Up Close and Personal With JuJu Chang

KoreAm
Dec 13,2010
2

F-Juju-1210-Impact

The tables get turned on JUJU CHANG, longtime TV journalist for ABC News and now the news anchor for Good Morning America.

story by JINAH KIM

It’s been nearly a year since ABC News named broadcaster JuJu Chang one of the four anchors on its flagship news show Good Morning America. During that period, she’s covered the devastating earthquake in Haiti, traveled to South Korea to interview President Lee Myung-bak, and, stateside, has shared the stage and baseball field with the likes of Usher and A-Rod, respectively.

With her rise to the GMA anchor chair, all three major networks now prominently feature Asian American talent on their morning programs: Ann Curry anchors NBC’s Today show and Betty Nguyen heads the news desk on CBS’s The Early Show.

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Chang, who emigrated from South Korea at age 4, has been with ABC News for two decades, in various roles ranging from desk assistant to producerto correspondent. She’s covered wildfires and hurricanes, and won one of her two Gracies for a 20/20 story on gender equality in the sciences. But Chang admitted her latest gig has presented her with a “steep learning curve.” Her early morning schedule, which begins at 4:45, and workload, which often leaves her jet-lagged, have also been a major adjustment for her three sons, ages 3, 7 and 10, and husband Neal Shapiro, former president of NBC News and current president of the PBS station in New York.

She often talks about her juggling act as a working mom, in addition to such resonant topics as breastfeeding and fighting in front of the kids, with fellow mothers on Moms Get Real, a digital talk show she hosts for ABC News NOW.

Last month Chang took a break from her head-spinning schedule to Skype with fellow TV journalistJinah Kim of NBC News, reflecting on her career, family and what “having it all” really means.

 At the helm of Good Morning America‘s anchor desk.

Photo by Ida Mae Astute/ABC.

You seemingly have it all: a high-profile career as an anchor for ABC News, mom to three boys, longtime marriage to the former president of NBC News and apparently you’re also a triathlete. How do you do it?

(Laughs.) It all sounds so much better on paper than it is in reality.

And that’s all that matters, JuJu.

I have a lot of help. And I always quote Yogi Berra who said, “I’m a very lucky man; the harder I work, the luckier I get.” I owe my husband a lot of credit. When I first started this morning show job, it became very clear that I wouldn’t be involved in any way shape or form in getting my kids dressed, ready for school and out the door. But my husband stepped up. Now, he has a lot of help in the morning, so let’s not give him the Nobel Prize. But it’s a lot of pressure, and he’s done a lot. I also have a babysitter at home who helps out as well, and as in every other area of my life, it’s a combination of moxie and hard work.

Cokie Roberts (ABC News commentator) once said to me, “You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at the same time.” I think that’s a really good way of looking at it. You can’t be firing on all cylinders at all times, but you can do what you can with all your different balls in the air. The image that often comes to mind is, you know, those Chinese acrobats who are spinning plates madly in the air, trying to make sure that none of those plates break? That’s how I feel. That’s the pace of my life.

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You’ve now been the news reader at Good Morning America for nearly a year. It also came at a time when there was a huge personnel shift at ABC News. How did you react to the appointment, and what has the past year been like?

I was stunned. It wasn’t the job that I was campaigning for, but I was also pleasantly surprised. I think you also realize that the longer you’re in this business, there are very few opportunities where big jobs become available. Let’s face it—there are a lot of people out there who have the depth of experience and skill to do this particular job. But it’s a matter of team chemistry and dynamics and strength—relative strength—and so I was thrilled to join George [Stephanopoulos] and Robin [Roberts] on this new adventure.

But it’s been really grueling. The big adjustment to me was a personal one. I’m used to being very flexible with my schedule, where I can be very hands-on with the kids. And while I still am able to spend a lot of afternoon and evening time with the kids, I feel like the learning curve has gotten very steep again. I had gotten to a point in my career where I was very confident of everything that I was doing, and then suddenly I went from being confident and assured to having a whole new world of challenges. So it was grueling and terrifying at the same time.

Tell us about your early years: immigrating, growing up, family life…

I remember the day we got on the airplane and came to America. I remember wearing my favorite red dress and getting airsick on it, somewhere over Hawaii ( laughs). Growing up, I didn’t realize that we had economic challenges. It didn’t occur to me that [my parents] were working hard to make  ends meet. I just thought we had everything we needed because we had each other. But it was hard, and I had three sisters growing up, so a lot of estrogen in my life.

Chang, with husband Neal Shapiro and sons Jared, Travis and Mason.
Photo by Leatta Mitchell

And now you have a lot of testosterone.

A lot of testosterone! But I also had one brother. And I thank God I have a brother because I spend a lot of manhours playing baseball.

