And yet there is another side to her life story, a side laden with mostly unseen struggles: deep insecurities, body-image battles, debilitating perfectionism, loneliness, the sting of often-viciously leveled “dumb blonde” stereotypes, a stalker’s threats, sexual harassment at work, the shame of being unceremoniously fired from a job, and more. Far from the easiest route, Carlson’s road to success has been steep and treacherous at times. But through her triumphs and her trials, she has clung to the anchor of her Christian faith and found solace in her loving family, seeking to balance the demands of a high-powered career with the energy required to be a caring wife and mother of two children. And she has navigated her professional path with unflinching boldness when discussing the things that matter most to her and, she believes, to millions of other Americans. As she told viewers on the day her show debuted in September 2013, “My goal, with every interview — politics, legal, financial — is to hold everyone’s feet to the fire because you deserve the real story. I’ve never been afraid to share my faith, so we will discuss belief in America. What I love about the title is the word ‘real.’ I’m from the Midwest; my parents were great role models who taught me core values and humility. I may live in New York now, but I am still a Midwestern girl at heart, and I want the show to reach out to all viewers coast to coast. Genuine, authentic and real. I hope you will see all those qualities every day.”
Those qualities and more are also the subject of Carlson’s new book, Getting Real, in which she shares candidly about all aspects of her journey. In a wide-ranging conversation for Homecoming, Carlson spoke with Gloria Gaither about the roots of her faith (her grandfather was a minister), Christian parenting, sharing the Gospel on an international stage in an increasingly unfriendly culture, the work ethic that has helped to propel her to the top of the news field, and the message she hopes to convey in her new book — a message, ultimately, of chasing one’s dreams with courageous perseverance while trusting the One who provides strength and peace along the way.
GRETCHEN: Hello, Gloria! I want to start off by saying I feel like I know you, because I grew up listening to all of your records. They were all over our house, and you and your husband were the two most famous Christian singers that I have ever known. I’m so honored to speak with you.
GLORIA: Well, it’s good to get to know you, too. I’m sure people come up and start conversations with you like, “Oh, oh, you don’t know me, but I know you!”
GRETCHEN: Yes, that does happen, and that’s kind of the whole idea behind what you do and what I do — you want people to feel like they can relate to you. The first thing people usually say to me: “I didn’t know you were so short!” And I’m like, “Yep, I have been my whole life.” (laughs)
GLORIA: I got that from your book — you’re not tall. You can’t tell on the news, you know? Anyway, this issue’s theme is based on a quote from a 90-year-old friend of mine who still runs my tail off! But she’s been a mentor for years, and every decade, she asks God, “What do you want me to learn? What needs to be the thrust of my growth this decade?” One of the things she said to me one day was this: “You know, most people get into trouble because they let go of what they should hang on to, and hang on to what they should let go of.” Your life seems to be a story of what to hang on to and what to let go of. What of your childhood and home life have you hung on to, as your life has gone through all these stages of pursuits and to the very present?
GRETCHEN: I always say that faith has been my foundation. I grew up in a small town in Minnesota with a grandfather who was a Lutheran minister, so when I went to church every Sunday, he was the rock star in the pulpit to me. And I was so involved in the church, as was my entire family, which I think is just crucial to establishing a foundation for a child and giving them the gift of religion that they hopefully carry with them for the rest of their life. I often performed in church and I played piano, and I taught Sunday school, and I sang in the church choir and we volunteered and so my life and existence was about being a Christian. My dad used to say to me, “You know, people will know you’re a Christian by the way you act, Gretchen,” which is the most important thing. So the theme of my book — one of the main themes — is my religious foundation and how I have held on to that my whole life. I ask questions for a living, as a journalist, but the one thing I don’t question — and I’m thankful for that — is my faith.
I’m trying to continue that whole tradition with my two children now. My husband and teach Sunday school together and I vary from one class to the next based on what grades my kids are in — right now they’re in 4th and 6th grade. We’re trying to give them the same foundation that we were so fortunate to have. I think it’s a blessing to grow up with parents who are religious, because when you’re a small child, the parents are making those choices for you. They’re steering you in the right direction of life. So, I think it’s so important for children and for me to have had this religious foundation, and then to give back. That’s the whole last chapter of my book, from Luke: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” I learned that from my family, and I believe it’s crucial, especially in 2015, in the society and culture that we live in today, to give our children that gift of understanding how important it is to give back, as well.
