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Ann Curry has just completed two full hours of work on Today, a job that's clearly effortless to her and has me hyperventilating. She leaps from the cohost couch to an interview inside the studio to a segment on the outdoor plaza, then does it all over again. Now we're in a town car, on our way to a late-morning photo shoot. Our thoughts have turned, somewhat incongruously, to that most American of icons, Doris Day.
Curry, who has appeared on People's Most Beautiful List and has YouTube videos devoted to her legs, tells me that when she was growing up in Portland, Oregon, she wasn't considered pretty. "I wanted to be blonde and blue-eyed, because that's what Cinderella was, you know? Back then it was rare to see someone who was multiracial," says Curry, whose mother was Japanese. "I was called Blubber Lips." Anyway, years later Curry's husband, Brian Ross, told her that the person he had a crush on while he was growing up was Doris Day. "And I said, 'Then how did you end up with me?'" And he said, 'You're the all-American girl. You're the brunette Doris Day. You just don't know it.'"
Ann Curry might not know it, but America does. In June, after Meredith Vieira left Today to spend more time with her family, Curry, 54, who had been the newsreader on the show since 1997, ascended to the throne as coanchor with Matt Lauer. And that couch really is a throne since not only does the Today coanchor share the biggest, most important interviews, she also helps set the tone for the top-rated morning news show on television. Five years ago, when Katie Couric left the coanchor seat, Curry was considered to be a front-runner for the job. But she didn't get it. The position went to outsider Vieira. Why? Who knows for sure? Curry herself says she was always a "natural reporter, but not a natural anchor." She was warm and earnest, but also a little spacey; Al Roker once called her "our ambassador from Planet Zebulon." And she had a kind of ditzy, girlish innocence. In 1998, when I interviewed her for this magazine, a Today staffer told me how they were going to cover picture hanging on the show, and they were all discussing it. "Yes!" Curry piped up. "It's so important to be well hung." "We all started snickering," the staffer said, "and Ann was going, 'What? What? What did I say?'"
But in the intervening years Curry has more than proved her chops. She was relentless in pushing Today producers to cover humanitarian disasters in Kosovo, the Congo, and Darfur. "I did not want these crimes happening in the darkness," says Curry. "When people realize what's happening to their fellow men and women, they respond." (In fact, after the Haitian earthquake, it was Curry who tweeted the U.S. Air Force to alert them that Doctors Without Borders, which offered critical medical aid, was not being allowed to land on the island. Curry's tweet went viral and Doctors Without Borders soon got clearance. Twitter ended up selecting Curry's tweet as the most powerful of 2010.)
And it is Curry, perhaps more than anyone else on the show, who connects with guests, audience members, and staffers in a way that can't be faked. "The warmth is utterly genuine," says Lauer, who recalls how Curry was one of the few people who stopped to introduce herself when he came to work for NBC in New York City. When I interviewed Al Roker years ago, he said of Curry, "When you see her reporting a story that's tragic you can see the pain. She is genuinely affected by what she's doing. She doesn't have a switch she can turn on and off."
Even so, it sounds a little disingenuous to me when Curry insists that she did not expect to get this job. After all, the New York Times reported that she had a clause in her contract saying she could walk away from the show, with no repercussions, if she wasn't named cohost the next time there was a vacancy. But Curry, who calls herself "a very patient person," is adamant: "I was not expecting to become cohost. Because you know what? After having the experience the last time where I was not asked to do this, I pretty much decided that there is no 'deserving.' Nothing is owed to you." Curry believes things happen for a reason. "If I hadn't met Meredith and worked with her, I think I would be a different person. She was so supportive of my reporting. Because of her I was able to do the work that has been my greatest mission." And PS: To those who think she would have walked away this time around if she hadn't gotten the job, Curry says absolutely not. "I'd still be here," she says. "I'm loyal like a dog."
Curry's byword, on both her Facebook and Twitter pages, is "Journalism is an act of faith in the future." It's an idea she embraces, along with a very unjournalistic optimism that is as heartfelt as it is (to us glass-half-empty people) far-fetched. Seated in her tiny Today office, surrounded by photos of her husband and their two kids, daughter McKenzie, 18, and son Walker, 16, she tries very hard to convince me.
"It used to be that genocide and rape were facts of war, and now they're crimes against humanity. It used to be that children could be begging in the streets of lower Manhattan, and now it is against the law. It used to be you could legally lynch a black man in America. And now we have a black man as president. If you look at the course of history, you can't help but see that we are moving in this beautiful direction. We are evolving into a more compassionate species," she says as she touches my arm for emphasis.
