Oprah made it okay. Regis and Kathie Lee made it kitschy. But only Rosie made it cool to watch daytime TV again.

With her smart upbeat chatter, Rosie O’Donnell brought a sweet scent to a junk-heap genre. And during a year when nice was in and cranky was out (just ask Bob Dole), Rosie was the nicest of them all. She gushed unabashedly with genuine, infectious, and identifiable enthusiasm over celebrities (”I still have to pinch myself to know that I actually spoke to Elton John,” she says), while winking the other way with a self-mocking sense of irony that undercut any possible unctuousness.

She not only became Tom Cruise’s No. 1 fan; she proudly proclaimed herself his stalker until he agreed to appear on the show. Cruise, like everyone else, gets the joke. ”I love Rosie,” he says. ”If I hadn’t met Nicole…” Even stars who haven’t yet sat with her are fans: ”Rosie makes you feel good,” raves John Travolta. ”She’s like everybody’s sister.”

At once sunny and street-smart, she’s appropriately ambivalent about being dubbed the Queen of Nice. ”In a way, it’s become a big detriment to me, because if I say anything mildly scathing, it’s ‘She’s not nice, she’s nasty. She’s the Queen of Mean!”’

We’ll reserve that title for whichever trash-talk host is in court this week. ”I never had any interest in doing that kind of a show,” says O’Donnell, slouching in a chair in her Rockefeller Center office, which is cluttered with playthings for her 17-month-old son, Parker. ”I have limited tolerance for ignorance, so if somebody told me they slept with their sister’s husband, I’d say, ‘You’re an idiot.”’

In her typically blunt fashion, the 34-year-old ex-stand-up claims her show is merely copying the celebrity-driven formula that kept Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin on the air for decades. Yet since those two hung up their mikes in the ’80s, others have tried — and failed — to revive the format (whither Wil Shriner?). ”When I first sent the idea out to studios, everyone was reluctant to get involved,” O’Donnell recalls. ”The line we kept getting was ‘Variety is dead.”’

If it was, Rosie revived it: The Rosie O’Donnell Show premiered in June with the best numbers for any new daily talk show since Oprah, and it now consistently places in the top 20 among all syndicated shows. The inescapable conclusion: People like her.

She is not, however, too nice to butt heads with conventional wisdom; for example, she took a break from a thriving movie career to star in Grease! on Broadway in 1994. ”I stopped taking advice back when I was a VJ,” she says, referring to her days on VH1. ”Everyone told me not to do it, and I did it anyway. There’s no map to get to success in this industry — you have to take a knife and hack your way through the jungle.”

No showbiz success comes without some turmoil, and Rosie has been no exception. Executive producer Daniel Kellison (a Late Show With David Letterman vet) recently departed, and O’Donnell has jettisoned her sometimes-mediocre scripted monologues in favor of Regisesque stream-of-consciousness ramblings. ”When we had the rehearsal shows, I stood and tried to deliver a monologue like Johnny Carson did, and it just is not my style,” she says. ”I don’t really tell jokes. I tell stories.” But like Johnny (and unlike Jay and Dave), she makes it all look effortless.