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Inside Matt Lauer’s Secret Relationship With a ‘Today’ Production Assistant (EXCLUSIVE)

In 1999, Addie Collins arrived at NBC’s “Today” as a young intern with big aspirations. A few months later, she landed her dream job as production assistant, forming close bonds with her new colleagues Katie Couric, Ann Curry and Al Roker. But Matt Lauer kept more of a professional distance—until Collins (who now goes by her married last name Zinone) was ready to leave the show.

One day in July 2000, he invited her to lunch, which Zinone thought would be a chance to ask him for career advice. Instead, Lauer, who was in his 40s and newly married, started to aggressively hit on the 24-year-old employee. Zinone felt dumbstruck and numb. Intimidated by his stature, she gave in to his flattery, and she entered into a month-long relationship with Lauer, who would arrange to secretly meet her in his dressing room.

Lauer’s publicist didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. A representative for NBC declined to comment.

Last month, NBC News fired Lauer from “Today” after another staffer complained about his inappropriate conduct starting at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. After he exited, Variety published a two-month investigation detailing allegations of sexual harassment by Lauer toward multiple women. According to dozens of interviews with former and current NBC News employees, Lauer had a history of inviting colleagues into his office for sexual activity, and he’d use a secret button under his desk that allowed him to lock the door without standing up.

Although Zinone’s situation was consensual, she saw parallels between her own story and several accounts from the unnamed victims. Her situation is different than other allegations against Lauer, which involved unwanted advances. But it illustrates what can happen when a prominent person brings sex into the workplace, and there’s an imbalance of power. For Zinone, Lauer’s behavior had a devastating and lasting effect on her personal and professional life. Here’s her story, for the first time, in her own words.

Addie Zinone: I was just a small-town girl with a gymnastics scholarship from Temple University. I did four years of competitive gymnastics, and in my fifth year of college I studied broadcast journalism. At the time, ‘Today’ was at the peak of its success. I was obsessed with it. Wanting to be the next Katie Couric, I wrote her a letter. This was 1998. I didn’t have email. I somehow got Katie’s fax machine number. A month later, her assistant called and left me a message on my answering machine: “Katie got your letter and wants you to come and spend a day with her.”

She helped me get an internship at “Today.” In January 1999, I moved to New York with zero money, lived in a women’s Salvation Army home and worked my butt off in the studio. I formed really close bonds with Katie, Al Roker and Ann Curry, who showed me what to do, guided me, loved me, supported me. When I graduated that spring, a position opened up at NBC News as a production assistant, working the overnight shift. My dream had come true.

The unique part of my job was that when I ran the news in the morning, I was in the room where everybody sat when they weren’t on air. From there, I was able to forge these strong and awesome friendships. I felt so encouraged and supported, that I decided if I ever wanted to be these people, I had to leave and do what they did. In 2000, I accepted a position as a local anchor on WDTV Channel 5 in my hometown in West Virginia.

I only had a few weeks left at NBC. One morning, on June 8, out of the blue, I get a message from Matt Lauer. We didn’t communicate much over email back then, but we used a system called Top of Line, which was instant messaging for employees.

“hey,” Matt wrote. “i hope you won’t drag me to personnel for saying this. but you look fantastic. i don’t know what you have done, or what is going on in your life…but it’s agreeing with you.”

I thanked him, and I told him about my new job. “i’d like to get a little advice from you before i leave.”

He agreed, and that was the end of our conversation for a while. A month later, on July 12, I got another message from Matt. I remember exactly what I was wearing — it was a skirt, heels and a top. “OK…NOW YOU’RE KILLING ME…YOU LOOK GREAT TODAY! A BIT TOUGH TO CONCENTRATE.”


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CLICK TO VIEW LARGER IMAGE

“okay, is someone screwing around with me?” I wrote back. I thought someone had stolen his log-in, because sometimes I would see Katie hop in a chair under someone else’s account and send messages to other people as a joke. He insisted that it was him. I again him asked for some advice, and he set up a lunch for the day after that.

