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Clearly, these are women well accustomed to sitting around and chatting. After a long morning of live broadcasting and a photo shoot, Barbara Walters, Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, Sherri Shepherd, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the five hosts of ABC's The View, are finally getting a break. They slouch into the shabby chic furniture at a Manhattan photo studio, all except the indefatigable Walters, who, perched in a Queen Anne armchair, doesn't seem to have a "slouch" gene in her. Right now, though, the hot topic they're debating isn't Sarah Palin or transgender kids -- all recent heated discussions. Instead, they are talking about the compelling cocktail of their personalities that has made The View more popular than ever, even as it enters its 13th year on the air.
"We didn't think it would last one year," says Walters, who created the show in 1996. In the beginning there was pressure to make the show appealing to a younger audience, but that wasn't giving the viewers enough credit. As Behar, 66, points out, "A 23-year-old isn't going to say, 'I can only identify with someone who's 23.' She can identify with me, or Barbara, or any of us as long as she cares about the subjects we discuss." Not only has the show lasted -- and thrived -- but Walters has claimed the last laugh: The show's average audience is a whopping 4.1 million viewers, proof that women are looking for a lot more than chitty-chat fluff and sticky-bun bake-offs.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery -- or the best acknowledgment of cultural currency -- the show is clearly doing something right. Goldberg, 53, Shepherd, 42, and Hasselbeck, 32, appeared on HBO's Entourage, and Saturday Night Live sends up the show (with a skeweringly good Behar impersonation by Fred Armisen). And if anyone's looking for a catfight, they likely will not find it; yes, the women argue, but there isn't quite the venom there was during Rosie O'Donnell's tenure. We got the hosts to discuss their chemistry, their occasional foot-in-mouth moments, and how they've made having strong opinions -- staunchly expressed -- downright ladylike.
LHJ: Barbara, how carefully do you balance the chemistry of the group?
Barbara: The chemistry is the most important thing. We have been imitated again and again -- by men, by other programs -- and the thought is there should be one older person, one comedian, one black person, and one younger person, and that will make it work. And it doesn't. Our roles on the show have changed and I think we're better than ever because of this group: We're more political, funny, and still very smart and extremely relevant. We're not afraid to argue and certainly not afraid to disagree because the chemistry is so good.
LHJ: Has the audience grown because the topics have gotten hotter, from Barack Obama's election to Michael Jackson's death?
Barbara: I think so. Part of it is because we just came out of a political year. The amazing thing is, I never thought this show would last more than one year. Joy and I are the only survivors.
Joy: Elisabeth was on Survivor, but Barbara and I are the survivors.
LHJ: It seems as though you offer a unique forum because you represent a lot of different perspectives and you ask tough questions, but you don't vilify or lampoon any of the politicians.
Barbara: They aren't lampooned but they're not always happy.
Sherri: John McCain was not happy. I don't know if he and his wife thought we were going to bake cookies, but we asked some really tough questions. Cindy McCain said she felt that we weren't fair to him.
Elisabeth: Joy called him a liar.
Joy: I didn't call him a liar; I said his campaign ad was lying.
LHJ: Do guests expect that you'll go easy on them since the show is aimed at women?
Barbara: Not anymore, they don't. [Everyone laughs.] By the way, I don't think of us as a women's show. I was at the Michael Jackson memorial, and these male cops kept saying, "I watch your show every day!" A large number of our audience is men.
Elisabeth: Men watch The View to figure women out. My husband, Tim [Hasselbeck, former NFL quarterback], has played for two or three teams since I've been on the show, and every team he's been on, they all watch the show while they're icing their legs. They sit and watch and try to get what women are about.
LHJ: Women's opinions drive household opinions -- with respect to what brands to buy, what car to buy. Does that extend to women's opinions about people, and is that why politicians and celebrities show up on The View?
Sherri: It's different from someone going on Wolf Blitzer's show or something like that. Our show is not purely politics -- we get at a human side, we ask about families.
Elisabeth: And not only do viewers get a sense of what our guests are doing professionally and what's new with their families but also how they feel about whatever hot topic it is we're talking about.
LHJ: Who have been some of your more memorable guests?
Whoopi: Joe Cocker. He sang one of my favorite songs, "Darling Be Home Soon," and I've always wanted to meet him. Most people I already know.
Sherri: When I was in my early 20s I slept out on the street so I could get tickets to a Janet Jackson show. I adore her. Everyone on The View started working on getting Janet Jackson on the show. I showed up one morning and everyone was whispering and Elisabeth, who I am really close to, wasn't talking to me. No one was talking to me so I was like, Am I losing my job? On the air Whoopi said, "Sherri, you related this incident about Janet Jackson." Then I looked to the side because I heard people cheering and Janet Jackson walks out. I screamed and water came out of the cup I was holding. I think I splashed Barbara. They had hidden her down in [executive producer] Bill Geddie's office the whole time. That was so exciting to me, that they cared enough about me to get her on the show.
