Mike Lipton
August 16, 2004 12:00 PM

Something you didn’t know about Paula Zahn: “When we’re driving,” says her daughter Haley, 15, “she likes to sing P. Diddy and Eminem at the top of her lungs.” Paula Zahn, she of the perfect coif and earnest mien, belting out, “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go”? If s not unusual, according to Haley, who adds that friends can be surprised by Zahn’s inner goofball: “They say Mom is crazy, just like me. But when they watch her on TV, she seems so serious.”

That’s probably a good thing: Serious goes with the job. The host of the weeknight talk show Paula Zahn Now has tackled Iraq, 9/11, health care, the economy and other hot-button issues. And whenever she has the opportunity, she beats the drums for cancer awareness and research. For Zahn, 48, the disease hits close to home. She lost three of her grandparents, an aunt, her father and sister-in-law to cancer. Her mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor. “My husband, Norman, and I were diagnosed at the same time [in 1982],” says Zahn’s mom, Betty, 80, who is still undergoing treatment. “Paula was working in L.A. and flew in to Chicago every week to see him in the hospital. She talked to all the nurses and pledged to herself that she would do everything she could to further the funds for cancer research.” Says Zahn: “When I became aware of my own family’s gaps in knowledge, I decided to become a foot soldier at work.”

As a reporter at the NBC affiliate in Houston in the early ’80s, she helped spearhead the station’s sponsorship of free colorectal cancer tests in partnership with a local drugstore chain and hospital. Zahn, who then did a month-long series explaining the procedure, has on her office wall a framed letter from a woman in Galveston who saw Zahn’s report and got tested. Diagnosed with cancer, the woman was treated free of charge by two local doctors. “Talk about the power of journalism,” says Zahn.

As her career blossomed—she moved from local news to several different networks before arriving in 2001 at CNN (whose parent company, Time Warner, also owns PEOPLE)—Zahn took her cancer crusade with her. “Over the years, assignment editors would just roll their eyes,” she says. “They’d say, ‘Here she comes again, to pitch another public-service announcement, another mammogram-test story.’ ” Her doggedness, though, has earned her a slew of honors, including a City of Hope Cancer Center’s Spirit of Life award.

Raising awareness and a family too, Zahn says, “I don’t waste a lot of time.” She’s up at 6 a.m. at her sprawling Manhattan apartment to scour the newspapers, then breakfasts with her three kids before phoning her producer to plan her live 8 p.m. ET talk show. Richard Cohen, 56, her husband of 18 years and a real estate developer with more flexible hours, helps coordinate child care until Zahn gets home, usually by 9:30. Zahn says she’s “on call 24 hours a day” for CNN. Yet “she does it without whining or telling you how hard she works,” says Barbara Walters, whom Zahn has called her “guardian angel” since they worked together at ABC News in the late ’80s. It was Walters who urged her to take the coanchor job at CBS This Morning in 1990: “I felt she should spread her wings.”

In fact, she already had, even while starting a family. Zahn was eight months pregnant with Haley when she landed an exclusive interview with Fidel Castro in ’89. “As he tried to leave [a press conference], my girth nailed him,” she says. “We stood belly to belly.” Then, a week after she returned from maternity leave, Zahn handed over Haley to her husband so she could cover the San Francisco earthquake. “I remember how emotionally grinding that was,” she says. “Any mother who travels feels this enormous sense of guilt when she has to leave her kids.”

Nevertheless, with the births of sons Jared, now 10, and Austin, 7, Zahn’s maternity leaves got shorter—and her guilt about work lessened a little. “Haley and Jared are old enough to say they think what I do for a living is important,” she says. “And that means the world to me.” Haley, herself a budding anchor with the syndicated show Teen Kids News, says, “I try to watch her every day. I can learn a lot from her.”

Her mother demurs. “There are so many things I can’t do,” says Zahn. “I do a mean macaroni and cheese, and there’s still a debate whether my French toast is better than Dad’s. But you do not want me to cook you dinner.”

Mike Lipton. Joanne Fowler in New York City

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