24/7 coverage of presidential election set host apart

One of the biggest winners of last year’s presidential election wasn’t even running for office. The ubiquitous political analyst-turned-talkshow host Rachel Maddow clearly emerged from MSNBC’s wall-to-wall coverage as the network’s biggest rising star.

For most of 2008, Maddow, 36, provided viewers with a fresh liberal voice as she sparred with Pat Buchanan and filled in for Keith Olbermann. Then, in September, her strategy of doing “whatever they asked me to do” paid off when she was given her own eponymous show. The move paid off in the ratings — and made Maddow one of the most talked-about women in news.

Virtually overnight, Maddow reinvigorated the 9 p.m. timeslot. Her second month on the air, she beat Larry King in the all-important 25-54 demo — the first time MSNBC had bested CNN at that hour.

Today, an average 1.07 million viewers tune in to hear her take on the political news of the day and watch her interview newsmakers from both sides of the aisle.

Maddow’s career trajectory is hardly a textbook case for how to succeed in television. In less than a decade, she’s gone from stints as a barista and landscaper in Massachusetts (where she met her partner, artist Susan Mikula) to radio talkshow host on Air America to the first openly gay host of a network primetime newsshow.

Despite landing on the pop cultural radar (she’s been parodied on “Saturday Night Live”), the California native says she has no desire to be part of Gotham’s media scene. “I go home to Massachusetts every weekend,” she says. “I make drinks and Susan cooks — I have a normal life that has nothing to do with teleprompters.”

The former HIV/ AIDS activist and Rhodes Scholar says she has “no idea” what effect she’s had on other young female politicos looking to get into the business. She declines all speaking engagements that have come her way since hitting the big time because “I can’t do anything other than what I’m doing,” she says. “I’ve never done anything this hard — and I was a prison reformer in Alabama.”

IN A NUTSHELL
Job title: Cable news anchor/talkshow host
Mentor: “I’ve always been a big fan of Jessica Mitford; she led a great life and was a great contribution to journalism.”
Career mantra: “Never let them see you sweat.”
Leisure pursuits: “I drink. I’m a hobbyist bartender. I make pre-Prohibition, classic American cocktails.”
Philanthropic passions: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (iava.org), ACLU

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