The Most Inappropriate Interview Questions Asked By Barbara Walters

Barbara Walters is often revered as a pioneer for female journalists, and considering she was the "first woman to co-anchor a network evening news program," the TIME-acknowledged distinction is well-deserved. After over 60 years on television, she's received multiple lifetime achievement awards, including one by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2000.

A longtime staple of television journalism, Walters is known for her probing interviews with some of the most famous and influential celebrities and world leaders. She knows how to bring out emotions in people and certainly how to boost ratings. While much of her career is to be admired, she has also had a number of less-than-honorable moments. Or at the very least, some of her questions have been a bit awkward.

Though her most bizarre question will always be remembered as the time she asked Katharine Hepburn, "What kind of a tree are you?" she's also asked her fair share of invasive and condescending questions. Let's take a closer look at some of the most inappropriate questions Barbara Walters has asked.

When Barbara Walters tried to out Ricky Martin

When Barbara Walters interviewed Ricky Martin in 2000, rumors about his sexuality had begun to follow the "Livin' La Vida Loca" singer wherever he went. When Walters asked Martin about the rumors, he stated, "I think that sexuality is something that each individual should deal with in their own way, and that's all I have to say about that." But Walters wasn't satisfied with his answer and pressed on, saying, "You know, you could stop these rumors. You could say, as many artists have, 'yes, I am gay' or you could say, 'no I'm not." A visibly uncomfortable Martin ended the inquisition by saying that he "just [did]n't feel like" giving her an answer.

Martin didn't officially come out until 2010, and in a 2021 interview with People, he described that exchange with Barbara Walters as a deeply distressing experience. "When she dropped the question, I felt violated because I was just not ready to come out. I was very afraid ... There's a little PTSD with that," he told the publication. 

Walters had regrets about the question and told the Toronto Star, "In 2000, I pushed Ricky Martin very hard to admit if he was gay or not, and the way he refused to do it made everyone decide that he was. A lot of people say that destroyed his career, and when I think back on it now I feel it was an inappropriate question."

Her questions about Dolly Parton's appearance

In a 1977 interview with Dolly Parton, Barbara Walters posed several questions that could easily be interpreted as condescending. Surely Parton's fascinating rags-to-superstar life story warranted better questions than "Would I have called you a hillbilly?" from Walters. But the interview took an even more blatantly patronizing tone when she zeroed in on Parton's appearance.

Walters asked, "Is it all you?", hinting at whether or not Parton's breasts were enhanced. While Parton neither denied nor confirmed, she let people know that she thought there was nothing wrong with plastic surgery: "If I hadn't have had it on my own, I'm just the kind of person that would've had me some made." 

Walters doubled down and said, "You don't have to look like this. You're very beautiful. You don't have to wear the blonde wigs. You don't have to wear the extreme clothes." Parton set the record straight by explaining that the way she looks is an intentional personal choice, saying, "I just decided that I would do something that would at least get the attention...then [people] would see there was parts of me to be appreciated. I'm very real where it counts, and that's inside." Hey, at least the question gave Parton an opportunity to explain her philosophy and demonstrate what she calls "country class" at its finest.

The 'practically criminal' questions she asked Brooke Shields

Brooke Shields was only 15 when she appeared in one of the most memorable and controversial fashion ads ever. The famous Calvin Klein Jeans commercial featured Shields in skin-tight jeans, posing on the floor while saying, "You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing." The line was interpreted as an innuendo and was even banned in some places, according to Vogue.

Following the ad, Barbara Walters interviewed the rising star in 1981. Walters asked "The Blue Lagoon" actor a series of questions that were inappropriate, especially considering her age at the time. Part of the interview is available on Youtube and shows Walters asking Shields the cringey questions, "What are your measurements?" and "Do you have any secrets from your mother?" NBC News reported that the interview also included "questions about her sexual history."

In a 2021 interview with Dax Shepard for his podcast "Armchair Expert," Shields called her interview with Barbara Walters "practically criminal" and said her questions were "not journalism." 

Was Barbara Walters being judgmental of Monica Lewinsky?

While it would have been difficult to interview Monica Lewinsky in 1999 without asking a few salacious questions about her affair with president Bill Clinton, many of Barbara Walters' inquiries came off as judgmental, as well.

