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Katie Couric is America's... Adrenaline Junkie?!

In her latest career tweak, Katie Couric hosts a talk show and busts through yet another comfort zone

Melissa Balmain

For many talk-show hosts, a studio audience is an invitation to navel-gaze—to share every blip of the hosts’ weekends, love lives and moments with their adorable, talented offspring. But not for Katie Couric. “People want me to reveal things about myself in the course of the hour,” she acknowledges by phone, sitting in her dressing room on the set of her new show, Katie. “But even though I’m a major ham, I’m also a little hesitant about oversharing. I think that can be really off-putting. So I’ve had to be really balanced about revealing a little bit about me or my background that isn’t too much.”

While she has aired some personal issues during Katie’s first weeks—most notably a struggle with bulimia in her late teens and early 20s—she has done so with brevity that would baffle the likes of Kelly Ripa.

Her modesty is refreshing, but it’s also dialed a bit high, considering Couric is that rare celebrity whose story has plenty to teach the rest of us. Not only has she forged an enviable broadcasting career, with high-powered jobs at all three major TV networks, but she also has raised two daughters (who do, in fact, seem adorable and talented); survived the loss of her husband, a sister and her father with optimism seemingly intact; overcome that eating disorder; and weathered the sniping and scrutiny that have driven other celebrities to public, camera-smashing hissy fits.

How has Couric done it?

By many accounts—hers, friends’, colleagues’—the answer begins with Couric’s childhood in Arlington, Va. As she writes in her 2011 book The Best Advice I Ever Got, it was a Leave It to Beaver-style upbringing filled with track meets, cheerleading and piano lessons, plus the support of her parents and three siblings. And underpinning it were beliefs and values that, Couric and friends agree, guide her to this day:

 

Be brave.

It’s no coincidence that one of the first guests on Katie was Brené Brown, author of the book Daring Greatly. “When it comes to going for a job, a promotion or just about anything in life, I’m pretty convinced that the meek will not inherit the earth,” Couric writes in The Best Advice. She recommends finding a way to “stand out from the pack”—burning your résumé into a baseball bat when applying for a job with a baseball team, say, or choosing a personal “trademark,” à la chef Mario Batali’s orange clogs. “Whether you call it chutzpah, cojones… or one of my dad’s favorite words, moxie, it’s an essential ingredient for success.”

Even as a newly minted college grad, with her only professional experience a series of radio internships, Couric suffered no shortage of pluck. After cold calls and mailed résumés failed to land a TV job, Couric recounts in The Best Advice, she put on a blazer and turned up at the ABC News bureau in Washington, D.C. She phoned the operator from the waiting area and boldly asked to be connected to the executive producer of World News Tonight. After he answered, she parlayed a distant family connection into an invitation to come see him in the newsroom. The producer then led her to the office of the deputy bureau chief—and a few weeks later she was hired as a desk assistant by ABC.

Other gutsy moments have included Couric’s famously no-holds-barred interview with Sarah Palin in 2008, and in 1992, an impromptu 19 minutes with the first President Bush for Today. Couric had been finishing a White House interview with his wife, Barbara, when the president (who had declined Today’s request to speak with him) happened by. Couric promptly sprang into hard-news mode, grilling Bush on the Iran-Contra issue and other subjects despite his protests. “I think a lot of people would have been afraid to do that,” says weatherman Al Roker, who worked with Couric for 10 years on Today. The interview proved so compelling that executive producer Jeff Zucker aired the whole thing live, dropping planned segments of the show. “She was like a dog with a bone,” Roker says.

Such moments can give Couric the jitters—but within reason, she says, that’s a good thing. “Tony Bennett tells artists who come in to record a duet with him that if they weren’t a little nervous or afraid, it would mean they didn’t care,” she explains. “I have high standards, particularly for myself, and of course the possibility of not meeting them is scary. I just feel all your senses are heightened when you’ve got a case of the nerves—adrenaline, for me, makes me perform better.”

Nevertheless, nervous energy is just part of her secret.

 

Be prepared.

Former Girl Scout that she is, Couric believes that to make the most of opportunities—from spur-of-the-moment interviews to planned tête-à-têtes—she must do lots of homework. “She’s always very prepared to take advantage of what happens,” Roker says. “She was prepared for George Bush; she was prepared for Sarah Palin. She gives off this aura of being kind of scattered, ‘Aren’t I kind of wacky?’—but the fact is she’s very focused, very smart.”

At Katie, preparation means constant rounds of meetings, rehearsals, voice-overs, promo spots, and reading materials by and about her guests. It means doing a phone interview from her hair-and-makeup chair, flanked by stacks of newspapers, between a confab with her producers and a fitting for clothes to wear on the show. Small wonder that throughout Katie’s early weeks, she tended to sound a bit hoarse.

