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Arts: The trouble with Roseanne

For years, the private life of America's reigning sitcom queen has been grabbing the headlines: a catalogue of sexual abuse, drug and food addiction, family conflict and 'recovered memories'. But with the latest revelations that her marriage was first on, and then off, the rocks, the media began to smell a rat. Can Roseanne's personal problems really be as bad as she says? Or is it all just a manipulative attempt to boost failing ratings? Phil Reeves reports from Los Angeles

For the hundreds of journalists who have solemnly pounded out reams of column inches on the subject, it is not a happy thought: has Roseanne Arnold, the diva of television comedy, conned everyone? Has the world been the victim of a cynical publicity campaign aimed at keeping her ratings among the clouds?

For years, newspapers and magazines in Britain and America have hungrily chronicled the comedienne's eventful and traumatic life. There were her allegations of child abuse, details of her search for her long-lost daughter and, more recently, the confession that, as a young comic, she used to turn tricks in a car park to supplement her wages. Now, however, the media has smelt a rat.

Suspicions were aroused by the events of the past few weeks. Twelve days ago, not long after a blazing argument with him on the set of her show, Roseanne stunned everyone by launching divorce proceedings against her husband Tom, who is also her executive producer. She was, according to court documents filed in Los Angeles, a 'classic battered and abused wife' who was 'afraid for her physical safety'.

Three days later - after the story had circled the globe - she suddenly withdrew the case, blaming the squall on 'outsiders, nasty gossip, and lies', and returned to her marriage. New York's tabloid Daily News reached a conclusion shared by many: 'Roseanne and Tom end scam, er, split' read the headline.

Questions have been asked before about the way Roseanne Arnold forces her way into the headlines by staging one exploit after another. But her autobiographical book My Lives, published this month, has reportedly not been selling as well as expected, and her husband's show, Tom, is lurking at the bottom of the US ratings. Perhaps she felt it was time to tweak the market.

Her show is a different matter. For the past six years, the sitcom (shown on Channel 4 on Friday nights) has performed tremendously well, topping the ratings on both sides of the Atlantic. The manner in which it explores, and draws humour from, the issues of normal life - money problems, marital sex, recalcitrant kids, boring jobs - has rooted itself in the fabric of popular culture. The show has become an institution. These days, when critics talk of Roseanne's standing as a television comedienne, they do so in the same breath as they talk of Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore.

The world has yet to diagnose precisely what makes a successful sitcom actress, but if inner turmoil and a troubled past are ingredients, then Roseanne Arnold was destined to be a star. The 41-year-old actress is from a working-class Jewish family who lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, a state dominated by Mormons. Whatever isolation her non-Mormon status created during her childhood was underlined by her difficult relationship with her parents, particularly her father, whom she later accused of sexually abusing her after 'recovering' memories of her experiences under therapy. She later said he also abused her daughter. He and other family members have denied the accusations, and strongly question her motives.

The strength of her comedic talent - the bond between her and her audience - has much to do with her life. By the age of 25, Roseanne had married an alcoholic motel night clerk and become 'a trailer mum', a compulsive eater living in cramped conditions with three children under the age of four. So when she trudges into her sitcom world, amid the washing-up and unmade beds, we, the viewers, know she's been there for real.

While waitressing in Colorado, she found she could make her clients laugh, and began doing stints on the local comedy club circuit at the same time that Tom Arnold, a former meat-packer, was starting out. In 1983, the couple met. Five years later, after she had been discovered by a talent scout and had her own show, she summoned Tom to Los Angeles, where he worked as the Roseanne warm-up man. The partnership had begun.

Perhaps the 'marriage bust-up' story should never have been a big surprise. She and Tom have always indulged in boisterous stunts, some of which have become central threads in her self-spun mythology. The couple seem to love talking about their most intimate details - cosmetic surgery, tattoos, past drug addictions, even their struggle to conceive a child.

They mud-wrestled on the front of Vanity Fair (Roseanne made the cover again this February, sitting with her legs apart in black stockings and lacy corset). Followers of the pair, who have a wild streak, still talk about the occasion on which she and Tom exposed their tattooed backsides to a stadium full of baseball fans in the 1989 World Series, a performance which was only surpassed by the Julia Louis- Dreyfus affair.

According to reports, Ms Louis- Dreyfus, the actress who plays Elaine in the hugely popular US sitcom Seinfeld (which has just started a second series on BBC 2 on Saturday nights), made the mistake of parking in Tom Arnold's space on the CBS studio lot in Los Angeles. He wrote her a very rude note. She allegedly took offence, and did not accept his subsequent apology. Roseanne leapt to her husband's defence by writing obscenities in soap on the actress's car windscreen, reinforcing her point with a photograph of a man's bare backside. Then, revelling in this triumph, Roseanne sent a fax to a columnist on Variety, a Hollywood trade paper. 'The combination of arrogance and ignorance is quite ordinary in this town, but Julia takes the cake,' she said.

Roseanne Arnold loves sending faxes. She is not one of those lofty, brooding stars. If a critic takes a dislike to her work, he or she can expect to be bombarded with furious electronic messages. Sometimes she oversteps the mark; she publicly apologised after sending out a batch of faxes to journalists that contained anti-gay sentiments. But this is mostly part of a game in which she achieved black-belt status years ago.

'The press has a love affair with Roseanne but she also has a love affair with the press,' observes Steve Coz, a senior editor of the National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid which runs regular Roseanne stories. 'She is using them constantly.' Last week a US cable TV show charted the major Roseanne stories against the dates of the national ratings sweeps; unsurprisingly, they found a pattern.

The most recent example of this - before the Divorce That Never Was - came when Tom Arnold accused ABC of trying to quash an episode in which Roseanne kissed another woman in a gay bar. Shortly before that, the couple announced that they were 'marrying' Tom's 24-year-old assistant, Kim Silva - an arrangement that immediately prompted a swirl of stories saying that Roseanne thought he was having an affair with their new, shared 'wife'.

Yet, say Roseanne-watchers, beware. It is too easy to dismiss everything the Arnolds do as yet another bogus bid to make it into print. Those who know the couple say that some of their problems are deep and genuine. 'You have got to realise that Roseanne and Tom are kinda crazy people,' said one former associate. 'Everything they do should be seen in that light.'

No one disputes the sincerity of Roseanne's battles with weight (she has had tummy-tucks, breast reduction, a face-lift), with depression, or with executives from the ABC network. Nor is there much doubt about the problems endured by her children, or, for that matter, her strong feminist convictions.

Comedy has made Roseanne Arnold a serious amount of money. Her worth is estimated at dollars 100m, a fortune that is reportedly swelled by dollars 500,000 with every show. While that lasts, she seems certain to do everything within her considerable powers to keep it at the top. If the marriage rumpus was indeed a stunt, as sceptics believe, then she will probably avoid staging another because of the risk of being rumbled. So what's next? A life- threatening illness? A run for the governorship of New York? 'Who knows,' says a Hollywood insider. 'With Roseanne, anything is possible.'

(Photograph omitted)