IN THE WORLD OF TELEVISION JOURNALISM, few stars have risen as fast—or flamed out as completely—as Kathleen Sullivan. In 1980, at 27, she became the first female anchor hired by CNN; four years later she was a hit covering the Sarajevo Olympics for ABC. Then in 1990, she was abruptly-fired from CBS This Morning amid enough rumors to keep Hard Copy happy for weeks: Kathleen Sullivan was difficult and demanding; her behavior was said to be erratic; she had slept with her former boss, ABC News president Roone Arledge. Later there would be stories that she was having an affair with Martina Navratilova.
“I kept thinking, ‘How come so many people are saying such nasty things about me?’ ” says Sullivan, now 40, who passionately denies all the gossip. There’s no denying, however, that after the CBS firing her career as a big-time journalist stopped. Job offers dried up, and she paid her bills by running golf clinics and coanchoring a syndicated health show, Life Choices. Then in early January, Sullivan was once again front and center before a national TV audience—as, surprise, the star of a series of catchy Weight Watchers commercials (“One moment I’m a network anchor, and the next…well, look at me”) that follow her as she tries to lose 20 pounds. “If I don’t reach my goal,” she says, “I’m not the Weight Watchers’ spokesperson.”
It’s a lucrative gig, and Sullivan is happy to have it, but it is not the first career path she would have chosen. Sullivan’s travels may be, in fact, a cautionary tale. Its moral, depending on your point of view, is either 1) hard living and arrogance can level the career of even the most promising TV journalist; or 2) if you are female and want to remain in front of the news cameras, you must never, ever, gain weight or go gray.
Sullivan maintains that along with being “difficult and tough,” one of the primary reasons she was dumped was that, in the eyes of male bosses, she ceased to be a bombshell. The onetime business major at the University of Southern California believes that her major sin was Idling her once-dark brown hair go naturally gray in her mid-30s. “Every lime I went on a job interview,” she says of her years in employment Siberia, “I’d hear, ‘Did she dye her hair yet?’ ” (She finally did, two years ago.)
Ironically it was Sullivan’s seeming unconcern about cosmetics that helped get her noticed in the first place. “There was this wonderful lip-stick-smudged and hair-messed look about her that the audience loved,” says former CNN president Reese Schonfeld, who hired her. Lured away by ABC in 1982, she departed from the usual wardrobe of blazers and blouses while coanchoring the ’84 Winter Olympics and became a household name as the “sweater girl.” Working in ABC’s Washington bureau, she began fending off rumors of a romance with Arledge. “It’s untrue, and I will pay anyone if they can prove it,” she says. (Arledge too says there was no romance.) In 1985, Sullivan married Palm Springs architect Michael Kiner, son of Baseball Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner and tennis pro Nancy Chaffee. “I thought he was going to move east but he never did,” Sullivan says. “We never lived together.” They divorced four years later.
In 1987, at 34, Sullivan was named cohost, with Harry Smith, of CBS This Morning. It was then that she started gaining a reputation as high-strung and high-handed. “I’ve worked with a lot of talent, and they’re difficult,” says one former CBS producer. “But she was impossible. She would scream in the hallways.” Sullivan certainly-had her fans, among them Gail Steinberg, the program’s senior producer. “It was a joy to work with Kathleen,” she says, “absolutely one of the most satisfying creative partnerships I ever had.” But Sullivan herself concedes, “I was one tough son of a gun. I sure made some enemies.”
More damning, perhaps, was. the perception that her on-camera appeal was on the wane. She sometimes looked tired, her face puffy. Even today, she chokes up when she recalls reading in The Washington Post an unattributed quote saying that she was “old and unattractive and no one wants to look at her.” Sullivan allows that she burned the candle at both ends, making New York’s nightlife rounds, she says, in part to wangle celeb guests to the show. Says one former coworker: “She had that look that she had been up all night, which fueled hair-curling stories about her personal life. And she could be sweet as spice one day, bordering on monstrous the next. It’s hard to know what the truth really was. She’s the type of person around whom rumors just fly.”
Fearing that responding to such rumors would only spread them further, she ignored them, as she would the tabloid reports that she was having a relationship with Navratilova. “She’s a very good friend, and at times she stayed in my apartment when she was in New York,” says Sullivan, “but we couldn’t be more far apart with our sexual preferences.” Her silence, she says now, backfired: “My fear was portrayed as arrogance when I was reluctant to deny things.”
With This Morning still in last place among the three morning network news shows, Sullivan was dumped while eight months remained on her three-year, $3.9 million contract. She sold the house she was building in Long Island’s East Hampton—taking a $400,000 loss—put her New York City co-op on the market and moved to a rented condo on a golf course in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Sullivan went mountain climbing in Hawaii and vacationed at the Canyon Ranch spa in Tucson. She skied, played tennis, worked on her golf game.
Still, her career bottoming out, she was miserable. Her spirits lifted when, in 1992, she joined Life Choices. And, indulging her love of focaccia bread, her weight rose too. Now, Sullivan declares, “I’m starting over. Taking off weight started mc believing in myself again.” She would like to gel back into broadcasting. Her former boss, Schonfeld, now president of cable’s Television Food Network, believes that is possible. “I won’t deny asking her agent if she’s free,” he says. “A lot of what she once had is still there.”
For now, though, Sullivan attends Weight Watchers meetings weekly and, a 7-handicapper, enjoys golf games with Rancho Mirage buddy Dinah Shore. “When the putt goes around the hole,” she says, “Dinah erupts into ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’ ” Sullivan sings right along; the pain of the last four years is, slowly, being replaced by gratitude. “It’s hard to believe all that happened,” she says, “but I think I’m really lucky to have gotten through it. I still have my knees and I’m still walking.”
SUE CARSWELL in New York City