Where to begin? It’s a good thing my ‘Lunch’ date Nely Galan was absolutely fascinating because there was some serious people watching bait in the dining room at Michael’s today. Even though Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters were deep in conversation at Table 3 (I wonder if Megyn Kelly’s strangely familiar primetime special came up?) and Mickey Ateyeh, who knows just about everyone in New York, was presiding over a table full of swells (including Vanity Fair’s Bob Colacello) on Table 1, I was glued to my seat, riveted by Nely’s tales from the front lines in Hollywood. This woman has stories and some hard-earned wisdom gleaned from her days as the first Latina president of Telemundo and as the creator of one of television’s first, as well as most talked-about, reality shows, The Swan. The New York Times Magazine christened, Nely, a Cuban immigrant, the “Tropical Tycoon” for good reason. She has produced over 700 episodes of television in English and Spanish and was also the first Latina ever to appear on The Celebrity Apprentice (More on that later). It’s all in her new book SELF MADE: Becoming Empowered, Self-Reliant and Rich in Every Way (Spiegel & Grau/Random House).
When Krupp Kommunications’ Dina White suggested I meet Nely while she was in town making the rounds (Fox & Friends, CNN, MSNBC) to talk about her book, I jumped at the chance. I first interviewed the Latina media mogul over 10 years ago when reality television was in its infancy and The Swan was raising eyebrows and making headlines everywhere. Just talking to her on the phone for a story for TV Guide, I could tell she was a woman who knew how to get things done. Today, I saw firsthand how right I was. Nely arrived a full 20 minutes before the appointed hour and started talking to me before we even sat down. I had 20 pages of notes before our main course arrived. (She nibbled on a shrimp cocktail and wedge salad.) Nely is one of those rare people with the unique talent of being able to tell a great story while hanging on every word that’s said to her. She exudes a warmth that draws you in — frequently touching my arm during our chat and she didn’t miss a beat when a friend stopped by our table to engage in a bit of networking and grab a quick selfie with her. This is standard operating procedure on Wednesdays at Michael’s, but you knew that already didn’t you?
I was one of the first reporters to write about The Swan back in the day when everyone was talking about it. Given the train wreck reality television we’ve become accustomed to today, (Did someone say Botched?) the show’s concept seems almost quaint by comparison. The Swan plucked women who were unhappy with their lives and looks out of their humdrum existence and sequestered them for several months in a spa-like environment, during which time they underwent multiple plastic surgery procedures, cosmetic dentistry, a rigorous exercise program and psychotherapy (Nely was the show’s life coach) — all in the hopes of being crowned ‘The Swan’ at the beauty pageant judged by a panel for the show’s finale. The twist that always got me was these women were not able to look in a mirror the entire time they were undergoing their transformation. They saw their newly made-over selves for the first time during the big reveal at the end of each show. I never missed an episode.
“It was the single best experience of my life,” said Nely. But it didn’t exactly start out that way. The idea for The Swan was born out of two disparate events that came together in Nely’s mind like a lightening bolt. During a trip to Canyon Ranch after breaking up with the father of her son, Nely was reveling in the self-care for body and soul she received at the spa. “I thought, ‘I wish I could stay here for a few months.'” Then, a friend gave her The Complete Works of Hans Christian Andersen for her baby. “I was reading The Ugly Ducking when [the idea] hit me. This is a television show!”
But Nely’s initial idea for a series focusing on female empowerment quickly morphed into something else at the hands of notorious reality show producer Mike Darnell. “To his credit, he listened to my idea and said, ‘This is going to be a hit.'” During production, when the psychotherapist brought on board proved to be too high maintenance, Mike suggested Nely step in “He said, ‘You’re a better therapist anyway. We’ll call you a life coach.'” Three months later, a week before the show was set to air, “Mike told me, ‘We need to be more gritty. It’s too soft.” Two days before the series premiere when Nely saw the finished product, “I was furious,” she recalled.
Then the press piled on (USA Today called Nely ‘the devil’). “I was hysterical. Mike said, ‘Grow up. I just made you a much richer woman.’ That day changed everything for me. I stopped worrying about having people like me and it was the most money I ever made from a television show.” The show ran two seasons on Fox in the states and aired around the world. “I wish I could do another one.” Nely told me she had a celebrity edition of The Swan ready to go (“It was already cast!”) when “There was a change of regime at Fox and they decided there was too much liability.” Let’s just stop here for a minute a consider the possibilities. The mind reels.
During a stint on the first season of The Celebrity Apprentice in 2008 (“NBC wanted a Latina real-life entrepreneur”), fellow competitor Gene Simmons (“He is so brilliant”) asked Nely, “Why are you making television shows?” and suggested that she needed to do something bigger with her life. “I was a little insulted. He said,’Life is about having a great Rolodex and you have a great Rolodex.'” Judging from the acknowledgments in Nely’s book, where she thanks friends including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Sheryl Sandberg and Sherry Lansing among many others, Simmons was on to something.