If you lived through the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky saga, you might remember that the press wasn't very compassionate toward Lewinsky, calling her names like "bimbo," "stalker," and "seductress," as Walters pointed out in a "20/20" interview. And throughout the episode, one can't help but feel that Walters, like the majority of the media at the time, lacked empathy for Lewinsky's experience. After Lewinsky and Walters discuss how the president made false promises and broke up with her several times, Walters asks, in a rather disapproving tone, "Where was your self respect?" Lewinsky takes the question in stride but echoes what Walters was insinuating in her answer: "I don't have the feelings of self worth that a woman should have." Undoubtedly, the media's shaming and name-calling had taken its toll on Lewinsky at this point.

Accordingly, much of the hour-long interview reeks of sl*t-shaming, which unfortunately was the norm when talking about Lewinsky in those days. For instance, when Walters brought up Lewinsky showing her thong to Clinton, she asked, "Where did you get the nerve? I mean, who does that?"

She asked Elizabeth Taylor questions about being 'fat'

At times, Barbara Walters seemed hyper-focused on asking questions about people's appearances. During her 1977 interview with Elizabeth Taylor, it certainly seemed that way. When John Warner, Taylor's husband at the time, insinuated that Taylor didn't eat healthily, Walters asked, "You wouldn't care if you got fat?"

Taylor's response was, "I am fat," to which Barbara Walters retorted, "I didn't want to say it," and repeated the question: "You don't care?" Taylor sighed and said, "Not really." Several years later, she opened up about that time in her life when she was married to senator Warner and even wrote a book about her experience with gaining weight and dieting, called "Elizabeth Takes Off." Per The New York Times, she wrote in her book, ”I was almost 50 when for the first time in my life I lost my sense of self-worth."

Even though in the 1977 interview, she claimed to be happy, 10 years later in another interview with Walters, she admitted that all the talk about her weight during that time was hard. "I hated it and I hated all the fat jokes," she told Walters. "I probably laughed as loud or louder than anyone, but they hurt. They hurt me a lot."

The Walters question that allegedly sparked a divorce

Heavyweight champion Mike Tyson had a notoriously tumultuous marriage with actor Robin Givens. During a 1988 interview on "20/20" with Barbara Walters, the topic of alleged domestic abuse within their marriage came up. "Does he hit you?" Walters asked. Givens hesitated for a moment before saying, "He shakes, he pushes, he swings. Sometimes I think he's trying to scare me...Just recently, I've become afraid." While Tyson sat in silence when Givens was confessing this to Walters, he reportedly "flew into a rage and threw a chair" after the interview was over, according to ABC News.

Givens filed for divorce only one month following the interview, and many speculated that the interview played a part in the divorce. In a 2010 interview with Tyson on "The View," Walters asked, "Do you think that I helped to break up your marriage or would it have broken up anyway?" Tyson assured her that she wasn't to blame.

While the original question was a tricky one that put Givens, Tyson, and their marriage on the spot, it was ultimately a good thing if it empowered Givens to walk away from an abusive relationship, so we'll give Walters the benefit of the doubt on this one.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

She awkwardly asked Chelsea Handler about her sexuality

Barbara Walters included Chelsea Handler on her "10 Most Fascinating People" special In 2014. The comedian's career was founded on being open about her sexual life (she's even written a book about the subject), so it only makes sense that the topic would come up during the interview. When Handler agreed that she was "promiscuous," Walters asked what she meant by that. "I like men," Handler responded. Walters argued, "Well, I like men but I don't think I'm promiscuous."

Then Walters asked, "Would you consider having a relationship with a woman?" Handler said, "No...I mean I'm not interested. Or I'm not a lesbian." Handler clearly felt awkward about the question and coughed, joking, "That's code for I am," and laughed. Walters asked again, "You want to say it here?" But Handler quickly put the question to rest: "No, I'm not... I wish I was. I would help you. I would try and make this interview even more exciting."

In her 2006 "30 Mistakes in 30 Years" special, Walters had claimed to make a new rule for herself after the Ricky Martin interview: "Unless someone is openly gay, and happy to talk about it, it's nobody's business — including mine." But the Handler question proves that she didn't exactly stick to that plan.

