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Breaking Big: Why Maria Menounos Started AfterBuzz TV

Maria Menounos and Kevin Undergaro

Maria Menounos thought she was busy.

During her final semester at Boston’s Emerson College in the spring of 2000, Menounos took a full slate of classes, worked full-time as a reporter for Channel One News—often traveling for interviews during the week—and finished first runner-up for the title of Miss Massachusetts. And she still graduated.

That torrid five-month stretch would seem like a sunset drink on the beach compared to the ensuing 17 years, though. After moving to Los Angeles, the daughter of Greek immigrants was quickly hired by Entertainment Weekly as a correspondent, then came acting, both television and movies, followed by Access Hollywood and even professional wrestling. More weeks than not involved seven days of 18 or more hours.

“I tried it all, a lot of it all, too,” Menounos says. “I worked toxic situations, I became used to this threshold.”

Her workaholic nature stems from her childhood in Medford, Massachusetts, cleaning nightclubs with her parents and learning the work ethic, the mindset of pushing your limits every day. “We worked 365 days a year,” she says. “We’d be there Christmas morning, knee high in trash. That immigrant mentality… my parents had limitless energy, so the groundwork for who I became was set early.

Maria Menounos“My life for so long was that Rocky Balboa quote, ‘It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.’ Luckily, God sent me a parachute.”

The parachute came in rather unexpected form: a brain tumor. On her 39th birthday in June 2017, she underwent an eight-hour surgery to remove the tumor. During the same stage, her mother Litsa was battling Stage 4 brain cancer of her own. Yet when Menounos first received her diagnosis, instead of feeling like her world was collapsing, she actually started laughing, later saying, “It was so surreal and crazy and unbelievable.”

While initially worried about whether she could find work following the surgery, Menounos had something of an epiphany after awaking in the recovery room. The surgery was a success and there would be a long recovery process, but that was just fine, as she was no longer in a rush, no longer obsessed with the next gig.

“Since I was 13, this is all that I wanted, but like so many people around me, I was trapped in the dream,” she says. “I wasn’t evolving. The life wasn’t fulfilling me and I didn’t see that clearly. The moment I woke up, I felt like I don’t need all this, this couldn’t be what life was about.”

As has been the case for 20 years, Menounos was joined at the hip for her recovery and transformation by husband and business partner Keven Undergaro. The two met in Boston when Undergaro was shooting a film and Menounos was earning college credits as a production assistant.

“I fell in love instantly,” she says.

The two dated for 18-plus years before finally tying the knot on Fox’s New Year’s Eve with Steve Harvey, with the host performing the ceremony. They hope to start a family this year. Then again, they actually started another, much larger family, in the spring of 2011.

For generations, virtually every Hollywood success story seems to have started with a waitressing or bartending gig. But there’s another avenue to the “big break” now: becoming a host for AfterBuzz TV. The online broadcast network founded by Menounos and Undergaro has more than 20 million weekly downloads in more than 150 countries. It also employs 300 hosts, almost all of whom are getting their first shot in the entertainment industry.

“We don’t have our own children yet, so they are like our kids,” Menounos says. “We’ve had some of them living with us, we’ve bailed some out of jail, we’ve paid medical bills, and they just can’t receive this kind of real-life experience at seminars, or even at film school which is $150,000. It’s really become this wonderful movement, this creative haven for young artists.”

The concept for the network stems from one of the couples’ longtime hobbies, watching their favorite television shows and then talking about them. This was around the time message boards and websites were becoming more and more popular as hubs for viewers. “I remember reading that 50 percent of people who watch a sporting event also watched or listened to the postgame show, whether it was radio or TV, and in terms of entertainment, what’s the difference?” Undergaro says. “We’d be playing poker and everyone at the table was talking about Lost or Breaking Bad. Yet, there was no place to intimately congregate and discuss.”

The first broadcasts came from a makeshift studio in the couple’s home. And from the humble beginnings, AfterBuzz now has its own production building featuring six state-of-the-art studios. There are dramatic plans to expand in the near future, too, with the company looking to add investors for the first time.

For Menounos, who is involved with more than a dozen charities including Take Action Hollywood, which she founded after a trip to South Africa, AfterBuzz TV is not only an entrepreneurial opportunity, it’s the ideal outlet for doing what she enjoys most. Helping others. If there’s a way to help, a way to offer her time and guidance, a way to make a difference, her answer is always going to be yes.


“The lesson I’ve learned these last few years is all that matters is who we help.”


Now, Menounos says, she is focusing on working smarter. Life has taken her to the brink and back these last few years, but she and her mother are both cancer-free, and with that perspective so fresh, there are no complaints.

“None of what we think matters really does—the money, the big house; I’ve been with people on their death beds, and none of them are wishing they worked more,” Menounos says. “It’s such a privilege to give back, to have an impact. I don’t forget where I came from, I never forget cleaning those clubs at 4 in the morning.

“The lesson I’ve learned these last few years is all that matters is who we help.”

 

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photos courtesy of Maria Menounos

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