The first thing that
people usually ask Giselle Fernandez
is, "Why?" Why leave a successful career as a news
journalist and co-anchor to report on the machinations of
the entertainment industry? The question is posed to
Fernandez by everyone from magazine writers to fans
chatting with the thirty-seven-year-old reporter on the
Internet. Fernandez, who worked on such solid news
programs as CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News, made the
transition to covering the Hollywood scene in 1996, when
she began co-hosting NBC's Access Hollywood. It seems
difficult for people to understand why she would make such
an about-face with the track to professional accomplishment
Fernandez was raised in a small, hilly Los Angeles
community known as Silverlake. Silverlake has a reputation
for duality. In addition to being the home for a large
number of Latinos, historically, the area has also been
populated by members of the gay and lesbian communities.
The diversity that Fernandez saw growing up was matched by
the duality of her own nature. Her mother, a Jewish-
American New Yorker, married Mexican flamenco dancer Jose
Fernandez, many years her senior. Fernandez, who has
referred to herself as a "kosher burrito," lived and
traveled with her mother after the couple's divorce.
Madeleine Fernandez' Ph.D. work in Mexican folklore helped
nurture her daughter's insight into her Mexican heritage.
Attending California State University, Sacramento,
Fernandez discovered a passion for journalism, which she
calls "a desire that is in my blood." After graduating, she
worked as a television reporter in Colorado, California,
and Chicago. It was at Chicago's WBBM-TV that she met the
second great male influence of her life. Like her father,
news director Ron Kershaw was mature and larger-than-life.
He played a major role in helping Fernandez develop her
goals as a newscaster, speaking often of her responsibility
to "expose the white ivory tower of corruption and protect
the common man." Their working relationship soon became a
romance that was cut short by Kershaw's death. Fernandez
had to deal with the emotional repercussions of losing
Kershaw, along with innuendo that she had used their sexual
involvement to advance her career.
She went on to prove her skills as a broadcaster
with the energy and determination that are her trademark. Fernandez
distinguished herself by reporting from most of the world's
political hot spots: Somalia, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and
Panama during the U.S. invasion. Domestically, she covered
the World Trade Center bombing trial and Cuban immigration,
among other timely issues. She won five Emmys for her
efforts. She was even chosen by Cuban leader Fidel Castro
as the only news-person to whom he would grant his first
English interview in two decades. Yet, broadcast news
eventually left Fernandez unfulfilled. "To me, the network
news industry can be very alienating," she comments. "It's
very white, it's very exclusionary." She decided to explore
other venues for her talents, and decided that acting as a
tele-journalist for the arts and entertainment field would
be challenging and fun.
Fernandez' career crossover has been a smooth one.
Athletic and upbeat, she appears six times a week on Access
Hollywood. Beginning last year, she conducted a series of
interview shows on Galavision, under the title "Cafe Ole
with Giselle Fernandez." Maria Conchita Alonso, Cheech
Marin, and Daisy Fuentes were some of the Latin celebrities
who made appearances. Fernandez plans to make more "Cafe
Ole's." She is able to poke good-natured fun at her image,
as evinced by her role as a sportscaster in a skit for the
American Airlines Latino Laugh Festival. With her own
production company ready to take flight, Giselle Fernandez
has demonstrated that the road to success sometimes
involves a change of direction.
Laura: Your father was sixty-one years old when your
parents married. What were some of the effects of having an
Giselle: I definitely think there were some
disadvantages of having an older dad. When I was ten, he was
seventy-one. He was the age of most of my friends' grandparents
and most of my grandparents had passed away already. That's a
disadvantage. The advantage was that he was a brilliant
artist and had been brought up in a time that was really
illustrious and more formal and artistic. He had a great
journey to experience all of that Spanish classical music,
Spanish classical dance. He was a great storyteller. I
benefitted from his knowledge and experience of his century.
He was born in 1900. The disadvantages were that, as a kid,
I always was very fearful of his passing away. Every
birthday I can remember thinking, "Please don't let him die
until I'm eleven, please don't let him die until I'm twelve,
please don't let him die until I'm eighteen." I have to say
he was a dancer in remarkable physical condition, had such
style and joie de vivre that I remember many of our family
friends saying, "He will outlive us all." In many ways he
Laura: Do you think that the age difference
contributed to the dissolution of the marriage?
