Journalist and TV host Leeza Gibbons has enjoyed a lot of unique experiences over her long career. The Entertainment
Tonight alum, who hosted her own TV series, Leeza, from 1993 to 2000, has had some remarkable celebrity encounters. “Before Jennifer Lopez was an international sensation, she was a dancer on a show called In Living Color, and she tried to teach me to dance on our show. Epic fail!” Leeza, 66, tells Closer with a laugh. “I also got to sing with Barry Manilow and learn to get over my fear of spiders with Betty White,” she recalls. “Betty was always my favorite optimist.”
Tell us about your childhood.
“I grew up in the South with two loving parents and a big brother and little sister. As the middle child, I learned to negotiate and get along in my small neighborhood in South Carolina where everyone looked out for each other. I rode the bus home from school, hopped on my bike afterwards, and didn’t come home until dinner.”
What did you dream of being when you grew up?
“I was that kind of exhausting kid to raise — always wanting to be involved in everything, from puppet theater to candy- striping. Early on, I learned I was pretty good at writing and debate, so I entered contests where I could test my skills. It was my mom who helped me identify as a storyteller when I was in sixth grade.”
What do you consider your biggest break?
“I left local news, where I was a general- assignment reporter, to join a TV magazine show. My news director told me it was career suicide and that I’d never recover. It was the beginning of following my path of creative storytelling.”
What are some of your favorite memories from hosting ‘Entertainment Tonight’?
“It was a job that took me all over the world. In the late ’80s, I was on assignment in Israel for Rambo 3 to interview Sylvester Stallone when gunfire broke out near our hotel in Eilat, next to the Red Sea and the Jordanian border. Our crew ended up covering the skirmish (which was not part of the story) and then speeding the tapes by car to Tel Aviv so we could feed the satellite from there to Hollywood. You just never knew what the next assignment would be — tap dancing with Sammy Davis Jr. was a highlight, and so was racing cars with Tom Cruise.”
Did you enjoy hosting your own show, ‘Leeza’?
“I loved everything about being a talk show host! For a control enthusiast like me, this was the ultimate format. I could book the guests, ask the questions and call the shots! From true crime to soapy romance and family drama of all kinds, the Leeza show was the ultimate on-camera experience. I loved sharing intimate, spontaneous moments with our guests.”
In 2015, you had the distinction of winning ‘Celebrity Apprentice’. What was that experience like?
“The boardroom on the show, when [Donald] Trump yells ‘You’re fired!,’ was enough to bring the meanest girls and toughest guys to tears! I was reluctant to join the show because I’ve spent most of my life being drama-avoidant and Apprentice is all about the drama! But being on the show was a game changer for my charity to help caregivers, Leeza’s Care Connection. I took the money I earned and used it to open a free center in my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, that has become a model for psychosocial family caregiver support.”
Tell us a little more about Leeza’s Care Connection.
“When my mother had Alzheimer’s disease, I created what we wished we had — a place to be seen and understood, to get support, and gain confidence about a very difficult reality when someone you love gets sick. That became Leeza’s Care Connection. We help families begin to answer the question ‘Now what?’ Since I created HUGS, which stands for Helping U Grow Strong. It is a proprietary mentoring program, which teams up veteran caregivers with those just starting their journey.”
What advice would you give someone dealing with a loved one with Alzheimer’s?
“This disease will never wait for you to get ready, so it’s important to try and push past the overwhelming sadness and ‘name it and claim it.’ While we don’t yet have any survivors of Alzheimer’s, there is a lot of life and love after diagnosis, and you can still hang on to yourself even while letting go of someone you love.”
Did you have to make many sacrifices to succeed in your career?
“I suppose I faced what many working moms and dads do — the constant struggle to find the middle of the seesaw. I’ve come to believe that balance is bogus. Hard work and the rewards that come with it don’t happen on the sidelines. When you invest your time, talent and energy, financial and emotional dividends come with that.”
Did any of your three children follow in your footsteps?
“None of them really got into ‘the business.’ My daughter is a dancer-choreographer who is getting her master’s
in dance movement therapy. We always joke that it’s handy having a therapist on-staff in the family! Troy is a TV editor who works on fascinating projects mostly from home. Nate designs high-end streetwear and also has his real estate license. All three of them live for their pets, which are my only ‘grandchildren’ so far!”
What do you like about being this age?
“Gracefully surrendering the things of youth is not always easy. It is our universal experience — we are all aging and we get to decide how we feel about that. Most days, I feel pretty good. I like the lack of chaos at this time of my life and the ability to let things go. I have released my need to be liked, in favor of trying to earn respect.”
Are you a spiritual person?
“My spiritual life includes my faith, my connection to others and my sense of purpose. It’s the daily exploration of my deeper values and search for meaning. I’ve found as I’ve gotten older, I find solace and a source of strength in quiet moments where I can listen more deeply and hear without the distractions of daily life. I believe the universe is always conspiring on our behalf, whether we can see it or not.”