November 1997 Reprint from - Latina Publications New York, NY
Giselle Fernandez has a new Attitude
By Leila Cobo-Hanlon
is a tad miffed. Its past wrap-up time on the set of Access
Hollywood, she has a bad cold, and she's still tinkering with
the script she was given for today's edition of the half-hour
show. It's not a bad script, but, well, it's not perfect. After
a brief off-set conference with producers, Fernandez returns to
her seat and elegantly crosses her legs, her back perfectly
straight, never touching the chair.
By the time the cameras start rolling, all visible traces of
discomfort have disappeared. With a toss of raven black hair,
Fernandez flashes a full smile--one thousand megawatts of
charm, self-confidence, and wit registering on-screen along
with those telegenic cheekbones, now so familiar to viewers
These days, former news anchor Fernandez, 36, talks about
Grammy Awards instead of world policy. She interviews Tom
Cruise in place of Al Gore. As cohost of Access Hollywood,
she brings to this daily entertainment news magazine the
same standards and panache that took her local newscasts to
national television journalism.
Just a couple of years ago, Fernandez was at the helm of the
Sunday edition of the NBC Nightly News--the only Latina in
recent memory to anchor network news. Her many journalistic
coups, including the first interview in English with Fidel
Castro in over two decades, had commentators
touting her as a rising star among the next generation's
female anchors. But in a surprising about-face, Fernandez
left New York and the national news for Hollywood glamour,
taking not only a leap in career paths but a huge leap of
faith that she hopes will redefine her professional and
"I love being a reporter and covering hard news," says
Fernandez. "But I needed to break away from strict news. I
have a creative spirit that wants to explore new
possibilities. I don't want to be limited because something
is not journalistic or because I'm a woman. I wanted to be
in an arena where I could be different and not be put down
For Fernandez, Access Hollywood is the perfect place to
blend news and features and to cover entertainment in a
manner that, she hopes is flashy while substantial. "It's
what I call the ice cream and the broccoli theory," says
Fernandez, her face animated, her hands gesturing non-stop.
"This is TV, the genre is entertainment. So we have to
bring in the ice cream."
And then there's the broccoli: the solid interviewing and
reporting skills that Fernandez brings to every show. Her
writing is the stamp of approval that she imparts daily,
even if it means rewriting the script right there on the set.
Such a degree of involvement is unusual in a television
host; but then, Giselle Fernandez has been unusual since
birth. She was born to an unlikely combination: a Jewish
American mother and a Mexican father. Years ago her mother,
Madeleine, then a young New Yorker, spent a summer in Mexico
visiting an aunt and, to her family's horror fell in love
with Jose Fernandez, then 61, a flamenco dancer with more
than one ex-wife to his name.
The couple married, had a son and a daughter who, people
assumed, was named Giselle after the famous ballet
(according to family lore, however, she was actually named
after one of her father's former lovers). When Giselle was
four years old, the struggling family moved to the States in
search of a better life and settled in Silverlake, a
predominantly Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles.
Growing up, she recalls, "I never thought of myself as
displaced. While watching television it never dawned on me
that I was different. It never dawned on me that I was poor."
Fernandez capitalized on what she had instead of dwelling on
what she lacked From her father, a brilliant dancer who
refused to sacrifice his artistic integrity for commercial
success, she learned to strive for excellence and never
compromise for less. From her mother, a fiercely proud woman
with a passion for all things Mexican, she learned to love
Fernandez inherited her independent spirit from her mother.
When Jose Fernandez started cheating on his wife, she
divorced him and went on to get a Ph.D. in Mexican folklore
at the University of California at Los Angeles. Packing up
her kids and their schnauzer in the car, she left California
to explore Mexico, driving from town to town in search of
tales for her dissertation. The joy of traveling and the
image of her mother's tape recorder would stick with
Fernandez for many years to come.