Nely decided to go back to school and get a Masters in Clinical Psychology during which time she wrote a dissertation and discovered “the media were pathologizing multicultural women.” At the time she thought, “Why doesn’t the media understand diversity? Advertisers and retailers do because they have the data.” It’s no surprise this lead to yet another groundbreaking idea and Nely reinventing herself as an advocate for women’s empowerment — bringing her full circle the germ of the idea that first came to her during that trip to Canyon Ranch. She said herself “Why is this the theme of my life?” She soon found out.
While going to school, The Coca-Cola Company approached her to join their Advisory Board, where she found herself in the mix with executives from companies like 7/11 and Walmart. When she asked Sandy Douglas, the company’s North American president, why she was on the panel, she was told it was because they wanted to tap into her knowledge of Latinas as the No. 1 emerging market and explore what multiculturalism meant to the future of the company. “When I finished my dissertation, I showed it to Coke and when Sandy read it, he told me, ‘You just wrote what you should do with your life.'” It was then that Nely partnered with The Coca-Cola Company and launched the Adelante Movement — a digital content platform and national tour dedicated to promoting Latina empowerment, financial literacy and entrepreneurship.
Today, Adelante has morphed into an even more ambitious effort. Nely has taken that Rolodex and enlisted her successful circle of friends to join her in her mission to mentor all women on how to become entrepreneurs through SELF MADE, which is not only the foundation for her book, but a national tour and an upcoming app that empowers women to take control — starting with finances – of their own lives. “Nobody says it, but it’s all about money,” she told me. The Adelante tour kept Nely on the road for the past four years — “It’s taken up my life!” She traveled all over the country talking to Latina women. Now she’s excited about the launch of SELF MADE which will bring her message to a broader female audience about being successful on their own terms, a message that resonates particularly well with women of a certain age. “If you’re in your 50s and they’re reducing your salary, you’re going to be fired eventually. They can replace you with two 20 year olds. You never want to be coming from a place of diminishing returns. The best opportunities for women now come from being entrepreneurs.”
In the book (the foreword was written by financial guru Suze Orman), Nely gives excellent “meat and potatoes” advice gleaned from her own life. My two favorite lessons are ‘There Is No Prince Charming” (“Millennial women get this right away”) and “Don’t Buy Shoes, Buy Buildings.” She told me, “That’s why I have money, I bought buildings.” There are also many inspiring stories of women who went from being ‘freelancers’ (“I hate that word”) to entrepreneurs by rebranding themselves and tapping into the wealth of resources that are out there for taking — with a little digging.
That’s also where Nely is stepping up to help her fellow entrepreneurs. “I’ve done all the research about where the hidden money is — and there is a lot of it. All U.S corporations have money to give away, we just don’t know about it. With the app, you identify yourself as in a Latina business owner or a woman who is starting a type of business or whoever you are, and you will receive alerts on where you can apply for that money.” The app will launch later this summer.
Speaking of following the money, no conversation these days is complete without some mention of a certain presidential candidate. I asked Nely, a longtime supporter of Hillary Clinton, what she thought of Donald Trump’s campaign. “As a Latina, I feel his message is off. I was sure he was going to apologize after he made those remarks. Never in my life did I think his shtick would become a political platform.” As for a Trump presidency: “I’m an entrepreneur and entrepreneurs don’t like people telling them what to do. People forget being president is a job — and it’s a job in service to the country. I don’t think being an entrepreneur is the best fit for being president.”
Nely told me she’d “never” run for office and is happy to “give back” and share the lessons she’s learned to help all women during a time of so much upheaval and financial uncertainty. And, of course, she’s determined to rack up another success in the process. “I’ve created a brand that will go with me into old age,” she told me before dashing out for her next slate of interviews. “This is the truest me. I’ve lived this, I know this and I can teach it.” And how.
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. Accessories maven Mickey Ateyeh hosting a table of fabulous folks including Jamie Kabler, who founded the Rancho Mirage Author’s Festival, his Partner Helene Galen who underwrites USC (they’re on their way to Buckingham Palace), The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, Maddy Redstone and Vanity Fair’s Bob Colacello.
2. Peter Brown
3. Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer.
4. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman
5. Herb Siegel
6. Lisa Cohen (wife of James S. Cohen)
7. Shelly Palmer
8. John Sykes
9. Jack Myers
11. Andrew Stein
12. Discovery ID’s head honcho Henry Schleiff
14. Simon & Schusters’ Alice Mayhew
15. David Westin
16. Charlie Schuler with William Cohan, author of House of Cards
17. Bob Thixton
20. Dr. Robi Ludwig, who I ‘Lunched’ with recently and NY1’s Annika Pergament. Second seating: Donny Deutsch
21. Elle’s publisher Kevin O’Malley
24. Martin Puris
25. British Heritage Travel’s publisher Jack Kliger with Will Manuel. Pleased to meet you!
26. Josh Steiner
27. Nely Galan and yours truly
29. David Sanford and Lewis Stein
81. Susan Silver
82. PR maven Liz Kaplow, who snagged a coveted Matrix Award from New York Women in Communications last month. Congrats!
Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.