Personal photographs tell the journalist’s joy, fears, tears and gutsy, go-for-it philosophy
Robin Roberts is crying. I have arrived for our interview with an album packed full of images from the remarkable life of the 54-year-old coanchor of ABC's Good Morning America, and, to my amazement, from the moment Roberts sees the first photo, her tears flow freely. She dabs at the stream with a soon-to-be drenched tissue, while laughing, gesticulating and sharing her very personal memories and hopes for the future.
Roberts is the first to admit she never dreamed she'd come so far, so fast, overcoming so much adversity along the way. The youngest child in a close-knit family headed by Lucimarian Tolliver and Colonel Lawrence E. Roberts (both now deceased), she grew up in the Gulf Coast town of Pass Christian, Miss. A gifted student, she was also a standout player on the women's basketball team at Southeastern Louisiana University. She graduated with a degree in communications — and was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
She began her professional career as a local radio and TV sports anchor, then landed a position as a sportscaster with ESPN in 1990. In 2005, she was named coanchor of Good Morning America, where her popularity soared when she openly wept on the air while covering the devastation of her hometown by Hurricane Katrina. In 2012, she landed a historic interview with President Barack Obama, during which he announced his support of same-sex marriage; Roberts herself came out as gay in a late-2013 social media tribute to her longtime partner, Amber Laign, 40, a licensed massage therapist.
Devoutly Christian, she called upon her faith to help her endure chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer, which Roberts was diagnosed with in 2007. And in 2012, she learned she was suffering from a bone marrow disease called myelodysplastic syndrome, related to her earlier cancer treatments. Her oldest sister, Sally-Ann, proved to be her bone marrow match, and Roberts was successfully treated with a transplant in September of that year. Her bravery in coping publicly with her illnesses has been widely recognized, including with a Peabody Award in 2012 and ESPN's Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2013.
Today, wearing a hot-pink sweat jacket emblazoned with the word "Blessed" across the front, Roberts is both grateful and optimistic. When I ask mid-interview, as her tears continue to flow, if she's doing OK, she answers with a smile: "Doing great. This is really lovely."
1966: Family Ties
You're starting with my favorite. This is how I envision my family, though my parents are now deceased, and I get so woo-woo. [Begins to cry.] I think of myself as that little girl who's scratching herself; my mom kept saying, "Stop scratching." I'm, like, "Why do you have me in a dress? I hate being in a dress." Dorothy [Dorothy Roberts McEwen] is a bit older, and Sally-Ann [Sally-Ann Roberts] is the big sister. Then there's my big brother, Butch [Lawrence E. Roberts II]. This was right before we left for Izmir, Turkey. My dad was in the Air Force, and when I was this age I would pick up the phone and answer, "Colonel Roberts' quarters. Robin speaking." My dad was, like, "No, honey, this is our home." But I truly loved everything about my dad's being in the military.
2003: Taking Flight
This was taken in November 2003. Less than a year later, my father passed away, just before he turned 82. This is the great thing about Good Morning America. They had said to me, "If you could do anything, what would that be?" I said, "I want to fly a plane like my dad did."Now, I didn't mean I actually wanted to fly a plane that he flew! But we went back to Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala., and this old thing comes chugging down the runway, and I'm, like, "I'm getting in that?" I was wearing my dad's old bombardier jacket. My father was very conservative and not boisterous at all, and to see him like this — he was so excited.
It was very special — my fantasy. We went live, and it was a great way to bring attention, because in 2003, people would go, "Tuskegee Airmen — what are they about?" Now when you say it, people are a little more familiar because of Red Tails, the George Lucas film, and others. So it was a way to educate people, to honor my father and the fellow airmen. And also, aviation is my second love. If this broadcasting thing didn't work out, I wanted to be a pilot.
2005: My Mentor
Thelma and Louise! This was from a bowling segment. Diane [Sawyer] is not very good in sports [laughs], and I was telling her, "Just keep your elbows right here." The greatest gift I could've received making the transition from sports to news was this woman. She just embraced me. I was coming into a totally different arena. My knees were knocking. She could have been dismissive, and all she did was be gracious.
I was very, very aggressive. During one game, I kind of shoved — no, I punched — an opposing player. There was this collective gasp, because I was such a nice person. But I was just overtaken by the moment. I liked that I could be aggressive on the court — don't mess with me — but when I stepped off, I was a perfect lady.
1998: No Place Like Center Court
Oh, gosh! Geno Auriemma [head coach of the University of Connecticut Huskies women's basketball team]. Just look at that blazer I'm wearing. The Women's National Basketball Association started in 1997, and this was the second year I did play-by-play announcing for ESPN with Geno, and this really gets me reminiscing. I look at this, and this was not working for a living. I said the entire time that I was in sports, especially at ESPN: I never worked a day in my life. I mean, look at the joy, and people were even saying that when they saw me. Don't get me wrong — I am incredibly appreciative and love what I do at Good Morning America. But there is something when people see me in this arena that it's just like butter. [Laughs.]
2005: Reporting Close to Home
Covering Hurricane Katrina was a real moment for me, personally and professionally. On the air, I broke down and cried when Charlie Gibson asked about my family. I had just found my mother and sister within the hour. They hadn't been able to evacuate because my mom was ill. The family house was damaged, but they were fine. After the broadcast, I remember taking my earpiece out and thinking, "I don't have a job anymore." Because it was a time when you didn't show emotion like that.
