After Barbara Walters had secured the daytime division’s stamp of approval for The View, she was missing just one key ingredient — her outspoken sidekicks. In the spring of 1997, she cast a wide net for the women who’d soon simply be known as “the ladies,” the coconspirators in her shenanigans. As Barbara came to announce every day in the show’s opening credits, she wanted The View to be multigenerational. She arrived at the number of cohosts, four, through TV math. Three would be too few, and with five, not everybody might be able to speak before the next commercial break.
Barbara, who couldn’t resist being a journalist even in social settings, probing dinner guests for intimate secrets, left no stone unturned in her search for the perfect View cohosts. She had producer Bill Geddie research every female TV personality between the ages of 20 and 50. They couldn’t aim too high, for a Joan Rivers or Brooke Shields, because they didn’t have a budget for real salaries.
Barbara knew that she couldn’t devote all her time to The View. With her other commitments at ABC News, Barbara planned on appearing on her talk show two to three days a week. The other reason to keep some distance: her lawyer told her not to position herself as the lead on The View, in the likely scenario that the show imploded. That meant someone else would need to steer the daily Hot Topics debates. “I did not make myself the moderator, which I regret,” Barbara said. “Yes, it’s much more fun being the moderator.”
Meredith Vieira, an ex–60 Minutes correspondent, crept on the short list for that role, based on a recommendation from the show’s supervising producer, Jessica Stedman Guff. Meredith, 43 at the time, knew Barbara from bumping into her in the elevators at ABC, and she needed a job, since her newsmagazine show, Turning Point, was on the verge of cancellation. But Meredith wasn’t sure if this was the right step for her career. Before social media, serious women in journalism couldn’t dish on a talk show about their opinions. “Once she crossed the line, she was afraid she was going to be a joke,” Geddie said.
“I remember being very hesitant about even going to audition,” Meredith told me over breakfast near her home on the Upper West Side. “I wasn’t somebody who watched daytime.” Not that she was a snob about it: “I was working, and it had never been an area of television that interested me.”
Barbara wasn’t convinced that Meredith was the right fit either — they wanted funny. So Stedman Guff, who knew Meredith through their children in school, took her out for a bite with Geddie, at the upscale Italian restaurant Café Fiorello. After the lunch, Geddie turned to Stedman Guff and told her that she was right. He liked that Meredith had a wicked sense of humor beneath her cool exterior. “Believe me, she wanted the job,” Stedman Guff said.
Star Jones was another woman on the wish list. The 35-year-old African-American lawyer was a rising star on TV from her legal commentary on Inside Edition and other shows. As a former prosecutor based out of Brooklyn, Star saw her profile rise through her coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial. She had attempted her own talk show for NBC, but the pilot didn’t impress executives, who decided she couldn’t carry a program on her own.
“I thought to myself, ‘I am at a crossroads,’” Star recalled. “What do I do? And the phone rang.” It was a producer that she had worked with in the past, asking if she’d be interested in a panel show. Barbara’s name sold her. “Tell me more and send me the information,” she responded. Star agreed to fly to New York from Los Angeles, where she lived, for a chemistry test.
As the search barreled on, Barbara attended a charity event for Milton Berle, whom she’d known from his performances years ago at her dad’s nightclub. There, she witnessed a hilarious set from a bawdy red-haired comedian who reminded her of Carol Burnett. Joy Behar, 54, riffed about feminism and the sex life of author Salman Rushdie. It made Barbara laugh — on the inside.
From the stage, Joy had no idea she was leaving such a strong impression. “I did a joke about men who marry, how easy it is for them to get a young woman,” Joy said. When she wrapped, Steve told her that everybody in the room was in stitches except for Walters. “So what?” Joy told him. “I’m not going to work for her.” A few months later, ABC asked her to try out for The View.
The most surprising contender came through the door by accident. Debbie Matenopoulos, 22, a senior at New York University, had been working part-time at MTV as a production assistant. One night, at a party downtown, a casting director told her that ABC was looking for new talent. She should give it a shot.
For a pre-interview with Geddie, Debbie arrived dressed to kill — if only she’d been trying out for The Real World. She’d donned a baby T-shirt with John Travolta’s mug from Welcome Back, Kotter, a black miniskirt and knee-high boots. Her hair was dyed Kool-Aid pink for a segment that she’d just taped for MTV’s House of Style, as a free extra.
Geddie immediately liked her off-beat style, and Barbara stopped by to offer a quick hello. “I met Barbara with my pink hair,” Debbie said. He wanted a reel of her best clips; she didn’t have one. She ran back to MTV and asked her friends to splice together the few minutes that comprised the totality of her on-air experience. “I thought, ‘This is as far as I’m going to get.’ I’m really out of my league here. But I’d have a cocktail story for years.”
On a morning in April 1997, ABC secretly held an audition for The View at the Essex House, the stuffy midtown hotel on Central Park South. The network had rented two adjoining suites. One was used as a waiting pen for the roughly 50 aspiring cohosts who had been selected by Geddie as viable candidates. The other room had been configured with a mock table and chairs. The bedroom was set up with a TV for Geddie and other top honchos to watch how this scrimmage would play out.
As soon as Debbie entered the waiting area, she felt sick to her stomach. She would habitually throw up when she got nervous — a drawback for a potential TV star. She sized up her competition, which included actress and motivational speaker Mother Love, NBC anchor Mary Alice Williams and supermodels Veronica Webb, Emme and Catherine McCord. While these weren’t exactly big celebrities, they were famous enough faces to spook a college student with only a vague interest in broadcasting. “My heart was beating really fast,” Debbie said. “I was intimidated.” She convinced herself that she’d never get the job and decided to flee. But just as she made her way for the exit, she was spotted.
“Oh, Debbie, I’m so glad you came,” Barbara cooed, having already committed her name to memory.
Barbara clutched Debbie by the shoulder and slowly moved her back to the center of the room. Barbara then parceled out instructions to the group without loosening her grip, as if she’d just caught a scared puppy. “I’m frozen,” Debbie said. “That’s the reason I stayed, because I was opening the door to leave and she was there.”
To audition, four women at a time were summoned to the table, with mock topics printed out on note cards. Then they had to make small talk, to see how they’d interact individually and as a group, with new applicants rotating in and old ones out. Barbara wanted the vibe to resemble coffee with girlfriends, but it wasn’t as effortless as it looked. A rhythm had to be mastered, so that the cohosts weren’t shouting over one another. “A topic is like a hot potato,” said Star, who stood out that day in a red cashmere power suit. “You pass it and it moves.” Those that tried to suck up all the oxygen with soliloquies would get the ax.
Meredith introduced the first group — Barbara, Star and Debbie — and read the topics from the note cards. “It seemed like a safe role for me,” Meredith said. To get started, the women discussed a story about the Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego where 39 of its members had committed suicide to gain entrance into heaven. After Barbara condemned the incident as a senseless tragedy, Meredith pushed back: How do you know? You haven’t been to heaven. Barbara blushed, but she liked the back-and-forth. The ladies were onto something.
Another topic from the note cards asked for each of the cohosts to pick the most important people of the 20th century. In addition to Albert Einstein and Bill Gates, Debbie had an unconventional name on her list — Madonna. The room suddenly erupted in shrieks, as Star addressed her in outrage: You must be crazy.
Debbie’s choice cemented her fate in TV history. “Later on, they told me that’s why I got the job,” Debbie said. “And I swear to God, that’s how I felt at the time.” She chose Madonna for “what she had done for AIDS, gay rights, women’s rights and empowerment.” Back then, before reality TV legitimized fame, the reach of even the biggest celebrities had its limits. It would be hard to imagine sitting across from Barbara and justifying that Madonna had accomplished as much as a U.S. president. But it worked. Geddie wagered it would make for must-see TV.
Once the first session had ended, Barbara got up. She took a spot in the bedroom with Geddie and watched the next group on the TV screen: Joy, her replacement, cozied up to Star, Debbie and Meredith. The chemistry still crackled without Barbara, and she and Geddie were overjoyed.
“We’re geniuses,” they said, chuckling to each other. “This is going to be a great show.”