Giselle: No. I think that there were some cultural
issues. My father was a huge philanderer. I don't think age is
necessarily a barrier when you find your soulmate, but my
dad was definitely most in love with his art, his dance.
That took precedence above all. He had a zest for life and
women and wine. I think that doesn't bode well for any kind
of long-lasting marriage. They had ten good years together
and two great kids came out of it, so I think perhaps it
lasted as long as it should have.
Laura: How did someone who attended a state
university win such prestigious positions? I'm sure you were
competing for jobs with people who had attended Ivy League schools.
Did you have to work doubly hard?
Giselle: Yes, I did. We didn't grow up with a lot
of money. We grew up in the public school system of Los Angeles.
My mom was a single mom raising us, and we were lucky to be
able to even afford a state university. But I had a curious
nature, I worked really hard. I was intent on defying every
Laura: As a journalist, have you ever found yourself
in a potentially life-threatening situation, and how did you deal
Giselle: Sure, there were many times where I was
really frightened, one in particular. We were caught very close to
a scud missile attack in Tel Aviv. Like anybody else, you
get scared to death. You just get through it. People who
have never had that kind of experience seem to make it an
out-of-this-world experience. When you're in it, you
respond to it as any human being would. You're there to do
a job and you do it. The bug just gets you. You love the
life and death thrill of it all, and you miss it when you
don't have it. It's not a game, it's real life. It's when
you come home that you think, "My God, I can't believe that
I witnessed that, that it was real, that I had a front row
seat to history."
Laura: Now that you're an entertainment journalist,
in what ways do you still try to "shake the ivory tower in order
to protect the common man?" What are your goals when you
interview a famous actor or director?
Giselle: I want the person. I want to find out
what motivates and inspires each human being, so that we
understand why we like them. I think everything we're
interested in as a society is a reflection of who we are.
It's like a mirror right back at us. If we're interested in
Beavis and Butthead, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Redford, it
says something about who we are. Why are we interested?
That's my motivation: to find out what about these people
has tapped into mass appeal, what about them we should
know, and what we can learn from them. I'd like to believe
that everybody has talent, so I want to tap into the best
in their nature. The essence of each interview that I
conduct at this point is to go for the humanity of the
individual and bring it to the forefront.
Laura: You have said many times that any discrimination
you felt during your career was based on your gender and not
your ethnicity. May I suggest to you that racial prejudice
often expresses itself as a sexual need to subordinate.
For instance, at one point in your career, you were
accused of using your sexuality to get ahead. But you may
have been threatening because you were a woman, you were
intelligent, and you were Latina. Think of the words used
to describe Latinas: "hot," "spicy," "sexy." These are all
sexually charged terms, but used in an ethnic context. May
I get your response on this matter?
Giselle: I think that's such an excellent question
and it's so '90's. Yes, I think that my ethnicity ignites a
perception of that hot, Latin, sensual being and that can
be threatening. Because we live in a very careful time,
people would never associate the ethnicity with the
sexuality, they'd think that they were only responding to
me as a woman. Do I think my Latina heritage plays into
that image? Absolutely. Do I think it's discriminatory?
Absolutely. Is it a lack of understanding about our
culture? Yes. In Mexico or with my Latin friends,
flirtation and chistes [jokes] are not perceived as full-
blown sexuality. It is perceived as what it is--charming. I
have to say that being a Latina has been more beneficial
than not for me in the workplace, because people want to
fulfill those quotas. Thank God I had the goods, because I
worked my tush off to make sure that I did. But I did get
in the door because of my last name.
Laura: Was interviewing Fidel Castro a nerve-racking
Giselle: Sure. Are you kidding me? It was thrilling.
It created a lot of nerves. It takes dedication and a lot of
determination. Nothing ever happens overnight. I had
studied and covered Cuba and Castro for years by the time
I finally had a chance to talk with him one-on-one. I was
ready and I was very proud of that moment as one of the
quintessential coups of my career. I was just looking back
at the tapes of that interview, the raw footage. At the
very end, I said I'd like to have some more time with him.
He said, "Antes que me muera [Before I die]." I said, "No,
it'll be too long." And he goes, "Te prometo, antes que me
muera [I promise you, before I die]." So, I'm going to send
him a copy of that tape, saying: Not that I'm suggesting
you're going to pass away soon, but I would like to come
down and talk with you again.
by LAURA VARGAS
Photos by BLAKE LITTLE