“She’s a very hard worker, no nonsense—she’s boom-boom-boom,” says fashion designer Carmen Marc Valvo, who has collaborated with Couric on cancer-awareness events. He has seen her among colleagues doing “a thousand things at once,” firm but smiling, not wasting a moment on second guesses. Case in point: When Couric chooses some of his dresses for future events. “She’ll say, ‘This is the White House dinner; this is the Met gala; this is the wedding in Virginia.’… She doesn’t have a lot of time on her hands.”

As you might expect, all that boom-boom-boom demands good fuel and a strong body. Fortunately, as Couric told the Associated Press in September, a therapist helped end her bulimic binge-purge cycle three decades ago. She has “learned how to have a much healthier relationship with food, and how to enjoy my life without obsessing about food.” Colleagues say Couric favors wholesome meals—tomato sandwiches, veggies from her garden. And she’s big on spinning classes, in which gym-goers pedal furiously on stationary bicycles. “It’s one of those exercise routines where you can’t kind of stop and say, ‘I’m tired,’ ” she told actress and social activist Marlo Thomas during a video chat.

 

Try something new.

After a career like Couric’s, many people would be tired. And if they had her kind of money (she made $15 million a year at CBS), they understandably might retire to a sunny island, tomato sandwich in hand.

Couric, naturally, is having none of that. Launching Katie in September, at age 55, was her latest in a string of leaps into the relative unknown—and her latest reason for being seen, in media circles, as a wiz at reinventing herself.

“I think I get more credit for reinvention than I really deserve,” Couric demurs. She has spent her whole working life in journalism, after all. “It’s not as if I was a teacher and one day I became a pharmaceuticals account executive and the next day an artist.” She has consistently chosen work that suits her “skill set” and fits in her “wheelhouse.”

Of course, that wheelhouse is big enough to steer an ocean liner. After her first desk-assistant job, Couric became a reporter in Washington and Miami, an editor at CNN, and a deputy Pentagon correspondent. She spent 15 years as (roll cliché) “America’s sweetheart” on NBC’s Today. She worked nearly five years at CBS, serving as the country’s first woman to anchor an evening news show, solo, as well as a correspondent for 60 Minutes—then left to develop Katie and become a special correspondent for ABC News. In October she debuted as a columnist for Woman’s Day magazine. Along the way, Couric has tweeted, blogged, Facebooked and webcast her way into our laptops and cellphones—all technologies she embraced before many of her TV counterparts.

“I think I’ve always tended to be a pretty forward-thinking person,” Couric says. Independent-thinking, too. While anchoring the news at CBS, she helped pioneer changes to the program—more interaction with correspondents and commentary from outsiders, for example. Though some were ultimately scrapped by the network, it seems clear that they helped prepare Couric to run a show of her own. “One of the reasons why doing this talk show appealed to me was… there were no rules,” she says. “My least favorite expression is ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it here.’ [At Katie] we can do it the way we think best, not because it’s steeped in tradition.”

Finding her own way is demanding, and Couric likes that. “Working is my definition of ‘enjoying life,’ ” she writes in her first Woman’s Day column. “Most of the time, I feel like a 27-year-old in a 55-year-old’s body.” Leaving your comfort zone is scary, she writes, but trying something new “gives you the chance to surprise yourself and to find out what you’re made of.”

How has Couric surprised herself since starting Katie?

“I’ve learned that I have more stamina than I thought I would at this age!” Couric says. “And that I really, truly enjoy people. I had to travel a lot and talk about our goals in doing this show and though I sometimes dreaded it, I always ended up having so much fun. I really have learned you get from the world what you give out. And I’ve learned that I still have a great deal of curiosity about people, issues and the world. I’ve also realized that no matter what you’re doing, you can still learn a lot from people around you—and although it might be easier, it’s just impossible for everyone to like you.”

 

Keep your chin up.

Couric has faced more than her share of detractors, especially as CBS anchor. Media critics, and even some colleagues, griped about everything from her paycheck there to her manner of delivering the news. Her predecessor Dan Rather claimed CBS had hired her to “dumb down [the Evening News], tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience.”

But Couric is too competitive to let naysayers have the last word, close associates say. “That kind of [criticism] makes her stronger and more determined,” says Katie’s co-executive producer Michael Bass, who has worked with Couric on and off for two decades. “She went out and worked her butt off and did a much better show” at CBS, helping the network win prestigious journalism awards in the process. (Couric’s competitive streak could be seen more recently during a Katie segment in which she played pingpong against actress Susan Sarandon, Bass says. “Susan was probably being very nice to Katie, but Katie was very determined.”)

