Belén Esteban says that she can't remember the exact moment when she lost her innocence - the moment when she first decided to lay her life bare, for all to see.
"I wasn't like this 10 years ago. I was always very shy; I would keep my thoughts to myself. I had always been the little sister, the little daughter - the apple of my father's eye. I suppose that I had never really grown up. Then everything changed."
Things changed for Belén Esteban when she met superstar bullfighter Jesulín de Ubrique in 1998, when she was aged 25. She had grown up in a working-class suburb in the south of Madrid: her mother was a cleaner and her father a painter, she left school at 16, living at home while working in a succession of dead-end jobs.
When she met Jesulín, Esteban says she was shy and lacked confidence. A news item from the time shows her and the bullfighter out on the town: he is striding assertively ahead, while she is scurrying a pace behind, head down, clearly uncomfortable with her new-found place in the spotlight.
By the following year, the couple had sold their story to upmarket weekly gossip rag ¡Hola! They were expecting a baby. "It's the child we had hoped for, and we are looking forward to her arrival," read the headline.
Exactly 61 issues later, and just four after the couple had sold the exclusive rights to the magazine for coverage of their newborn's baptism party, Esteban was again on the cover of ¡Hola! But this time the front-page headline announced a "crisis" between the couple. Perhaps it was at this point that Esteban lost her innocence. Perhaps it was at this point that she realized that there's no news like bad news.
In the year 2000, and "sick to the back teeth" of her pampered and sheltered life, where she was hidden away on the huge estate and country home that Jesulín had acquired, she walked out on him, taking her seven-month-old daughter Andrea with her. "I wasn't happy. I wanted to be happy," she says. "So I went back to live with my parents, and thought, Now what?"
She sold her story to ¡Hola!, and soon after that was offered a job alongside veteran daytime television presenter María Teresa Campos at the Antena 3 television channel. "I learned quickly, and things went well for me. I've been in television for a decade now. It's what I do. I may not have any qualifications, but the public loves me."
Esteban had left behind a very comfortable life. And the image of the single mum, baby in arms, abandoning the loveless mansion set among hundreds of hectares of Andalusian countryside, was a publicist's dream. Esteban, endowed with guts and a heart of gold, would soon be dubbed la princesa del pueblo - the people's princess. Her star was in the ascent.
In 2002, she joined another veteran daytime presenter on Antena 3, Ana Rosa Quintana, following her two years later when she was wooed away to rival Telecinco. In 2009, after five years constantly appearing on Telecinco's burgeoning roster of daytime and evening reality and gossip shows - including the "debate" that accompanied each week's airing of reality show Big Brother - Esteban was finally given her own vehicle: Sálvame.
Following the announcement toward the end of 2009 that Esteban would be presenting Telecinco's New Year's Eve special, and that she would be undergoing extensive cosmetic surgery in preparation, Google announced a massive surge in internet searches for photos of her. Esteban had gone viral.
During this time, she had rarely been out of the gossip columns, and her love life was being explored in minute detail. At the same time she was locked in a protracted legal tussle with Jesulín over custody of their daughter, the details of which were also public knowledge. As a result, in September 2009 the office of the Children's Ombudsman announced that it was considering taking legal action against Esteban for breaching her daughter's right to privacy. It also advised Telecinco to stop allowing discussion of the custody issue on its shows.
That was exactly the kind of publicity that Sálvame had been seeking. And Esteban rose to the occasion, issuing an avowal that immediately entered the popular lexicon: "I will kill for my daughter." (Shortly after, the pornographers got in on the act, using an Esteban lookalike and a title that replaced the object of her murderous intent with a male member.)
Asked if she feels her daughter might be being adversely affected by the media attention, Esteban avoids the question, instead answering: "My daughter is very clever. I have told her that we have to learn to live with this, and not to take any notice. I am her mother, and the girl wants for nothing. Nothing."
Telecinco is locked in a ratings war with Antena 3, a war that it is currently winning. Viewing figures for Sálvame regularly top two million, sometimes peaking at four million. Sálvame's formula is simple: Esteban is given free rein to discuss a range of issues, typically about the personal lives of other minor celebrities, many of whom submit to appearing on the show, where they are subjected to a barrage of insults and accusations by Esteban.
Along the way, viewers are treated to revelations about Esteban's personal life, or her assessment of the crisis, usually illustrated with examples from the experiences of viewers or her childhood friends, many of whom she has remained close to, despite her rags-to-riches success story. Of course it is her very ordinariness amid the wealth and fame of her new life that makes her so appealing to millions.
