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It was an over-the-top moment of live morning television. Standing outside at Rockefeller Center, Meredith Vieira introduced a Today show segment about counterfeit goods by asking Al Roker, "Can you spot fakes?" The weatherman gave her a quick up-and-down glance and smiled. "Why did you look at that?" Vieira sputtered with amused outrage. "You looked right down at my chest!" "I did not," he replied. "You did so!" she insisted. Then pointing to herself and laughing, she said, "They're real and they're spectacular."
Fast, funny, and unpredictable, this was classic Vieira, a newswoman who can do tough interviews one minute and clown around the next. In her four years as a cohost on the Today show, Vieira, now 56, has helped the NBC ratings-juggernaut stay way ahead of its competitors, thanks to her warm and occasionally wacky persona. With an estimated $10 million salary, she constantly pushes herself to keep the morning magic going, waking an extra hour early to prep for breaking news stories. "Last night when I went to bed, I didn't have information on two segments I was doing the next day," she says. "I woke up at 1 a.m. and checked my BlackBerry; I wanted to know who the guests were and to read the notes."
When sleep deprivation started to become a problem for this self-described night owl a year ago, Vieira tried an intensive diet-and-exercise program to boost her stamina. "This is a high-energy show, and I can pull it off, but I was really feeling it," she says. "I was gaining weight and feeling depressed." She met with a nutritionist, who put her on a 28-day detox diet of no sugar, wheat, gluten, alcohol, or caffeine. She also began a slow-burn exercise regimen with heavy weights to build muscle and burn calories. "I started feeling better," says Vieira, who lost 10 pounds and maintains her weight with a diet of mostly fish and salads. "I want to look healthy, be strong, and feel good about myself."
Refreshed and reinvigorated, Vieira has reportedly signed a one-year extension on her contract that takes her to September 2011, although this year could be her last. "Meredith really likes the Today show, she likes the people she works with, but it's a very intrusive way to live," says her husband of almost 25 years, Richard Cohen. "I think she may be nearing the point where she wants to reassess what she's doing and what she wants to do, and not get up at 2:30 in the morning."
Today, sitting in her midtown office wearing a bright-orange form-fitting Ralph Lauren dress, Vieira appears to be savoring the moment. She is toweling off after a rain-soaked Lady Gaga concert out on the plaza ("Oh my ga-ga!" she gushed throughout the morning). The room is cozy but cluttered, with bags of stuff piled up on the floor, books stacked every which way on a windowsill, and an impressive collection of stilettos vying for space. ("I'm really short, 5 foot 3 1/2, and from the time I could wear heels I did," she explains. "I wanted stature.") For a woman who confessed to Ladies' Home Journal three years ago that she suffered from terrible anxiety attacks before taking the Today gig, Vieira seems infinitely more comfortable these days. Gone are the moments when she was so terrified the world would discover she was a fraud that she "wanted to curl up into a ball," she says. "It was a pretty bad summer before I took this job. I felt like I was going to fail."
Vieira credits her husband and her children -- Ben, Gabe, and Lily (21, 19, and 17) -- with steadying her nerves. "The night before I started doing the show I was a wreck," she says. "Richard and the kids gave me a bracelet that read we are with you. It had an instant calming effect. I lost the bracelet at the Republican National Convention in 2008, and I was beside myself. So they had another one made for me. Richard said if this one goes, I'm on my own."
Vieira and Cohen met in 1982, when she was a rising CBS correspondent based in Chicago and he was a handsome CBS producer. Both of their fathers were doctors. Vieira, the granddaughter of Portuguese immigrants, grew up in East Providence, Rhode Island, with three older brothers; she graduated from Tufts University and proved a natural on local and then national TV. "Richard was something of a ladies' man, and she had all those characteristics that he fell for," says Charles Osgood, the CBS News Sunday Morning anchor who has known the couple for decades. "Meredith is a genuinely sympathetic person and has a great sense of humor. They both have a teasing way about them." [Editor's note: Writer Meryl Gordon and Vieira know each other socially as well.]
Diagnosed in his 20s with multiple sclerosis, Cohen told Vieira about the disease on their second date. "Meredith has never been fazed by my health problems," he says. The couple married in 1986, and years later Cohen was found to have colon cancer. "Meredith said, 'We'll deal with it, we'll figure it out.' There's never been histrionics." Instead she copes through black humor. Cohen, who later had a recurrence of colon cancer (he is now cancer-free), says, "Both times I had cancer she'd say, 'I wonder if I should buy a cute little black dress; I want to shop around and get a nice one.'" He reassured her that his funeral was not imminent.
