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What Not To Wear (And To Whom It Matters)

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Let me start by saying that the picture of me on the cover of my new book, "Outside the Box: A Memoir," has not been PhotoShopped. Really. I would have nipped at least an inch off each flank if I'd had the choice. I did however, insist on wearing a skirt to show off my legs and I brought half of my closet to the photo session out of anxiety. And yes, of course, I had my hair and makeup done professionally for the occasion. But guess what? Any male author would have done the same thing. Okay, not the part about the skirt.

Image counts, on book covers as well as on TV, and we all ought to get over what it takes to get there. A wise male colleague used to chide his print pals when they sniffed at us TV folks slapping on pancake and powder before facing the camera. "We're just sharpening our pencils," he'd say. "It's part of the game."

And yet, and yet... it's still worse for women. The other day during my book tour, a woman phoned in to the public radio station in St. Paul, MN, to say she didn't like the way Katie Couric was showing off her legs during the CBS Evening News. Other critics have dissed the white jacket she wore on her debut. At ABC News, I've regularly gotten letters from viewers about my hair and my skirt lengths. Once, as female anchors started successfully infiltrating local stations around the country, I met one of them, a young woman from Kansas. "I'm so glad to see you in person," she said, gushing. "I've been studying your tapes for years." I was flattered and thanked her. Which stories did she like best? "Oh, it wasn't the stories. My media consultant told me to study your wardrobe and wear everything you did. I think I have duplicates of all your blouses and jackets." I told her I hoped she liked purple.

I can hear some of you gasping now, which is exactly why I wrote my book: so that all of the talented women (and men) on the air today, and tomorrow, will understand that it wasn't always available to us. That there is a history, and there was a revolution, you, too, can survive it. I did. So far. But I would be lying if I didn't admit I had some anxious moments. Coming out the other side was the triumph, as illustrated by this episode early in my career at ABC News:

Ralph Lauren is standing in my bedroom closet.

This is not a fantasy.

He is leafing through my clothing with a kind but critical eye, pulling out the items I should wear and tossing aside the ones I shouldn't. Charmingly, he tends to favor garments with his name on the label, of which there are many, thanks to my lawyer, Alan Morris, who shrewdly inserted a clothing allowance into my first contract with ABC News. Ralph is my friend, and I buy his clothes at the showroom, but he has never before made a personal appearance in the closet I share with my husband. He is here today because I invited him.

"Uh, Ralph, I need a favor," I had told him on the phone. "Roone doesn't like the way I'm dressing and, uh, well, I don't know he wants. Can you help?"

Actually, it was a tiny bit more oblique.

A few days earlier, I had gotten a phone call from Pam Hill, who as a vice president and executive producer of ABC's documentary unit was the highest-ranking woman at ABC News. I had great respect for her work but didn't know her well. Could we have a drink, she asked, because she had something to discuss with me? Privately. Her tone wasn't ominous and we'd had almost no interactions, so I didn't think much about it but agreed to meet.

That evening, over wine at a little restaurant near the office, Pam tossed the little grenade into my lap. "Uh, Roone doesn't like the way you're dressing and, uh, well, I don't know what he wants...but you need to do something."

"Like what?" I asked, trying to be professional, although I felt gravely insulted by this assault on my ego.

"Well, I don't know, exactly," Pam confessed. "I think you look great. But he wants something different."

"Why'd he ask you to tell me? Why didn't he tell me himself?"

"Because he's embarrassed. He thought it would be better if a woman handled it."

It was as if President Bush had asked Condoleezza Rice to tell Karen Hughes her lipstick was too bright. Let the girls do the girl stuff.

I laughed, perhaps a touch nervously, and rolled my eyes. But I still didn't get it.

"Okay, I can be a big girl about this and not take it seriously. Did he give you any hints about what he wanted?"

"Well," Pam said reluctantly, "he did say something not liking the sleeves on your blouses. And then he suggested you ought to dress more like Faye Dunaway in the movie Chinatown."

"Chinatown?" The one where Faye Dunaway plays the knockout babe with the silky costumes who inspired the unbelievably sexy Jessica in the animated film Who Killed Roger Rabbit? Yes, I had blonde hair. But I wasn't a curvy, bias-cut type. Anyway, this wasn't just about seams and schmattes. My self-confidence was wobbling. Has anyone ever told you that you don't know how to dress? Pam offered a suggestion.

"Do you have any friends in the fashion business? Anyone you could talk to?"

Which is how I came to call Ralph. He arrived the next morning with a colleague, sweetly aware of my discomfort but eager to help. Slowly, methodically, he passed judgment on everything hanging on my side of the closet, rejecting only the silk blouses with that season's slightly puffy sleeves--precisely the culprits Roone had mentioned to Pam.

"Your clothes are fine," he pronounced at last. "But keep it simple. Classic." When I mentioned Roone's obsession, he added, "Faye Dunaway in Chinatown is a good look. Come down to the showroom and we'll find some more things."

For twenty-five years, I kept this story a secret, because I found it humiliating, but now I find it funny, and I include it here because (a) it is true and (b) it is bizarre and (c) it is emblematic of the dizzying relationship many of us had with our bosses as the face of television news became more female. They loved us. They hated us. They didn't know how to deal with us. They wanted to adjust us. They worried about insulting us. "How do we tell her to make her dress a little shorter?" Roone would ask the men in the control room, afraid to offend but hoping I'd show a bit more of the legs that he so admired. Alas, I only learned about that one long after Roone had succumbed — too young — to cancer. It's okay, Roone, wherever you are. I like my legs too.

— from "Outside the Box: A Memoir" by Lynn Sherr (Rodale)

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