The Can-Do Girl

From news anchor and talk show host to wife and mother, Joan Lunden was always a risk taker



©PHOTOGRAPHER/ABC PHOTO ARCHIVES

The pretty blonde woman welcoming a visitor to her Greenwich home looks instantly familiar. For almost twenty years, until her farewell Good Morning America broadcast on September 5, 1997, Joan Lunden greeted us every day at 7 a.m. Never mind that we were still groggy and rumpled, we stopped, listened and found ourselves engaged.

“The set was intimate: a living room, not a newsroom; the vision for the show was to invite America to wake up with ‘the GMA family’, from David Hartman to Erma Bombeck,” says Merrill Mazuer, one of GMA’s first producers and the man who discovered Joan, then a reporter for ABC’s Eyewitness News.

When Merrill saw Joan covering a fire in Harlem, he saw chemistry with David Hartman, the well-known television actor brought in to anchor the new show. “It’s an intangible thing two previous women hosts didn’t have; I just knew Joan did,” Merrill says. “She was extremely attractive and an incisive reporter, but it was more than that; her voice and eye contact drew my attention. The camera liked her and she liked the camera; she was a natural performer, a rare talent.”

Until Joan took a hammer to her alarm clock, ceremoniously smashing it to bits on Late Night with David Letterman after leaving GMA, it was routinely set to 3:30 a.m. Her life — from first marriage through three pregnancies, working motherhood, divorce and eventually the burgeoning of a relationship with Jeff Konigsberg (now her husband) — was something she willingly shared with her TV audience.

“Joan was the first woman to put her pregnant stomach out there, front and center, on national television,” says Charles Gibson, GMA co-anchor during Joan’s last ten years on the show, now evening anchor of ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson. “Joan shared her personal journeys with the audience, which endeared her to them. People feel they know her,” he says. “They refer to ‘watching her every morning’ as if she were still doing the show.”

Charlie remembers Joan’s generosity in welcoming him when, at her recommendation, he replaced David Hartman in 1987. An interview done live, he notes, is an exercise in strategic conversation that can backfire at any moment, producing every anchor’s nightmare: dead air. “With twenty-five seconds to go before the obligatory newsbreak for local stations, whenever Joan asked a question, it worked,” Charlie says, adding that she had a real knack for getting people to say just enough to wrap it up right on time. “We share the same sense of humor and soon, we could pretty much finish each other’s sentences,” he says, describing a relationship of equals, an almost brother-sister rapport that worked well with the show’s sense of family.

Named “television’s favorite morning anchor” by Entertainment Weekly’s national viewer poll, Joan interviewed the last five presidents of the United States and their first ladies, covered the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana and the inaugurations of presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. She broadcast from Sarajevo and then Calgary to bring us the Winter Olympics, even ice-skated live in Central Park with gold medalist Brian Boitano. Her “game for anything” personality, fueled by the mantra “If you think you can, you can,” triggered some fairly hair-raising adventures that twenty-six million avid viewers got to enjoy along with their morning coffee.

It was all Joan’s fault, for instance, that Charlie ended up bungee-jumping off a 143-foot bridge in Queenstown, New Zealand. “She was determined to do it, so there was no way for me not to,” he says, adding that he looked when he leaped, which trumped his co-anchor’s somewhat more elegant swan dive executed with eyes squeezed tightly shut.

Joan laughs, describing how shocked she was to have to be weighed so they could calibrate the bungee cord. “We were all willing to jump off the bridge,” she says, “but not step on the scale.” At the end, she had a death grip on the guy in charge, who’d made it clear he could not give her a last-second shove. “I was the instigator,” she says, “and I was scared to death, my legs like wet noodles.”

“If you keep holding on to me like this,” the guy said, “I’d love to take you out to dinner tonight.”

Joan jumped.

Charlie was not at all surprised to hear about the stunts his co-anchor did on Behind Closed Doors, a “take the audience behind the scenes” show that began in 1994 while she was still on GMA and ran through 2001.

“She wants to experience everything,” he says, “at least once.”

“Joan has the unique ability to cross between journalism and entertainment, and she downloads information better than any human being I’ve ever met,” says Behind Closed Doors executive producer Eric Schotz, noting it was fortunate most of the high-security-venue shows preceded 9/11.

Persistence and Joan’s credibility got them permission to film inside the Pentagon War Room and behind the scenes at the United States Secret Service, where she was cast as “First Lady” inside the presidential limousine during a simulated assassination attempt. Other shows took viewers backstage at the CIA and the Department of Defense.

