Rachel Maddow: How This Wonky-Tonk Woman Won TV

10:41 AM PST 10/05/2011 by Marisa Guthrie
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Virginia Sherwood/NBC

MSNBC's primetime superstar delivers news with agenda, but not hysteria, as her style of civil political discussion reveals a turning tide (even Roger Ailes says Fox News has gone too far) that may help stem cable's ratings erosion in an increasingly unpleasant political environment.

Maddow grew up in Castro Valley, Calif., a conservative suburb less than 30 miles east of the progressive hot-bed of San Francisco and (formerly) infamous for its Skinhead and Ku Klux Klan activity.

"I definitely grew up conscious of the violent extremist edge of politics," she says.

Maddow's father Robert was a captain in the Air Force and her mother Elaine is Canadian; she got her citizenship, says Maddow, because she wanted to vote. But Maddow's parents were not particularly political; she describes them as centrists, and her only sibling, an older brother David, 42, is "100 percent apolitical," she says.

Maddow realized she was gay while she was in high school and came out as the AIDS epidemic was devastating the gay community.  By the time she entered Stanford University in 1990, she was oriented toward activism and advocacy, working for ACT UP and other AIDS policy groups. She earned an undergraduate degree in public policy at Stanford and went on to a doctoral in political science on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. She moved to Western Massachusetts where she had a community of friends and settled in to write her dissertation on AIDS and health care reform in prisons. She bounced around in a variety of menial jobs – lifeguarding, landscaping – until she landed her first radio job as the news girl on a morning drive-time program in Holyoke, Mass. 

"They didn't hire me because I had a strong interest in the news," she recalls. "They hired me because I had a nice voice and I was willing to get up that early for minimum wage."

By the time progressive radio network Air America was launched in 2004, Maddow had decided that she'd found her calling. She may not have quite established her liberal media credentials, but her radio skills had developed enough to co-host a program with Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead and Public Enemy frontman Chuck D. When it was canceled a year later, she got her own show, which she continued to do into her full-time tenure at MSNBC. (Air America was shuttered in 2010.)

Maddow keeps an apartment in Manhattan, but she decamps to the solitude of Northampton, Mass. on weekends, where she lives with her girlfriend of 12 years, artist Susan Mikula, and Poppy, their black Labrador. The couple met in 1999 when Mikula hired Maddow to dig tree stumps out of her front yard. "It was love at first sight," says Maddow.

Gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004, but Maddow says she and Mikula have no immediate wedding plans. "We know a lot of people who have gotten married but I don't think we feel any urgency about it."

Later she admits that she's actually ambivalent about the cultural impact of gay marriage.

"I feel that gay people not being able to get married for generations, forever, meant that we came up with alternative ways of recognizing relationships," she explains. "And I worry that if everybody has access to the same institutions that we lose the creativity of subcultures having to make it on their own. And I like gay culture."

The trappings of television news stardom have facilitated certain material comforts. But Maddow and Mikula still live in the house that Maddow arrived at more than ten years ago. Asked what she does to relax, she offers: "I fish," and shows me a picture to prove it. In it Maddow is wearing a baseball cap and her black-frame glasses and holding a rainbow trout under her chin.

"I just bought a boat," she says. "Yes, I'm now so rich and famous that I bought a boat."

She scours her email and comes up with a picture of the vessel: a row boat jammed into the back of a friend's pick-up truck. "That's my yacht lifestyle."

 

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