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Nancy Grace on Who's Right, What's Wrong, and the Trouble With Honey Boo Boo

This story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Nancy Grace's nose is wet. It's days before Christmas, and she's squeezed behind a smoked-glass desk in her tiny New York studio, eyes red, voice hoarse, her hair unruffled despite her sickness, husband and kids hovering on the alert as she digs up a box of Kleenex before blowing into a tissue long and hard. She's under the weather and strangely subdued until an assistant barks we're about to roll. Then suddenly she comes alive.

"We got Tony from Florida on the line," the assistant yells.

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"If Tony from Florida is really Joe from Florida, will ya tell him not to mention my outfit again?" Grace gripes, shoving the Kleenex aside.

Joe is a regular, with a penchant for varying his name and complimenting his idol's clothes (a faux-lizard jacket today, with sweatpants beneath the desk), though he can't see them, given that the show is being taped and callers don't make visual contact with the host.

"Nancy, you're looking swell," he says regardless, going on to ask about police surveillance. This prompts Grace to unleash a clarion call for the extensive use of GPS locators, something that was crucial in the 2005 conviction of wife-killer Scott Peterson, of whom she adds, "May he rot in hell."

Such unrestrained ardor is the trademark of the 52-year-old HLN host and prosecutor-turned-household name. The only face easily identified with HLN, she earns roughly $4 million a year, has homes in Atlanta and New York City, a long-lasting and loyal staff -- and remains one of the few bright stars in today's increasingly embattled CNN empire. At a time when the company's domestic networks are struggling to compete, with its channels routinely panned for being bland and adrift, love her or hate her, Grace stands out as neither.

"I consider her the standard bearer for the network," says Scot Safon, executive vp and GM of HLN, where Grace's contract runs through December 2013. "When we started our transformation from being CNN's Headline News to a differentiated offering in 2005, we had this opportunity to create destination programming. She provided an angle on stories that was fascinating: It's almost as if she's doing the investigation while she is doing the show."

Her devoted fans, largely women, lap this up, both on Nancy Grace and ABC's Good Morning America, where she is a regular. Less than two months after The New York Times in 2011 wrote that her audience had evaporated, she bounced back with her highest ratings following the Casey Anthony verdict. (Grace had hammered Anthony for allegedly murdering her child, only for the mother to be found not guilty.) Her 2 p.m. show on July 5, 2011, right after the verdict, drew 4.57 million viewers, the network's best hour ever, and another 2.9 million tuned in at primetime.

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Grace's magic? Her rage is her audience's too: She can frame a confounding world in black and white, with no confusion along the way. In Grace's view, there are innocent and guilty, responsible and irresponsible, and ne'er the twain shall meet. The courts might not have convicted Anthony, but she did. It's refreshingly simple and, for a viewer, sometimes cathartic.

This justice-by-TV has made her a target for media critics, "a snarling persona who is the face of retribution on television," in the words of Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. "She's the perfect Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, demanding a sentence first and a verdict afterward."

With no big trials dominating the news, her ratings year-to-date have averaged a much weaker 463,000 among total viewers and 149,000 in the 25-to-54 demo. Even so, she remains a heat-seeking missile. She's railed against TLC's cringe-worthy Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, calling it "a pedophile's dream," and in mid-August (unbeknownst to Grace at the time -- and still unseen by her, according to her spokesperson) Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama The Newsroom portrayed her as a ratings-snatching, bottom-feeding villain, noting "no one's ever gone broke in America serving up a woman who makes other women feel superior. It's all based on an emotional appeal, the way she would be with a jury if there was no judge there to stop her."

This came on the heels of a favorite target's suicide, that of Toni Medrano, a 29-year-old Minneapolis mom who faced two manslaughter counts for accidentally smothering her 3-week-old son, Adrian, in November while intoxicated. Grace had nicknamed her "Vodka Mom" and ladled shots on air to show how much Medrano had imbibed. On July 2, Medrano set herself on fire, the result of what her family called a "cyberbullying" campaign that led to her death.

Of course, Grace's refusal to back down -- along with her frequent presumption of guilt -- galvanizes critics, some of whom have formed a website, Nancygracemustdie.com. "I've been told [about it] but never visited it," she says of the site, which includes a petition to take her off the air and states on top, "The verdict is in … Nancy Grace is once again found totally malicious and incompetent."

