June 1998
Reprint from - Latin Style Magazine Venice, CA

Giselle Fernandez
Notes From the White Tower

    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 apparently determined.

    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 older parent?

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 did.

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 odd.

Laura:   As a journalist, have you ever found yourself in a potentially life-threatening situation, and how did you deal with it?

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 experience?

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.


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