September 09, 1996 12:00 PM

THERE HAVE BEEN TIMES LATELY when Elizabeth Vargas—wearily fielding questions about her 2½-month-old romance with Lyle Lovett and her falsely rumored feud with Joan Lunden—has looked back almost longingly on her college days in Columbia, Mo. There, the University of Missouri journalism major (class of ’84) moonlighted as an anchor at KOMU-TV, the school-owned NBC affiliate. “We were No. 1 in the ratings, and I was being paid $3.35 an hour!” she says with a laugh. “I had to waitress to make ends meet. [Customers] would say, ‘Aren’t you that newscaster?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, I am, would you like rice pilaf or a baked potato with your entrée?’ ”

These days, as Good Morning America’s newest news anchor (she replaced veteran Morton Dean last May), Vargas, 33, gets to pose more interesting questions. Last week she asked Dr. Jack Kevorkian about his latest assisted suicide. She has also quizzed Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu about his Palestinian policy, rapped with Savion Glover about his Broadway stardom in Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk and grilled gadfly presidential candidate Ross Perot. “We managed to get him to announce definitively that he was going to run,” she proudly declares.

There is one guest whom she refuses to talk about, however: Lovett. Vargas met Julia Roberts‘s ex when the country star appeared on GMA on June 19; ever since, the two have been an item. Neither will give details of their relationship. But Vargas laughs off a New York Post item that had her following Lyle on his cross-country concert tour. Just for starters, she says, she doesn’t have the time.

Every weekday, Vargas rises at 4:30 a.m. in her one-bedroom Manhattan apartment and turns on the espresso machine in her tiny, walk-in kitchen. Then it’s a quick taxi ride to the GMA studio, where she works through mid-afternoon, mostly taping interviews for upcoming shows. Come evening, she says, “I go home armed with five newspapers, then watch 3½ hours of news.” By 9 p.m. she’s in bed. “Max doesn’t understand why I don’t want to play at 10,” she says. (Relax, Lyle, Max is the cat.)

In case there is any question, Vargas takes her job seriously. When she moved from Chicago to Manhattan in 1993 to work as substitute news anchor for NBC’s Today show, she was too busy even to make friends. “She never got to see her apartment because she was always working,” says Sharon Isaak, an associate producer for Dateline NBC, on which Vargas also worked as a correspondent. “It’s important to her that people respect the work she does.”

And so it has been frustrating—and just strange—for Vargas to find herself under siege from other journalists wanting to know all about her. “She’s still starstruck by the people she gets to meet,” says her sister Amie, 27, a marketing manager in Stamford, Conn., “which is why it’s so odd for her to see her name in the papers. She says, ‘Why do people care about me?’ ”

“I mean, the day I was prepping for the Netanyahu interview,” Vargas complains, “the phone kept ringing with calls from reporters saying, ‘Is it true Joan’s being mean to you?’ ” The answer, she says, as if for the umpteenth time, is no: GMA cohost Joan Lunden has not been giving her the cold shoulder, contrary to the rumors reported in a TV Guide article in July. Nor is Vargas (who occasionally fills in for Lunden and cohost Charles Gibson), scheming, she says, to grab Lunden’s job full-time—as those same rumors implied.

“Anyone who watches [Joan and me] off the air knows all of this is garbage,” says Vargas. “I think it’s sexism,” adds GMA’s executive producer Marc Burstein. “Joan is very supportive of women in the business.” Lunden, 45, who recently renewed her GMA contract, declined to be interviewed for this article, but in USA Today in July she pronounced Vargas “a nice kid” and added, “I feel like Elizabeth’s mentor.”

Not that Vargas has ever needed one. The oldest of three children of Ralf Vargas, a retired Army colonel, and his wife, Anne, who now live in Nevada, Vargas spent her teen years in Belgium and Germany. “I grew up without TV,” she says. “My strength was writing. I was editor-in-chief of my Heidelberg High School newspaper.” But a broadcasting course in college hooked her on radio—and, later, TV She honed her on-camera skills at stations in Reno and Phoenix before leaping to Chicago’s WBBM. Her Today stint impressed rival GMA, which lured her away last spring. “She’s brought a great energy and enthusiasm to the place,” says Burstein.

Vargas’s own place, meanwhile, could use a few groceries. Her refrigerator is often empty save for cat food, skim milk and white wine. “She’s not a workaholic,” says her sister—but even play is intense. “My idea of a great vacation,” says Vargas, “is to get up at dawn to scuba dive, take a nap, play tennis for a few hours, have a nice dinner and go to bed at 9.” She laughs: “I mean, really exciting stuff.”


ANNE LONGLEY in New York City

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