Foxy Lady

Fox 25’s Maria Stephanos has transformed herself from a public radio washout into Boston’s most glamorous, talked-about—and sexy—anchor. Her critics like to complain that she’s no Natalie Jacobson. No kidding.

The Garden crowd is booing Butch Stearns. The Fox 25 sportscaster is one of the presenters at tonight’s Whiney Awards, the annual sports/comedy/idiot ceremony put on by sports radio station WEEI. He’s supposed to appear with his colleague, Maria Stephanos, but Stearns has just told the audience that the voluptuous coanchor of the station’s 10 p.m. broadcast couldn’t make it because she’s ill. He tried the same bit last year. It wasn’t funny then, either. So people boo.

Thankfully, Maria ends the gag, stepping out from behind a black curtain in something far more revealing than anything she wears on-air, a low-cut white dress that’s nearly see-through. A few minutes earlier, when she had been walking down the concourse, past all those guys drinking all that beer, she had covered herself with a big fur coat; now, though, there’s nothing between her and all those eyeballs except a thin piece of designer fabric. This pleases the crowd greatly. (I don’t mind so much, either.) They hoot. They whistle. Someone, the clever sort, shouts: Take it off!

As per usual, Maria has a guardian in tow; tonight it’s Maggie Hennessey-Nees, Fox 25’s director of marketing and community affairs. She looks thrilled. I don’t blame her, judging by how randy the crowd seems. Maggie’s coworkers aren’t making her job any easier, either.

“Show them your calves,” Stearns implores.

“I will not,” Maria says as the Garden cameraman pans down her body, coming to rest on her nicely toned legs. “They can see them every night at 10.” The crowd cheers some more. Makes you wonder how long until the Fox 25 news teases go something like: Fire in Dedham! Maria has sexy legs! Tonight after American Idol!

Come to think of it, that’s not all that far removed from what Fox 25 already does. Television stations have been spicing up their newscasts since well before Katie Couric started occasionally showing some cleavage, but locally, no one has achieved better results with that strategy than Fox 25. For more than a year now, its late-night newscast has been number one in pretty much every age demo that matters. Part of that is because Maria Stephanos is easy to look at—you can tune in every night and have the news delivered by a gorgeous woman with an inviting smile. Fox 25 loves to move its anchors out from behind the desk and around the studio, and it only helps the ratings when it’s Maria doing the solo standup—which usually involves a full-length shot of whatever flattering ensemble she’s wearing. Equally important, the station encourages its on-air talent to flirt with the camera, and all of us at home. Consider this example from a recent broadcast:

Two days after the temperature hits 70 degrees, meteorologist Kevin Lemanowicz tells viewers to prepare for snow. Off-camera, Maria and coanchor David Wade complain that New England’s weather is “bullshit.” Wade offers Maria $5 if she’ll use that very word when they go back on-air.

Instead, Maria says: “Kevin, that’s unreal.”

“That’s not what you said off-camera,” Wade says.

“My language was a little saucier!” she exclaims.

Ten years ago, when Maria joined the station and its newscast was in its nascent stages, Fox 25 was a ratings blip. Today, other stations have begun mimicking its approach. And yet Maria seems conflicted at times. When she’s not onstage telling us to tune in at 10 to see her legs, she makes it clear to me that she wouldn’t mind a little respect. Problem is, she’s onstage a lot. That’s the gig.

A few weeks after the Whiney Awards, Maria emcees a charity auction held at the Ritz-Carlton. Several politicians are in attendance, and some high-profile businessmen, too. Maria’s wearing an incredible, cleavage-showcasing, Marilyn Monroe–esque dress, a beautiful white gown with a black waistband—low cut at the top, billowing at the bottom.

“Don’t you think I should wear this on-air?” she asks the crowd from the podium, and they nod and titter. Just then, a bright light shines on her. It’s a Fox 25 camera, there to capture it all for that evening’s newscast.

When the father finishes his heartbreaking story—about how his daughter suffered a stroke before she was three and lost her ability to walk and much of her sight, only to find salvation at the YMCA—half of the 400 or so people who have gathered for the Y benefit breakfast at the Mansfield Holiday Inn are in tears. The rest want to cut themselves with butter knives.

Now it’s time for Maria to deliver the keynote speech. She saunters up to the stage, wearing a smart red pantsuit and an impossibly white smile. Her mood, as always, is fun and bubbly. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what the crowd is ready for right now.

