The smartest, gayest rising star in cable news is a self-described dork.
“I’m not cool and I don’t want to be,” says MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “I tend to pursue avenues of interest that are quirky and nerdy and weird.”
She likes country music, trout fishing and cocktails “from before Prohibition.” She’s never owned a TV. Her idea of a good time is shooting cans with her BB gun at her 1860’s home on a river in Western Massachusetts.
In fact, on their first date, Maddow and her partner of nine years, artist Susan Mikula, 50, went to a shooting range.
A Rhodes Scholar with an Oxford Ph.D. in political science, Maddow, 35, just finished a two-week fill-in stint for Keith Olbermann (Cornell ’79). As part of her new, exclusive TV deal with the network, she appears regularly on his show as a political pundit.
MSNBC boss Phil Griffin is an unabashed apostle.
“We don’t have a place for Rachel right now, but she is in our future,” he says. “She has the magic. Sit tight; she’s going to fill in for everybody. We’re letting her grow.”
Maddow’s TV break began at liberal Air America radio, where the former AIDS activist hosts a 6-to-9 p.m. weekday show. Hungry to book talking heads at Air America’s 2004 launch, the networks began calling the unknown Maddow.
“I was fresh meat,” she says. “I was never anybody’s first choice. Ultimately, they got to the bottom of the barrel. I started doing hits for CNN, ABC, MSNBC. If the producers like you, you get asked back.”
From the beginning, Maddow’s career path has never followed a straight line.
Then again, the odds were stacked. Growing up in the Bay area; her father was an Air Force captain; her mother’s side was filled with Newfoundland nuns.
“I haven’t had some Waspy career trajectory or lifelong goal,” she says. “I pursue things as they interest me. I do what I’m passionate about at the time. If something grabs me, I follow it.”
Crashing with friends in Massachusetts while finishing her dissertation on the AIDS movement and prisons, Maddow did a series of odd jobs: yard work, delivery person, washing buckets at a coffee roasting company.
Just for fun, she auditioned as sidekick on a “morning zoo” radio show. She got the job. At that point, she wasn’t thinking of radio as a career. She didn’t even take the medium seriously until Air America, she says.
Like numerous boys in the biz, Maddow would like to continue with both radio and TV.
“Being on TV makes me better on radio, and vice versa. It connects me to broader debates and grounds me to what’s generating the most heat.”
Generating heat is no problem for Maddow, given her stunning looks and wicked wit.
She’s made no secret of wanting her own TV show, but she knows it’s not her call.
“Trying to succeed in the TV news business is like trying to get hit by lightning. You can put a lightning rod at the op of your steeple to try and make things happen, but you donâ€™t get to decide.”