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Hemi Q&A: Katie Couric

The groundbreaking CBS Evening News anchor discusses good advice, her weakness for Glee, and her brief, star-crossed acting career (two words: deaf-mute).

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Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

WHEN YOU’RE KATIE COURIC and a good chunk of America has grown up watching you on TV, first at the Today show and then behind the anchor desk at CBS Evening News, you get a lot of invitations to give commencement speeches. Couric, who prides herself on her ability to quickly connect with audiences, has always been an easy touch, giving more than a dozen addresses over the years. But last year, when she was asked to speak at Case Western Reserve University, she winced at the prospect of sharing her life lessons yet again.

So the 54-year-old decided to reach out to some of the people she had covered over the years, asking them for good advice she might be able to share. Her request drew responses from Sheryl Crow, Jordan’s Queen Rania and everyone in between, and Couric decided that the concept might be worth a book, not just for the recently graduated, but for grown-ups as well.

The book, The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives (Random House), will be out on April 12 and includes wisdom from A-listers in business, entertainment and politics, including Michael Bloomberg, Mario Batali, Drew Brees, Ellen DeGeneres and, of course, Couric herself, who discusses her remarkable arc from desk assistant at ABC to the first female solo anchor in network broadcasting and her decision to respond to her husband’s death from cancer by committing resources to cancer research and prevention.

After returning from Egypt, where she, along with many other journalists, was menaced while she reported the February protests in Cairo, Couric talked about the new book, her recent cameo on Glee, the joys of Twitter and chocolate chip cookie dough.

HEMISPHERES: The book is chock-full of great advice, but can you tell us one thing that really stood out?

COURIC: I’m really fond of Kathryn Stockett’s essay. She wrote The Help, an amazing book that everyone’s now reading, but which was initially turned down by, like, fifty different publishers. Her essay is on the importance of not giving up. Morgan Freeman wrote a beautiful entry that reflected that same idea. It all sounds a little hackneyed, but the message really comes alive in these essays. And, by the way, rather than make money by putting my name on a book full of other people’s advice, we’re donating all of the proceeds to Scholarship America.

HEMISPHERES: Very noble. Any other good advice in the book?

COURIC: Curtis Sittenfeld said you should marry someone less neurotic than you, and Chelsea Handler said don’t sleep with your boss—although she did. Julie Bowen of Modern Family wrote about how she wished she had gotten more Cs in school, which is the sort of advice from a classic overachiever that I’ve been trying to impress on my fifteen-year-old daughter.

HEMISPHERES: Speaking of which, your daughter must have been pretty excited to see her mom on Glee. You played yourself, interview- ing Sue Sylvester. Did you push for a little song and dance like the one Gwyneth Paltrow got when she was on the show?

COURIC: If that happened, it would not have been pretty. It was enough to mock myself and to have fun with Sue Sylvester. You should know that when I auditioned for my high school musical, Carnival, I though I might get the lead. They cast me as a deaf mute.

HEMISPHERES: Very funny.

COURIC: Funny, but sadly true. I was not lacking in confidence, but the lead went to Lori Ketler.

HEMISPHERES: Where is Lori now?

COURIC: I don’t know, actually. But Glee was fun, in part because my daughter is a complete Gleek and it’s something we watch together. I very much admire the writing on that show, because I think they deal with a lot of tough issues that adolescents face, whether it’s what it’s like to be a gay teenager, or having a bad body image or teenage pregnancy. I’m embarrassed to admit I watched a Glee marathon on Oxygen over the weekend, and the episode where Kurt’s father has a heart attack, which ends up being a meditation on faith, well, it really resonated in my house, because I’m a single parent. I know it sounds crazy that I’m talking about a TV show this way, but they tackle some pretty big ideas, and I really appreciate it. Plus, who doesn’t like those cheesy songs from the seventies and eighties?

HEMISPHERES: I notice @katiecouric is a steady presence on Twitter. During the winter you posted a picture of you helping push someone in a fancy sports car out after a blizzard in New York.

COURIC: I was getting a ride to work in an SUV with a friend and she said, “Oh my god, what kind of idiot would drive a Maserati in the snow?” It was [media über-tycoon] Barry Diller. I wouldn’t even know what a Maserati was, but as we drove by I rolled down the window and I said, “Yo, you need a lift?” We tried to get him out, and I had a friend take a picture with my Blackberry so I could tweet that particular only-in-New-York moment. I should have Tweeted that there’s a good looking Maserati on 79th Street if anybody is interested, but I didn’t think that would have been a very nice thing to do.

HEMISPHERES: You’d think as someone who spends so much time in front of the camera, you’d want to be less connected in your off hours.

COURIC: I sometimes miss the connection I had with Today Show viewers, because I was very much myself. I could be spontaneous. People felt like they knew me because they sort of did. Twitter is a nice way for me to connect with viewers in a job where I have to be a little more serious.

HEMISPHERES: So you like, as the old folks say, doing the Twitter?

COURIC: I do. I think the learning curve was pretty high for me. I’m still getting the hang of it. I have been tweeting news out in real time as we work on it, and that’s probably not always a good idea. Although I like the immediacy of it, I probably need to take a wait-and-see approach on some fast-breaking stories. But I do think it just gives some nice transparency in a manufactured world.

HEMISPHERES: Speaking of manufactured: favorite junk food?

COURIC: Chocolate chip cookie dough.

HEMISPHERES: Last movie you saw that just knocked you down?

COURIC: Black Swan. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

HEMISPHERES: Book, besides The Help?

COURIC: I’m reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, now that the whole world has finished reading it.

HEMISPHERES: Way to be on the cusp of things, Katie.

COURIC: I’m also reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis, and my house is piled with stacks of the New Yorker, The Economist, Time and Newsweek.

HEMISPHERES: Any secret television pleasures besides Glee?

COURIC: Dancing with the Stars, baby.

HEMISPHERES: I wouldn’t watch that show with your eyes. And if you actually go out for the night?

COURIC: I’d go to a nice, cozy Italian restaurant and then a movie, maybe an arty film at Lincoln Center. If I really have some free time, I’d do that, and then maybe go listen to some live music. I’m extremely groovy. Not.

HEMISPHERES: And if you were picking the band onstage?

COURIC: Oh God, this is so hard. How about Adele?

HEMISPHERES: I think we’re done here.

DAVID CARR, who covers culture and media for The New York Times, blames the fact that he watches Glee on his 14-year-old daughter, but the truth is he’s a Gleek with or without her.

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