By Michael A. Lipton
September 18, 2000 12:00 PM

With all the scrutiny she has been under lately, it’s little wonder that Big Brother host Julie Chen sometimes feels like the CBS show’s housebound contestants, who are under 24–hour camera surveillance–even in the bathroom. “I find myself wondering what it is like to be Kathie Lee Gifford,” she says of the gossip staple. “When I go out to dinner, I am cautious about saying anything for fear that someone at the next table could be listening and work for a tabloid.”

She’s not joking, entirely. A New York City columnist, notes Chen, 30, wrote that “word on the BB set [was] that CBS executives weren’t happy with me because they thought I was too serious and not enough of an entertainer. I laugh because [to critics] one minute I am too flip and the next I am too serious.” On the “flip” side, some reviewers have called her “breathless” and “chirpy” as she announces which one of the reality show’s housemates has been evicted by viewers. (The last roomie left of the original 10 takes home $500,000 on Sept. 30.)

What really seems to bug the critics is the fact that Chen, the heretofore respected Manhattan-based news anchor on CBS’s The Early Show, is flying to L.A. once a week to moonlight essentially as a game show emcee. “It’s a further deterioration of news standards,” 60 Minutes‘ Andy Rooney harrumphed to USA Today. Judged by those standards, Chen came up short during her June 20 interview with BB‘s first evictee, William “Mega” Collins, when she failed to grill him about his past in the New Black Panther Party. “We ran out of time,” she says. “With live television, that happens. “And critics of her double role don’t necessarily blame Chen. “The lines between news and entertainment have been blurring for a long time,” says Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg. “The problem is so much deeper than her. If the network itself really cares, why would they let her do it?”

“The irony is that the behavior that is accepted on the part of morning personalities ranges far wider that anything Julie does on Big Brother,” says CBS News president Andrew Heyward, who proposed Chen for BB. “What Julie does on Big Brother is a lot more mainstream than a lot of what passes for morning news. It’s appropriate that those programs are a mixture of news and much lighter material. I don’t think we should get moralistic about it.”

Maintaining her bicoastal gig and getting by on less than four hours’ sleep a night, Chen isn’t complaining. “A year ago,” she says, “I was working in local news and living with my parents”–Yen-Chun, 69, a retired utility-company engineer, and Wan-Ling, 67, a homemaker, in Queens–”because I wasn’t making enough money to live in a safe area.” Last October she was tapped as the fledgling Early Show‘s news anchor because, says senior executive producer Steve Friedman, “I was looking for somebody who was sassy, smart and young.” Now that she has been able to buy her own Manhattan apartment, says Chen, “I’m finally an adult.”

Growing up in Queens, the youngest of three daughters, Chen, who speaks fluent Mandarin, credits her mother with steering her, inadvertently, into journalism. “One day when I was in high school,” Chen says, “she was so frustrated at me for not studying, she said as a joke, ‘You should be a newscaster, because all you want to do is wear nice clothes and look pretty.’ I said, ‘Ma, it’s more than that!’ ”

Chen set out to prove that and enrolled at USC as a broadcasting and English major. In September 1991, soon after graduating, she became a news assistant for ABC News in L.A., where she came under the tutelage of Gary Donahue, a news editor 28 years her senior. “I had a crush on him,” she says, “but thought he would never give a whippersnapper like me the time of day.” Five months later she and Donahue, the divorced father of a grown daughter, began dating. Their age gap “doesn’t bother us,” says Donahue, 58. “We will go to a KISS concert one night and an Andrea Bocelli recital the next.” Even after Chen’s move to New York in April 1998, “we never go a day without talking on the phone,” he says. “We’ll get married when she is finally settled.”

In the meantime he remains her fiercest defender. “Gary takes the criticism so hard for me that I don’t have to,” says Chen. “He’ll say, ‘Listen to this guy!’ He’ll read the review and then say, ‘I just want to smash him in the mouth!’ It is so juvenile and it makes me laugh. I just think, ‘Ah, he loves me.’

Michael A. Lipton
Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles