A former Today show staff member is detailing an alleged in-office affair with Matt Lauer that transpired 16 years ago.
In a piece for Variety published Thursday, Addie Zinone (née Collins) says her relationship with former Today show anchor Lauer — who was fired at the end of November by NBC News after the network received a “detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior,” with reason to believe “this may not have been an isolated incident” — began in 2000. Following her internship at the Today show, Collins was offered a job as an NBC News production assistant in 1999.
That same year, the West Virginia native landed an anchor position at WDTV Channel 5 in her hometown. With just weeks left of her position at NBC, Zinone says she received a message from Lauer — who was in his 40s and newly married to wife Annette Roque — on the morning of June 8, in which he told her “you look fantastic.” She says she thanked him and asked if she could “get a little advice” from him prior to her departure from the network, to which Lauer agreed. (Variety obtained photos of the messages.)
Lauer’s representatives did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
On July 12, Zinone, who was 24 at the time, allegedly received another message from Lauer: “OK…NOW YOU’RE KILLING ME…YOU LOOK GREAT TODAY! A BIT TOUGH TO CONCENTRATE.” Zinone initially thought it wasn’t Lauer, but he allegedly confirmed that it was him, and the duo set up lunch for the next day.
“We went to lunch. My intentions were purely professional. I thought this was a way to get real-world constructive advice. What that turned into was an opportunity for him to come on to me. It was flattering, confusing, overwhelming. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to do with it. He was clearly trying to guide the conversation. He was there to hit on me and manipulate the situation, and I fell for it,” Zinone says. “Here’s how I should have known what I was getting myself into. When we left, he told me: ‘You leave first, and I’ll leave after.’ In no lunch I’d ever had at Today had anyone suggested we leave separately, as if something was up.”
When they arrived back at the office, Zinone says she “couldn’t concentrate” and sent a message to Lauer, who allegedly told her to meet her in the studio dressing room, where their sexual encounters began.
“It happened in his dressing room above studio 1A, which was empty in the afternoons,” Zinone says. “He got in his car and I had to go back to work, and now my life had completely changed.”
According to Zinone, “it was a whirlwind. Over the next few weeks, we met several other times.”
She also details a time that Lauer, now 59, allegedly asked her to come to his office, where he pushed the button from his desk that shut the door. “It was embarrassing, because his secretary was sitting outside. He wanted to do stuff. I was like, ‘No. I’m so in over my head. I’m not a performance artist.’ ” (NBC previously told PEOPLE that many executives have the buttons.)
The last time that Zinone claims she saw Lauer was at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in California, when he allegedly told her to meet him in a nearby bathroom, where they proceeded to have “an encounter.”
“He was like, ‘Alright. I’ll see you later.’ He had no interest in making sure I was cool,” says Zinone, who admits that the encounter “took its toll” on her both physically and emotionally.
WATCH: Today Staffers Who Didn’t Flirt with Matt Lauer Were Not Considered Good Colleagues: Source
After Zinone had begun her anchoring position at WDTV Channel 5, she claimed that a National Enquirer staffer was waiting for her in the driveway of her home; she told the reporter she and Lauer “were just friends.” Zinone says she reached out to Lauer, who allegedly responded in writing with “Who did you tell?” and proceeded to “ghost” her.
“What happened with Matt held me hostage. I was under his spell. It was all-consuming. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t concentrate,” says Zinone, now 41.
For Zinone, who is now married and shares two children with her husband, the experience was “so traumatic that I quit” and she entered into a state of depression. After leaving her broadcast position, Zinone enlisted in the army and discovered that she could be a member of the Army Reserve. In 2003, she took a job at Access Hollywood; three months later, she was was deployed to Iraq for a year. Upon returning, she worked both as a correspondent and field producer for Access.
Five years later, Zinone was deployed to Iraq for a second time in 2008 when she says she received a call from Maria Menounos, who was a Today correspondent at the time. Menounos told Zinone that she wanted to pitch her as a story. But when Zinone returned to the U.S. from Iraq, Menounos called and told her that a producer at Today said, ” ‘We’re not going to cover her. Addie said something bad about the show.’ ”
“I was in complete disbelief. I had never met that producer, nor had I ever had anything negative to say about Today,” says Zinone. “That’s when I knew I could never get rid of this thing.”
Although Menounos’ pitch was allegedly squashed, Zinone was invited back to the Today show after former NBC News president Steve Capus saw her at dinner banquet in Philadelphia, where she was inducted into Temple University’s Lew Klein Alumni in the Media Hall of Fame. Lauer was also awarded that same evening.
In honor of Veteran’s Day, Zinone returned to the Today show with her husband to be interviewed by Curry; Lauer allegedly didn’t show up to work that day.
“Even though my situation with Matt was consensual, I ultimately felt like a victim because of the power dynamic. He knew that I was leaving, and that there was no better prey than somebody who is going to be gone. He went after the most vulnerable and the least powerful — and those were the production assistants and the interns,” says Zinone, who adds that Lauer, “felt like he was untouchable.”
Although Zinone says it was “not an easy choice” to come forward with her story, she put her “name and face out there to squash any doubts about the allegations from other women against Matt Lauer. I’m validating their stories because some of our experiences are similar. I want these women to know that I believe them, I want to help empower them and collectively we have a voice to change things.”
“The things that Matt Lauer did to me, there are men doing to other women. Although it wasn’t a crime in my case, it’s still not right,” says Zinone. “Matt took advantage of his power. It’s sickening. It breaks my heart that he did this for so long.”
Lauer addressed the original allegations in a statement last month.
“There are no words to express my sorrow and regret for the pain I have caused others by words and actions,” he said. “To the people I have hurt, I am truly sorry. As I am writing this, I realize the depth of the damage and disappointment I have left behind at home and at NBC.
“Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed. I regret that my shame is now shared by the people I cherish dearly.”
“Repairing the damage will take a lot of time and soul searching, and I’m committed to beginning that effort. It is now my full time job. The last two days have forced me to take a very hard look at my own troubling flaws. It’s been humbling. I am blessed to be surrounded by people I love. I thank them for their patience and grace.”
Following his dismissal from the Today show, several insiders have told PEOPLE that the veteran morning host was allegedly often unfaithful to Roque, whom he wed in 1998 after meeting on a blind date and shares three children with: sons Jack, 16, and Thijs, 11, and daughter Romy, 14.
“He regularly cheated on his wife,” one source claimed. “Everyone knew. His wife lives in the Hamptons and he lives in the city, but we never heard he made unwanted moves.”
A former Today staffer echoed the first source’s claims, telling PEOPLE, “Everyone on staff knew he cheated regularly on his wife.”
Though Lauer and Roque are no longer wearing their wedding rings, an insider told PEOPLE that the parents of three are still under one roof and together.