2006: Oh, Brother!
I'm so happy. My big brother doesn't get a lot of attention — he's always, like, "Remind people that you have a brother." He went off to college when I was in the first grade, so it's hard to remember him in our home growing up. But I love this photograph. He came by the studio, and he was just beaming. Butch is a schoolteacher in Houston. He graduated from Rutgers with a major in English but then got into finance. When his company downsized 10 years or so ago, he was, like, "What am I doing? I went to school to be a teacher." And he's been such a strong role model for a lot of students, to see an African American man in the classroom. He teaches high school English, he coaches, and he's very involved in the students' lives.
2011: Coach Pat
Oh, sweet Pat [Summitt]. Wow! We both have had a journey, haven't we? Pat was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease in 2011. I keep in touch, and she has more good days than not. I had always wanted to be a Lady Vol under her at the University of Tennessee, but, thinking about it, we probably wouldn't have the friendship we have now if I'd been her player. I've got her back. And I love that she's got a hashtag: #WeBackPat.
2008: Freedom to Be
This was at Isaac Mizrahi's show during New York Fashion Week. It was just a whim. You can't see it, but there was a mirror where we turned onto the runway. I had on my trusty wig that I had been wearing on the air. A model had gone out in front of me. I'm thinking, "That's not fair. Wait until gravity sets in, honey. Oh, you look good now! " And I'm not feeling so good about myself because I'd just completed chemotherapy [for breast cancer] and was about to begin radiation. I remember rounding the corner and seeing the mirror and going, "Uh-uh. No," and taking off the wig. I went out there and was just so happy. It was freeing.
2012: Mother's Love
This was at my mom's book signing for My Story, My Song, the memoir she and I published in 2012. Shortly after, she had a stroke, and she died in late 2012. You know, there's no one that looks at you like your mom, no one more excited to hear your voice. I could hang up the phone with her, call her right back, and she would be like I hadn't talked to her in two weeks. "Oh! Hello, Robin!" With joy. She shined that day, with friends and relatives for a good old-fashioned tea in an old antebellum home in the Pass [Pass Christian, Miss.]. My sister Dorothy sang, "This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long," and my mother referred to all her children as the loves of her life. Ooh! No disrespect to my father.
2012: Moment in History
Oh, I had my power suit on! But when I look at this picture, I see something so different from what other people see. Yes, for the president of the United States of America to change his stance on marriage equality, that was huge. And to be the person across from him asking that question! But see the little look on my face? I'm reacting to my producer on the side, who's just held up one of those blue cards. I was guessing the sign was going to say, "You rock!" Instead, it says, "Lipstick on teeth!" As my mama used to say, "When you strut, you stumble."
2013: The Sisters Three
I always thought Dorothy [above, center] was going to be my bone marrow match, because we're closer in age and have more similarities. But if Dorothy, an artist who was my mother's main caretaker at the time, had been my match, it never would have happened. Sally-Ann [above, right], who's a TV anchor in New Orleans, just knew she was it. She put her swab in the test tube and looked at me like, "It's done." I knew at the time that it's only a 3 out of 10 chance that a family member will be a match. Everyone thinks it's a virtual automatic. It's a gift to have siblings who each have a role and accept our role. We're very spiritual, and I truly believe everything happens for a reason and purpose, and there was a purpose why Dorothy wasn't my match and Sally-Ann was.
2014: This Is No Fuss With Us
Amber [Laign] looks so much better in this picture than I do. It was my 50th-birthday celebration, and she had heard me moaning and groaning about some kind of party. I'd told her all I wanted to do was dance on the beach. We were on Turks and Caicos. She set the whole thing up — a dance floor on the beach — as a surprise. But then it rained. Still, I was just thrilled that she heard me. With Amber and me there's no fuss. We're so happy. We've been happily in a relationship for 10 years and are looking forward to the next 10 after that.
2013: Back in the Game
This was my trial run before I returned to the show after my transplant. My doctor had said, "You need to go in and do a dry run first." And I was thinking, "Son, you know how long I've been doing this? I don't need any practice." Oh, he was so right. I was so exhausted from this day, and I wasn't even on the air. Just the emotion of seeing people who I know didn't think they were going to see me again. Some people were, like, why were you in such a hurry to get back? It wasn't about being back on TV. It was about being back in life. I could've stayed longer in an isolated room, but I didn't want life to continue to pass me by. I wanted to participate in life. Put me in, Coach. I'm ready to play.
2014: Wedding Belles
This is at Sally-Ann's daughter's wedding last year. Dorothy's there [far left] — she wasn't dating anyone at the time — and Sally-Ann and her husband, my brother and his wife, and me and Amber. We released this picture not to make any kind of statement about me and Amber. But so many people commented, "You and Amber look normal." I'm like, "We are normal!" I'm lucky that my family has always been very accepting. All they wanted was for good people to be in our lives.
I think of September 20, the date of my transplant, as my birthday more than my real birthday, on November 23. I don't try to be like people who have had life-threatening illnesses and say, "Every day is a gift." But everything that happens from now on is lagniappe, as we say in the Gulf.
Meg Grant is West Coast editor of AARP The Magazine.
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