I lean in to Maria’s Fox 25 keeper for this event. Her name is Sue Pascal-Brickley, and she undoubtedly has more-pressing duties, considering she’s the VP of creative services. Today, though, she has a different task: She’s been assigned to provide a buffer between me and Maria. That’s why I drove to this event by myself. Maria and I were supposed to meet at her house this morning and ride together. But the Fox 25 brass shot that down. They seem to fear that if left alone, I’ll slobber all over Maria, that I’m someone to be closely and constantly monitored, and maybe Tasered from time to time.

“Would you have come today if I weren’t here?” I ask Sue.

“No chance in hell,” she replies. “I’m your chaperone.”

What Sue’s not saying, though, is that the station is just as worried about protecting its star attraction from herself. Maria rarely self-censors and, as she’s admitted, she can be “saucy” at times. She’s irrepressible. Her Maria-ness can’t be turned off.

Up on stage, attempting to warm up a crowd that’s clearly gone cold, Maria tells a few jokes. They bomb. She tries a new tack, offering to take the audience’s questions. “Don’t you want to know where I get my clothes?” she says. “Everyone always asks about my clothes.”

Nothing. She’s drowning.

“Come on,” she says into the mike. “I’ll answer anything.”

Finally, mercifully, a woman in the back of the room pipes up. “Uh,” she says, “do you agree with the political stance of the Fox network?”

“Next question!” Maria says. Everyone laughs. At last, the questions come—about her kids and her marriage, her workout routine, and, yes, where she gets those fabulous clothes.

Maria, 41, has always been able to charm. She inherited that from her father, a beauty salon designer and salesman who was good at getting people to open up when their impulse was to slam the door in his face. After growing up in Groveland, she studied broadcast journalism at Emerson. For a while, she waitressed at Cheers. (Sad, right? Like finding out Chet Curtis used to drive a duck boat.) Her first real journalism gig was as a reporter covering the State House for oh-so-serious WBUR and other public radio stations. She made $15,600 a year. It was almost perfect.

“My voice wasn’t conducive to their format,” Maria says, talking the way she always does—in i
talics and exclamation points. She’s loud and so is her laugh—described as Woody Woodpecker by some, or “Flipper on crack” by coanchor David Wade. It goes something like this: hahahahahahaha—HA! Always like that, rapid-fire, with the emphasis on the final “ha.” The voice and the laugh weren’t the stuff of important public radio. Maria would spend all day putting a segment together, carefully crafting the sound bites so they meshed with her voice-overs. Then she’d wait for the results to air. Usually, they’d just use the quotes she’d gathered, cutting out her speaking parts. “It was devastating,” she recalls. Carl Stevens, the well-respected WBZ radio personality, delicately suggested radio might not be her thing. Perhaps, he said, Maria should try TV.

She took his advice and sent tapes everywhere. A lot of places, like NECN, all but laughed at her. But WJAR in Providence saw something. She didn’t have a radio voice, but she sure had a TV face. Plus, she had a reporter’s background. They signed Maria and sent her to cover fires and murders and blizzards.

WJAR anchor Frank Coletta remembers the first time he knew Maria was destined for success. The regular 6 p.m. sportscaster hadn’t shown up for work, so management threw Maria on the desk. “She wasn’t an expert—I mean, I think she’d tell you that,” Coletta recalls. “But they put her in that slot and she had a great time. She has this…charisma.”

The moment wasn’t lost on Maria, either. It was the first time she’d ever thought about being an anchor. Until then, she’d never wanted to be tied to the desk. She wanted to chase stories. But when so many people mentioned that segment, she understood what they were really responding to. Not the content, but her. They wanted Maria Stephanos. They wanted to know her. Which is something she’s never minded—that they want a piece of her.

“I’m going to tell you why I like it,” she says. “I’m going to tell you why it works for me. Because nobody does this”—she lowers her voice to a whisper—‘Hey, that’s Maria Stephanos over there.’ This is what they do: ‘Hey, you’re the news lady.’”—she’s shouting now—“‘Hey! Maria Stephanos!’ Do you understand what I’m saying?”

One afternoon in March, a few hours before Maria is due to participate in a fashion show to benefit dogs, or the homeless, or maybe homeless dogs (she really does do a lot of these things), I tag along with her to The Mall at Chestnut Hill. Fox 25 takes great care with Maria’s image, and while she has a say in her on-air attire, the station has final hair and wardrobe approval. (She once wanted to wear a sweater because it was winter and, shocker, it gets cold in winter. No go—she had to wear the same sort of flattering suit she always does. Fox 25 never seems to mind the knee-high boots, though.) For the fashion show, a stylist will make the call.

