Meredith Vieira was sick of talking about Meredith Vieira.
She was heading off the other day to do what she said felt like her “gazillionth interview” since she was named the new co-host ofNBC’s Today Show. “I can’t answer one more question about myself,” she was thinking. “I am so over myself.”
Then she got a call telling her that a friend’s son had died. “It shocked me back into reality,” Vieira says.
The boy had died of something called shallow water blackout, and his death could have been avoided if he had more information about the little known syndrome. At the funeral, the grief stricken mother approached Vieira and asked, “How do I get the word out?”
“It hit me at that moment, it wasn’t that I have this position, it’s what I do with this position,” Vieirasays. “It made me realize that I have the power to help people.”
Vieira says she’s planning to do a segment on shallow water blackout. “I can provide information so that no other parent has to go through this,” she says. And that, Vieira has concluded, is really what her new job is about. “You rise to a bizarre celebrity status,” she says. But it’s a mistake, she knows, to get caught up in all that. “If you think it’s about you – it’s not.”
Since Vieira was named to replace Katie Couric as the new co-host of NBC’s long running and top-rated morning show in April, the 52-year-old newswoman has been center stage, but she’s hardly a stranger to the spotlight. She has a hard-news background, including a gig as a correspondent for CBS’s 60 Minutes, but fans of ABC’s talk show “The View” know her goofy, self-deprecating, fun-loving side: the time she wore fake hair in her armpits, the show where she planted a full-on smooch on co-host Joy Behar, or her often-repeated on-air confession that she doesn’t wear panties – as long as she’s wearing panty hose.
When Vieira begins the gig on September 13, the “Today” show’s nearly six million viewers will see both her hard-news woman and wacky side. “These are people who are getting up and it’s the first news of the day for most of them,” she says. “There are days that will be very difficult and [viewers] are looking to you to help them navigate through those difficult times. There are days when they might be a little low and you have something fun to share.”
In the coming weeks, she’ll do a segment taking her second son, Gabe – who wants to be a sportscaster — golfing with Matt Lauer. She’ll also go restaurant hopping around Manhattan with Al Roker, and go rock climbing with Ann Curry. “That Ann is adventurous!” she says. “She wanted to go sky diving!”
And what challenges does she have in store for her new co-workers? “I’m going to play Millionaire with them,” she chortles, referring to her gig as host of the syndicated game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” “Then we’ll see how smart these smart alecks really are!”
Mum on the hoursWhat about those hours? What about that often-discussed, much-dreaded 4 a.m. wake-up? Vieira got some sage advice on that point from Tom Brokaw. Shortly after she was named to the post, the NBC newsman called Vieira to congratulate her. “He told me this wonderful story about how when he first stared working on the “Today” show and made a mention of the hours on the air and that it was sort of a grueling schedule to get up at 4 or whenever he got up,” says Vieira. “He got a letter from a woman who worked in a factory and had worse hours than his. She sort of scolded him in a nice way. She said, ‘You’re so lucky to have the job you have I would love it if my job, which has similar hours, was nearly as exciting as yours.’ He said after that he kept his mouth shut.”
Vieira says she’ll take advantage of those early hours to spend more time with her family. “My son [Ben] is captain of the soccer team and I am going to every single game,” she says emphatically. “And I’m going to be cooking meals they don’t want to eat because I’m so bad at cooking meals.”
It’s Vieira’s devotion to her family that almost derailed her fast-track career 15 years ago. She landed the token female slot at CBS’s testosterone-charged “60 Minutes” in 1989, but negotiated to work only part time so she could be with baby Ben. She became pregnant again and then, on doctor’s orders, told her bosses that she couldn’t fly. Forced to choose between her career and family, Vieira chose family, and she left the show in 1991. That made her a pariah to some working moms, a hero to others.
But her children, Ben, now 17, Gabe, 15, and daughter Lily, 13, are still her top priority, and her deal with “Today” stipulated that there’d be limited travel — although she’s giddy about the prospects of covering the Olympics, with her family in tow.
Her husband, news producer Richard Cohen, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was still in his 20s, before he and Vieira were married. They recently celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary, but she’s the first to admit that it hasn’t always been easy. “I think any adversity, any struggle, strengthens you, because you have to become stronger,” she says. Cohen — who also battled and beat cancer and whose illness has made him legally blind – wrote about it allin his brutally honest yet deeply moving memoir, “Blindsided.”
Vieira actively fundraises on behalf of MS, and that may be one of the things that keeps her in touch with reality. Her father was a doctor and her mother a homemaker, and she credits her parents, both first-generation Portuguese-American immigrants, with giving her values. Her three older brothers, she says, gave her a tom-boyish, tough-cookie take on life. “They keep my feet on the ground,” she laughs. “Even when I try to float away.”
Vieira isn’t the sort of person to see the glass as half empty. “My cup is more than half full,” she says, “It’s flowing over.” And if she forgets that, her children are quick to remind her. “They are wise,” she says. “In the moments when I complain, they tell me to be quiet. They tell me I’m the luckiest person in the world and, by extension, so are they.” She pauses. “They say, ‘Mom, enjoy this. And don’t forget, we want tickets to SNL’.”