Her sense of humor helps, too. Colleagues agree that Couric’s wit keeps everyone’s spirits up—as does her penchant for pranks. On the Today set, Roker recalls, she was always ready if a co-worker forgot to log off a computer. “Katie would come in and send off wacky messages to the head of NBC news under your login—‘I’m really in the mood for brownies today!’ ” he says.

More than once, Couric has countered media complaints about her lack of gravitas by saying that “gravitas” is a “Latin word for ‘testicles.’ ” Not that she always laughs off insults, she admits. Some of the negative press “has hurt—but I think I’m comforted by the fact that most people who have achieved something in this world have faced the same things. Everybody gets their time in a barrel.… It’s in the fine print of being a successful person.”

Speaking of print, Couric has decided she has better things to do than sit around reading nasty comments about her. “I try to spend my life doing constructive things. It’s a great way to live. I highly recommend it.”

Does she mean that as a rebuke to her detractors?

“You can read between the lines,” Couric says with a chuckle.

 

Be generous.

One of Couric’s favorite constructive things is her charity work. Since her husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer in 1998 at age 42, she has thrown herself into educating people about colorectal cancer and helped raise millions of dollars toward finding a cure. (Her famous on-air colonoscopy is credited with boosting colon screenings 20 percent.) She also has promoted awareness and treatment of pancreatic cancer, which killed her sister Emily in 2001; Parkinson’s disease, which led to her father’s death last year; and other illnesses including breast cancer.

Couric’s volunteering doesn’t just help others, she says. “It’s made a world of difference to me,” restoring her sense of purpose and optimism when life seemed bleakest. “In fact, when I meet other widows or people who’ve experienced the loss of somebody, I often say, ‘Do something. Organize something—a walk in your neighborhood. If you have kids, have a bake sale or raise money for cancer research or ALS or whatever.’ ” Her activism doesn’t keep her from missing Monahan, says Couric, who still thinks about her husband “all the time” and imagines how it would have been to raise their daughters together. But helping others does provide a healthy sense of partial control, she says. Plus, Couric believes a generous life is far more fulfilling and meaningful than a “self-focused” one. “You don’t have to try to cure cancer,” she says. “It could be helping a friend or making sure someone you love is OK if they’ve had an operation. There are big and small ways that your heart can be open to other people.”

Indeed, Couric’s colleagues say, her kindness comes in all sizes. If you work with her and a loved one is sick, she’ll hook you up with the right doctor. If you’re sad, she’ll lend an ear. If you’re getting back on your feet after an illness, she’ll accompany you to your first spinning class, cheering you all the way.

Though Couric may not be thinking of business with such gestures, they’re a professional boon nonetheless.

“You don’t engender loyalty like she has by shutting yourself off,” Roker says. “She makes herself available. She gives of herself; she makes sure people get their due.”

 

Stay connected, grateful and open to joy.

Couric has often found herself on the receiving end of generosity as well, she says—especially after losing her husband, sister and father.

“I always ask my friends for help,” Couric says. “I talk to them a lot about everything. When my dad died, I talked a lot to my friend Wendy, who had lost her mom. My sister Kiki and I talked all the time [about] how to help my mom, who is now living without my dad after being married for 67 years.... I have an incredible support system. I hope it’s because I’m a good friend and that’s why I have so many friends who are good to me. I think just having a safe place to unload, a grace period after a tough time personally and professionally, is what’s gotten me through.”

Like many who have suffered big losses, Couric finds herself with a sunnier perspective on what she still has. “I think in everyone’s life a little rain must fall,” she says, “and I think it has made me appreciate when things are good, and the positive things in my life.”

First among the positives: her surviving loved ones. No matter how busy Couric has been over the years, say friends and associates, she has always made time for those closest to her. When her daughters were little and she worked at Today, Roker says, she went to all their games and school assemblies. “You know how Michelle Obama says her main job is being Mom in Chief?” he says. “Katie’s was kind of like Mom Anchor in Chief.” These days, despite her packed schedule, Couric finds time to share meals with her girls or, say, drive her older daughter to college; while traveling for Katie, she has made side trips to visit her mother in Virginia. She goes to museums, lunches with friends, sees plays.

 “If anything, Jay’s death and my sister’s death made me realize that, you know, we have to enjoy ourselves while we can,” Couric says—then begins racking her brain. The night before her interview with SUCCESS, she had been reading a book by a friend that began with a motto in Latin. Couric immediately googled it to find out what it meant. “It was something like, ‘When we live, we should really live.’ It sounds so cheesy and weird, but I thought, ‘That’s a good motto for life.’ ” 

 

In this video from Katie, Katie Couric opens up about her next chapter as daytime talk show host, the loss of her husband Jay and raising her two daughters as a single mom.

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