When Quivers first heard that the surgery could leave her with a permanent colostomy bag, she decided that she would rather die. "I told Howard, 'I can't live like that.' He goes, 'Yes, you can!' And I'm like, 'Howard, I know me. I will be too depressed to ever have a decent life if I've got a permanent colostomy. So don't expect me to do that.' The hurt in his voice! I was like, 'Oh, crap, now I'm going to have to figure out how to live with a colostomy.'"
Quivers defines her role on The Howard Stern Show as being "the best dance partner," following Stern wherever he might go, pulling him back when necessary. "The handful of times that Robin hasn't been there over the years," says longtime producer Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abate, "it's a different show. There's a chemistry and a balance that goes out the window. When Robin's there, it's not like we're afraid to do stuff, but there is some level of decorum. Years ago she was out sick one day and we were just like horny men. It seemed like the teacher left the room during a test." That said, it's hard to imagine how the show could get more extreme than, say, the day a woman demonstrated female ejaculation so robustly that she sprayed Dell'Abate in the eye. Quivers was there for that one, safe and dry in her booth.
"Her intellect is three times everyone else's on the show," says head writer Fred Norris. "Most of the guys, their brains look like a charcoal drawing, and Robin's is more of like a 3D laser light show."
It's easy to see her as the superego to Stern's id, or the Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder, but that's not how she looks at it. "My attitude about the show was big-sisterly," she says. "I know who he really is – these silly things, these crass things, that's not who he really is, and I've got to remind him who he really is. So when people see that they go, 'Oh, it wasn't that bad that he said that.'"
Back when the show was on terrestrial radio, and was the focus of the kind of controversy now reserved exclusively for Miley Cyrus, people made a lot of insulting assumptions: chief among them that Quivers was there mostly to let Stern get away with racial and sexual material. "I don't have any function," she says mockingly. "I don't do anything, I don't contribute, I'm just there. And that idea is totally racist and sexist in itself! And who was saying that? Black people. Women. So in other words, you've decided that I'm too stupid to realize that I'm being exploited."
She was more than ready to defend herself, arguing with a condescending Linda Ronstadt on The Tonight Show, and yelling at Spike Lee when he berated her in a private phone call. Recently, her publicist told her that she needed to try to mend her relationship with the black community. "I said, 'Do we really?'" An explosive, doubled-over laugh. "That sounds like hard work to me and I'm not really up to that!"
Meanwhile, her comfort within the Stern show boys' club, not to mention her perpetually unmarried status, has led many people to assume she's gay. "I've had women chase me, then look me in the eye and go, oh . . . she's not," she says. For all the show's focus on lesbian sexuality, Quivers has never had the slightest urge in that direction. "I don't particularly care for women," she says. "I mean, what am I gonna do with a woman?"
She is convinced that her vegan diet, heavy on juicing, gave her the underlying health and strength she needed to fight cancer. Quivers did, by her account, recover with unusual speed from every phase of the treatment. (She has a new, recipe-filled book about her dietary regimen, The Vegucation of Robin – Stern calls her "the Paula Deen of vegetables.") But the illness was only the most recent battle she's had to fight.
She grew up lower-middle-class in Baltimore, in a house filled with enough secrets that it made perfect sense to spend her working life in a place where there are none. Her mother beat her badly enough to put her in bed for days when she was only four years old; her father molested her for several nightmarish months when she was 11. "I don't know that they made me feel unloved," she says, "except that love didn't mean anything. It just means, 'Oh, I look over at you and I feel affection. And now I'll do whatever the hell I want to do.' I have become very self-sufficient as a result. And what it actually did was keep people from being able to give to me."
She escaped to college, graduating with a nursing degree that she quickly put to use. An aggressive recruiter soon persuaded her to join the Air Force, and she spent a couple of miserable years as a military nurse. She had soured quickly on the work, and decided to change careers, enrolling in a Baltimore broadcasting school at age 27 on little more than a whim. "She grew up in a household where people were perhaps limited in their thinking," says Norris. "If you grew up in a house like that, who's going to say, 'Oh, yeah, when I grow up I'm going to be on the radio and talk to millions of people and make a lot of money'?"
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