Morning Becomes Meredith Vieira

The "Today Show’ host on aging gracefully, dealing with illness, and why she wouldn’t interview Paris Hilton.

By Amy Larocca
Meredith Vieira on MORE’s December 2008/January 2009 cover
Photograph: Photo by: Matthew Rolston

Vieira’s biggest hurdle on the job may well be the hours: To catch up on the news and get to work on time, she regularly sets her alarm for three a.m. But she’s going against her own grain. "I’ll never be an early morning person; I’m a night person," Vieira says, settling into a big barber’s chair in her modest dressing room after the show. Behind her is a rack of clothes assembled by a stylist and divided by days of the week. In the room’s harsh light, a touch of weariness is apparent around the edges of her big green eyes. "I thought the schedule would beat staying up late out of me, but I’m stronger than the schedule! I probably have a bit of low-grade exhaustion all the time. It’s a funny thing about this show, though — the energy takes over."

Why She Passed on the Paris Hilton Interview

She has definite opinions about what’s right, what’s wrong, and where to draw the line. Nine months after Vieira arrived at Today, Paris Hilton was fresh out of prison and shopping her story to the major networks. "I did not feel good about doing the interview," Vieira recalls. "I just said, ‘I don’t think this is right, this is all about ratings.’ There was this whole thing about whether we were going to give her a special, and all this minutiae and craziness."

She was knee-deep in coat hangers at the Container Store when Steve Capus, the head of NBC’s news division, called. "I went outside and my heart was pounding and I said, ‘We look bad. We’re better than this.’ We talked and he said, ‘I agree. Let’s not do this.’ And I said, ‘Yes! I love you!’" Vieira takes a sip of coffee and settles back in the chair. "It’s good to have your own kind of journalistic compass." Hilton, by the way, wound up on Larry King Live spewing inanities about reading the Bible in prison, and even King said afterward that he would have liked "more introspection."

How Her Family Copes with Illness

Vieira grew up with three older brothers in East Providence, Rhode Island, and the friends she made in that town are still her closest and dearest. "There are about eight or nine of us, and that’s my core group," she says. "I don’t have celebrity friends." She seemed to have no designs on being famous; at Tufts University, she says, "I was floundering. I started as a math major, then theater, astronomy, French, and finally English, because I had to pick something and I’ve always loved reading and writing." A broadcast journalism course taken pass-fail during the second semester of her senior year, though, proved more useful. "I had a sort of knack for connecting with people," Vieira says.

She also had an excellent voice, deep and calming, and it earned her a Boston radio internship after graduation. "I had to be in there at four in the morning, and I worked extremely hard," she says. "That’s what I always say to the interns here: It’s not a free ride. You’re not entitled to the job; you need to show how much you want it. It’s the duck theory: You’re serene on top, but those legs underneath the water are paddling away." Vieira’s ferocious paddling — in combination with her good looks — pulled her from radio to television. "I had a lot of opportunities back then because of my gender," she says. "Beyond a doubt, it helped me, and I was told that."

She landed eventually at the CBS News Chicago bureau, where in 1982 she met a producer named Richard Cohen. On their second date, he told her that he’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had no idea what his future held. Vieira shrugged and proceeded to fall madly in love. They married in 1986, and after a series of miscarriages, Vieira had three children, Ben, now 19; Gabe, 17; and Lily, 15.

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