Were your early years tough?

We were one of the first Korean American families in the Bay Area, and it was the classic KA experience. My father worked very long hours to be successful. Our whole family got involved in running the small hotel that my parents first worked at and ended up owning. We cleaned hotel rooms and changed sheets and towels. I remember times when money wasn’t flush, and we couldn’t afford certain things.

How did your name go from Hyunju to JuJu?

My swim coach gave my nickname to me. I don’t know if you know this, but when I was 10, I was a nationally ranked swimmer. I was sixth in the country in the 100 breast [stroke]. So the announcers would go “Susie Smith! Anne Reynolds!…” and then they’d get to my name and there’d be, like, silence. And they’d butcher my name. So my coach said this isn’t right. We’re gonna call you…JuJu! Those were the days before anyone had heard of Hyundai cars.

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You went to Stanford—did you know back then that this is what you wanted to do ultimately?

No, because I grew up in Sunnyvale, in the heart of Silicon Valley, I thought I was going to be an engineer and work at Hewlett Packard or something like that. I mean, Apple was born in a garage not too far from where I grew up. But then I got to Stanford and basically flunked calculus.

At the same time, I took an introduction to political science class, and, this is going to sound immodest, but without trying that hard, I got an A-plus and won the political science prize and got the highest grade in the class. So that sort of sent a signal to me that, really, what you kind of like and are interested in are political science and policy and that world. I felt even more compelled when my mom said to me, “Oh, you could be like Connie Chung. She’s Asian, she talks a lot.” Because I also won a lot of speech contests in high school.

And the hysterical thing is that later, one time when Connie and I briefly worked together at 20/20, we became friends. I earnestly told her my story, about how she inspired me, and I thought we were going to have a kumbaya moment, and instead she said to me, “JuJu, if I had a nickel for every Asian girl that told me that, I’d be really rich.” But in a very girlfriend-y way. There was an entire generation of young Asian American women like me who were inspired by Connie Chung, and I think it says a lot about who we see in the landscape ahead of us.

Tell us about your career journey. You had what I consider to be a very quick and untraditional climb to becoming an on-camera reporter. Your first market was KGO in San Francisco (the local ABC affiliate).

Early on I did pieces for News 12 Long Island, our local cable. But really, like you said, my first on-air job was at the No. 4 market in the country, which was significant. It was really a sink-or-swim situation because I had been at the network for six or seven years in a variety of roles, and so I felt like I  had the skills to do the actual reporting and researching and writing and the interviews.

At ABC at the time, there was a hybrid situation between the network and the affiliates, and they were trying to take employees from untraditional backgrounds and turn them into TV reporters. I benefited from that, for sure. Then a year later, I went to Washington and filed network pieces for all the local ABC stations. And then my third or fourth year in, I asked them if they would consider letting me anchor a little bit, so I could get those skills, and I ended up on the overnights anchoring World News Now with Anderson Cooper. That was the first time I was on the cover of KoreAm—which was fantastic!

That was 10 years ago. Then I took a detour because my last day on the job as an anchor was when I found out I was pregnant with my oldest son. That was a real turning point. When the babies started coming, I had a real existential crisis. I said to myself, “Who am I? What am I doing? What do I want to spend my time doing?” And I have never done anything half-assed in my life, and the last thing I wanted to do half-assed was be an eomma (mom). So I gave it my all, started working part-time and pulled back on my career because I really wanted to spend that time with my kids and understand who these people were that I was suddenly in charge of.

When I did come back full time years later, the nature of the stories I wanted to cover changed. So instead of chasing hurricanes and presidential elections, I did more of the magazine type stories—everything you would sit on a psychiatrist’s couch and discuss, I did. But it was because they were human stories, and that allowed me to explore the stories in my own life.

I like being able to tell those stories, whether it’s a criminal case or an hour-show that I did on albinos in Africa. I ended up being able to do really cool stories and also have a home life. So coming back to the boomboomboom pace of GMA last year was an unexpected, but pleasant surprise.

Interviewing singer/actress Beyoncé and her mom Tina Knowles.
Photo by Heidi Gutman/ABC

What are your favorite stories?

That’s always such a tough question. The list is a very eclectic one as you can imagine. The albino hour was very important. The response from the public has been amazing. We got the issue of albinism in Africa on the map.

I also recently did a story on GMA about cold caps. I met a guy whose wife is going through chemo, and there’s a treatment where if you put a cold cap on your head—that’s been frozen with dry ice and reduced to a temperature of 30 degrees—you can save your hair. That’s amazing, right? But if you take it a step further and think about it, this isn’t about vanity, this is about creating a circle of friends who support you and hold your hand during your chemo and change your caps, distract you while poison is being dripped into your veins. And you don’t have to signal to the world that you’re sick. And you don’t look in the mirror and look sick. It’s a huge empowerment thing.