Barbara: Regis Philbin has been wonderful to us. Tom Cruise and Tom Selleck come back again and again.
LHJ: Do you ever get starstruck?
Elisabeth: I was so excited to meet Paul McCartney. I got all nervous and awkward, walked into his dressing room and blurted out, "Paul, I am so happy you are here. Would you mind signing this for my Dad, he is a huge fan!" That is the worst way to greet someone. I might as well have said, "Hi, Paul, my great-great-grandfather really enjoyed your music! Man, you're old!"
Sherri: I love the gorgeous men who come through and that I get to put my hand on their thighs. The guys love it. Robert Downey Jr. put his head on my lap. And they kiss you. What kind of job do I have? Every man I love turns around and gives me a kiss? When Obama showed up, I was like, this is it, I am done. And Jonathan Rhys Meyers? I am like predator cougar on that boy. I will hurt you.
LHJ: What are your friendships like behind the scenes?
Whoopi: We hate each other.
Barbara: Years ago there was this show where triplets sang, "We do everything alike. We look alike. We dress alike. We walk alike. We talk alike. And what is more, we hate each other very much." But we genuinely like each other. I've been to Whoopi's house, they've all come to my house, I go to Joy's summer house...
Sherri: I spend a lot of time with Elisabeth, because we both have kids the same age. And Barbara gives the best single-woman advice.
LHJ: Like what?
Sherri: Oh my God, she gives me advice about raising my son and relationships. She also gives good advice about sex.
Barbara: Yeah, because I know so much about sex. I think I learned it all on the show.
LHJ: Do you have rules for agreeing to disagree? How do you recover from your more contentious debates?
Joy: We are a reality show of the real kind. You watch the Jon & Kate Plus 8 show, but they've been faking things for two years. We have a real show, we are real people and the audience relates to that.
Whoopi: There are times when you think, I shouldn't have said that, and I'm sorry. But nobody cares if you say something tough -- it's over and done with. They're like, No, no, no, I know what you meant. The next day you're back on cue. Or five minutes later, after the commercial, you're back to being the two of you.
Elisabeth: It's like when I have a more edgy conversation with my mother -- I know she'll love me anyway. And that's what happens at our table: We know what triggers the other person, but we also believe what we believe. It's all up for discussion, and we know we're all coming back tomorrow. So we love each other even though we don't always agree.
LHJ: Why do you think viewers believe you must really hate each other behind the scenes?
Whoopi: That idea was put into people's minds before I arrived -- that was played up with Rosie, and it stuck. I think for a while things got more personal than they should have and people glommed on to that. I think people want there to be feuds. But I am too lazy to fight -- it takes too much energy to keep it going.
LHJ: Elisabeth, what's it like being the conservative voice?
Elisabeth: I typically get two comments. One is, "I feel so bad for you." Or: "That has to be difficult to do every day." Neither is true, and I don't enjoy pity. Anyway, the show isn't as interesting when we agree.
LHJ: Sherri, what's it like being the relatively new girl?
Sherri: It is the most challenging for me because I had to step up to the plate with these ladies. But it's been the best year and a half of my life since they are warm and nurturing, especially since I've been going through a divorce and my son is on the West Coast. So I absolutely love coming to work.
Barbara: Sherri is a comedian and was coming from a different place. But now she reads every newspaper and is more up to date on things than I am sometimes.
Sherri: On my third day of the show, I did say the world was flat. I was so nervous and after the segment it was either Whoopi or Barbara who said, "Dear, you do know the world is round." And I was like, "I know that." My name became the second-highest Google search in the country. What was wonderful was that Whoopi brought the ladies in and was like, "You make mistakes, you let it go." And they said, "We're here for you."
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month -- the disease will afflict more than 192,000 women this year and claim the lives of approximately 40,000. The View hosts are far from immune: Four have had their own false alarms or loved ones who had breast cancer.
"When someone you love discovers they have breast cancer, all you can do is listen. You can't make their illness your illness. You don't know what they're going through, so don't say, 'I know how you feel.' Just listen."
-- Whoopi, whose agent and close friend Cara Stein had the disease.
"My mother, my aunt, and both my grandmothers had breast cancer. I'll get mammograms early and probably enter a surveillance program, because I think it's not unlikely that I will get it and now is the time to try to detect it. But I have to walk the line between paranoia and vigilance."
"My sister had breast cancer and a lumpectomy and later got ovarian cancer and died from that. When she was young they called her mentally retarded. Today they'd say she was developmentally challenged -- so I had to make medical decisions for her, and that was very difficult."
"My grandmother had breast cancer. Five or six years ago I found a lump in my breast. Now, I'm someone who loves my boobs. It's amazing how we validate ourselves with something as inconsequential as breasts. But I was so scared then, thinking, Oh my gosh, what if I don't have my breasts? Without my womanhood, who am I? It turned out to be nothing. But it made me realize that now that I'm 42, I have to get my regular mammograms."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2009.