For Melissa Harris-Perry, TV Show is ‘Absurd in a Wonderful Way. This is Not My Real Life’

By Gail Shister 

Despite her new-found fame as an MSNBC weekend anchor, self-described ‘scholar activist’ Melissa Harris-Perry is in no hurry to leave her day job.

“TV is not forever; the academy is forever,” says Harris-Perry, a tenured professor of political science at Tulane. “It’s absurd, in a wonderful way, that I have a TV show, but this is not my real life.”

Real or unreal, Harris-Perry commutes from New Orleans to New York City for her 10 a.m. Saturday-Sunday show, launched a month ago. Her husband and 10-year-old daughter fly up on Friday nights.

Harris-Perry, formerly a fill-in for fellow Ph.D. Rachel Maddow, acknowledges that she’s clueless about the technical aspects of her new medium.

“For me, the way TV actually gets made is constantly shocking,” she says. “Thank God for Shirley [executive producer Shirley Zilberstein.] When I first started interviewing people, all I wanted were grad students, who would do brilliant thinking and help me write segments.”

Apparently contracts aren’t real high on Harris-Perry’s agenda, either. When asked the length of her deal with MSNBC, she says: “I’m not quite sure. I’m almost certain it’s two years. When my agents were talking about it on speakerphone, I was surfing Facebook. I wasn’t paying much attention.”

Don’t let the humor fool you. At 38, Harris-Perry is transforming herself into a media conglomerate. In addition to her academic and TV work, she is an author (‘Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America’), a columnist for The Nation, and a well-traveled public speaker.

Unlike many of her Tulane colleagues, who live near campus in New Orleans’ lush Uptown

section, Harris-Perry and her husband, James Perry, a fair-housing activist who ran for mayor in 2010, choose to reside in the city’s dangerous Seventh Ward.

“There’s been two murders within two blocks of our house in the last two months,” Harris-Perry says evenly. “We’re committed to the neighborhood. At times, we feel scared. I also spend a lot of time sitting on the front porch and saying hi to neighbors. For James and me, New Orleans is not about wisteria and mint juleps.”

Harris-Perry was not fazed when their home was robbed over Christmas. At the time, she and her family were in New York for her fill-in stint for Maddow. “They stole our Christmas presents and rode off on our bicycles,” she says.

For Harris-Perry, it’s all relative. As a teenager in suburban Virginia, she was sexually assaulted. In fact, “The worst things that have happened in my life have been in good, middle-class neighborhoods.”

Back to MSNBC, Harris-Perry says her academic training does not automatically transfer to cable. While it requires years of research for scholars to master a topic, live TV demands instant experts.

“If we all worked on the time schedule of the academe, we’d just be forming opinions about Reagan,” she deadpans.

Harris-Perry says she rarely watches TV. Her guilty pleasure: ‘The Real Housewives’ franchise. (Atlanta rules.) She’s never seen her own show, she says, because she’d focus on ‘weird things’ like her animated hand motions and her lisp. Then she’d try to edit herself on the air and her authenticity would be lost, she says.

For Harris-Perry, that authenticity has an expiration date.

“Eventually, I don’t want to have to wear makeup and high heels or watch what I eat,” she says. “The whole point of being a professor is I don’t have to own mascara or lip gloss.”

Right on, Professor Sister Citizen.