I also recently interviewed Beyoncé. She had donated her money to starting a cosmetology center at Phoenix House, which is a heroin addiction clinic in New York. She had gone there to do research for her role as a heroin addict in one of her films (Cadillac Records), and she found out the clinic has a lot of vocational programs [for recovering addicts], but doesn’t have a beauty center. Beyoncé’s mom was a beautician so … it was a cause that was close to her heart.

Another story that is relevant to KoreAm is that I recently went to Korea. My mom came with me to Korea. We interviewed my great uncle, who was a veteran of the Korean War. We knew that he was like a big deal diplomat and head of Korean Airlines for a while, but turns out he is a genuine bona fide Korean War hero.

This story was un-freaking  believable. Of the 10 pilots of [these 10 P-51s, the so-called Mustangs, that the U.S. government gave the Koreans during the war], eight were killed in the war; only two survived, and one of them was my uncle. He went on to become Air Force chief of staff and head of the Department of Transportation in Korea. But we only discovered his war heroism during this 60th anniversary of the Korean war story that I was doing. It was an incredibly proud moment for me.

With South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
Photo by Danny Kim

What was it like meeting the president of Korea? Was it the first time you were meeting a Korean president?

I had met Kim Dae-jung here at the GMA studios. During my long career with ABC, I had been sent to Korea a number of times—the first time to help cover the Olympics in ’88. Then I went to summits with Bush the elder’s administration and during the Clinton administration.

It was great to meet  President Lee. He was incredibly bright, charming and clearly someone who is an impressive world leader. And of course, he’s currently hosting the G-20 summit with President Obama. A couple of things strike me: the first is the enormous pride that Koreans feel this year not only with the 60th anniversary of the war, but just to take a look back at how far they’ve come. Sixty years ago, they were a bottom 20 world power.  And now, not only are they top 20, but they’re hosting the world economic summit. So it’s quite startling, especially in contrast to how North Korea’s economy looks by comparison.

What is a typical day for you?

Yesterday was a pretty hectic day. I started my day at 4:45 when the alarm went off, and I usually roll out of bed with wet hair and sweat pants and go to the studio where there’s a dressing room full of clothing that are all pre-matched because I’m really very fashion challenged.

And then we have a hair and makeup team that helps. And then I go out there and read the news that I’d been studying about the night before, take part in whatever segments that I have to take part in. And yesterday I went straight from the studio to the airport, got on a flight to Washington, D.C., spent the day at a public school in D.C. covering a story I had pitched about the death of recess.

I went from there to the mHealth Summit at the Washington convention center, and it was a lot of incredibly visionary people in the world of telecom and global poverty/global health, working with mobile phones to deliver care to people in remote developing areas. From there, I went back to the airport, and literally as I’m boarding the flight I’m talking to you, trying to make a doctor’s appointment for my son whose finger got infected, then making sure that the glasses that I ordered for my 7-year-old were going to be picked up, and then trying to set up a basketball play date for Thursday. And then calling my husband, who’s on the road, to say, “Hey, how was your day?”

Covering the earthquake in Haiti.
Photo by Chris Strathmann/ABC

Talk about being a triathlete.

Participating in the [Housatonic Valley] triathlon [this past September] was one of the top 20 happiest things in my life. We got together 60 colleagues at ABC to raise money for Haiti. We did this thing that scared us. We empowered people. We raised almost $70,000. So it was really great.

For weeks after I got back from [covering] Haiti, I couldn’t get the image of the kids out of my head. There’s so much need. I thought, we can’t forget about Haiti.

Your message to Korean Americans who are going to be reading this?

We read this magazine—which I love by the way!—because it’s nice to be part of a tribe. One of my favorite phrases in Korean is bangapsumnida. I say it to everyone I meet because it’s so nice to have this community with you. I do think there’s something lovely about having that sense of belonging.

With U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and wife Jill.
Photo by Martin H. Simon/ABC

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get to the top of something—like you?

The top is a very narrow place. There’s no prescription that I can give you [that] would guarantee that you’d get to the top because there are a hundred scenarios where I could’ve ended up with a different job. So ultimately, my advice is stay true to yourself. Stay true to the things that bring you joy and keep your integrity. Because at the end of the day, no matter where your journey takes you, those are the two things you’re going to want to hold onto.

And make sure that your learning curve is steep, and that you’re still in a position where you’re learning and growing—and even if it’s not the perfect job, as long as it’s a job that still allows you to learn and grow, that’s great. The way you spend the day is the way you spend your life, an author wisely once said.

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