For its critics, Sálvame represents a new low in the ongoing dumbing down of Spanish television. In turn, the show's creators see themselves as ironic, irreverent post-modernists, pushing the boundaries of reality television and giving people what they want. Sálvame has the appearance of a news show, with its team of roving journalists always present, wherever there is gossip to be found. Back in the studio, Esteban and her co-presenter Jorge Vázquez discuss the issues of the day in greater depth, sometimes probing through interviews, at other times inviting gossip columnists from Telecinco's myriad other reality shows to shed light on why somebody has left somebody else, or been caught having an affair with somebody else's wife or husband. The whole thing is very professional, very slick, and blurs the lines between reality and fiction as never before.
"The idea is for the viewers to feel as though they were part of what is going on, as if they were right in there with us. We like to keep our viewers company. And nobody does that better than Belén," says Paolo Vasile, the Italian-born head of Telecinco, and former deputy head of Berlusconi-owned Mediaset. Under Vasile, Telecinco has become Spain's most-watched television channel since 2004. And he can thank Esteban in large part for that.
"She is a phenonomenon, she is a fascinating character, and is also very intelligent. And she has made this channel a lot of money. We are all happy that Belén is part of our lives, and that she says what she thinks. She is free to do and say what she pleases, and she is somebody who makes things happen when she is on the show," says Vasile.
"Belén has a singular narrative ability," adds her co-presenter on Sálvame. Vázquez, who has a degree in Spanish literature, and professes a love for 19th-century novels, is very much Henry Higgins to Esteban's Eliza Doolittle.
"Belen knows how to tell a story. She does it perfectly. And over the last year she has become much more professional - she has broadened her range. She is no longer simply a figure from the world of gossip. She is able to carry a show on her own. She is a true performer. She knows when to look at the camera, when to pause, how to fit her story into what is going on at the time. She has also lightened up a lot, and is much funnier. She is under a lot more pressure, she is no longer simply a decoration, she is a true professional, and gives everything during the four days of the week we film the show. It takes guts."
Unlike Eliza Doolittle, Esteban says she doesn't feel that she is anybody's creation, and much less that her life is being manipulated by Telecinco to boost its ratings. "Nobody has ever manipulated me. I was offered the chance of a career in television, and I took it. It was my choice. I don't have to do anything that I don't want to do. The thing about this business is that you have to know what you want. The only problem is that I am very sensitive, and this can be difficult for me. I am criticized from all quarters, and it is so unfair. The things that they say about me, it's terrible. I find it difficult to deal with the hostility, to put it into perspective. The other day I told somebody that I work with that he was a son of a bitch because he had said that I was a bad mother. I'm not going to take that shit from anybody!"
But those who work with Esteban say that she has paid a high price for fame and fortune. "These celebrities are not like actors. An actor takes on a role for a period of time, but he is then able to return to his true self when the director shouts cut. But these television celebrities cannot walk away from the character that they have created. And when the lights are turned off, they have to try to work out who they really are," says one senior executive at Telecinco.
What's more, he adds, when things go wrong, there is nobody else to blame. "On a show like Sálvame, the people taking part enter into a kind of parallel universe. They behave as they think they are supposed to behave, they say what they think they are supposed to say, but they don't know for sure if they are getting it right."
The only people who know if Esteban is getting it right, say Sálvame's producers, are the viewers. The show's creators and producers meet each morning to discuss the previous afternoon's episode. They claim to be able to monitor the reaction of viewers on a minute-by-minute basis.
"Television is about as hard as its gets," says Mikel Lejarza, a veteran of daytime programming who has worked for Telecinco, Antena 3 and Basque regional television, and currently runs Antena 3 films. "When you see the audience figures you are wondering if you managed to reach out to everybody - sometimes you do, sometimes you don't."
Vasile says that he thrives on the stress that trying to satisfy audiences produces. "Stress is to television what a good grape is to wine. Essential. At Telecinco you have to feed off stress if you want to reach the top."
The key to success, say the show's producers, is periodically finding a new angle for Esteban, a kind of perpetual reinvention. But Óscar Cornejo and Adrián Madrid, two of Sálvame's writers, say it is hard to manage the process of change that will allow Esteban to develop a long-term career, and keep them in work. "The first thing about her is that she doesn't work with a script. She says what she feels like saying at that moment. For now, it works," says Cornejo.
