Dynamic duo (and real-life best friends) Meredith Vieira and Chicagoan Jon Harris take daytime TV by storm.
Meredith Vieira has a secret talent: She’s a phenomenal waitress. Though she rarely gets to put those skills to use anymore — after lead gigs on “The View,” “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and “The Today Show,” she’s one of television’s most successful women. But in 1996, while she was still on “The View,” Vieira dusted off her order pad to work as a celebrity waitress at a New York charity event.
That night, the TV star was assigned to the corporate table for Pepsi, where one of her guests was the company’s then-Global Public Affairs Manager Jon Harris. Neither knew it when appetizers came, but by dessert, they’d become best friends. “Every drink we had, she had; every part of the meal we had, she had,” recalls Harris, who until recently worked as the Chicago-based chief communications officer for Hillshire Brands. “By the end, we were laughing all night and it was like we had known each other our whole lives.”
Now, after nearly 20 years of friendship — including countless nights spent drinking wine and belting out Beatles songs with their spouses, Richard and Allie, and both couples’ kids — the dynamic duo will finally take their relationship to a new level: As of Sept. 8, they’ll join forces as host and announcer on Vieira’s new eponymous daytime show, airing on WMAQ-Channel 5 at 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Vieira couldn’t be more excited. “Yikes! It’s happening!” she laughs. “The anticipation is what gets to you; I just want it to start.” Harris matches her enthusiasm, adding: “I get to be part of this amazing adventure with one of my best friends on the planet. … It’s a dream come true.”
Together Vieira and Harris represent the perfect TV couple: She’s got experience, he’s got fresh-eyed fervor. But to say Harris’ path to TV was unconventional would be an understatement. A year and a half ago, after Vieira decided she wanted to host her own show, she immediately requested Harris as her cohort. The executives at NBC were more than a little taken aback — after all, here was a tried-and-true TV icon recommending a relatively unknown “suit.” “They said, ‘You need somebody who’s done TV,’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t want a fake friend. I want a real friend. I don’t want to pretend or create this relationship from nowhere. Here it is, I have this person who’s great, who has my back and who’s fun and smart.’ ”
For Harris, the moment Vieira approached him with her wild idea represented a rare second chance at a lifelong dream. Growing up, he had always loved performing — he starred in commercials as a child, took singing lessons at Carnegie Hall and acted in college. But when graduation time came, Harris was faced with a dilemma: Take a major risk and pursue a performing career or choose a steady paycheck at an office gig. “I had student loans to pay, I was helping my mother with bills and [helping] my brothers who were going to school at the time,” he says. “So I thought, ‘That would have been a nice dream,’ and I left it at that.”
He didn’t entirely stop performing, though. He still regularly stole the spotlight at parties and events, and through another celebrity pal, Rachael Ray, Harris landed a gig at Austin’s SXSW festival, picking up his guitar and playing original songs and covers of classics to warm up the audience for Ray. His wife of 18 years, Allie, also helped keep that flame burning. “Allie’s reminded me that I always said: ‘Gosh, I kinda wish I at least tried harder for it,’ ” Harris says. “But I took that safer path, the realistic path.” Allie will continue to support him as the show kicks off: While he commutes to New York to film, Allie will stay in Northbrook with their children, giving him the best of both worlds.
Harris still remembers the way Vieira asked him to join forces. “Meredith said to me, ‘About that dream — why don’t we look into making that come true?’ ” Vieira recalls that Harris “was blown away. [I told him], ‘Jon, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think we would be great together. I want everybody to know you.’ ”
What drew Harris — and the network hopes will draw millions of viewers — to Vieira is her incredible authenticity. “People love her because they feel that they know her,” Harris says. “And they do know her. Whether she’s on ‘The Today Show,’ ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ or ‘The Meredith Vieira Show,’ she’s herself. She’s that person that you want to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with … and snacks.” So it’s no surprise that Vieira wanted a real-life friend next to her on her show. And though Harris is a fresh face, Vieira had unwavering faith in him. “I knew that he’s an entertainer; there’s no question that he entertains everybody that he’s around,” she says. “I love when he talks about his kids. Have you ever heard him imitate his mother? It’s hysterical!”
That’s classic Vieira: She’s constantly out to inspire, uplift and better people’s lives. It’s the same goal she hopes to achieve with her show, which she claims is less of a talk show and more of a variety show, complete with games and field segments (some of which will be hosted by Harris). “[If] somebody is inspired and laughs, or we make your day a little bit brighter or make you think about something you hadn’t thought about previously, then that’s positive,” she says. “I want to feel good about what I do.” Harris adds that the crux of the show is celebrating ordinary people who do extraordinary things. “Meredith wants to use the show to change the world and put a smile on people’s faces,” he says.
The show represents a culmination of Vieira’s years of experience. Since she started in television more than 30 years ago (she earned her chops working for CBS’ Chicago bureau in the early ’80s), she’s done everything from interviewing sitting presidents to awarding average people millions of dollars. “I know how to report and tell stories, I know how to play games, I certainly know how to talk — I did ‘The View’ for nine years — and I have a whole host of hats that I wore on ‘Today,’ ” she says. “I feel like I’ve worked this hard all those years — why not put all of that into a show?”
But even with all her experience, the veteran TV host admits she’s still a little anxious about her next step. “I’m really nervous — I always am before I start something new. In fact, if I weren’t, then I’d worry. I’m never complacent, but now my name is on it. I just wish they would have put another person’s name on it — then I’d feel better,” she says, laughing.
Fortunately, Vieira can lean on Harris to calm her nerves — he combats her anxiety with enthusiasm. “Just making eye contact with [Harris] makes me feel like this is a safe place, [that] it’s going to be OK,” she says. Then she laughs and adds, “I mean, he’s crazy too. He’s nuts. But it’s good. I think people are going to just adore him.”
To prepare for his TV debut on “The Meredith Vieira Show,” Harris asked local luxury menswear line Boga, and its Showroom Manager and Lead Stylist Sarah Watts, to pick three camera-ready looks. “If I’m looking to be my best self for this new adventure, then there’s no better way to be dressed than in Boga,” Harris says. “They say the clothes make the man, and I’m feelin’ pretty good right now.”
From left to right:
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Shirt, $290; Tie, $150; Denim, $220; Belt, $150; Brogues, $425
Shirt, $290; Denim, $220; belt, $150; Wingtip Boot, $625
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