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On the Sunny Side of 50, Pop Psychologist Sonya Friedman Has Legs as Talk Cable's New Queen

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Sonya Friedman, posture-perfect behind her Cable News Network desk, is concerned about the royal marriage. “Charles no doubt regrets ever marrying the airhead,” says her guest, columnist Christopher Hitchens. Sonya’s smile hardens. “Well,” she cooly suggests, “you certainly have a way with words. But to many of us, they are a prince and princess, and we wish them happiness.”

The Queen of lunchtime cable television watches her phone light up as viewers rush to second her emotion. In less than a year Sonya Live in L.A. has made its mark with such moments. Small wonder. This is, after all, the pop psychologist who sold America the notion in 1985 that Smart Cookies Don’t Crumble (one of a trio of Sonya bestsellers). Watch her bristle if you even call her a talk show host. She considers herself more “a serious news person. If you compare me to Oprah Winfrey, my producer will bite you.”

Friedman is proud of her two-hour midday show, which features news, weather, business reports and live phone calls reaching out to 54 countries. But the daily TV program, plus the twice weekly show she’s been doing since 1986 for the ABC Talkradio network, has drawn Sonya, 51, physically away from her own storybook marriage. Monday through Friday she retires to her mauve L.A. apartment; weekends she commutes to the lakeside home in suburban Detroit that she and her husband, osteopath Stephen Friedman, bought in 1959. “He brings a stability to the marriage,” says Sonya, “I bring adventure. But the guilt bubbles up when someone asks me, ‘Who is cooking for your husband?’ ”

In fact son Scott, 26, who lives at home while interning at a nearby hospital, cooks for his father. And Dad can also boast of frequent visits from daughter Sharon, 30, an attorney who returned to school to get a psychology degree. No one bears Mom resentment. “They felt I earned this,” says Sonya. “So do I.”

The solidarity of Friedman’s family is in strong contrast to her own splintered upbringing. Raised by a mother who “never really developed as a person” and a stepfather who was a gas station owner and rarely home, Friedman describes her Brooklyn childhood as “so painful I needed windshield wipers on my glasses.” Her parents separated in 1939, and Sonya found no solace with her father, a psychiatrist. “I was a stranger to him most of my life,” she says, “but I have to thank him. He gave me one gift that made it all happen. He gave me a good mind.”

That mind made her aware of options her mother could not see: “She didn’t understand why I wanted an education. She wanted me to get married.” Sonya accomplished both, and though she would title her first self-help tome Men Are Just Desserts, she herself didn’t wait for a main course. Sonya Elaine Kiel met Stephen Friedman on a Coney Island beach when she was 14; six years later they wed.

Black curly hair and chipmunk cheeks characterized the young bride, who after graduating from Brooklyn College in 1956 worked as a speech therapist to help her husband through school. “When we were first married,” she recalls, “we were 1½ people—I was the half.” Soon enough, however, Friedman was also hitting the books, earning a doctorate in psychology at Michigan’s Wayne State University in 1967. Starting with a column in a community newspaper, Dr. Sonya Friedman gravitated toward television and A.M. Detroit. By 1976 she had risen to a nighttime special correspondent position with ABC News.

It was then, surprisingly, that Friedman put on the brakes. “I always say I was born when I was 38 years old,” she muses. “That’s when I walked into ABC and told my boss I was leaving. I was just not good enough.”

Starting over in radio, she became the shrink-behind-the-phone at Detroit’s most popular afternoon call-in show. Norman Lear cast her as the host of his ill-fated 1980 series, The Baxters, while USA Network beckoned in 1982 with the coyly titled Telling Secrets With Sonya, which she did until 1985. By 1986 she also had served up her third book (A Hero Is More Than Just a Sandwich) and had seen her income rise to an estimated $750,000 a year, while still continuing private practice in Detroit and L.A. At least one client gives her high marks as a therapist: “Sonya is a good listener but not very sympathetic. She wants you to be tougher.”

A sort of Joyce Brothers with sex appeal, Sonya’s TV style combines hard-nosed questions and soft-pedaled sensuality. Admitting to two cosmetic surgeries in her 30s and 40s, she declines to comment on any recent nips and tucks: “Let’s just say I think it’s important to weed your own garden.”

And, perhaps, to water it as well. “In a plastic environment, I have no plastic friends,” Friedman insists. Her warmth does not radiate to all quarters. “I sense a distance and phoniness,” bluntly assessed one newspaper critic. “I feel like I’m about to be used.”

The notion of a psychologist-turned-talk-show-host does raise questions about the methods Friedman may use to extract pithy answers from her guests. “I think any interviewer uses skills to get into people’s heads,” she counters. Guest Christie Brinkley confided that husband Billy Joel’s recent stage outburst in Russia was not unusual since “he’s been kicking over pianos and breaking mike stands all the way across the United States.”

“I haven’t always been well adjusted,” says Sonya, who still sees a therapist herself several times a year. “I had a very painful beginning and a very painful middle. I thought 30 was the end of youth and beauty. Now, in my adult years, I am very comfortable.” As Dr. Sonya might put it, such is the cushion of success.