June 14, 2002

Waking Up With Giselle

KTLA's morning anchorwoman shares her passion for her twin heritage as a Jewish Latina.

By Michael Aushenker

Even a casual viewer of KTLA's "Morning News" knows this much about co-anchor Giselle Fernandez: she's informed, attractive and very proud of her Latina and Jewish culture.

Since she joined the breezy, ratings-leading Channel 5 newscast in October to replace founding co-anchor Barbara Beck, Fernandez -- who helms the 7 and 8 a.m. editions with Carlos Amezcua -- has felt at home on the multiethnic program. She has found a place on television where her ethnic beauty and her dual heritage are actually an asset.

"I just kibitzed naturally," Fernandez told The Journal of the trial shows that snagged her the job over five other candidates. "They're very talented, goofy, real," she said of the other members of the "Morning News" team.

For Fernandez, the program heralds a return to broadcast news after having left for a few years to create Latina-empowering Internet ventures and seminars.

"I hadn't done live TV in a while," Fernandez said, but added that she had no problem getting her news groove back.

If the high-profile program is a major comeback for Fernandez, it is perhaps a bigger coup for KTLA. The Emmy-winning newswoman -- a seasoned veteran at just 40 -- brought with her two decades of on-air experience as an anchor, host and correspondent. Her career highlights include work on NBC ("Today," "Nightly News"), CBS ("Face the Nation," "CBS Evening News," "48 Hours"), "Access Hollywood," The History Channel ("This Week in History") and anchoring and stringing gigs for local news stations in Miami, Chicago and Santa Barbara. Fernandez has gleaned valuable experience covering the Gulf and Bosnian wars, the 1993 World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, and a rare English-broadcast interview with Fidel Castro. Not that she ever anticipated any of this.

"You know the old adage, ‘Life is what happens after you've made your plans,'" Fernandez asked rhetorically. "Nothing has turned out how I planned."

Fernandez grew up in both Los Angeles and Mexico City. Her father was a flamenco dancer from Mexico when he met her mother, an Ashkenazi Jewish Angeleno.

Fernandez, who was born part-Catholic, practices Judaism.

"I've always felt so at home with Jews," she says. "I felt comfortable with their commitment to family, food."

A turning point in Fernandez's life came in 1991, during a month-long assignment in Israel. From her taxi drive from Ben Gurion Airport, it was Judaism by fire. As Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on Tel Aviv, Fernandez watched her Yemenite driver abandon their cab. A citizen gave her a gas mask, and she hid under a bench during the attack.

The assignment not only won Fernandez an Emmy, it developed her connection with her Jewish side. Upon her return to the States, she began studying intensely with Rabbi Howard Bald. Fernandez found the experience "active and cerebral and engaging and exciting. It taught me how to think in a different way. I consider it some of the greatest study I've undertaken, in the greatest way. It was not just memorizing. I know more about halachic law than most Orthodox Jewry."

Fernandez, who spent Passover with Moroccan Jews from Spain reading the haggadah in Hebrew and Ladino, said that she prizes her Jewish Latino friends of Mexican and Argentine descent, as well as the good friends she made while in Israel.

"I can discuss a tomato with them and it will be fascinating conversation," Fernandez said. "I feel way at home culturally with my friends in Tel Aviv."

The laid-back style of "Morning News" may not be for everyone, but it is original. In the 1950s, before video, when television still relied on kinescope, KTLA, with Hal Fishman and Stan Chambers, pioneered serious television news. In 1991, KTLA pioneered once again with the light-hearted "Morning News," introducing a ratings-grabbing format that has since been replicated nationwide.

Producer Rich Goldner observed that the format could only have emerged from Los Angeles' early 1990s tumult -- the riots, the Northridge earthquake, the Malibu fires, the floods, the O.J. Simpson trial. "The anchors had an opportunity to ad-lib so much," Goldner said.

There are viewers who might find the tone of the broadcast -- where entertainment fluff is often sandwiched between sobering, tragic stories -- too glib or flip. Fernandez doesn't mind the contrast, which she adds reflects life itself.

"It's been a family of characters for 11 years," Fernandez said. "While it has weekly irreverence and deviations, it also has a strong commitment to news."

Executive Producer Marcia Brandwynne, who calls the show "a breakfast club," believes that deeper, analytical coverage should be reserved for outlets such as The New York Times and The Jim Lehrer Report. She doesn't make any apologies for the airy program, especially with capable professionals such as Fernandez behind the desk.

"It's light at heart," Brandwynne said, "but when it takes the news turn, she's smart. She asks the right questions. She brings a great presence to every interview. She does a lot of homework."

Goldner noted that Fernandez comes to KTLA with more than just an impressive resume.

"We weren't looking for just a news reader," Goldner said of Fernandez, who is at home doing one-on-ones with Sting or Kobe Bryant as she is conversing with heads of state.

"She's really raised the bar with that type of breadth of experience," says KTLA News Director Jeff Wald. "She has been to most of the places she's talked about, and brings with her that insider knowledge. She's also brought more male viewers into the tent. They find her appealing."

So which type of male does Fernandez find most appealing? The vivacious Latina, who has alluded to her single status on the air, told The Journal that she is still looking for Mr. Right. But the majority of guys out there who would love to wake up next to Fernandez every morning can turn on their bedroom TV sets -- she will not settle for anything less than her ideal.

"I want a man who can add to my experience," she said, "and has a sense of life and adventure, an intellect. Someone who can spice up my life. I know I can spice up his."

If KTLA's "Morning News" has brought any spice to its medium, it is news mixed with personality, spontaneity, honesty, self-deprecating humor and ethnic diversity -- all of which Fernandez's colleagues say describe the newswoman herself.

"She's an informed anchor, and totally unafraid to be Jewish on the air," Brandwynne said. "There was a time when it wasn't such a hot idea to admit that you were Jewish. We've come to another place."

"I love our history, our perseverance, our individuality and devotion to family," Fernandez said. "I'm very proud of the Jewish people and [their] contributions to society and world culture."

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