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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Phyllis George ends her nine-year 'hiatus' to play to her strengths

August 28, 1994|JENNIFER GLIMPSE | Jennifer Glimpse is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

She's older. She's wiser. And this time around she could care less if the critics vote her Miss Congeniality.

Phyllis George is back. The onetime Miss America, onetime sportscaster, onetime morning news show host has returned to television after nine years. Although her first round with broadcasting was often plagued by controversy and criticism, this time she feels she's found her niche.

"A Phyllis George Special"--the first aired in June and a second airs Wednesday--is a one-hour program featuring interviews with high-profile personalities, a format for which George feels well-suited.

"This kind of show is a show I've wanted to do for many, many years," says George. "I love people. It sounds so corny: 'I love people.' But I genuinely do."

The show resembles the highly rated Barbara Walters specials. George, who views Walters as a role model, is flattered by any comparison.

"Well Barbara, of course, is the master. No one will ever compare to her. I mean that," George says. "She has this incredible ability. I mean, people just want to pour their hearts out to her. If I could achieve one-tenth of that I'd be happy."

During her stint on CBS as co-host of "The NFL Today" from 1975 until 1984 and as co-host of "CBS Morning News" for eight months in 1985, George was regularly taken to task by critics. She was a former Miss America, beautiful and energetic, but she didn't know sports and she didn't know news.

"(Being Miss America) has been a help and a hindrance," says George. "It's been a help in that it's opened doors. It's been a hindrance in that people immediately said 'BQ,' you know, beauty queen. And you had to prove yourself more than the next person."

George cites Emmys garnered by "The NFL Today" as evidence that she mastered the sports interview. But success in the hard news arena proved more elusive.

"I was told I was hired to compete with 'Good Morning America,' " says George. "But then I got in there and was thrust into hard news. (CBS) didn't play to my strengths."

George's strengths, she contends, lie in her softer, less aggressive interviewing style.

"I'm Southern," she says. "I don't look at someone and say, 'I don't trust you. I'm suspicious of you.' That's not my nature or my personality. My style is easygoing and relaxed. Therefore, in an interview, I don't think someone's sitting there with their hackles up waiting for me to throw the next bomb. (People) feel comfortable talking to me. I think they can tell that I'm genuinely interested in them. And I am. I figure if I'm conversational, if I make someone feel comfortable, then they're going to tell me a lot of things they're not going to tell Mike Wallace and Sam Donaldson."

That style, George says, has already served her well on the new show, most notedly in her interview with President Clinton.

"I've known the Clintons for years," says George. "My husband (John Y. Brown) was governor (of Kentucky) when Bill was governor (of Arkansas). They were freshmen governors together, so we've had a friendship for a long time. I think he felt comfortable talking with me about Chelsea--(my son) Lincoln and Chelsea are the same age. But he also knew I wasn't going to take that information and twist it and turn it. It was going to be straight as he told it to me."

In this month's installment, George interviews Kenny Rogers, Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman and former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback-turned Fox NFL play-by-play commentator Terry Bradshaw.

George, who still lights up a room with her Miss America good looks, doesn't characterize her return to television as a comeback, but rather, the end of a long hiatus.

"I never said I retired," says George, who while away from television started a Chicken by George product line in 1987 and later sold it to Hormel. "I just said my priorities changed and I wanted to refocus and reorganize and regroup and recharge my battery."

Whatever you call George's re-emergence, she feels the response has been positive.

"This show does suit my personality. I'm not pretending to be something I'm not. I mean, I can just be Phyllis. And it's interesting to find out who you are after 45 years."

"A Phyliss George Special" airs Wednesday at 5 and 9 p.m. on TNN.

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