July 09, 1990 12:00 PM

By the measure of television’s morning shows, which deem that a female host must be both pretty and perky, CBS This Morning’s Paula Zahn has prettiness (she made the Miss Teenage America finals in 1973) and perkiness (her job is “incredible,” her husband is “most supportive,” her baby is “wonderful”) to spare. But before you even dare to think she is just another contestant vying with NBC’s Deborah Norville and ABC’s Joan Lunden in a Battle of the Network Blonds, Zahn, 34, whips out a verbal résumé. “I didn’t get to sit on that aqua-blue couch overnight,” she says, referring to the sofa she shares each morning with co-host Harry Smith. “I’ve moved from coast to coast three times to work as a reporter. I’ve chased many tough stories on many bizarre shifts. I wasn’t doing fluff for 13 years.”

Which is pretty much the argument Norville used to plead her own case when she joined NBC’s Today late last year, just before the show took a painful tumble from its accustomed first-place perch. So far, Zahn is faring somewhat better; in the five months since she left her old job as a morning newsreader at ABC to take her place on that aqua-blue couch, CBS’s last-place ratings have inched up a bit. And the smooth-as-milk Zahn has proved an exceedingly versatile host, whether schussing down the Rockies beside former Olympic skier Andy Mill or picking out a Gershwin melody on the piano keys. Says Smith: “Paula came right on and batted the ball right out of the park. I’m thinking it was like she was born to do this.”

Indeed, while the Today show crew scrambles to mend its squabbling image, Zahn has settled in beside the avuncular Smith with remarkable ease and good humor—a relief to a staff that has had to adjust to six different female hosts in five years, most recently the quick-tempered Kathleen Sullivan. Zahn admits to once announcing the wrong time on air, but instead of berating herself, she jokes: “We just hope the people who see our show are wearing watches.” According to executive producer Erik Sorenson, who first worked with her in San Diego in 1979, “Paula has less neurosis than almost anyone. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her explode.”

Living in an uptown Manhattan apartment with her husband, Richard Cohen, and their year-old daughter, Haley, Zahn declares that while she’s “having the time of my life” at CBS, “I have no ambivalence about my priorities. They are Richard and my baby.” In 1987, before the couple married, Zahn walked away from a high-profile, high-paying anchor job in L.A. to be with Cohen in Boston, where he still owns a real estate development business. As Sorenson recalls, “She just quit. She said, ‘I’ll figure out the whole career thing later, but for now I have to be with the guy I love.’ That was very courageous.”

Devotion to family was instilled in Zahn during her “very ordinary and happy” childhood in Naperville, Ill., a well-to-do Chicago suburb where Dad was an IBM executive and Mom was an artist and sometime schoolteacher. During vacations, Zahn and her sister and two brothers frolicked at their grandparents’ farm, riding horses, climbing trees and milking cows. Valedictorian of her high school class, Zahn won a cello scholarship to Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., but majored in broadcast journalism. After graduation, she hopped on the fast track with a TV reporting job in Dallas. By age 22, she was anchoring in San Diego, which she followed with stints in Houston, Boston and L.A., and a string of awards, including an Emmy for coverage of an Aeromexico jet crash. Summoned to ABC News in 1987, Zahn anchored both The Health Show and World News This Morning before jumping to her current CBS job.

Throughout those hectic years of career climbing, Zahn always put family first. “I watched my family fight two major battles with cancer,” she says, bringing her hand to her eyes as she suddenly cries. The “nightmare years,” as she calls them, began when her father was diagnosed with cancer. “Every single day I had off, I was commuting to their home. Then at the height of my father’s battle, we found out my mother also was sick.” Still crying, Zahn says, “Only half the story has a happy ending. My dad died. My mom has been clean of cancer for five years. Thank God.”

Her family’s ordeal has prompted thoughts of a book “that would help people cope with the inevitable,” says Zahn, who has been scribbling notes for the past six years. “I think I’ll be doing some good if I can help families better understand what’s going to happen when that diagnosis is made. In spite of the horrible pain, I can tell you we also shared some moments of joy with the kind of time we were able to share together as a family.”

Each day, Zahn counts the minutes she can spend with Richard and Haley. When her nanny brings Haley to say hello, Zahn coos and grabs her camera to snap a few shots. She’s thankful that her new job allows her to sleep “an extra hour and 15 precious minutes. Richard and I actually feel like adults again. We don’t have this 8 P.M. curfew anymore.”

But other than calculating the time till her alarm rings, Zahn swears, “I’m not obsessed with numbers,” and brushes off the ratings pressure that now rests on her shoulders. “In local TV I’ve been first, I’ve been second and I’ve been third,” she says. “In L.A. I was even fifth in the market. I don’t think any of us can assume responsibility for the numbers going up or down. Harry and I are just there to steer the ship; the moon doesn’t rise and fall on the two of us.

“Which is a good thing,” Zahn adds. “Because on this shift, I never get to see the moon.”

—Jeannie Park, Alan Carter in New York City

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