GLORIA: So many of the values of your life that I sensed in your book, like your work ethic and other things, came out of this home. Your home sounds very much like mine — my dad was a pastor. I got to college and found out that many preachers’ kids resented God and resented the church because they took their parents away. For me, we were all in the ministry — it’s what we were, it wasn’t what we did, you know? We had people living in our house who were recovering alcoholics and teenagers who didn’t have a place to be …
GRETCHEN: We did, too! All the youth singers who came to our church — they all stayed with us, and we thought that was so cool. But you know, along those lines, if you fast-forward to my life today, standing up for my belief in Christianity is something that I continue to do, and now I’m doing it on a national/international public stage, just like you are. It takes a lot of guts because we do live in a different kind of society now, and I’m one of a very few national news anchors who talks about my faith openly on the air. I tend to gravitate to the segments that involve faith discussions, and I have taken a tremendous amount of hits for that.
GLORIA: Oh, I know you have — absolutely.
GRETCHEN: I’m just here to tell you that I don’t really give a rip! I think a lot of it has to do with faith being my foundation my whole life, and just speaking up in general. Also, turning 40, it was kind of like wow, I really do know who I am now, and I don’t really care what other people think about me. I do find it fascinating that to be a Christian in 2015, that for some reason, some people think that’s criminal.
GLORIA: The secularization of the whole culture has almost become a threat to those who have, in the past, been guaranteed the right to practice their faith without fear. We have a friend who has a saying, and I think this should be a national motto. He said, “Just because I am not your advocate does not mean that I’m your adversary.”
GRETCHEN: Right. Well, it’s interesting, because my grandfather who was the minister used to say that he believed that Christians did need adversaries. Because in his mind, it kept us on our toes and kept us fighting even more for our faith. I always hearken back to those words from him when I’m feeling frustrated. Because I do think … it’s sort of a good moral in life anyway that when somebody doesn’t believe in you—and it’s certainly been my theme in life — you work harder, to prove them wrong.
GLORIA: I’m still thinking of things you’ve hung on to … what did you learn as a musician, starting at age 6, that has served you well your whole life?
GRETCHEN: Through the violin and through my music, what I have hung onto is the immense discipline that I learned, and it’s such a great life lesson for kids. What I found out, and what I’m teaching my kids and I think everyone can teach their kids, is that when you put even a small amount of time into something, whether it’s practicing the piano or studying for a test or playing a sport, kids see that they get better at it. Through that, they build self-esteem, and it gives them life lessons that they carry with them for the rest of their lives. For me, it was intensified, in the sense that I was practicing eventually three, four hours a day on the violin. So obviously, I was putting in a tremendous amount of time, and I was seeing a great result. Now I didn’t end up making the violin my career, but that discipline stays with me every single day of my life now. It’s made me who I am, with regard to accomplishing goals, setting goals for myself, knowing how to go after them, knowing what it’s going to take to get there, because that’s all I really knew as a kid. So it comes in different levels, you know — I’m not saying that every kid needs to be a concert artist on the violin, but I do think that it’s a great life lesson about discipline in general. You put time into something, and you get better at it.
GLORIA: Well, there’s great educational research that kids who take music lessons do better in math, science and all the English verbal skills, and it’s the thing that we’re removing from our schools.
GRETCHEN: Oh, trust me, this is a pet peeve for me, because I’m a huge advocate of the arts for all the reasons that you just mentioned. My husband was a professional athlete and I’m a musician, and so when we started having children, I was like, now which direction are we going to pull them in? Fortunately, right now they’re involved in both, because they’re learning great life lessons in both. Both my kids play piano, and they both have musical talent. I should probably be having them practice more than I do (laughs), but it’s so true about the relationship between excelling in music and doing better at school. And the idea that they’re cutting that out! Either they’re not reading the research, or they’re not knowing how to maximize the benefits, because that’s always the first thing to go, and it’s a huge pet peeve of mine.
GLORIA: I know, me too. What kept you grounded, when you were a success so early as a child prodigy? We often see kids lose their childhood and their sense of balance and broad interests and stuff, but that didn’t happen to you.
