Someone whom I have been fortunate to call a friend has written a very interesting new book. You may know Gretchen Carlson from her work on FOX News, but the reason why this book is going to be a hit stems far beyond the TV Studio. For anyone that has a daughter growing up, you need to read this great story about someone who has faced such a great deal of adversity while working her way to the top in her career.
I hope you enjoy our conversation below about Getting Real.
Brandon Steiner: Why did you decide to write Getting Real?
Gretchen Carlson: When people watch me on TV they see part of my life. I wanted to let them know the real me behind the scenes. The child who was a concert violinist from the age of six. The young woman who took on the challenge to compete in the Miss America pageant. The television journalist for twenty-five years. The mother of two who, just like most women, struggles to balance work and family. The battles I’ve fought. How I’ve come back from failure and disappointment. Thanks to my upbringing, I always believed in myself and worked as hard as I could to get where I wanted to be. Nothing was ever handed to me. My hope is that when people read my story, it will inspire them to reach for their goals and not give up. The real story is this: if I can do it, you can too.
BS: Were there any events early in your career that almost made you reconsider a career in the public eye?
GC: On my first job at WRIC-TV in Richmond, Virginia, I started getting creepy love letters from a man I didn’t know. He seemed to think we had an ongoing relationship and were going to get married. In Getting Real, I talk for the first time about the terrifying years-long ordeal of being hounded by a stalker. Before law enforcement intervened, he pursued me relentlessly for years, even sending me an engagement ring and saying he was going to take me away for a romantic honeymoon. He also stalked my parents. Once it was over, I never talked about it, but I decided to tell the story in my book because I know that countless other women have endured the same threat, and unless they’re famous, their experiences go unnoticed. The man who made my life hell for years, and who might have kidnapped or killed me, received a sentence of less than a year in jail. His rights were better protected than mine.
BS: You describe being sexually harassed as Miss America, and later in your career. Why do you feel it is important to speak out about this?
GC: I wasn’t naïve, but at the end of my Miss America year, when two different executives attacked me during what I thought were informational interviews about jobs, I was shocked. I didn’t see it coming, and the worst thing about it was the shame I felt, as if I’d done something wrong. Later, on my first television job, it happened again when I was sexually harassed by a cameraman. Today’s companies are more attuned to the issue, but the young women I talk to are still reluctant to report sexual harassment—just like I was--for fear that it will hurt their careers. My hope is that with more women in the workplace, we can teach younger generations to be respectful, and also encourage young women to speak up when they’ve experienced abuse. It’s equally important that we raise our sons to be accepting of women in the workplace and grow into men who model that respect.
BS: It’s been said that women don’t help one another out in the workplace. Has that been your experience? Why do you feel it is important for women to support each other professionally?
GC: No—just the opposite. I was fortunate to have two strong female role models in the early years of my career. One gave me the chance to be a political reporter when I was inexperienced, and for me it was sink or swim. The second gave me the opportunity to be part of the first two-female anchor team in prime time television and, when it ultimately failed and I got fired, she ended up giving me a second chance in a whole new city. I believe strongly in being a mentor myself, and I seek out young women and interns and try to help them. Women mentors were important to me, and I want to do that for others. I’m thrilled when I am able to give someone an early boost in her career.
BS: How do you feel about balancing work, family, and home life? Do you believe women can “have it all”?
GC: The first time I was asked whether women can “have it all” was at the Miss America pageant. I said no. I didn’t mean that women shouldn’t fully pursue their dreams, only that we need to be honest with ourselves. I’m a person who likes to give 100 percent to everything I do. I want to be the best at my job and as a mother. But I’m not superwoman. It’s impossible to do everything 100 percent all of the time. And suggesting that women should be able to do it only puts more pressure on them.
BS: Have there been any moments in your career in which you felt like you had failed? How did you overcome this?
GC: It’s the time I got fired from my television anchor job in Cleveland. A week after returning from my honeymoon, the general manager told me they were going in a different direction but that I’d be okay because I was now married. I was humiliated and depressed. I never talked about my firing until recently. One of life’s most important lessons is truly appreciating success through failure. I teach my kids that no one wins every time, and it’s the lessons you take from failure that will shape your success.