One of the early front-runners decided she had to get a look for herself. After Star’s turn was up, she didn’t pack up. Instead, she snuck into the executive suite, taking a seat right next to them. “All of a sudden, the mattress sags and I look over and Star is sitting on the bed,” said Stedman Guff, who had to escort her out.
“You can’t sit here while we’re auditioning,” Stedman Guff told her.
Star, who was never one to surrender in an argument, listed her career accomplishments. “I’m in this business,” she protested. “I’ve been a pro- ducer. I’m a lawyer.”
“I don’t care what you are, honey,” Stedman Guff said. “You’re getting out.”
That tiff offered an early glimpse into Star’s personality. After word got out that Geddie was considering Star for the show, he was bombarded with horror stories. “She was considered difficult, a problem person,” Geddie said. He wasn’t put off by the warnings because he’d worked with challenging talent before. “I always said the same thing: everybody is difficult, and everybody could be terrible.” Geddie paused. “I hadn’t met Rosie yet.”
There was no need for lengthy deliberations. “The first group was the group we hired,” Barbara said. Joining her as the new cohosts of TheView would be Meredith, Star, Debbie and Joy. “We started with them,” said Geddie, “because we liked them best — a comedian in her 50s, a journalist mom in her 40s, a professional lawyer in her 30s, and someone in her 20s.”
Barbara personally called all of her new cohosts to tell them the good news. “I thought, ‘I’ll give this a chance,’” Meredith said. “I never thought 20 years later I’d be talking about this. It was an interim thing for me until I figured out what I wanted to do.”
Joy’s job wasn’t full-time like that of the other cohosts. She’d be filling in as the alternate on the mornings when Barbara wasn’t there. “It was nice to have a couple days off,” said Joy, who was contemplating a sitcom but didn’t want to move to L.A. from New York. “My agent at the time told me not to do it. The money wasn’t enough. But I wanted to do it because it was in New York and right near my house.”
At least she had an agent. Debbie was in the wilderness, without any representation. Or electricity. She’d been ducking notices from Con Edison about her unpaid bills. One night, returning home from class, she clicked the red button on her answering machine to find a familiar voice. “Oh, Debbie, it’s Barbara,” the room purred. “I just want you to know that you’ve got the job. I couldn’t do this without you.”
Debbie rewound the tape and listened to it again, in case a friend was playing a prank on her. It sounded real. She only believed it after her roommate confirmed that it wasn’t a joke.
“You got the job!”
They ran downstairs to buy a bottle of champagne to celebrate. When they got back, the unpaid electricity bill had caught up with them. “In one day, my lights go out and I get the job of a lifetime,” Debbie said. “Here we are drinking champagne in the dark.”
The network shot one pilot with Barbara and another without her. The early feedback suggested that the intrepid journalist might not be as be- loved in a different environment. “The show with Joy tested better than the one with Barbara,” Fili-Krushel revealed. “I said to Bill, ‘We have to edit this report!’” Geddie told her that Barbara, as the executive producer, would want to know the truth. “Not a good idea,” Fili-Krushel recalled.
When Barbara saw the results, she was genuinely hurt: “Why do they like the show better with Joy than with me?” That led Barbara and Joy to have a rocky first year, as Barbara continually worried that Joy was out to sabotage her. Barbara even jokingly compared her new colleague to All About Eve. The daytime executives were unnerved that the thick-skinned Barbara would be so insecure. They tried to assure her that Joy rated better simply because she was funny, which the audience liked.
As ABC started to promote the show, the executives looked at the cohosts as the backup singers for a band. Barbara’s name was prominently displayed on early posters, but not theirs — the other cohosts were so anonymous, they were simply identified by their professions (lawyer, comedian, journalist, etc.). Yet there was no need to despair. Barbara pulled them aside with an upbeat career forecast: “If this show is successful, none of you ladies will be able to walk down the street without people stopping you.”
They all laughed it off at the time. “That’s exactly what happened,” said Debbie. “It gives me chills even saying it. Within six months, it was insane.”
Adapted from Ladies Who Punch: The Explosive Inside Story of “The View,” by Ramin Setoodeh, to be published April 2, 2019 by Thomas Dunne Books.