Joining the U.S. Navy SEALs as they practiced securing an enemy beach required that Joan be launched over the side of a submarine in a Zodiac. “It was a significant drop. I’ll never forget that ‘You want me to do what?’ look in her eyes,” Eric says, “before she climbed into that boat and just did it. Joan puts her trust in the experts in charge; she faces fear, then decides, ‘Okay, I can do that’ and does.” The rest of the training exercise, complete with live gunfire and high explosives, took the tension several notches higher. “At first, they weren’t going to use real ammunition,” Eric says, adding that final orders from the secretary of the navy were, “Use it. Just don’t shoot her.”

Joan talked herself into the cockpit of a U-2 spy plane which, after an extensive tutorial, she piloted for ten minutes under the eagle-eyed supervision of the experts in charge. “I had to conquer a severe case of claustrophobia,” she says, “triggered by the helmet that buckled me into a pressurized flightsuit.” Eric recalls picking up his cellphone to be told that the U-2, with Joan aboard, was about to attempt a crash landing.

It was the real deal, not a made-for-television emergency. “There was a red light flashing AC,” she says, “which I thought meant air conditioning. Turns out the alternating current had malfunctioned.” Instead of an uneventful ride, Joan and the television audience were treated to a live-action situation. “These guys are experts, trained to handle every contingency,” she says. “To them, it’s routine. I’m glad I didn’t realize how serious it was until I was back on the ground.”

Perhaps the biggest personal challenge was Joan’s performance with the Jubilee Showgirls at Bally’s Casino Resort in Las Vegas under the direction of legendary showgirl Fluff LeCoque. Eric ruefully admits that, in the true spirit of the town, the Bally’s crew was placing bets on whether she would actually go through with it, not to mention calculating the odds of her falling flat on her face.

Fitness trainer Barbara Brandt — who had helped Joan get “fit and fabulous” before turning forty, a success that led to working together on a book and exercise video — was enlisted to prepare her for Las Vegas. “I told her she had no idea what she’d gotten herself into,” says Barbara.

“This was not just about being able to dance.” Joan’s first homework assignment was to practice balancing a book on her head while walking up and down stairs wearing three-inch heels. A week later, training began in earnest at Barbara’s home. The clock, as usual, was ticking. Showtime was just a few weeks away. Out there alone on stage, Joan would be 100 percent vulnerable; preparation had to be both mental and physical. Along with learning a two-and-a-half minute disco number, she needed to master the showgirl’s classic stride and “dip” and develop the muscle strength to execute both flawlessly while wearing a thirty-five-pound headpiece. For her entrance, a hydraulic lift would bring Joan to the top of a staircase; she would then step out, gracefully descend to the stage and do her dance routine. “We were down to the wire and I’d never seen her so nervous,” Barbara says. “I asked everybody to leave, and we began the visualization techniques she’d learned from me years ago.” Joan closed her eyes, worked on her breathing and “saw herself” successfully completing each part of her performance.

“I made a choice on that ride up to the stage,” Joan says. “I removed failure as an option and decided to be a showgirl, not try to be one and suddenly I got that ‘Let me entertain you!’ feeling. I strutted down those stairs like I owned the place and then I was really doing it,” she says, adding that she looked right into the audience, even flashed one woman this “Can you believe it?” smile. “It was incredible,” she says. “I had a ball!”

When she first left GMA, Joan was still on television frequently, doing Behind Closed Doors, guest-hosting Biography, making appearances on Murphy Brown and hosting Wickedly Perfect, a reality show where participants competed to be the next Domestic Diva. And she was writing lifestyle books on healthy eating and fitness. Suddenly, she was in demand as a public speaker, which made overcoming her fear of addressing a live audience obligatory.

“I know it sounds silly,” Joan says. “On GMA, I was totally comfortable speaking to millions of viewers, but I did that from the safety of the television studio with all my buddies there to help.” In typical total immersion style, Joan signed up with renowned speech coach Tony Robbins for a year’s worth of speaking engagements. “He was an incredible mentor,” she says, “and by the end of the year, I’d found my comfort zone. I learned just to be myself.”

These days, Joan focuses on her family — her husband Jeff Konigsberg, who operates a camp in Maine for children, and her two sets of twins, four-year-old Kate and Max and two-year-old Kim and Jack, and her three older children from her first marriage, Jamie, Lindsay and Sarah. She also finds fulfillment in several projects that tap into her credibility and understanding of television. “I find it very satisfying,” she says, “because I can choose what relates to my interest in health and women’s issues.”