Fernandez went to college thinking she would one day become
an ambassador in an exotic country, and she even held a
political internship in Washington, D.C. But down the road,
she switched majors, wrote for her college newspaper, and
got a degree in journalism before deciding it would be more
lucrative--and more fun--to go into television. She made a
rudimentary demo tape and sent it to stations around the
country. Pueblo, Colorado, called back. They needed a
reporter--a woman, a Latina. Jobs followed in Santa Barbara
and Los Angeles, and every time she found herself in a new
place, she was embraced as a Latina.
Fernandez finally landed a position as a reporter and
weekend anchor in Chicago. The move was a turning point for
her. "I met this chubby guy with a baseball cap and a hell
of a lot of personality," she recalls. "He called me
Princess Taco, but I wasn't offended because I was a
princess and I was a taco. He said, 'You're pretty, you're
Hispanic, and you certainly could be a star in this business.
But you can also be a good journalist--I see humanity in you.
I'm looking for someone who wants to expose white ivory
tower corruption and protect the common man.' And I jumped
on the bandwagon."
That night, Fernandez called a friend and said, "I have met
the man I want to marry." He was Ron Kershaw, the
charismatic news director at WBBM-TV in Chicago.
She took the job, and Kershaw both coddled her and pushed
her. He taught her how to write, how to interview, and how
to be fearless. Two months after he hired her they were
dating. Nine months later, at the age of 43, he died of
cancer in her arms.
"I read an old saying at his funeral," Fernandez recalls. "A
teacher says to his student, 'Come to the edge,' and the
student says, 'No, I'll fall.' And the teacher says, 'No,
come to the edge.' And the student nears the edge, and the
teacher pushes him...and he flies. That's what Ron did for
After Kershaw's death, she left the station amid rumors that
she had slept her way up the ladder. "It was very nasty. My
famous response was,' If I'm going to sleep my way to the
top, I'm not going to do it for a weekend anchor position!'"
It was easier to put on a front than to show her true
She went to Miami in 1989, and as a nightly anchor and
investigative reporter for WCIX-TV she traveled the world,
covering every conceivable story from the Cuban immigration
crisis to the U.S. invasion of Panama. She won several Emmys,
including one for the coverage of a Scud missile attack
during the Persian Gulf War. The piece attracted national
interest and earned her a job as a reporter for the CBS
Evening News. The rest is history. Fernandez sat in
regularly for Dan Rather, Paula Zahn, and Connie Chung. She
eventually left CBS for NBC and anchored the Sunday edition
of the NBC Nightly News and the weekend edition of Today.
Last year, she joined Access Hollywood.
"My big break came by a blessing from God," says Fernandez.
"I was blessed because I look crossover, because I have a
face for television, because my mother promoted my education,
and because my father said, 'Reach for the stars.'"
"When people ask if I've been discriminated against because
I am Latina, I say no. I had every chance to succeed because
I am Latina. Now, if I hadn't been able to do the work, I
would have been out in a heartbeat. They would have said,
'See, there's another Hispanic that couldn't make it.'" She
believes that most major organizations are clamoring for
Latinos. "So the discrimination doesn't come at the place of
employment. Perhaps [it comes] when climbing the ladder, but
I think that's more of a gender issue. The real
discrimination comes from the fact that our communities are
impoverished and the cycle of poverty makes it more
difficult to get an education, to stay in school, to get to
the CBS affiliates and knock on their door."
On a roll, Fernandez has even grander plans. She is trying
to get her own production company up and running so she can
produce documentaries on subjects from world policy to
metaphysics. She feels that documentaries will combine her
passion for news with more innovative ways of telling
These days, she lives in Los Angeles and travels frequently
to New York, where her companion and "best friend" of many
years lives. Fernandez is an avid reader, a runner, and an
aspiring pianist who still struggles to learn the notes.
According to her, she is "desperate" to have children. "I
want a career and a family, and I want passion and love,"
she says. In short, she wants it all--and from the look of
things, she just may get it.