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EXCLUSIVE: How Rachel Maddow -- who came out by posting flyers in her Stanford dorm, worked as a bucket washer at a coffee factory and is a fan of monster truck rallies -- became the first openly gay woman host of a prime time news show
By Caroline Howe
December 9, 2019
YEARS BEFORE TV host Rachel Maddow climbed to the top of prime time news charts as the first openly gay woman host, she worked her fair share of odd jobs and came out by posting flyers in her Stanford dorm.
The 46-year-old never stopped embracing her sexuality as a lesbian pundit and is a self-described butch with short hair and black-rimmed glasses who reads comic books, goes to monster truck rallies, loves to fish and describes herself as an 'amateur mixologist of classic cocktails'.
'I'm not a TV anchor babe. I'm a big lesbian who looks like a man', Maddow is quoted in Lisa Rogak's book, Rachel Maddow: A Biography, to be published by Thomas Dunne Books on January 7, 2020.
The author details Maddow's rise to success, from being a bucket washer at a coffee bean factory, to becoming a Rhodes scholar with a doctorate from Oxford and landing her Emmy Award-winning prime time gig on MSNBC.
"Maddow has taken a truly unorthodox path to stardom and never apologized or changed who she is to get to where she is today," the author writes.
The Rachel Maddow Show could be called the Dr. Maddow Show as she's a Rhodes Scholar and holds a PhD from Oxford. But she still has taken flack for her short haircut and tomboy style. Alec Baldwin once referred to her fondly saying, "I have to talk to Rachel Maddow -- only one of us can have this haircut,"
"Concerning her sexuality -- she's openly flaunted it and considers herself to be an outsider, and this has shaped her philosophy and career," Rogak describes Maddow.
Despite her years of professional success, Maddow still experiences the depression that has dogged her since she was a kid and asserts: "I am not a model of mental health."
The book reveals her battle with depression. Maddow knows it's coming on when she can no longer detect certain smells but that doesn't mean she gets through it easily.
"One of the manifestations of my depression is that I lose my will -- and thereby the ability to focus. If I'm not depressed and I'm on and I can focus, I can think through something hard and without interpretation and without existential emptiness that comes from depression,"
"The time that is the hardest for me is when I have forgotten and don't know this is happening to me," says Maddow, who credits her devoted partner of 20 years, artist Susan Mikula, with pulling her out of the suicidal feelings. "She will say, 'You're depressed,' knowing that it's not going to be forever, that it will pass and leave at some point, and that helps,"
"I'm a childless, middle-aged, potbellied lesbian and I don't have that much to be excited about in my life other than having a great job" -- as well a great relationship with Mikula, who helps balance out Rachel's life after two decades together.
She met Susan when she ran out of money and came back to the U.S. from Oxford to write her dissertation free from distraction in the U.K. She crashed with friends in Massachusetts and went looking for odd jobs –- and she had her share.
"I was a waitress, bike messenger, bucket washer at a coffee bean factory, yard help, landscaping laborer, handyman. I went for a job at a video store and got turned down because I didn't know enough about movies," stated Rachel.
But the Rhodes scholar with an Oxford PhD, has also worked as an AIDS activist for years as well as a barista. When she showed up at Susan's farmhouse in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts in her latest odd job to uproot tree stumps and clear thorny thickets on her lawn, it was love at first sight for the two who are in no rush to get married.
Their first real date was at an event "Ladies Day on the Range," sponsored by the National Rifle Association. They fired guns, hurled tomahawks and had a blazing good time. They've settled into a cozy way of life, living during the week in New York's West Village and then heading out to the Berkshires for weekends in the country.
Maddow got her first on-air job at the local rock station in Northampton, Massachusetts, when they held an open audition for a sidekick for their show, Dave in the Morning, that parodied popular songs.
Maddow couldn't sing but "she had this beautiful professional voice," says Dave Brinnel, the show's host. She read the headlines of the day and set up the punch lines for Dave in the Morning.
In a conversation with Brinnel about farts, Maddow confessed, "There is nothing funnier than a fart."
Maddow discovered she loved being on the radio. "Being paid to talk? It's like being paid to eat," Maddow said.
She left the station for a year to complete her dissertation and then went back and stayed until 2004, when she was hired to host a show on the newly launched Air America, a network that specialized in progressive talk radio. It was just the beginning of a successful career for Maddow, who said, "I have a face made for radio if ever there was one."
That gig led to being a foil for the conservative Tucker Carlson's Show on MSNBC in 2005. For three years she was a guest commentator on Carlson's show, Paula Zahn's, and Larry King's, and then segued into guest-hosting for Keith Olbermann for his MSNBC show, Countdown.
People were calling her a cross-dressing lesbian and a "transgendered king." But there was always the danger that a homophobic person would decide to threaten violence or death.
Threatening calls and letters did come in and worried Maddow, the author reveals.
It was Olbermann who got Maddow her own show on that network in 2008. The show has succeeded despite occasional bouts with depression that evaporate when she is on the air because "oh, hey, this is exciting," she said.
"I don't think about how I look that much," she said, and hasn't modified her look for 11 years –- the length of her MSNBC show. I'm not a TV anchor babe. I'm a big lesbian who looks like a man." Maddow, who stands at 5' 11'', said. She laughs off people who think she's cool, saying: "I'm such an old man!"
"I'm an unusual looking person. Maybe people tell themselves, 'Well, she isn't getting by on her looks, for sure. Maybe she's got something to say'."
And Maddow has –- even while growing up in the very Catholic Castro Valley, a suburb of Oakland and 19 miles southeast of San Francisco. She describes it as "a very conservative nasty little town where our parents and leaders can't say the word condom in front of one another."
Her parents were very strict Catholics who monitored their daughter closely –- or so they thought. They didn't realize she was gay. Her father, Bob, was a former Air Force captain who watched sports on TV on mute while listening to the radio broadcast of the event –- which made sports smarter. Maddow took note. Her mother Elaine was a school administrator.
Maddow came out at Stanford when she posted a letter in every bathroom in her dorm that she was gay. That hit the college newspaper. Her parents were shocked and humiliated but never caught on to her gender with her closely cropped blue hair, her Doc Martens, baggy jeans with chains hanging from her belt and her oh-so cocky, confrontational mind-set.
"They were in tears... and worried that I was going to go to hell and would have a hard life. They were also upset that they had raised somebody so callous and nasty and disrespected them enough not to tell them..."
All of that is long in the past as she had morphed from news host to kind of an oracle in the age of Trump.
Her mother now will send her a note suggesting maybe the choice of jacket she wore on the show was perhaps out of season.
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