the ship?
We have about 20 weddings happening this trip. It’s a great time to get married!
How did your children first respond to the cruises?
For all of the 800 kids on board, I think it fills their hearts. They walk off that ship with more self-confidence, knowing there are so many other families like theirs. Our kids love to go, but they don’t go on every single one. They are kings of the castle for that week, and I think that one cruise a year for their little inflated egos is enough!
How do you prioritize family time over the requests to meet each passenger?
I stay in a separate cabin from Ro and the kids, and I work. I’m not the spouse and parent that week, so it’s not a pleasure trip for me! I try to talk to as many people as possible; I want them to be having a fascinating experience. I don’t get any sleep, drop about 5 pounds. Afterward, I go on a vacation. Ro becomes a little like Mickey Mouse on the ship—taking pictures and signing autographs.
Do the kids look forward to the vacation after the vacation?
No, that’s just for me! But we travel a lot. We go to our home in Miami for the holidays, and Ro and I take each child on an individual trip each year. With four kids sometimes I feel I run a boot camp and don’t get much time to have a conversation with them. Last year I took Parker to Venice and this year I’m taking Chelsea to Amsterdam.
In your daily life, as the executive of a company, how do you balance that with your family and your children’s needs?
My office is next door to my home. The kids will sit behind me doing homework, so it’s a great environment to work in. Vivi [who’s 4] pretends she’s on the phone and the computer. Soon enough I’ll have her answering phones! The kids love coming here, and in this office we do everything by hand, so I’ll pay them $5 an hour to stuff envelopes. I think it’s great that they see it’s not just about showing up, you also have to do some work.
How do you and Rosie balance your careers and your children with time to just be together?
Ro had two kids when I met her, so we’ve never had a time without children. We have a small apartment in Manhattan where we spend the night for alone time. I think when you have kids, the most important thing is to take care of your relationship. If your relationship falls apart, their whole worlds fall apart. To take a day here and a night there isn’t going to traumatize the children. They’ll be fine! [laughs]
How did you first meet Ro? It was in December of 1997, right?
Right, and her brother set us up on a blind date, which was a little bit more blind for her than for me! We went to Joe Allen. Right away I liked her brain. There’s multiple sides to her, it’s not all what you see on television. At the time she was doing [The Rosie O’Donnell Show] and I liked that that was just one slice of the pie. She’s a very interesting person and I always think if I could have dinner with anybody in the world today it would still be her.
I heard you prefer to be behind the scenes. Was it daunting to be falling in love with Rosie because she was so famous?
Yeah, I never really wanted to be famous. [Falling in love] wasn’t daunting, but the size of her life was overwhelming. I had my own life happening. I was an executive at Nickelodeon and I’d bought my apartment. She has a very big life, and to find myself within hers was a bit of a juggling act at first.
When you were a little girl, what was your view of what marriage would be like, and how does that compare to your life with Rosie?
When I was little, I didn’t look at marriage like ‘I can’t wait ’till I settle in.’ I never had an idealized version of marriage. I always saw it as something I would be trapped in, and I always thought I’d be alone. [laughs] The great thing about Ro is we’re both independent and we’re both sort of loners, so I feel like I’ve got companionship but yet I’ve got a lot of freedom.
How and when did you know that you were going to spend your life together?
Probably by the first few months I felt like she was somebody I wanted to pursue that ideal with, but I think it takes a while to know that for sure. If you’ve been through a lot together, you know that you’re in it forever.
Did you envision having four children?
I just liked having one, and me and this child would go conquer the world together! But you know, life deals you a different set of cards, and I’ve got four happy, healthy amazing kids. I couldn’t be more blessed.
How do you work to make your marriage live up to your expectations?
I think that to have an expectation means that you’re going to be let down at some point. You just try to do the best you can, assume your spouse is doing the same and be grateful. You take things day by day.
As the most prominent lesbian married couple in America, with the government attacking our relationships, do you feel pressure to have a perfect marriage?
No, because it’s bigger than that. What the marriage is about. It’s about my feelings about Ro and we have four children. That’s the pressure, not what other people think.
How do you ignore what the public might think and just focus on your relationship?
You just know what your heart looks like and you know how you live your life day to day. I’m a good parent and a good spouse and that’s all that matters to me.
Do you feel like you always had that confidence in yourself, growing up in a largely straight family and world, despite what everyone else might have thought?
I think coming out and coming to terms with how other people feel about it is part of the process, and you can change how people feel one person at a time. It’s changing the people at your dining room table.
How do you deal with it when your kids encounter teasing because of their family? Do they see the debates about gay marriage on TV?
That doesn’t happen so much. We’re lucky we live in New York. It’s easier in big cities. Because we’re a public gay family, our kids don’t have to go through the process other gay families do. They never have to come out and say, “I have two moms.” They walk into a room and people know. But kids who wear glasses get called four eyes—kids tease. You just teach them to be as kind as possible and to come home and talk if it hurts their feelings. And our kids don’t watch television. They go to a school that doesn’t allow it, so we’re off the hook on that one!
What advice would you give the average lesbian couple that does have to explain those things to their children?
The most you can do is listen to your children and be honest with them. That’s all I think kids are looking for—that connection with their parents. As long as they feel safe at home, they’ll be all right facing the world.
Is there any advice you could give for our readers about marriage?
Well, I think you don’t ever know when you’re going to meet the right person; only time will tell. You make a commitment and next thing you know it’s five years later, then it’s ten years later. I’m not sure there’s any secret magic potion to it.
What would be your personal definition of the word “marriage”?
For me it means a committed, loving relationship where there’s mutual respect and you share your life together.
After you got married in San Francisco in 2004, the license was voided. Would you consider getting married again to make a bigger statement?
I don’t know if we’d do it again, because we are married. It was a political statement, and that’s why we did it, but I don’t think there’s anything personally we can do at this moment, other than vote and hope. I think it’s about baby steps and with the change that’s happened in the Senate and the House, I think slowly and surely things will change.