In the TSA line at the airport, Gretchen Carlson was in a spot of trouble.
No matter how many times the agent rubbed lotion on the fingertips of her left hand, she couldn’t get any prints — possibly because Carlson played the violin nearly nonstop every day as a child.
“Well,” said the former Miss America and current Fox News commentator, “to think all this time I could have been out robbing banks.”
At which point her young daughter burst into tears and Carlson had to assure her that she was joking.
Carlson, who comes to town Monday to promote her new book, has been a target of derision by some who disagree with her views — that there is a “war on Christmas,” for one — and the butt of comedy-show jokes since her star began rising at Fox News a decade ago. But gosh darn it, she really is likable. Maybe a little too much so for readers eager to get the lowdown on Bill O’Reilly’s latest tantrum or Megyn Kelly’s off-air demeanor.
Carlson, the Anoka native and musical prodigy who grew up to become Miss Minnesota and Miss America and the host of her own TV show, has written a memoir called “Getting Real.” While she reveals a few new things about herself, there are no jabs at co-workers or competitors, which might have some readers wishing that she were a little less Minnesota Nice.
If Anoka, as Carlson describes it, is an idyllic “snow globe” of a town, then she herself is the embodiment of the stereotypical Minnesota girl made good: blonde as a cornfield in July, fresh-faced as Dorothy skipping toward Oz. She spent her early years acing competitions at MacPhail music school, and her performance of Pablo de Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen” helped win her the 1989 Miss America crown.
Carlson originally started writing a memoir more than 10 years ago, but shelved it after getting pregnant with her first child. Now, she’s glad she waited.
“Once I turned 40, I stopped giving a rip about my detractors, the people who say nasty things,” she said. “It’s more candid and honest than it would have been. I share my failures, which is important.”
Some of those failures include being turned down for jobs at all of the Twin Cities television stations, even after being named Miss America, and being fired from a station in Cleveland, right after returning from her honeymoon.
“My boss said, ‘Well, now you’re married, so you’ll be OK,’ ” she said. “And I thought, What?”
Fox host Brian Kilmeade, who worked with Carlson for several years on the show “Fox & Friends,” describes her as being “always prepared and relentlessly driven.”
“She’s game to try things, willing to be physical — i.e. basketball, obstacle course — as well as cerebral, i.e., going deep on policy with [former Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright. She never mails in an interview.”
He recalled her once playfully holding his feet to the fire during a supermodel interview. They had all gotten background notes, including an item on how the model had been born without a belly button.
“Realizing the interview was running out of gas, I throw in the belly button question, which she tells me isn’t true, on camera on live TV,” Kilmeade said. “Now, we all got those notes. Gretchen could have saved me. Instead she looked at me and said, ‘Where did that come from?’ A stunned staff and crew erupted in laughter. The home audience loved ripping me on it, and Gretchen hasn’t stopped laughing since. By the way, [the model] didn’t have a belly button, but didn’t want to talk about it on TV.”
Stalked and harassed
Although she now hosts a weekday news hour on Fox, “The Real Story With Gretchen Carlson,” her career in television almost stopped right after it started.
A deranged man who believed he was in a romantic relationship with Carlson began stalking her. He sent her delusional love letters for years; moved to Richmond, Va., after she got a reporting job there; said he’d bought her an engagement ring, and even showed up on her parents’ doorstep in Anoka.
“He was smart enough to never really cross the line, yet it felt life-threatening,” she said. “My mom and dad thought then that I should stop being on TV.”
The man finally went to prison for a year after violating a restraining order, and she didn’t hear from him again. Finding out that he had died gave her the courage to write about it, she said. The experience was a big part of the inspiration behind an award-winning 30-segment series she did on domestic violence while working at a Dallas station.
Carlson also endured blatant sexual harassment. She says she was attacked twice by executives at informational interviews, and also harassed by a TV cameraman. That last time, she spoke up and he was fired. But she never busted the executives, even when she ran into one of them unexpectedly 25 years after the incident.
“I’m sitting at my desk at Fox and there he was walking down the hall, the guy who had shoved my face into his crotch. I lost my breath. I got up and shut my office door and peered out later to make sure he was gone, like I was 21 again. Sexual harassment can really affect you for a long time, and I want more women to come forward.”
Pageant booster, feminist
Carlson remains a staunch supporter of the Miss America pageant despite rampant criticism that such institutions are dated and superficial.
“It’s always going to be part of who I am, and it’s my life mission to change that stereotype,” she said. “I recently asked for a calculation of the GPAs of contestants and it was 3.75 for 52 women. Would you rather have your kids look up to that, or the Kardashians?”
She serves on the pageant’s board, and is quick to point out how it differs from the Miss USA contest.
“I would have been dead last in that one,” she said. “I’m only 5-foot-3. There’s no talent category, no scholarship. After I won Miss America, I called my dad, who had four kids in college, to say he no longer had to pay for Stanford.”
She also considers herself a feminist, although it never occurred to her that women didn’t always have equal opportunities until she was out in the working world.
“I grew up with a mom who told me I could be whoever I wanted to be,” she said. “I was valedictorian of my class and had my music.”
Hard-working and funny
Molly Kinney, president of the Eden Prairie-based collectibles company Department 56, was Carlson’s best friend in childhood, from pre-K through high school. She recalls many a day waiting for Carlson to finish practicing violin so they could go play.
“Gretchen is one of the hardest-working people I know,” Kinney said. “She’s worked for every single thing she has.
“But she is also actually an intensely funny person. We did a lot of fooling around. She was the dorkiest Vikings fan. She knew every player’s name.”
Like many a national news personality, Carlson takes her share of skewering on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show” — and is a pretty good sport about it.
“Jon Stewart would have had to retire earlier without me,” she said. “And Vanessa Bayer, who plays me on ‘SNL,’ is hilarious. I always know on Sunday morning when they’ve done a skit on me the night before, because both my phones are on fire.”
She cannot be cajoled into sharing any juicy behind-the-scenes gossip from Fox headquarters. Nor will she bite when a suggestion is made that her male colleagues don’t always come across as being at the forefront of gender equality. She does say there’s a “camaraderie” between the women who work there.
“I joke about hitting the bimbo trifecta when I was hired there — blond, Miss America and working at Fox,” she said. “I graduated with honors from Stanford and studied at Oxford, but when people don’t want to debate you on ideas, it’s easy to call me the dumb blonde from Fox.”
As for her violin, tucked away in the closet, Carlson sounds rueful when she talks about not playing it anymore.
“It’s not like riding a bike,” she said. “I have all the notes in my head, but I’ll never again be as good as I was at 13, and that’s painful.”
More so than those fingerprint problems at the airport, anyway.
“As we’ve seen all over the news recently, maybe the TSA doesn’t have the latest technology,” she said. “But I probably shouldn’t joke about that.”