At Macy’s, the woman coos over Maria and puts her in a spandexy-looking red and black dress. Sue, my chaperone from the Y breakfast, is once again running interference. She and I wait while the stylist and Maria discuss what kind of thong she should wear. I pretend not to be paying attention. (No drooling, Gonzalez, lest Fox security whip you with an extension cord.)

Later, back at the station, I ask Maria about her unusually bronze skin. “Do you tan?” I inquire.

“No,” she replies. “I’m Greek.” I look at her, doubtful. “Well,” she admits, “I use Dove lotion with tanner in it.”

Sue chimes in with what seems to be genuine curiosity: “Do you use that Dove lotion everywhere?”

Maria glances at Sue, then at me, unsure how to respond.

“Oh, wait,” Sue finally says, “that’s probably inappropriate.”

The tanner is only part of Maria’s maintenance routine. Photos from her Providence days—darker hair, paler skin, clothes that provide more…coverage—show how her look has evolved from cute to hot. To keep up her appearance she makes sure to stay in shape. She runs five miles just about every day. Five miles with hills. Terrible, terrible hills. I know this because I went with her one day. Despite the fact that I lead the world’s most sedentary existence and haven’t gone running in 12 years, I insisted that she let me join her, primarily because none of her handlers were willing to come along. I figured I could get some good, unfiltered material out of it. What I hadn’t accounted for was how difficult it is to hold a conversation when you’re wheezing uncontrollably and praying for death.

Maria barely broke a sweat. Meanwhile, I lagged behind, fueled only by my stupid pride. She’s 10 years older than I am, and she kicked my ass.

When we got back to her house, Maria gave me Gatorade and homemade Greek cookies and told me how impressed she was by my effort. Then she went about her daily routine—reading newspapers, navigating the Internet, calling sources, searching for stories, preparing herself for that evening’s newscast. It seems as though she’s always preparing. Even when all she’s doing is interviewing Matt Siegel from
Kiss 108’s Matty in the Morning show.

The night before, Fox 25 had led its newscast with a story about a prank call to the radio program that had resulted in a minor police mobilization. Today, it’ll do a follow-up, with Maria interviewing Siegel in Fox’s Dedham studio. “They’re putting this on TV?” he asks Maria in disbelief when he arrives on the set. “And you led with it? Are you shitting me? Is nothing else happening in the world?”

Coming from Siegel, that’s a little like Bozo asking, “You’re gonna lead with the squirting-flower gag?” Never mind that, though: This is what Fox 25 does; this is why the station has been so successful.

“They have a lot of slick production,” says one competing anchor, “but I’ve never thought, ‘My God, David Wade rocks.’ Same goes for Maria. She’s sexy. Guys go nuts for her. But people think more about her clothes than they do about her being some hard-hitting reporter. I mean, did Natalie ever wear boots and a skirt and a revealing blouse and stand outside a Red Sox game?”

There it is, the “Natalie” thing. Any conversation about female anchors in town, or anchors in general, invariably involves Channel 5’s Natalie Jacobson. It’s always something along the lines of: “Natalie would never…” or “Can you imagine Natalie…?” or “She’s no Natalie.” For 35 years now, Jacobson has been the standard for local newscasters. For nearly as long, the common refrain has been there will never be another like her. Which is true. Like Janis Joplin, she’s a singular talent. The brilliance of Maria and Fox 25, though, is that they figured out that no one sings that way anymore, that Natalie Jacobson is no longer what viewers necessarily want. Our tastes have evolved. The game has changed.

“In this business, being liked is extremely important,” says David Wade. “We built an entire station on it.” Indeed, several stations around town are revamping their operations in ways that look and feel suspiciously like what you find on Fox 25. Channel 4 has incorporated a few jazzy production elements into its newscasts, and Channel 7 has added some fresh faces, one of whom, Sorboni Banerjee—a young female reporter wit
h a similarly distinct look—might be considered Channel 7’s Maria. Channel 38 has a version of Maria, too—Sara Underwood. What the other stations can’t copy, though, is the genuine bond Maria has with her viewers. It’s her warmth and personality they can’t duplicate. It takes more than a sexy look to become a star anchor. Not that being sexy hurts.