GRETCHEN: No, and I remember I was going to the Aspen Music School every summer — and I was really young. Most of the other kids were in their 20s and I went the first time when I was 10. It was an incredibly lonely experience, and I actually saw a lot of those kids and young adults who I didn’t think seemed to be happy. That had a huge impact on me, because I was such a happy kid! So, it made me really stop and think, Do I want this? Do I really want to give up everything else that I love, including, possibly, my happiness?
And there is a phrase about Minnesota; it’s “Minnesota nice,” and that has always been my goal, to make sure that I still stay Minnesota nice. The greatest lesson that I ever learned from my own father was humility. I learned motivation and perseverance from my mother, but I learned humility and being a good person to everyone from my father.
GLORIA: Throughout your story, there is, of course, this thread of strong faith, but also, hard work, practice, discipline, following through, competing with yourself and making the most of all kinds of opportunities. What would you say to young people who are being shaped by the entitlement culture?
GRETCHEN: Well, that’s why I wrote the last chapter of the book — “To whom much is given, much is expected.” We need to realize that the world is not all about me, me, me, and that’s the second greatest life lesson aside from, in my mind, being a Christian. I’ve noticed in the younger generations that a hard work ethic seems to be waning, and I’m not exactly sure why. Is it because parents are too involved with their kids, in a weird way? Is it because parents are doing too much of the work for their kids? Is it because we don’t require our kids to have jobs anymore? Is it because we don’t have them do as many chores around the house? I’m not really sure what the answer is, but I know for sure that as a parent myself, I’m trying to raise my kids in the exact same way that I was raised.
I will tell you this; I’m a huge believer in empowering young people, and I always say that my door is open. I’ve had a ton of interns that have worked for me, and I do this because I had great female and male role models in my career. In fact, my assistant right now was one of my interns on “Fox & Friends.” I had hundreds of them, and they were all great workers, but she stood out for exactly what we’re talking about. You know, at 21 or 22 years old, she still had that incredible work ethic. That’s why I said to her, “Do you want to come work for me?” and she said “Yes,” and I said, “Great, because you remind me of how I was at that age.”
GLORIA: What would you hang on to or let go of from your experience with pageants in general and the Miss America pageant specifically?
GRETCHEN: Oh my gosh, I would love to let go of the stereotype.
GLORIA: I knew you’d say that!
GRETCHEN: I have fought relentlessly for the last 26 years to combat that, and now I’m on the board of directors, and it’s my life’s mission to try and change the stereotype. I always say I would have been dead last at Miss USA, because that’s strictly a beauty pageant, and I’ve never, in my wildest dreams, ever thought of myself as a model. I’m short; I’m not statuesque, and Miss America was all about the talent for me. It was a way for me to use my violin talent to accomplish something else now that I’d decided to quit. And the scholarship money is the other huge reason that I entered that program, but there’s a lot of conflict in our society about even what the difference is between those two programs. So the stereotypes definitely are something that I would love to get rid of. I’d actually like to see the Miss America pageant also incorporate some sort of a GPA grading system as well, because I think it would add credibility to the whole program. The women are so smart — two years ago, I had them do a survey of the state contestants who were coming to Miss America. I wanted to know the average GPA, and it was 3.7.
GRETCHEN: Yeah, other than at a Mensa convention, it’s pretty tough to find a group of young women who, by the way, also have real talents and are community members and volunteers in their own right. What happened to me — and I’m sure it happens to any other Miss America, unfortunately — is that it’s almost like my resume evaporated the minute I became Miss America. It just became much easier to call me a dumb blonde. That was shocking to me, at the time, because I had never been put in that category — ever. And, like I’ve said before, I had parents who told me that I could be anything I wanted to be in life. So the idea that suddenly, people just didn’t like me just because was kind of an unbelievable thing to try and get over. I say that I reached the bimbo trifecta when I got to Fox, because I had the blond, I had the former Miss America, and now I worked at Fox, and so there you have it. It’s a good thing that I had thick skin from my Miss America experience, because working at Fox, you also need to have the thick skin.
GLORIA: You’ve taken on many misconceptions in your short life — to be short, the misconception that you have to be skinny to be popular, that you have to be an adult to be a serious musician, so the youth misconception. You can’t be blond and smart … women — especially beautiful women — can’t be serious newscasters or politically astute or brilliant innovators, scientists, whatever.
GLORIA: Do you feel like you’re sort of a 24/7 crusader for fairness?
