Vieira is careful of how she treats the topic of female colleagues. "I think it’s the mission of every woman in the business to help the next woman," she says. "When I was on The View in particular, I always kept an eye out for the young one." And when I mention Katie Couric, whom Vieira replaced on Today, she has nothing but empathy for Couric’s struggles as anchor of the CBS Evening News. "I feel for her," she says. "She walked into a show that was in third place, and to suggest that you could turn it around … I don’t know that anybody could do that. It’s much more of a slow build. And not every job is perfect for every person. Katie is incredibly talented, and if the evening news doesn’t work out, I don’t think anybody could say she doesn’t have the goods."
The end of Couric’s tenure at Today coincided with Vieira’s contract at The View coming up for renewal. "That’s always a time for me to reflect and look at the landscape, both externally and internally," says Vieira, who also hosts the daytime series Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. She had turned down a job on CBS’s morning show five years earlier, but this time, when NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker came courting in extreme secrecy ("He picked me up in an SUV with tinted windows — the whole thing," she says), she realized she was ready for a bigger challenge. "I like the range," she says of Today. "It stretches me. The one thing I hadn’t done on a regular basis was politics, and that first half hour … that’s a big deal."
In 2008, her Today highlights included covering her first Olympics ("It was kind of nice to be a virgin again," she says) and then the Republican convention — although the latter, with its controversy over whether Sarah Palin should be juggling motherhood and a possible vice presidency, had Vieira flashing back to her post-60 Minutes days. "If it raises discussion, that’s fine, but who can judge what’s right for her?" she says. "None of us should be the figureheads for everybody else."
In terms of her own image management, Vieira has wrestled with how to age gracefully in a high-definition medium. She experimented with going gray when she was on The View; she even had a "gray cam" installed so the audience could check her progress. But it wasn’t happening fast enough, and "when I got the job at Millionaire they said, ‘We’re not into the gray. It’s part of the deal. We can’t have this half skunk.’ So I succumbed.
"In my heart I want to be who I am at whatever age I am. But it’s hard when you have a camera in your face every day," Vieira admits. "I’d be lying if I said there weren’t days when I say, ‘Oh god, I really am 54.’ But I made a commitment that I’m not going to do anything to my face. I know that I’d be the one that they’d really screw up."
One gets the feeling, though, that Vieira scarcely has time for concerns like these. "She’s so busy living her life that it wouldn’t pop into her head to worry about a wrinkle," her friend Priscilla Warner says. And Vieira seconds Warner’s observation: "I’m an in-the-moment person," she says with a laugh. "If I think too far ahead, my head starts to spin."
Amy Larocca is the author of The New York Look Book: A Gallery of Street Fashion.
Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2008/January 2009.