By J.D. Reed Anne-marie O'neill
November 27, 2000 12:00 PM

They looked like any other pair in the first blush of romance, holding hands and whispering on a chintz-covered love seat. But the cozy couple on the porch of local TV news anchor Chuck Scarborough’s house in Southampton, N.Y., on Aug. 19 were hardly unknowns. Dating steadily since June, the Today show’s $7 million cohost Katie Couric—breezily attired in a shoulder-baring summer dress—and high-powered multimillionaire TV producer Tom Werner chose the gala for the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, hosted by Scarborough, to go public with their courtship. “It was charming,” says Hamptons society columnist R. Couri Hay, a fellow guest. “It was as if she were saying, ‘I’m okay. I’ve got a beau. I’m having a great romance.’ ”

Two days later Couric, 43, and Werner, 50, reaped the benefits of the charity bash by showing up joined at the hip again, this time at the Fund’s Wainscott shelter, to retrieve Couric’s cairn terrier Maisey, who had run off and gotten lost. “Oh my God!” Couric exclaimed to one of the workers as Werner gave the pup a hug. “We’ve been sick with worry!”

A lost dog can have that effect. But there’s nothing misguided about Maisey’s master of late. With a new guy, a new look (she has lightened her hair, toned her body and acquired a racier-than-usual wardrobe to show it off) and a career upswing that includes cohelming Today into a third hour, Couric seems stronger, fitter and—judging by Today‘s record 256 consecutive weeks as the top-rated morning show, including an unprecedented 12.5 million viewers the morning after the Nov. 7 election—more talked about than ever.

Still mourning the loss of her husband, attorney Jay Monahan, who died of colon cancer at 42 in January 1998, Couric took a deep breath and stepped cautiously back into the dating game last year, briefly seeing Nabisco executive Steve Rudnitsky, 42, and plastic surgeon Cap Lesesne, 45, among others. Then in May her manager Alan Berger—egged on by his matchmaking wife, Phyllis—introduced Couric to Werner. Coproducer of such TV megahits as The Cosby Show and 3rd Rock from the Sun, Werner had just that month appeared as No. 46 on the Los Angeles Business Journal‘s list of the city’s 50 Wealthiest People, with a net worth of $600 million. And he was newly single, having separated the month before from his wife of 28 years, Jill. Lightning struck, and before long Werner began regularly jetting to New York City from Los Angeles. He and Couric were spotted out and about in Manhattan and the Hamptons; in September Werner spent four days in Sydney as a guest of NBC while Couric was broadcasting Today from the Olympics site. “We’ve just been going out and having a nice time,” Couric said to TV Guide of her relationship with Werner. “It’s just been a few months. We see each other when we can. And I think he’s a terrific guy.” His friends, naturally, concur. “What’s not to love?” says one Werner pal, Washington political lobbyist Liz Robbins. “He’s one of the warmest, nicest, fun guys. His whole personality is a smile.”

Still, Couric has more than romance on her mind. Since Monahan’s death (the pair, who met at a party in 1988, were married nine years), she has focused her considerable energy on raising their girls, Ellie, 9, and Carrie, 4, while mounting a campaign to fight colon cancer that has raised more than $10 million to date. All this while still getting up at 5 a.m. to cohost Today with Matt Lauer. And sorrows continue to plague her. Couric learned in July that her older sister, Virginia state senator Emily Couric, 53, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Although a friend said Couric found the news “devastating,” it only strengthened her resolve to promote early detection and to campaign for a cancer cure. “My 4-year-old still asks why her dad got ‘Kansas,’ ” Couric told reporters before testifying at a Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing earlier this year. “I have an incredible opportunity to get lifesaving information out to the public, so I feel empowered.”

The confidence shows. “She was in mourning for a long time,” says Couric’s friend Nicole Miller, who also ranks as one of her favorite fashion designers. “Now she’s letting go of that and realizing she has to have a life.” Six million—and counting—regular Today viewers can’t have helped noticing the transformation. Outwardly, at least, it began in the spring with the new highlighted, layered hairstyle by Laura Bonanni of Manhattan’s Louis Licari salon, which has spawned a demand for copy color and cuts of the $555 do. “They come in sometimes with even shorter hair than she has and ask, ‘Can you make me look like Katie?’ ” says Chicago hairstylist Charles Ifergan, who has been inundated with such requests. “It’s easy for them to ask, because she’s not threatening. Women are not scared of her.”

Nor are they bothered by the leather and Lycra outfits, flirty sandals, knee-high boots and funky ’80s tie-tops that have displaced the sensible junior-exec suits a younger Couric used to favor. “She’s lost weight,” says Meredith Wollins, designer Miller’s director of publicity. “Her body has changed. She’s a little more daring.” Adds stylist to the stars (including Salma Hayek) Phillip Bloch: “She looks like she’s gotten out, gotten some sun and had fun.”

Not to mention a good workout. For her newly trim figure, Couric credits fitness trainer High Voltage, 52 (formerly Kathie Jo Howell, onetime director of a New Jersey spa), who began working with Couric in 1998. She enforces a tough regime that includes 60-minute cardio and weight workouts four times a week. But her fees, which start at $7,500 a week, really require dedication.

