We all know that sometimes TV personalities are different in real life than they appear on television, but that’s not the case with TV journalist Meredith Vieira. In a recent phone interview with JUF News, she acted exactly as she did when she co-anchored the Today show for five years—personable, sharp, self-deprecating, and easy to laugh. In advance of her upcoming speaking engagement for JUF’s Women’s Division, I spoke with the famous reporter over the phone, who expresses a kinship with the Jewish community. Married to Jewish journalist Richard Cohen for 26 years, Vieira, who is Catholic, knows a lot about Judaism and celebrates the Jewish holidays with her husband and three grown kids.
Until last summer, Vieira co-anchored NBC News’ Today show for five years. Currently, she serves as a special correspondent for NBC News and hosts the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Previously, she co-hosted ABC’s The View for nine years. Vieira spent a decade at CBS News, where she worked as a correspondent on the newsmagazines 60 Minutes and West 57th. She joined CBS News a reporter in the Chicago Bureau in 1982, but first honed her skills as a cub reporter at local TV affiliates around the country.
She returned to Chicago—where two of her kids go to college—on Thursday, May 10, to speak at the JUF Women’s Division’s 2012 Spring Event called “Seeds of Hope,” held at the Hilton Chicago.
JUF News: You recently announced that you’re hosting the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in London with the Today show. Are you excited for that opportunity?
Meredith Vieira: I’m going to be hosting the opening ceremonies with Bob Costas and Matt [Lauer], which is very exciting. And it’s being produced by Danny Boyle, who directed Slum Dog Millionaire…From the time I was little, we watched every Olympics as a family. I would pick my sport—it was always gymnastics—and I would become one of the performers and presume I was getting a gold medal…There’s something about the energy during the Olympics and seeing the athletes who have dedicated their lives. They’re so impressive and often they have incredible personal stories.
What do you and don’t you miss about hosting Today?
I miss [hosting] the 7-9 o’clock period, I miss the doing of the job, and my friends. I do not miss the time. Everybody will say that. I found it extremely difficult to work those hours. I’m a night person and I never got my clock to work properly. I got up at 2:30 a.m. but I didn’t go to bed until 11. The irony was once every two months we’d do a piece with an expert about the health risks attributed to sleep deprivation. I was sitting there like ‘hello, we are sleep deprived. Why aren’t we learning anything from this?’
Who was your favorite interview in your long career so far?
It goes back a long way to a boy named Anthony who I met doing a story [on hunger] in Chicago years ago when I was at CBS News. I was interviewing [kids] about a school lunch program that was going to be canceled. I said I would buy them pizza and they invited their friend Anthony to come…This beautiful little boy with a dirty face and dirty clothes opened the door for me to the pizza parlor… He lived in the projects. I went back to New York and I said I wanted to profile this boy…He was an amazing kid. The father had left the mother and the mother was an alcoholic. But he was a survivor… He had this will to live and get out of the situation. When we left him, I grew so attached to him, I told him to call CBS collect and I would talk to him…He ended up being the first kid in his family to graduate from high school and he went on to work in city government. I know you’re not supposed to get involved in people’s lives [as journalists] but he had such an impact on me. When I would feel upset about this or that, I would think of Anthony and what his life was like…and how he handled [his life] with such bravery.
You’ve been public about your husband Richard’s battle with Multiple Sclerosis. How is he feeling these days?
He’s doing fantastic. Health wise, he’s holding his own. He just wrote a book—a history of our family pets. Each pet is a bigger disaster than the one before. It’s called I Want to Kill the Dog, and it’s very funny. It’s coming out in the fall.
How has coping with your husband’s illness changed your perspective on life?
It’s sobering because you realize how precious life is. Any time you have a chronic illness, it’s part of who you are and it becomes a family disease. You appreciate the moments where your health is strong…We’re a family that really is based in humor and that comes from Richard. That’s the way we’ve dealt w a lot of adversity.
How did the two of you meet?
I was working in the Midwest bureau for CBS News back in 1983. It’s called the “crash and burn” bureau, which means they’re constantly sending you out on stories that have to air that night…Richard came through the newsroom. He was a producer with CBS…He took one look at me [tired from reporting on a story] and made some snide comment. I truly thought ‘A—this is a jerk and B—I’m going to marry this guy’…He took me for a walk down to the Staten Island ferry, which I realized was a very cheap date. We got married in 1986.
What role does Richard being Jewish play in your family’s life?
He’s more of a cultural Jew…. [and] we observe the holidays. It doesn’t define the kids necessarily but they understand it from a cultural point of view…I love Passover. It’s my favorite outside of Thanksgiving. I love it—I love the reading, I love Manischewitz. Give me my gefilte fish and Manischewitz and I’m happy.
Did you face challenges as an interfaith family?
No, not really…I went to a Quaker school growing up, but I was raised Catholic. I’ve always embraced the notion of exploring all different religions—they all have something positive to add to your life.
With Mother’s Day approaching, and you preparing to speak for JUF’s Women’s Division, what advice do you have to women trying to juggle a career and family?
You have to accept the fact that you’re going to drop the ball—or one of the balls—occasionally and that’s okay. Women are so tough on themselves and they think everything has to be perfect and it doesn’t have to be. You can go and buy the store-bought cake. You don’t have to bake it yourself. You can lean on friends. You can accept the fact that you’re not super human and you should accept that fact. Again, I always go back to humor—keep a perspective, don’t take yourself so seriously, and try to face life with a smile as much as you can.