I didn’t know what to do. He was obviously flirting. But I’d never seen anything like that from Matt before. As a 24-year-old production assistant, I had no idea how to interpret that. I could truly embarrass myself if I said something like, “Where are you going with this?”

We went to lunch. My intentions were purely professional. I thought this was a way to get real-world constructive advice. What that turned into was an opportunity for him to come on to me. It was flattering, confusing, overwhelming. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to do with it. He was clearly trying to guide the conversation. He was there to hit on me and manipulate the situation, and I fell for it. Here’s how I should have known what I was getting myself into. When we left, he told me: “You leave first, and I’ll leave after.” In no lunch I’d ever had at “Today” had anyone suggested we leave separately, as if something was up.

I get back to the office and I couldn’t concentrate. It was like an out of body experience. I know that sounds silly to someone who wasn’t there emotionally, but I couldn’t sit still. I sent him a message, and he wrote back right away.

“meet me.” he said.

“meet you where?” I asked. “matt, think about this first…you have a wife.”

“dressing room.”

“dressing room where?”

“studio.”

“i’ll be there in 20 minutes,” I said.

“I can’t stay that long…I have a car coming at 3:00.”

It was 2:42 p.m.

“okay,” I wrote. “i’ll be over there soon.”

He opens the door. There you go. It crossed the line. It was a consensual encounter. It happened in his dressing room above studio 1A, which was empty in the afternoons. He got in his car and I had to go back to work, and now my life had completely changed.

I’m carrying this around with me. There’s no cell phone calls, no texts, no emails. The only time I have an opportunity to see him or talk to him is in the studio if there’s no one else around. It was a whirlwind. Over the next few weeks, we met several other times.

The situation really took its toll on me. I changed physically. I changed emotionally. Fear crept into my life. I became unsure of myself. Any confidence I had was gone. For him, it was a conquest. One afternoon, he told me to come see him in his office. I thought he was finally going to talk to me and encourage me professionally. I wanted to hear from him that I could succeed in West Virginia. I sat across from him, and he pushes a button from his desk and the door shuts. It was embarrassing, because his secretary was sitting outside. He wanted to do stuff. I was like, “No. I’m so in over my head. I’m not a performance artist.”

The last time I saw him that summer was at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in California. The “Today Show” was live from the Staples Center floor. He was looking at a script, and he leaned over and said to me, “Do you see that bathroom over there? Meet me there in five minutes.” I was leaving and I had no other chance to talk to him. So I went—and we had an encounter. He was like, “Alright. I’ll see you later.” He had no interest in making sure I was cool.

Addie Collins Zinone
CREDIT: Courtesy of Addie Collins Zinone

When I left “Today,” I was so distraught. One night a few weeks later, I’m anchoring the local news in West Virginia. I finish, get in my driveway and there was a reporter from the National Enquirer waiting for me. Holy crap. What’s happening? I reach out to Matt in an email. He wrote back, “Who did you tell?” After that, he completely ghosted me. He left me to handle all this on my own, which I did. I told the National Enquirer that Matt and I were just friends.

What happened with Matt held me hostage. I was under his spell. It was all-consuming. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t concentrate. Every time I turned on the TV, because I anchored the local news in the morning, there was his face. And he was acting all jolly and happy. And here am I, carrying the weight of what had happened and fending off the national press. I didn’t want to start my career being known one of Matt Lauer’s girls.

My experience on air as an anchor turned out to be so traumatic that I quit. I was in a depression. This man who I’d held on a pedestal had made me feel like my looks and my body were my true assets. He made it clear that he wasn’t interested in my skills or my talent. It just shattered everything.

Even looking back now, at 41, I can’t envision a scenario under these conditions where I could not have succumbed to his advances. I know that sounds naïve. I realize it might even sound dramatic. But that’s the truth. And now, with everything that’s come out, I wasn’t the only one. I knew Matt was unfaithful to his wife, because he was unfaithful to her with me less than two years into his marriage. He did it so effortlessly, with ease, and he wasn’t particularly concerned with the risk. But was I the only colleague? I had no idea there were other women out there. To wake up one day and hear my story in the accounts of the other victims is one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had.