Even Court TV founder Steven Brill, who gave Grace her break on television, says he now regrets it. "I feel like I owe the country 50 hours of service," he quips. "It's part of the coarsening of our national dialogue to have someone [like her] on crusades to have people behind bars."

Grace has a typically tart response for her media accusers: "I really don't think the elite clique of Upper West Siders gives a rat's ass about the children and the crime victims that I represent."

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We're halfway through her show, and Grace is spewing venom at on-air regular Renee Rockwell, a member of that clan she most despises, defense attorneys. Watching her jab her finger into the camera and question Rockwell's very concept of the law, you'd never imagine she and Rockwell are best friends. The second they go to a break, Grace drops the whole act. Glancing at Rockwell's impressively clad feet, she smiles: "Where d'ya get those shoes? They look great."

As with so many on-air figures, it's hard not to conclude that Grace's screen persona is in large part a creation, as much a caricature as her own interpretation of right and wrong.

So it's hardly a surprise that, in person -- despite Turley's remarks -- she is neither snarling nor Queen of Hearts-like at all. Rather, she comes across as warm, emotional, palpably insecure and embraced by those around her.

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She isn't remotely the conservative firebrand one expects. Although she studiously avoids politics during her show, making her one of the few opinion drivers on cable who stays away from that terrain, friends claim she is a Democrat. But Grace refuses to say (though unlike many left-leaners, she supports the death penalty and notes, "I believe a jury should be given that option").

As to her politics, "I hold all politicians under suspicion," she argues while conceding she once paid $1,000 to attend a Hillary Clinton fund-raiser. "I was attracted to her and her mind. I was completely fascinated by her. [Then] when I got there, it was a thousand dollars!" So did she pay? "Yeah," she grants, "I paid."

She gets much of her news from CNN and acknowledges being a fan of that right-wing bugaboo, National Public Radio: "If I'm in the car without the twins [4-year-olds Lucy and John David], I listen to NPR."

She supports gun control and abhors media violence, and her top movies include subtitled fare like My Life as a Dog. On TV, she counts Six Feet Under and arch-liberal Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm as favorites.

All this indicates a more complex woman than her detractors might expect. There are in fact two Nancy Graces, the superscary TV personality and the far more nuanced wife and mom, a woman so devoted to family that she keeps a computer screen in her office trained on her kids at home.

"I get very anxious and nervous when I'm away for them for a long time," she admits. "I worry about them so much, it actually becomes physically painful."

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Born and raised in Macon, Ga., the youngest of three children, Grace had a life that revolved around her parents, Mac and Elizabeth -- her railroad worker father and a bank teller mother, who much later would rise to an executive position with the local Continental Can Co. "I grew up in a rural setting," she recalls. "As far as the eye could see were soybean fields and pine trees."

For a time, the Grace family lived in relative poverty, their life defined by the red dirt road near the house and the "bookmobile" library, where Grace experienced air conditioning for the first time and read relentlessly "until they'd tell me they were leaving and I would check out all that I could."

Then came an event that shattered her youth. Sitting in her cubbyhole office in Time Warner's Manhattan headquarters a day after the taping, Grace starts to tremble as she recounts being at home at age 15 when her rock-solid father collapsed. "I heard my mother doing CPR and screaming my father's name," she says. "I ran to their bedroom. He was on the floor and looked dead."

She begins to cry. "It's just terrible, it's just awful.He had a major [coronary] thrombosis, and he was very young. He was so high-risk they wouldn't even take him [by ambulance]. He had to be airlifted to the hospital at the University of Alabama, and they did experimental surgery."

She's weeping now, almost childlike, snatching up more Kleenex, but no longer because of her cold. "I remember his first open-heart surgery, and they let me see him. It was this big room, they didn't have it divided with curtains, and I saw him, all these tubes and everything. I went down on my knees right there and started praying." She gasps. "I felt my whole world had ended, it was such a big deal. I was scared [then, and] I'm scared now."

Four years later, while her father battled his health issues (and still is struggling today), Grace was hit with a second cataclysm. She was a 19-year-old English major at Mercer University when the geologist she was engaged to, Keith Griffin, was murdered.

"He was shot five times -- in the face, the back, the neck and the head," she sobs, describing how he was killed by a disgruntled colleague who'd been fired from the construction site where both worked.

