Sitting curled in a barber's chair in her modest Millionaire dressing room, Vieira has the casual poise of a cat. She has just finished a day's worth of taping — a week's worth of quiz shows — and has swapped her purple skirt suit and black spike-heeled pumps for blue jeans, brown buckle clogs, and a Harvard hoodie so ratty it's about to disintegrate: her signature look, friends say.
For Vieira, the decision to leave 60 Minutes was never about trailblazing, but about prioritizing. "It was about our particular family and our needs," she says. "The rest kind of happened around me." Still, her choice is now largely seen as a step forward for working mothers, not a step back: It helped highlight the need for more flexible, parent-friendly workplaces. And today, with her departure from daily news to a less hectic schedule, Vieira may once again be unwittingly blazing a trail for modern families, more and more of whom are struggling to incorporate chronic illness into happy family lives.
Calling in reinforcements, when necessary, is key to her plan. Admitting the need for help can be difficult for some caregivers, Vieira says: "They are embarrassed. They don't want to put people out." But she doesn't mind asking. Sometimes when Cohen falls down at home, he can't get up by himself — nor, at 5 foot 3 1/2, can Vieira lift him. "We had this game where I would drag him, sort of like [our dog] Jasper drags the cat. We'd laugh, because what are you going to do?" When there were teenage children at home, Vieira had helpers on hand, but now she'll call on friends, she says. "People want to help, so when we've needed friends in times of any crisis, we ask. And I think it's really important for care givers not to feel that it's all on you at any given time, because it's not."
Friends and coworkers say Vieira fosters a sense of teamwork that makes you want to help her. "Meredith likes to be part of an ensemble. She rises to her best in that setting," says Matt Lauer, who was her Today cohost. "I can't tell you the number of times I'd go out to an interview, come back to my BlackBerry, and the first message would be a text from Meredith saying, 'Fabulous job today.' It's very easy in this job to develop tunnel vision: 'What do I have to do today?' Meredith opened up that frame of reference to, 'What are we doing?' That's contagious."
And Vieira's sense of connection extends outward into the world. "She will kiss all her fans," says comedian Joy Behar, a friend since their days on ABC's The View, where Vieira acted as moderator for nine years. "She kisses everybody, kisses strangers," Behar says. "I always say that the germs are going to go all over the place, but she doesn't care. She's just so affectionate."
After leaving Today, Vieira took last summer off. Ben was graduating from Stanford and taking a finance job in Shanghai, and Lily was graduating from high school. (Gabe majors in journalism at Northwestern University, where Lily recently enrolled.) Vieira didn't want to miss what might be the family's last summer together.
Next: Vieira's new job. >>