BS: Are you a feminist?
GC: Yes, of course I consider myself a feminist, but I hate that word because it’s gotten a bad rap. You're not going to meet another person who feels as strongly as I do about women’s rights—whether that’s equal pay, equal opportunity, or any other issue. I’m not a card-carrying member of the National Organization for Women. But I’ve always been up front about supporting women. My mom used to complain about me talking about it too much—until she became the CEO of a company. Now she understands.
BS: How do you respond to critics who say that the Miss America pageant sends the wrong message to young girls?
GC: I’d ask: Is it better for young girls to watch reality TV shows like Honey Boo Boo and the Kardashians than to watch the Miss America Pageant and see smart, talented, and well-put-together women talk about how they want to be future leaders of America? Miss America gets a lot of flak, but the reality is that it is uplifting and aspirational, as opposed to some of the options on television today. I’ve never understood why it’s a negative to showcase a talented, smart woman who also happens to be attractive. The discipline learned from putting in time and effort as a child is a skill and a talent you carry with you for the rest of your life in trying to achieve goals. Pageants should be for young women able to make their own decisions about whether or not they want to take part in a program that advocates for young women and achievement.
BS: What was your most embarrassing moment being Miss America?
GC: It happened the second day. A New York City reporter at my very first press conference rudely asked me if I’d ever had sex and whether or not there was anything about me that wasn’t “real.” She also quizzed me on current events to test whether I was “smart.” I realized she was trying to embarrass me, and it was a really mean thing to do to a twenty-two-year-old girl meeting the press for the first time. There’s something about winning Miss America that brings out the snark. Many years later, when I was a national news correspondent, I saw her at an event and decided to approach her and tell her how demoralizing her comments were—but how I’d made it to the national scene anyway. I felt vindicated that I decided to speak up for not only myself but women all across the nation who’ve been put down.
BS: You say when you joined Fox News you hit the “bimbo trifecta.” What do you mean?
GC: I joke that the bimbo trifecta is being Miss America, being blonde and working for Fox News. If you Google me, you’ll find plenty of “dumb blonde” references--even though I graduated with honors from Stanford and studied at Oxford University. I don’t let it bother me. I’ve learned that sometimes when people don’t like what you have to say, and don’t want to debate you on ideas, it’s just easier to call you a dumb blonde from Fox News.
BS: In Getting Real, you also describe getting “mean tweets.” What is your reaction to the constant criticism you receive on social media?
GC: Sometimes the comments over the top—really ugly. Many of them are critical of my looks, like the one that criticized my “thunder thighs.” I get that a lot. Some of the tweets are too vulgar to repeat. At my age I can handle people writing junk about me on social media, but I sometimes air “mean tweets” on my show to highlight how destructive this meanness and bullying is to young people. I know how devastating it is for a young person to be the victim of such ugliness. I shine a light on it because if people feel comfortable saying it to me, then they must feel doubly comfortable saying it to one of their friends. I can only imagine how it affects kids who are so vulnerable.
BS: You get attacked frequently for speaking about your faith. Why does it remain so important to you?
GC: I have to wonder what’s going on in our culture that makes it okay to attack people for their faith. The Miss America judge who called me “Miss Piggy” also called me a “God-clutcher.” The truth is, faith was an important part of my upbringing and has remained central to my life and my family’s life. Our faith is what inspires us to reach out and volunteer to help others. As a child my parents taught me the biblical charge, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” and faith guides me that way. And I believe, especially in this day and age, it’s vital that we provide our children with a foundation from which to build their lives—one that gives them a sense of purpose.
BS: You believe that people should continue to challenge themselves with new goals, no matter how old they are. So, what’s next for you?
GC: The future is wide open. I may actually go back and get that law degree someday. Maybe I’ll be in the pulpit. Who knows? I might even pursue a career in politics. If I do, I will have had great practice dealing with the avalanche of daily criticism from working at Fox News and being a former Miss America. I’m ready for anything!
Pick up a copy Gretchen's new book Getting Real here.