The question concerning Barbra Streisand's nose

Who is Barbra Streisand without her iconic nose? In 1994, the Los Angeles Times hailed Streisand as a "nose revolutionary, a nose nationalist and liberator...a prophet who saw the pert, snub, freckled, upturned, tidy, tiny, cute all-American cheerleader popularity of the ideal nose personified by Doris Day back in the 1950s, and she bloodied it." Indeed "Babs" deserves all the praise for making people see that an "unconventional" nose can be an asset in making you unforgettable.

By the time Barbara Walters sat down with Streisand in a 1985 interview, the star was already so iconic and famous, you might guess that any questions about her nose were a thing of the past. But guess again, because Walters went ahead and asked what surely many interviewers had asked before: "Why didn't you have your nose fixed?" Walters using the word "fixed" here insinuated that something was wrong with Streisand's nose, which she and many of her fans would wholeheartedly disagree with. Streisand's response included: "I like the bump...I thought my nose went with my face. You know, it's all a little odd."

The invasive question she asked about Celine Dion's weight

As a rule of thumb, don't ask someone about their weight unless they bring it up first. And if you suspect someone might have an eating disorder, perhaps don't poke and pry about it, especially on national television like Barbara Walters did with Celine Dion in her 1999 interview.

The Canadian singer rose to fame in the 1990s, and with her ascent, came a swirl of rumors. One of those rumors was that she was anorexic. In February 1999, a month before her interview with Walters, she was hoping to put the rumors to rest when she told People magazine, "I don't have an eating problem, and there's nothing more I can say about that" (via AP News). But Walters brought up these rumors once again and asked Dion, "Do you watch what you eat?" and, "So this is just that you're naturally thin, or why are you so thin?" Dion responded, "I'm naturally thin. I eat whatever I want and I don't have any weight problems."

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

When Walters dismissed Bette Midler's claims against Geraldo Rivera

In a 1991 interview, Barbara Walters sat down with the iconic actor and singer Bette Midler. That same year, talk show host Geraldo Rivera had published an autobiography titled "Exposing Myself," in which he claimed that "he had a torrid sexual affair" with Midler. Naturally, Walters asked about it.

Midler said she didn't remember what he was talking about but that she did remember the first time she met Rivera. She hesitated to tell the full story at first, saying, "No, I'd better not. I'm going to get into trouble." Walters encouraged her to spill the details and Midler proceeded to tell a story that Walters was likely not expecting: "Geraldo and his producer came to do an interview with me in the '70s... He and his producer left the crew in the other room, they pushed me into my bathroom, they broke two poppers and pushed them under my nose, and proceeded to grope me... I did not offer myself up on the altar of Geraldo Rivera. He was unseemly." Oddly, Walters didn't attempt to have a serious discussion about this accusation or hop on the journalistic opportunity for a breaking story to possibly expose Rivera. Instead, she laughed it off and said, "Well, let's go on to other things, shall we?"

In 2017, Midler posted the interview clip on Twitter and wrote, "I feel like this video was a gift from the universe to me. Geraldo may have apologized for his tweets supporting Matt Lauer, but he has yet to apologize for this. #metoo"

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

A 'ridiculous' question about Chris Christie's weight

While women are far more likely to be subjected to body-shaming, men aren't entirely immune. In 2011 when Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, was considering running for president, his weight became an unnecessary focal point on whether or not he was qualified for the job.

Even "The View" had a segment about the topic, in which Joy Behar stated, "The last fat president that we had was President Taft...I don't think the country's ready for a fat president again" (via Mediaite). At this point, Walters came to his defense, saying, "I think that's ridiculous! It has nothing to do with his brain, it has nothing to do with his experience." But that didn't stop her from making a fat joke at his expense on "The View" a few months later.

Walters featured the governor on her "10 Most Fascinating People" special in 2012. Even though she said she felt "very uncomfortable" bringing up his weight, she asked him why he was overweight and said, "Do you try to diet?" He shared that if he "could figure out" why, then he "would fix it," saying, "I've had more diets and lost and gained back more weight in my lifetime than I care to count." She then said, "There are people who say that you couldn't be president because you're so heavy. What do you say to that?" Christie said that was a "ridiculous" notion.