January 13, 1997 12:00 PM

>Matt Lauer

SITTING PRETTY

THE ANGST OF UNEMPLOYMENT? MATT Lauer knows all about it. Fired as host of a New York City area talk show in 1990, the Chappaqua, N.Y., native was so desperate for work—any work—that he almost took a job as a tree-cutter. “I would sit staring at the phone,” says Lauer, 39. “I know what it’s like to be without a job.”

Times sure have changed. Tapped last month to replace Bryant Gumbel on the Today show (Gumbel, who quit after 15 years, hasn’t announced his next move), Lauer has been on the fast track since joining Today, TV’s top-rated morning show, as a news anchor in 1994. Gumbel’s longtime sub (the two are now close friends), Lauer says his promotion, effective Jan. 6, was welcome but not surprising. “A lot of other people were qualified,” he admits, “but I felt like possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Today executive producer Jeff Zucker agrees. “Matt was the obvious choice. He’s smart, inquisitive, easygoing—skills that people who’ve succeeded in this job have had.”

It remains to be seen if Lauer—whose boyish good looks draw scores of admirers outside the studio (and made him one of PEOPLE’S 50 Most Beautiful in 1994)—can maintain Gumbel-sized ratings. “The pressure is going to increase tenfold now,” says Lauer, who recently split with his fiancée, TV reporter Kristen Gesswein. So far, though, the affable anchor has few plans to change his style. “Maybe,” he jokes, “I’ll get a few new ties.”

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