As a couple they have been public about Cohen's health, jointly giving an interview to Barbara Walters to publicize his 2004 memoir about living with illness, Blindsided. MS has affected his balance and left him legally blind. The downside of their honesty is that many people have the impression that Cohen is dying or an invalid in need of constant care, both of which are untrue. (His father, who also had MS, lived until age 90.)
"It diminishes him when the stories come out and present me as the woe-is-me Meredith and poor Richard, he's at death's door," Vieira says. "He struggles in life like anyone who has an illness." Still, the disease has clearly impacted their day-to-day lives. "I feel cheated sometimes. We used to run together and go on ski trips or go to the beach. Now it's very hard for Richard to stand. But we're very lucky in what we do have."
"There's a give-and-take, but it's how you deal with the worst times that tests the strength of a marriage," she continues. "We've had plenty of those, partly because of health issues, which put a strain on the relationship. And we're both stubborn people -- we can lock horns easily. But a sense of humor helps. If something were to happen to Richard, I would never get married again. It's hard work to be married. I've been married once -- that's the guy."
While splitting their time between a house in Westchester County and a weekend retreat on Cape Cod, the couple has led a very child-centered life. Vieira famously left her demanding dream job at 60 Minutes in 1991 while pregnant with Gabe; when she joined The View six years later, the family-friendly work hours were a treasured part of the gig. She insists she's at peace with having a soon-to-be-empty nest, although there have been a few setbacks. "I remember when we were leaving Ben at college [he attends Stanford] for the first time," she says. "I kept wanting him to turn around when we said good-bye, but he walked off. I lost it. I cried on the plane ride home."
These days Vieira has plenty of work to fill any voids. Later this morning she will change into Gap jeans, a black T-shirt, and clogs to head over to the set of the syndicated game show that she hosts, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. This fall she marks her ninth year as host of the show, for which she makes an estimated million-dollar salary. Rather than resent the grueling schedule, she is relieved to be able to earn two large paychecks so she can save for the future. "She has always squirreled money away," says her friend Mo Cashin. "That's her dad, instilling in her as the only girl in the family: You got to work, you got to earn it, you got to keep it." Vieira, a multimillionaire by now, admits that she is a worrier. "I live a bit in fear," she says. "Oh my God, what if something happens? What if Richard gets really sick? Would we be able to pay the bills? What if something happened to me? I'm not a doomsayer, but I'm always thinking, What if, what if, what if? It's not like I'm trying to amass millions of dollars. It's just that I have a sense of responsibility to my family."
Small wonder she feels this way: Several family members in addition to Richard have had serious health issues. Her father had Alzheimer's disease (both of her parents are dead) and now her brother Steve, a lawyer who is five years older than she is and has early-onset Alzheimer's, is in a nursing home. "We now believe it was happening for years and nobody realized it," says Vieira, her voice dropping with anguish. "He was starting to become forgetful and was having issues at work. He's such a great guy, the heart of our family. I thought I should stop work altogether and move to North Carolina to be with him. But then I thought, What is that going to do? That's about me. It doesn't have a lot to do with Steve, who doesn't even know who I am. But I felt guilty about being healthy. Why did it have to be him?"
Perhaps because of her exposure to real-life medical problems, Vieira appears to be less concerned than many of her television peers with the aging process. Her hair began to go gray when she was on The View and she chose not to color it. "Then I got the job with Millionaire and people said we don't want you coming in with gray hair, we want you to look polished and color your hair," she recalls. "And I did it. I want to think that if I weren't doing these two jobs I'd let it grow out, because it's a pain in the neck."
She has resisted Botox and plastic surgery, although she suspects her colleagues believe it might be a good idea. "They've probably thought it, but nobody has said it," she says. "When I came back from vacation, some people said, 'Did you have work done?' They looked so relieved. I told them, 'No, I slept.'"
Whatever professional or personal pressures she has faced, Vieira has managed to stay true to herself. "A long time ago a producer told me I should come up with a brand. But I think I'm always the same thing: the girl next door, a working mom. I think that's how people see me: nice, sensitive. I don't pat myself on the back. When people meet me, that's what they get."
What's next for Vieira isn't obvious, but she's okay with that. "I'll know when it's time to go, and I'm not afraid to go," she says of the Today show. "If I were to leave at the end of next year because it's time for me, I wouldn't jump into another show. I would look forward to not working, to traveling with Richard and carving out time for us. You're always doing something, if you are curious. It doesn't have to be a 9-to-5 job."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2010.