GRETCHEN: Yes, and that’s a great way to put it. I always say that there’s something wrong in our society that what you just said—an attractive woman who happens to be talented and is also smart— there must be something else wrong with her! And I don’t know why we feel that way.
GLORIA: How has your experience before an audience — which started so early in your childhood that you didn’t even know you were supposed to be afraid of it — how has that helped you in your career as a news anchor?
GRETCHEN: Completely. People will say to me all the time, “What the heck does the violin have to do with television?” and I say, “Everything.” I mean, you know that from being on stage too, that comfort of being in front of the audience. I never knew I was supposed to be nervous until I was about 13 years old and somebody asked me “Well, don’t you get nervous before you go onstage?” I was like, “Um, no, but now I’m going to actually think about that for a while.” (Gloria laughs) Everyone should always get a little bit of the nervousness, a little bit of the butterflies, because I think it puts the adrenaline inside of you to perform to the best of your ability. It’s interesting, because when breaking news happens to me on the set now, I actually get more relaxed than on days that are just pre-filmed. It’s almost as if I go into this mode of performing, and I love it! It’s akin to going on the stage and performing with a big symphony.
GLORIA: And to be transparent in that setting is very similar.
GRETCHEN: Exactly. It’s like when the camera’s red light goes on, it’s the same feeling as when the audience is there.
GLORIA: You say in your book that as Miss America, you can never wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and I’m sure that was good training for TV news!
GRETCHEN: Oh, yes, very much. Here’s the thing — you have one year to be Miss America, and every day you’re meeting hundreds or thousands of new people, and they’re going to meet you for probably the one and only time. So, first impressions are just so important. I learned that lesson during that year, that it was so important to have great communication skills. Obviously, that is also very helpful in the television business.
GLORIA: Yes. We talked about this a little, but as a musician, you’re judged on your talent and expertise. As a scholar, you’re rated by how much you learn and how much you’ve studied and how well you can apply that to your life. In broadcast news, there was a new absolute that had nothing to do with your talent, your intelligence or hard work. How do you deal with this whole new bunch of disadvantages for television? Some you’ve mentioned, like being beautiful and having been Miss America. How do you deal with the whole gender preference? And I’m not talking just about beauty, I’m talking about in general, that maybe you aren’t as substantive if you’re female.
GRETCHEN: Yeah, it’s a great question, and I’ve had many mentors and bosses who have given me some great advice on that. Because I think in the beginning, I was really trying to use big vocabulary words and my Stanford education to try and prove to the audience that I really was smart. I got some great advice that I should just be much more conversational and say it like I was having a conversation with my mom on the phone, and that through that kind of conversation, people would be able to figure out that I was smart. It’s actually fantastic advice, because I think women, especially, feel like they have to overcompensate. They feel like they have to really throw out the huge words so that people watching will be like, “Oh yeah, you know, I have heard she’s dumb, but actually I just heard a big word.” (Laughs) It’s hard, though. I’m just being really candid and honest and saying that it’s hard to strike a balance with that, because you also want to be asking incredibly insightful questions and doing great analysis. I do think it’s easier for men, along the same lines that it’s easier for men to age on television. A man gets older and gets gray hair, and suddenly he’s smarter and has more wisdom. For women, it’s the opposite.
GLORIA: And also in going after a story … if men are aggressive in going after a story, then that is applauded. They’re strong and persistent. If women go after the story, then they get other words that I can’t say.
GRETCHEN: Right. I will say, though, that early on in my career—and maybe it’s because I had some female bosses mixed in there—it was actually very much supported for women to be just as aggressive as men. And I actually believe in the newsroom, if you’re not, you’re out.
GLORIA: Yeah, you’re not taken seriously.
GRETCHEN: And you’re not going to have a job.
GLORIA: Yes, and I don’t mean to the audience, but in the newsroom, where you’re going after the story … you have to go after the story.
GRETCHEN: You have to, and I really had to. I always say that I had to work triply hard, because I learned, over time, that my reputation was going to precede me when I went on to a new job. In other words, I started learning that before I got to the new job, when it was announced I was coming, that the whole newsroom would be groaning and be like, “Oh great, we hired a bimbo.” So I got used to coming into those environments and realizing that I had to work so much harder than anyone else, which meant I had to be more aggressive on a story, I had to prove to them that I could do it, I had to pitch more stories than anyone else, I had to work longer hours than anyone else. It was true at every single job, and I hope that I eventually attained a high level at every position, but that’s how it happened. It wasn’t necessarily the most fair way, but that’s how it happened.