After the funeral, Grace dropped out of school, went to stay with her sister at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and floated in a daze, the weight on her 5-foot-1 frame plummeting to 89 pounds. For months, "I cried so much I couldn't even see," she says.

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Griffin's killer, Tommy McCoy, was released in 2006. "I have not spent any time whatsoever finding out anything about him," she says. "He's already robbed me too much." She's incensed by a 2006 New York Observer report that questioned her account of the murder, saying she had wrongly stated the year of Griffin's death and noting that a jury convicted McCoy in days, rather than the hours she had claimed. "Article and reporter be damned," she says.

Ever so slowly, Grace pulled her life back together. Plans to become an English professor fell aside; instead, she decided to become a prosecutor, an avenging angel dedicated to putting criminals behind bars. If the classic response to fear is fight or flight, she opted for the former.

"I remember it hit me: I would go to law school and maybe stop this from happening again," she says.

Upon completing her law degree at Mercer, Grace received an LLM from New York University, then moved to Georgia. During her decade as an Atlanta prosecutor, her record was flawless, with more than 100 convictions. Still, on three occasions, appellate courts criticized her conduct, and in 2005 one noted she had played "fast and loose" with her ethical duties. In 1997, Georgia's Supreme Court said she had withheld facts from a jury in a murder-arson case; three years earlier, that court was critical of her closing argument in a drug-dealer trial.

Turley calls this "shocking. Most prosecutors spend their whole career without this condemnation." But Grace insists, "No trial was ever reversed because of my conduct."

Doesn't she have doubts about her victories? "I don't have self-doubt," she proclaims.

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And yet self-doubt runs through her like a river. She describes herself as "nothing special" and seems bewildered that any man would stick by her. The fact her husband, David Linch, did so, she half-believes, was because "men want what they can't have."

Grace was still mourning Griffin's death when she went on a blind date with Linch, a fellow student at Mercer who is now an investment banker. "He fell in love, by all accounts, but I couldn't," she recalls. "I would break down and cry. But I just couldn't engage in a relationship."

Linch, a kind and courteous man, acknowledges: "At times it probably was painful. One time I said, 'I don't want to be a placeholder.' " Grace assured him he wasn't.

Things remained like this for years, with Grace often in New York and Linch in Atlanta, until the TV host saw her deceased fiance in a dream. "He had aged, had gray hair. He said, 'I want you to go on. Go!' " She awoke, terrified she would lose Linch as she had lost Griffin, and called him. "I said, 'You have to either move up here to New York or we're breaking up.' " Linch agreed, and they married in 2007.

"I grew to love him very, very deeply," she says.

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Linch, Grace and the whole family are squished into a Cadillac Escalade this afternoon -- kids screaming, arms and legs akimbo -- as we hurtle toward Radio City Music Hall for a Rockettes Christmas show.

Stripped of her battle gear and heavy makeup, in sweats and an enormous brown fur hat, Grace is almost unrecognizable. Weighing 25 pounds less than when we first met months earlier on the Dancing With the Stars set, she's surprisingly small and unthreatening.

This is the real Grace, maintains Linch. The TV version is just "two and a half percent of her."

If she could only let audiences glimpse the rest, who knows how far she might go? She already has revealed the more tender Grace on Dancing With the Stars, and she hopes to expand her reach with a Lifetime movie, Nancy Grace's The Eleventh Victim (the first of several projected, based on Grace's novels). She also is developing a scripted drama series with Fox and a true-crime show for ABC that she might host. She has Nancy Grace-branded jewelry that will be sold through her show, with proceeds going to charity, and is planning her own production company.

"Her audience travels and has proved to be broader than people thought," says her agent, CAA's Nick Khan, whose goal is to make it even broader.

Her warmth and vulnerability could make her the next Oprah, but she is trapped by the very persona that has made her a success, the "full-on loose cannon, a disseminator of disinformation and an ego gone rogue," in the words of a Salon.com critique.

If such criticism has any impact, Grace doesn't show it. Instead, she remains adamant she's on the right course. "The devil knocks at your door," she explains. "Do you invite him to tea? No, because next thing, he'll be sleeping with you." This belief separates her from her critics, she argues. "I know crime and justice, and I know what's right and wrong."