That’s something Couric seems to have in abundance, particularly when it comes to her career. Indeed, all this talk of hair, clothes and makeup, while flattering, sits uncomfortably with the newswoman who has worked hard to earn credentials as a serious journalist. “It’s sweet that people have said that I look nice,” she said in October. “As long as it doesn’t get out of control in terms of what’s on my head being more important than what’s in my head.”

For Couric, the youngest of four children of homemaker Elinor, now 77, and John Couric, 80, a retired journalist, credibility has always been top priority. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1979, she started out as a desk assistant at ABC’s Washington, D.C., bureau. But by the time she first appeared as Today‘s coanchor—10 years ago next April—Couric was still struggling to maintain a balance between her soft and serious sides.

Now it seems she has realized that indulging both can come in handy. At a media dinner in Manhattan on Sept. 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin was reportedly taken aback when the chirpy woman in a black leather dress asked, “So why didn’t you come back from vacation when [the ill-fated submarine Kursk] was on the bottom of the sea?” That silk-coated steamroller effect makes Couric “the most talented woman on television—more talented than Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey,” contends Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report, which analyzes network news. “The people who are champions of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings would say that she’s not as good on hard news. But she has proved she can stand up to people and ask the tough questions.”

At least of those who deserve them. For others Couric reserves more tenderness. In her first children’s book, The Brand New Kid (which has topped the New York Times children’s-picture-book bestseller list for three weeks), Couric, reacting to the alienation among children that results in school violence, encourages little ones ages 3 to 8 to be kind to other kids. “I’d like to see my daughters be successful,” she told Parenting magazine. “But I really want them to be—first and foremost—nice.”

Rivals say Couric might take a leaf out of her own book. In recent months she has riled producers at ABC’s Good Morning America on several occasions, once by running overtime with a live interview (with Tillie Tooter, the 83-year-old Florida grandmother who had survived three days in her overturned car), encroaching on GMA’s scheduled time with the heroine and forcing that show to resort to an ad break while waiting. “I think viewers would be surprised to see this kind of mean-spiritedness from Katie Couric,” GMA producer Shelley Ross told PEOPLE after the incident. “I think we can compete on loftier levels.” Couric—and NBC—declined to comment.

Then there are those rumblings that calm, caring Katie is more difficult than she seems—an idea inflamed by her former cohost Bryant Gumbel, who, in defending himself against charges of orneriness, implied to The New York Times that Couric was the one who “went through five [assistants] in five years.” Counters one former employee: “She likes to pick people who are going to use the job as an entry level into the business.” And Couric’s longtime pal Sherry Westin insists, “She is the same person as she is on TV.”

Outside the office, Couric reserves as much time as possible in her hectic schedule for Ellie and Carrie at the family’s sunny four-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “The girls get such a kick out of Katie,” says Westin. “They share the same sense of humor. At a birthday dinner once, Katie burst into song, singing ‘Today is your birthday.’ Ellie loved it.” Like any 9-year-old, though, she appears less enthusiastic about her mom’s dating life. “Ellie asked me to promise that if I ever got remarried I wouldn’t have sex,” Couric told Good Housekeeping this month. “It’s very hard for her, and it’s hard for me to put myself in Ellie’s and Carrie’s shoes.”

Werner comes with his own complications. The Manhattan-raised Harvard graduate only filed for divorce in October, although he left the Brentwood, Calif., home he shared with Jill, 51, and their daughter Amanda, 12, last spring (the couple also have two grown children: Edward, 24, and Carolyn, 21), shortly before he began seeing Couric. “It had nothing to do with his current relationship with Katie,” says a friend of Werner’s. “It was a long and thoughtful process.” Werner now lives near his old home, the better to spend time with Amanda. “He coaches teams, goes to school events, takes his daughter and her friends out for a meal or a movie,” says the friend. Indeed, for all his wealth, Werner is described by his friends as a humble, unassuming kind of guy. “At work he dresses in khakis and button-down Oxford shirts,” says a friend. “You won’t see him walking around in $1,500 Armanis.”

After a lifetime of professional success he can certainly afford to relax a little. A former ABC television executive, Werner joined producer Marcy Carsey, now 56, in 1981 to cofound the lucrative Carsey-Werner company, which in addition to The Cosby Show (for which he shared an Emmy with Carsey in 1985) churned out such successes as Roseanne and Grace Under Fire. “He’s a decent guy,” says Disney chairman Michael Eisner, who hired Werner at ABC in 1973. “His steadiness is his greatest strength.”

He needed it in his previous most public venture, as principal owner of the San Diego Padres baseball team from 1990 to 1994. Werner was hammered by fans after his star Roseanne brayed the national anthem at a 1990 game, then grabbed her crotch in imitation of jock-scratching jocks. Even so, he impressed Ted Leitner, an announcer for the Padres, as “very down-to-earth, very intellectual.”

Friends are cautiously optimistic about his latest production. “There is a mutual admiration between Katie and Tom,” says a Werner pal, “but they’re both a little gun-shy.” She is anchored in Manhattan, while he is busy in L.A. with his children and the production of new shows including John Goodman’s latest series, Normal, Ohio. Still, fingers are crossed that the attraction will conquer geography. In the meantime, Couric can’t fight that telltale glow. “Katie looks so amazing mostly because she is so happy,” says her friend, makeup czar Bobbi Brown. “She deserves it.”

J.D. Reed and Anne-Marie O’Neill

K.C. Baker in New York City, Michelle Caruso and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles and Brian Karem and Margery Sellinger § in Washington, D.C.