A video spot Joan produced for the American Academy of Pediatrics and Oral-B Stages featuring Greenwich dentist Dr. Stacy Zarakiotis and starring both sets of Konigsberg twins ran recently on the Rachel Ray Show. “Dr. Stacy,” as she is known to her younger patients, has designed a child-friendly practice. “Tooth decay can affect very young children, so it’s important to start dental visits early,” Joan says. “Filming me taking our twins to the dentist was a great way to get the word out.”

Speaking of the twins, Joan is pleased to be able to draw attention to the positive side of opting for motherhood via surrogacy, a choice she made in her fifties that has allowed her to have children with Jeff. “People immediately think of the ‘Baby M’ case,” she says. “Today’s approach prevents that.”

Not surprisingly, the epicenter of Joan Lunden, Inc., is a house built by Jeff’s brother in Greenwich, the town that’s welcomed her for the past sixteen years. “I feel very comfortable here,” she says, adding that she and Jeff met one town over at the Rye Ridge Deli. “People are friendly; it’s a terrific place to live.” Joan’s older girls graduated from Greenwich High School and loved it. She’s sure the twins will have the same great experience someday.

Vibrant claret-red walls and touches of leopard energize the large room adjacent to the master bedroom, which Joan chose to make her office. “I began downstairs where we have this elegant wood-paneled library,” she says, “but it just wasn’t me.” Posters of Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal and Redbook magazine covers track her media career, and a “victory wall” is filled with a collage of photographs of family, a word Joan defines more broadly than most people.

Along with her mom, Jeff and all seven kids are colleagues from GMA, effectively a second family. There’s a framed cover of her first book Good Morning, I’m Joan Lunden, written early in her GMA career, pictures taken with Sammy Davis Jr., Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer, a photograph of her “very formal” interview with Prince Charles, a shot of her climbing the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska and one that catches the peak of her swan dive off that bridge in Queenstown. Joan encourages everyone to have a victory wall; hers is a daily reminder “to dream bigger dreams and make them come true.”

This past summer, Joan took over her husband’s Camp Takajo and ran the first session of Camp Reveille: A Wake-Up Call for Your Mind and Body, which she described as an opportunity for women to join her in “slowing down to the speed of life.” One hundred and twenty-five women came from all over the United States and Canada, including Deborah Bolig, the gestational surrogate for both sets of Konigsberg twins and now a dear family friend. “When they’re old enough,” Jeff says, “Joan and I want our children to know Deborah and appreciate the gift of life she’s given us.” Deborah and her husband Pete come to Maine every August with their daughters, who are friends with Joan’s older children.

Last month marked Joan’s fifteenth year as mistress of ceremonies for the Michael Bolton Charities Benefit Concert and Golf Classic, a fundraiser held annually in Stamford to benefit children and women at risk. (Moffly Publications is a magazine sponsor of the event.) When first invited to come on GMA a quarter-century ago, Michael Bolton was an eighteen-year “overnight” success, who was told by his record company the appearance would make him a household name.

“I was nervous as hell,” he says. “Somehow, Joan made me feel at ease.” Since then, they’ve become friends. “We each were single-parenting three daughters,” Michael says. “That made for an instant bond.” As for his friend’s tendency to push the envelope, Michael shares Jeff’s point of view. “It’s Joan, this woman who has an incredible zeal for life. She doesn’t do it to shock. She just wants to experience it. That’s all.”

Michael points out that celebrity is a kind of currency, and Joan uses it well. “When she agreed to emcee for us, she did that thing that Joan does: She researched women and children at risk in America. She’s a voracious learner and brought what she’d discovered into her conversation with our audience. Joan can speak off-script knowledgeably better than anyone I know.”

Joan credits her parents for bringing her up with the confidence to make the leap from “Joanie Blunden, neophyte local weathergirl” to “Joan Lunden, America’s favorite media personality.” As lifestyle author, motivational speaker, entrepreneur, devoted wife and hands-on mother, she’s built a life that embraces their values.

“My mom is the eternal optimist,” Joan says, “a believer in each person’s capacity to choose to change their thinking at any point in time.” Her dad, a noted cancer surgeon and builder of medical centers, died in a plane crash when Joan was thirteen, but in his lifetime, he led by example. “My involvement with health issues is my way of following in his footsteps,” she says. “My dad always told me I could accomplish whatever I set out to do.”

 

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