GLORIA: Someone said that the world is dying for want of passion, and I think that’s probably true — apathy tends to be the tone of the day, and the watchword, basically, for this generation is “Oh, whatever.” So you, on the other hand, seem to have the same passion for your news vocation as you evidently did for your violin. How is this passion for life and people tied to your faith and your heart for God?
GRETCHEN: I am a huge believer in the fact that every child is born with some sort of a gift, big or small, some sort of a passion, and that it’s the responsibility of the parent of that child to cultivate it. That’s what happened with me. Now, some of that’s innate; I happen to have the kind of personality where I feel passion for whatever I happen to be doing in the moment. But I also got great advice from one of my bosses when I worked in Cincinnati. He put a videotape in of me playing the violin at the Miss America pageant, and he said, “You see the passion you have there? That’s the passion I want to see when you’re out reporting a story.” And I got it, you know? I got it.
GLORIA: Yes, absolutely.
GRETCHEN: Not that I didn’t have the passion, the fire in my belly to do well, but it was how am I going to translate that onto the screen? And the minute he put it like that, I got it. You know, I don’t put my kids to bed at night and say, “Hey, I hope you’re lucky in life.” I say, “You have been given God-given talents, and it’s our responsibility as parents to help you work with those. And I hope we’re going to do the best we can.”
GLORIA: What do you say, as you look back over your life, that you’ve had to let go of? You’ve had to let go of things early on in order to hang on to some things. But now as you look back — you’re young, but you’re pretty seasoned—what have you had to let go of?
GRETCHEN: I’m so glad you asked, because the biggest thing I’ve had to let go of is perfectionism. I believe that perfectionism is a demon … I see my child coloring out of the lines when she’s only 1 year old and throwing the paper away, and I’m like, “Uh-oh.” (Laughs) We’ve got to stop this right now and let her know how many mistakes Mommy and Daddy make every day. So, perfectionism is a demon, because perfectionists will never be satisfied. It’s always going to the next thing, because even though you’ve achieved something great, it wasn’t good enough.
It took me a long time to get rid of that, and I think becoming a mom was part of the process of me being able to let that go. First of all, it was hard for me to get pregnant — I had infertility issues, and I always, always wanted to be a mom no matter what kind of career I had. And our first child was born with a tumor in her eye, and it was a very serious medical situation for the first year of her life. Being a mom really just put life in perspective for me, and it made me realize that striving for this perfectionism was kind of dumb and that I was never going to ultimately be 100 percent happy, because nobody can be perfect. Well, there’s one person that the shoe fits, but other than that. Nobody can be perfect, so I say in the book that perfectionism is a demon. I’ve worked very, very hard to rid myself of feeling the need to try and be perfect.
GLORIA: I loved your honesty about what you perceive to be your failures or your flaws … your whole fight with your weight, which, you look like you never had a problem with in your whole life, but…
GRETCHEN: Every day…
GLORIA: But we all do, and more and more, I think we don’t dare to be honest about those things we struggle with, and most of the time, we can’t be honest in church. It’s not where you would go and say, “I’m having a struggle.”
GRETCHEN: Well, I look forward to going to church every Sunday, so that I can … you know, we have a lot of prayer sessions in our church service, and it’s my favorite time to be so thankful for what I’ve been given. I’m so blessed to still have my parents in my life, and my children and my husband, but also certainly ask for forgiveness for things that I have not lived up to during the week, and trying to always be a better person and a caring person. Again, it brings us full circle about why faith is just the ultimate reason for being, right?
GLORIA: Exactly. Thank you, this was delightful. Before I let you go, I wanted to tell you I grew up in Michigan, so we have very similar backgrounds in more than one way.
GRETCHEN: I know, I know … I love the Midwest and I bring my kids up there every summer, because I want them to see the simpler side of life and go fishing and water skiing, spend time on the lakes and make s’mores at night and play Bingo. Those are things that can get lost in the shuffle when you live in New York City. Anyway, yes, I’ve held on to my roots, and I’m sure you have as well, and it’s made me who I am, hopefully. Anyway I can hardly wait to call my mom and dad to tell them that I had a conversation with you! They will be so thrilled. Thank you for the opportunity.
GLORIA: Well, thank you so much for giving us this interview — we appreciate it!