While she loves to paint a picture of a bright future, the past is never far from her thoughts. Curry grew up a military brat, the eldest of five children. From her Japanese mother, Hiroe, who died in 2000, she gets her philosophical approach to life. "Annaaaaa," says Curry, lapsing into her mother's thick Japanese accent as she describes a typical conversation. "'When you marry somebody, don't marry the cute guy, because he's going to be ugly someday. Marry the man with the good heart, because someday he's gonna be old and you have to live with him.' And then my mother would add, 'And Anna, remember, you gonna be ugly too.' Hey, thanks, Mom!"
From her large, bearish American father, Bob, a U.S. naval officer who met Hiroe during the U.S. occupation of Japan, she gets her deep belief in a life of service -- and a belief in herself. In fact her father, who died of cancer three years ago, is always on her mind. Her voice quavers a little as she looks at his photo on her computer ("Wasn't he rakish?" she asks). He was, she said, "my greatest inspiration." Curry believes unequivocally that she would never have had her job, or her life, were it not for her doting father. "I believe that all women have either struggled to overcome their fathers, or were enabled because they were so loved by their fathers. I was lucky to be in that latter category."
"When I was a teenager," she says, "Dad and I would have dinner table debates about the Vietnam War. I was deeply affected by Walter Cronkite's reports, and I questioned our country's role. Sometimes our discussions got so heated my siblings would leave the table. At the end of those conversations my dad would say, 'I don't always agree with you, but I'd still vote for you for president.' I knew he was proud of me for caring about something bigger, something beyond my day-to-day life. It tied in to what he always told me: 'Do something of service, Ann, so that at the end of your days, you'll know your time here mattered.'"
Curry's parents couldn't pay her college tuition, so she worked her way through the University of Oregon's journalism school doing odd jobs. At 22 she got her first television gig at a small station in Oregon; she then spent the next two decades in various markets reporting hard news stories with both tenacity and warmth, a style that soon became a signature.
It probably wasn't until she got to Today, in 1997, that she found her gift for gentle humor -- even if it was occasionally inadvertent. Lauer recalls a "summer fun" spot where they all put on Velcro suits and then tried to leap up high on a wall, where they would get stuck; the idea was to see who could leap and stick the highest. "Ann took this running leap, tripped and just completely stuck to the ground," Lauer recalls. "Every time I think about it...." Lauer cracks up anew.
Despite a demanding work schedule (she leaves her Manhattan home weekday mornings before 5 a.m.), Curry has always made family her highest priority. She and Ross, a software executive, knew each other in college. "We went out then. And then he told me he was actually dating my neighbor," Curry says. "We didn't see each other for 10 years -- until he saw me on TV in Los Angeles and called me up. And within six months we were engaged. And now the man who dumped me is the father of my children," she adds cheerfully.
This fall McKenzie will be heading to college; Walker is still in high school. "Most nights I try to be in bed between 8 and 8:30. That means I can't do every dinner or charity event I'm asked to do, but it does mean I'm at home and there for my kids, especially if one of them just needs to talk."
Curry says it was a medical scare in 2006 that made her reexamine her priorities. "I found a lump in my breast," she says. "I was worried, and I went to the doctor as soon as I could to have it checked out. After I'd had all kinds of procedures done, the doctor pulled me in his office. He said, 'You don't have breast cancer. But every week I've got to tell somebody that they have this scary disease and they might die. And do you know what their response almost always is? Oh, I didn't get time to do that. I should have done this. They didn't live their life like they meant to.' The doctor said to me, 'Don't be that person. Live what you love.' That moment crystallized everything for me. And it's why I'm adamant about having enough time to spend with my kids. It's true for most of us that the end always comes too soon, so what are you going to do with your time?"
For the moment Curry is hell-bent on one thing: making sure Today remains an essential part of the morning for 6 million Americans. "Every day I want to show our viewers how much I love them by doing a good job," Curry says. And somehow when she says it, it doesn't sound unbearably corny.
But surely she must be doing a victory lap, right? Her moment has finally arrived and it's about time, dang it, right? Well, that wasn't her reaction when she found out she'd been named coanchor. "I was thrilled to pieces," she says. "But the biggest thing for me as I walked out of my boss's office was that the last brick of sorrow I'd been carrying around since my dad died fell to the ground, because I was filled, suddenly, with his pride. It pushed every last bit of grief out of me because I could feel him say, 'Ann, I'm so proud of you....The best thing you're ever going to do, you haven't even thought of yet. You're just getting started.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2011.