November 1997
Reprint from - Latina Publications New York, NY

Giselle Fernandez has a new Attitude

By Leila Cobo-Hanlon
  GISELLE FERNANDEZ 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 nationwide.

  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 personal future.

  "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 it."

  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 her roots.

  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 me."

  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 feelings.

  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 stories.

  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.

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