“We want people who are appreciated by the viewers for all that they are,” Gregg Kelley, general manager and VP at Fox 25, tells me. He could have gone into PR and been really good at it—his knack for euphemism is exceptional. We want our viewers to appreciate Maria. “One thing I try to employ when hiring people is to see how memorable they are. Maria wants to be considered one of the best in the business, and she’s well on her way to being the dominant female anchor in town. You need credibility and professionalism for that. But you also need to be memorable.” Kelley says his morning-show star, Doug “VB” Goudie—who happens to be of the large, Everyman variety—is “memorable,” too. Maybe, but he’s not appreciated in the same way Maria is, which makes her valuable to Fox 25 in a way that VB isn’t.

And yet while Fox and Maria capitalize on their formula, and other stations copy it, no one is willing to cop to the fact that this formula exists at all. Despite their dogged pursuit of ratings, journalists still strive to project a certain professional heft. Which is part of why I think it bothers Maria that in the fallout from last year’s gubernatorial debate debacle, she was pretty much left to take the blame on her own. The Fox 25–cohosted forum featured faux “average voter” questions, one of which came from “Shonda from Medfield,” who turned out to be Curt Schilling’s wife, who is neither average nor a registered voter. No one at Fox wanted to admit it was their idea, so Maria ended up owning it, taking heat from journalists around town. Viewers didn’t seem to care one way or the other, but the media did, if only because we really enjoy sniping at each other.

For her part, Maria insists that she’s not only about radio-hoax coverage, that she does the harder packages, too. And she does. A sit-down with former Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey. An interview with Senator Kennedy in Hyannisport. A face-to-face with first lady Laura Bush.

“That interview I did with Ted Kennedy, I got stuff that nobody has ever heard him talk about. He gave me a personal phone call saying he loved it,” Maria says. “And we had someone from the Kennedy School of Government on to discuss financing the war. I had no problem talking to her about that. I got a tip on two murder defendants last week, how they had followed a juror home, threatened that juror, and that they were protecting the assistant DA in the case because of it. I went and brought this forth, and we sent a camera to court. But for some reason we didn’t do the story. I’m not just down there [on the news set] popping bonbons—although I like bonbons, chocolate ones—but I don’t pop bonbons down there.”

Maria and I (and Sue, of course) are sitting in the Starbucks on Route 1 in Norwood, me with a tall drip, Maria with a bottle of water because she doesn’t drink caffeine, which is probably a good thing. Maria looks as if she might cry. Her eyes are welling up and her lip quivers and, yep, she’s holding back tears. It’s the look of a child who’s just found out she’s not the most popular kid at school.

I’ve just brought up the whispers. Along with those who lust after her on the Internet (Is anyone seeing the eff-me boots maria is sporting tonight. black dress…goddamn! reads a typical post), there are people, including a few fellow Fox 25 employees, who see the image Maria presents as something other than savvy self-marketing. Some critics call her fake and phony; others go one step further, mistaking the married mother-of-two’s engaging personality for something else. They speculate about her morals. They confuse her flirtatiousness with something scandalous.

“It gets to me,” Maria admits. “I don’t know why. I’m much better, believe me, than when I first started out. Look, it’s not easy to Google your name and see pages and pages of pretty unflattering things. It’s not easy. But people keep coming back night after night. I still wake up in the morning relatively healthy. I’ve learned where to put it.”

Maria received an e-mail recently from a person who, to put it mildly, isn’t her biggest fan. The woman who sent the note hates Maria’s laugh. And the way Maria acts on-air. And, well, more or less much everything about Maria, actually. “She left her name,” Maria says. “That, I respect, and I wrote her back. I said, ‘I appreciate your comments. Thanks for watching. Maria Stephanos.’ I didn’t have the guts to write back and say, ‘Well, I like myself, and I’m a really good person, and I’m a great mother, and if you really knew me, you wouldn’t write this. And, I’m sorry that you don’t like my laugh, but that’s just who I am.’”

A few days later, Maria and I (and Maggie, of course) are sitting in the Fox 25 conference room. She seems to be feeling better than she did at Starbucks. It’s one of the last times we’ll chat, and she’s in a contemplative mood.

“Are there days when I’m thinking that I’m not good enough? Yes,” she says. “But my confidence overshadows my insecurity. And that’s why I’m the anchor on the number-one newscast in Boston!” She blurts out this last bit emphatically and, for the first time, comes off a little defensive and entitled.

“Okay,” she says, “that was pathetic. That was so gross. That was really Will Ferrell and Ted Baxter pushed into one, wasn’t it?” And then, like a shot, she’s laughing that Flipper laugh of hers: hahahahahahaha—HA!