"I never go to the meetings where they decide what is going to be on the show. I prefer not to know, especially if it's going to be about me. I prefer to find out on the set, and then react accordingly," says Esteban. "Sometimes, when I learn what we're going to be talking about, I have to bite my tongue," she adds.
The Sálvame format works. It is cheap, and easy to produce, costing 15 times less than a drama series. On December 20 of 2009, three months after the show was launched, it had already garnered a 26-percent audience share in a market where the previous leader had a 16-percent share. And what the more than three million people were tuning in to see was the result of Esteban's cosmetic surgery ahead of her appearance on Telecinco's New Year's Eve special.
"People like soap operas," says Carlota Corredera, Sálvame's co-director alongside Raúl Prieto. "The viewers like to see her suffer, but they are also hooked on her battle for happiness. And that night, everybody wanted to know whether the operation had been a success. Would she be pretty? Would Cinderella finally have turned into the princess? Belén is an audience magnet. Nobody can deny that. People are fascinated by the things that happen to her and the way that she tells her story."
And more than a year later, in an industry with an 80-percent failure rate, the formula is as potent as ever. And on the night of October 8 of last year, Sálvame's ratings were 10-percent higher than the next-most-viewed show thanks to revelations about the infidelities of Esteban's husband Francisco Álvarez Gómez (known in the industry simply as Fran). Telecinco repeated the feat a week later when Esteban forgave her errant husband before an audience of almost three million.
Not to be outdone, arch-rival Antena 3 brought Fran's lover on to its ¿Dónde estás corazón? (Where are you love?), known usually as DEC, garnering almost two million viewers in the process. For producers looking to boost audience share, anything involving Estebán has the Midas touch. Over at Telecinco, other gossip shows frequently refer to Esteban's exploits, talking to friends, former lovers and enemies.
Opinions vary as to the reasons for Esteban's popularity. "With television you never know what is going to work. It's like tossing a coin in the air," says Adrián Cornejo, executive producer of La Fábrica de la Tele, the production company that created Sálvame.
Paolo Vasile draws comparisons with the film Forrest Gump: "She proves that ordinary people can be players in history. She may not be educated, but she is smart. She sees the world, and she interprets it through her family and friends and her own experiences. People see themselves in Belén; it's that simple."
Gerard Imbert, an academic specializing in the media, believes shows like Sálvame are dangerous.
"Belén Esteban exemplifies the decline of television, the trivialization of debate. It contributes to the transformation of everything into spectacle, and it turns people into objects to be manipulated to boost ratings. There is no longer any room on television for the timid, for those who present an argument, only for those who can shout the loudest. And that is a kind of fascism," he says.
We snatch brief conversations during the occasional coffee breaks throughout the day's filming. A theme that Esteban returns to repeatedly is her normalness.
But she appears to contradict herself about the consequences of her career choice. "This is hard work. People think that it is easy, but both physically and mentally it is exhausting. And there is little reward. People talk about my life. Why? It's my life."
Like so many other questions, she avoids a direct answer when asked if she has thought of quitting. "What's the point? People will still talk about me, they will always go after me. I am controversial, I say what I think. But when the time is right, I'll go. I want a normal life. But not now, I can't."
Esteban says that her dream is a normal life. "I want to be a housewife. I want my husband to work. We could set up a business, a chain of bars. I would lend him a hand, serving behind the bar and sweeping up. I am very normal."
Few of the people around her would agree, even if they might not say it to her face. "She can say what she likes, but Belén is very sensitive - she can't take criticism," says one of Sálvame's crew, who unsurprisingly prefers to remain anonymous. "At the same time, she is afraid of disappointing people. She doesn't know how to be happy. She can't take rejection. She is immature. You can't be on television all day and not take criticism."
"There is no way that Belén can quit," says an executive over at her former employers Antena 3. He points out that for somebody like Esteban, it meets all her needs: financial and psychological.
But sooner or later, despite the efforts of Sálvame's producers, Esteban's sell-by-date will come due. She says that she is strong, and will survive, insisting again and again on her normalness and her inner strength. After a decade in the sordid world of daytime television, nobody would deny that.
A colleague on Sálvame sums up Esteban. "Belén's life is like the movie The Truman Show. But unlike the Jim Carrey character, who doesn't realize that his life is being televised for millions of viewers, Belén knows that she is Truman. And everybody knows that her husband cheated on her. And that is a terrible thing. It's not easy being Truman. It's not easy being Belén."