I got People magazine today and, for the first time in months, I actually read it. The reason? It had an article in it profiling the ten contestants on Your OWN Show—the new series to pick and groom “the next Oprah”. My interest in the show was more than casual.
It started back in July. “Hi, Linda, this is Emily from OWN.” That’s what I heard one July day when I answered my cell while driving. I immediately thought of thought of my sister, Lisa. Yeah, she’s pulling a prank. She’d encouraged me to enter the OWN contest. I feigned sincerity, “Oh, hi Emily. Is Oprah with you right now?” “Excuse me? I’m calling from the Oprah Winfrey Network. We liked your tape and we want to talk to you about possibly becoming a finalist on the show. What!? But sure enough, it was OWN. Would I be interested in going through a series of interviews to determine if I’d make it to “Finals Week”—a competition of forty contestants flown to L.A.? From that group OWN would then select the final ten for the show. “Yes, I would!”
I was shocked. Sure, I had some on-air experience. I’d started as a news reporter and anchor and then got a job as a correspondent/host on E!, but I hadn’t been on TV much recently—ever since I quit E! more than six years ago to spend time with my sons.
As I fought the urge to phone everyone I knew with the exciting news (there was a confidentiality agreement)—I wondered if this were an omen to get back into TV? I’d certainly been thinking about in the past year. But what would I do? Hard news didn’t interest me anymore—nor did chasing self-absorbed celebrities.
In the early years of being a stay at home mom, I loved it. I drove my kids all over and attended sports games galore. My boys and I had long talks at bath time and spent leisurely summers on the east coast. Then, on a dime, I was robbed. I can easily pick the thief out of a lineup. The Teen Years. My boys suddenly grew up and their lives took off—without me.
I started filling the void by creating a California lifestyle website, SheSez. Even though SheSez’s numbers were growing nicely, I missed TV: the rush, the deadlines, the connection, and working with others. In short, I wanted back in. But I was afraid. I feared rejection—and even worse—being laughed at. I was haunted by a friend’s words when I quit E!, “You’d better be okay with never working again because no one will hire you if you leave now.” I also thought of a TV correspondent who cautioned, “When you’re in your forties, no one wants you.” Or, I’d hark back to the time I stood in a TV executive’s office staring at a tape of a show hosted by Nancy O’Dell. He quipped, “She’s pushing forty, and we’ve got to get rid of her.” Staring at the monitor, I was aghast. Nancy was beyond beautiful and, to me, she looked like she was in her prime! How could he be writing her off? Sure enough, a short time later Nancy was replaced on the show by a woman some twenty years her junior. These harsh comments crippled me. Every time I even considered putting a toe in the water, I quickly put a wool sock on.
Even when my sister called with the Oprah contest, I hesitated. Would anyone laugh at me? Hm … maybe no one has to know. I’ll just do this for fun, slipping my tape in under the radar. But deep inside I had a motive. Please someone out there tell me my skills are still worth something.
My son Nick, almost thirteen, is wise beyond his years. First, he was enthusiastic. Then he got scared. “Mom, I don’t want you to do it. What if you don’t get picked and you feel hurt?” Read my mind little man. “Look, Nick, the thing is you have to try stuff in life—even when you feel scared. You have to put yourself out there and give it a shot—even if it’s a long shot. The real crime is not to even try.”
Emily and I spoke numerous times over the next two weeks. “Now, look Linda, don’t get too excited. We looked at 20,000 tapes and yours stood out. But you’re among 200 contestants now and there’re only forty spots .” I did phone interviews and filled out questionnaires. They wanted to know everything—from my favorite movie to details about my show idea. I actually had two ideas. One was a TV version of SheSez and the other was a show about women reinventing themselves. Emily said to submit both and if I made it to Finals Week, they’d pick their pony.
At one point, I started getting emails from Mark Burnett Casting. Puzzled, I called Emily, “What does Mark have to do with the show?” “He’s the producer.” My heart sank. My husband and I had been friends with Mark and his wife for years. We’d socialized on several occasions—and we’d been guests in their home. Would this be a problem?
Finally, the call came. “You’ve made to Finals Week!” While the most of the other contestants were being flown in, I’d be allowed to commute to the LA hotel each day from my Encino home. Each night I’d get a call letting me know if I would advance to the next round the following day. Contestants would be eliminated until there were only ten—who’d compete in the reality show contest.
Now I really wanted it. Every decision became colossal including what to wear. My husband and my boys spent an evening of enthusiastic debate weighing in on my debut outfit. That makes you look too old! Doesn’t show off your figure! You need to wear heels like Heather Locklear (the mom of one of my son’s classmates)!
I showed up at the designated hotel at 9:00 a.m. Emily was waiting for me in the lobby. “Sit here until I come get you and then we’ll go upstairs for your first interview. You may not talk to any of the other contestants at any time during the week.” There was a blonde contestant next to me in a ballet tutu, boots, and clutching a book to her chest.
Finally, Emily led me into a suite. Three guys sat on a sofa facing me. One in his twenties, one in his thirties, and one in his forties with graying hair. I had a sexist moment. Men? I thought it was going to be a chick fest. What do men know about picking the next Oprah? Well, at least it wasn’t Mark Burnett. I guess he’s not showing up for finals week—I thought to myself. They leaned forward on the edge of the sofa listening to my answers intensely. While I’d been nervous in the lobby, I suddenly felt calm. It was like bring it on. I was no longer afraid. No one was laughing at me. I had something to offer and they knew it. It felt damn good.
The questions came rapid fire—some were pretty probing. Tell us about why you really left E! How come you haven’t done TV since then? And then from the gray haired guy “Why should we give it to you? Some might say you’ve already had your shot at fame and that we should give his opportunity to someone twenty years younger.” Ouch, that hurt. I swallowed hard and kept my voice calm, locking on his eyes. “Wow, I don’t really think of it that way. I’m not looking for a shot at fame here guys. I’m simply looking to share what I know with other women in a venue that I have experience in and happen to love. In my twenties, I was trying to figure out who I was. Now I know who I am. I’m smarter, deeper, and I’ve got more soul. I will resonate with Oprah’s viewers because I am them. I’m a mom, a wife, and I’m trying to figure out the next chapter of my life.” The gray haired guy smiled ever so slightly. I knew I’d made it to the next round.
Originally published on SheSez