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12:52 pm
Thu June 12, 2014

How Dreaming Big Led One TV Star To His Big Break

Originally published on Thu June 12, 2014 2:31 pm

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. You might have heard of television personality, Cesar Millan. You might know him as the Dog Whisperer or from his hit TV show "Cesar 911," which airs on Nat Geo Wild. But what you might not know is that before the TV fame, the grooming stores, the dog psychology center, he was a homeless, undocumented immigrant from Mexico with a dream. Our friends at All Things Considered capture the story of how his career took off as part of their series called My Big Break.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CESAR MILLAN: My name is Cesar Millan, and I train people and rehabilitate dogs. I was born and raised on a farm - Mexico, in Sinaloa. "Lassie," "Rin Tin Tin" were the shows in my era...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LASSIE")

JON PROVOST: (As Timmy Martin) Lassie...

MILLAN: ...And I was fascinated about that, fascinated how Timmy would tell, you know, Lassie - go get Uncle Whatever and go to the fire department and tell them that I need help. I said, well, one day when I grow up, I'm going to go to America. I'm going to go to Disneyland or Hollywood 'cause that's where Lassie and Rin Tin Tin live.

I knew I loved the idea of working with animals - something about it. And when I was 13 years old, I told my mom, mom, you think I could be the best dog trainer in the world? And she said, you can do whatever you want. So I waited eight years later, 21, and that's when I went back to my mother and say, I'm leaving. Where you going? I'm going to America.

So I went to Tijuana and pretty much it took me two weeks to cross the border. And I came here illegally. After that I was homeless in the streets of San Diego and my home was under a freeway. One day I went to a grooming salon because I'm a groomer myself. By then I learned a sentence - do you have application for work? That was my first sentence in English.

One day I enter into this grooming salon and two Caucasian ladies were there, older ladies, and I said, do you have application for work? And they start talking to me. I was in shock and, oh my god, I wasn't prepared for all of this. The good thing was that a cocker spaniel was in the back and this cocker spaniel was very aggressive towards them. The give me clippers and I went and grabbed the dog and started grooming him. And they were in shock, because the dog didn't try to bite me, because I'm not afraid. You know, so I just come in calmly, I understand how he feels, gain the trust. That day I make $60.

I moved to Inglewood, California and then I start going around the neighborhood and I started walking dogs. And I started walking dogs off leash. I didn't know it was illegal to walk dogs in America off leash in the land of the free, right? Especially where dogs have birthday parties. You know dogs can marry here you know what I mean?

And that's how people started calling me the Mexican guy who can walk a pack of dogs. I didn't have business cards so my business card was the referral. You know, I was getting all these people, all because I was walking dogs off leash.

The LA Times followed me for three days. The last question she asked me was, so you had a great thing going on - what would you like to do next? And without hesitation I said, I would like to have a TV show. The newspaper came on a Sunday. By Monday there was a line of producers outside, asking what was this show will be about. And that's how "Dog Whisperer" was born.

MARTIN: That was television personality Cesar Millan. You can find his show "Cesar 911" on Nat Geo Wild. And our colleagues at All Things Considered want to hear about your big break or about the stories that you've been hearing that inspire you. Send them an email at mybigbreak@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.