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

A Typical Morning at the "Today" Show

It’s a typical morning at Today, which means that Meredith Vieira, who is wearing a chocolate brown top with floppy sleeves, beige trousers, and a killer pair of heels, is scheduled to break the news to several million Americans about a spike in gas prices, interview the attorney for a man convicted of murdering his wife and infant daughter, and chat with two giggling couples who took daily-sex pledges. She’ll also move back and forth between the chilly studio and humid Rockefeller Plaza, where hordes of tourists will clamor for a quick squeeze of her hand or, in some cases, a great big bear hug. Some of these fans are ill — I HAVE STAGE FOUR CANCER reads the sign clutched by a woman in a large head scarf; there are a number of wheelchairs — and they lunge for Vieira and the other Today hosts as if they had healing powers. And the hosts comply, leaning in during commercial breaks to hear stories, shake hands, offer some kind of comfort — a comfort that is, perhaps, born largely of the performers’ familiarity: Every weekday morning, at seven a.m., there they are. "Meredith! Meredith!" It’s as if everyone in the crowd were thrilled to see an old friend.

It’s hard to say what, exactly, makes the Vieira touch so effective. All hosts of morning shows benefit from consistent contact with the audience, but in 2008, Today, which has six million viewers daily, regularly beat out its closest competitor, the Diane Sawyer-helmed Good Morning America, by more than a million viewers on average. This past summer, during the Olympics, that figure swelled to 2.8 million. Vieira’s coanchor, Matt Lauer, is key to the show’s success, but there is also the widespread perception that after two years at Today, Vieira, 54, has hit her stride with the program’s blend of news, lifestyle features, and audience rapport.

Vieira radiates approachability. If you were to meet her at, say, your book club or your kid’s school play, you would peg her for a soccer mom. "The thing about Meredith," Lauer says, "is that she’s normal. There are people who are natural on TV, great performers, and then there are great broadcasters and journalists. It’s rare that you get all of those things and are normal." Her longtime friend Priscilla Warner says that watching Today is like spending two hours with her pal, because Vieira is so much herself in front of the camera. (Warner also tells a story about taking a school trip to Paris with Vieira when they were 15: "Meredith was the only one who was still nice to me when she got a boyfriend.")

Despite her normalcy, warmth, and friendliness, however, Vieira is capable of prodding and cajoling world leaders as well as quadruple A-list film stars to go beyond their usual scripts. She never lets her subject off the hook. "I’m sorry," she’ll say, "but you haven’t really answered the question." Joy Behar, who shared The View‘s coffee klatsch set with her for nine years, says that Vieira "doesn’t take herself seriously, but she takes her job seriously. She’s not someone who breezes in."

And then there is the offbeat chemistry between Vieira and Lauer — like an affectionate, sometimes sarcastic sibling rivalry. "Another story about Meredith?" Lauer says with an exaggerated sigh upon seeing me, with my notebook and tape recorder. "Haven’t there been enough?" But the affection and the respect are genuine. "I talk to her more off the air about the show than I talked to Katie [Couric]," Lauer tells me later. "I think that really helps. We both feel we’re invested in it."

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