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."

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.

Over the years, Cohen’s health has deteriorated; he is nearly blind and has suffered two bouts of colon cancer. It keeps their family life off-center, but neither he nor Vieira expects — or wants — special sympathy. In 2004, in a brutally honest book entitled Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness, a Reluctant Memoir, Cohen documented the toll disease has taken on his family; he also blasted the media’s tendency to paint the couple as "Meredith the Martyr and Richard the Wretched." Vieira agrees that that picture is far from the truth. "When you’re on the outside looking in," she says, "things seem more dramatic. I’ve been around enough people with illness to know that we’re lucky and that to complain is pointless." Instead, Behar notes, "They handle adversity with humor. The main thing to understand about that couple is that they’re not morbid."

"We’ve had times where Richard can’t walk, and we’ll just sit on the floor and laugh, because what are you going to do?" Vieira says. "It diminishes him when a big deal is made about me [being a martyr], and it diminishes me too. That’s not how I see myself, it’s not how I see him, and it’s not how he sees me. And besides," she adds with a laugh, "he’s way too big a jerk for me to have tremendous sympathy."

Her signature sarcasm aside, Vieira’s family, and the life they share in their six-bedroom house in Westchester County, New York, are never far from her mind. "Meredith will be looking at her cell phone saying, ‘I’m beside myself,’" Lauer says. "‘Gabe is driving to the Cape and I haven’t heard from him in 15 minutes.’ She’s a worrier, but in a good way." Her concerns this summer morning are Lily’s mononucleosis, which has kept her home from camp, and the shocking number of socks the boys leave on the floor. "Slobs!" Vieira says, laughing. "I mean, hello!?"

When she says that Lily’s mono is her daughter’s first major roadblock, I wonder if Cohen’s illness might have had that dubious distinction.

"That’s so incorporated into my life that I don’t even think of it as adversity," Vieira says. "It’s just our life."

On Katie Couric, Feminism, and "The View"

In 1991, Vieira famously quit her job as a 60 Minutes correspondent because she wasn’t allowed to continue the lighter schedule she’d negotiated when Ben was an infant. Although she says the parting wasn’t acrimonious, Cohen has described the episode as impossibly tense, and Vieira admits it was hurtful. "Don [Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes] was saying, ‘What did she ever do, anyhow?’" she recalls. "Nobody had been critical of my work, and I won an Emmy, so I felt like I was delivering. But it was a schmoozy place, and I like to do my work and go home." When she decided to quit, she says, "I slept so well that night."

Some feminists, however, found her decision more of a nightmare. "At a party I was cornered by a woman who said, ‘You cannot do this! You’re going to set us back so far!’ And I thought, I’m not the standard-bearer here; I’ve got a life to live. For me the message is, get in touch with who you are, with what you want, and try to shape everything else around that."

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.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:11

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