After I quit my TV job, I went and joined the army. I’m not connecting dots that don’t exist, because it makes my story better. I went and joined the army because I on my own couldn’t deal with the fallout from this brief but intense relationship. What I found out is that I could be a journalist in the Army Reserve. In March 2002, I went off to basic training.

In early 2003, I moved to California, where I accepted a job at “Access Hollywood.” Three months later, I was deployed to Iraq for a year. When I came back, I worked as a field producer. “Access” put me on the air, and I did some correspondent work for them. It was the height of the war and celebrities supporting the military, so they thought it would be a good fit, which for me was an amazing step forward in my career. When I was on my second deployment in Iraq in 2008, Maria Menounos called me. I’m a good friend of hers, we had worked together and she was a correspondent for “Today.” She told me she wanted to pitch a story on me, as a former “Today” employee, going over to Iraq.

Apparently, others didn’t embrace the idea. I was in the Atlanta airport, on my way back to Iraq, when she called, “Hey did something happen on Today?” Maria asked. “It’s so odd. When I went to pitch this story, a producer said, ‘We’re not going to cover her. Addie said something bad about the show.’”

I was in complete disbelief. I had never met that producer, nor had I ever had anything negative to say about “Today.” That’s when I knew I could never get rid of this thing.

In 2009, I was inducted into Temple University’s Lew Klein Alumni in the Media Hall of Fame. I was invited to this big dinner banquet in Philadelphia. Ironically, Matt was also being awarded that night for his excellence in the media. Steve Capus, the president of NBC News at the time, was in the room, and after he saw me give a speech, he invited me to come on “Today” for Veteran’s Day. This time, there were no barriers to me being on TV. So my husband and I come on to do a segment, and I show up, and guess who isn’t at work that day? It was super gratifying to be back on “Today” and surrounded by the people I love. Ann was interviewing me. If Matt was hiding that day, I certainly wasn’t.

Even though my situation with Matt was consensual, I ultimately felt like a victim because of the power dynamic. He knew that I was leaving, and that there was no better prey than somebody who is going to be gone. He went after the most vulnerable and the least powerful — and those were the production assistants and the interns. He understood that we were going to be so flattered and so enthralled by the idea that the most powerful man at NBC News is taking any interest in us. He felt like he was untouchable. He lacked so much morality and reality, because he had people enabling him. I see the common threads and how he preyed on women, and I was one of them.

There is no way he could have gotten away with it without others above him making these situations go away — manipulating, strategizing, whatever it is they did to wield their power against the powerless. It’s really a frightening place to be as a woman when you know you have a powerful force working against you. He was the golden boy. His contract always got renewed for millions of dollars more, and he was the face of NBC. How is any woman supposed to go up against that?

Despite the fact that Matt took advantage of me and it did impact my career trajectory, ultimately I turned my pain into strength and I landed exactly where I needed to be. And that place right now is as a mother of two amazing kids, a wife, a journalist, philanthropist and two-time combat veteran. I want to make it clear that I’m still very nervous and scared about telling my story. This is not an easy choice. This is not an easy thing to talk about. Over the years, I could have spoken. I could have gotten money from the National Enquirer. I never did that. I’m not trying to get anything out of this situation, other than be another voice in this important conversation about women in the workplace. The things that Matt did to me, there are men doing to other women. Although it wasn’t a crime in my case, it’s still not right. Matt took advantage of his power. It’s sickening. It breaks my heart that he did this for so long.

I’m putting my name and face out there to squash any doubts about the allegations from other women against Matt Lauer. I’m validating their stories because some of our experiences are similar. I want these women to know that I believe them, I want to help empower them and collectively we have a voice to change things. I have a 7-year-old daughter. I want to do everything I can to assure this doesn’t happen to her.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed from several lengthy conversations. Variety corroborated Zinone’s story through a friend she told at the time about her relationship and messages that she saved from her conversations with Lauer.

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