She is sorting through what this means, what it says about her and, pressingly, what it might reveal about her fellow millennials. This is what Menendez does: She sorts. She turns things over and over and over in her mind, which happens to be one supple and active place, a place of ceaseless and eclectic curiosity, of questions as much as answers.
“I want to know, then, how I know that I’m an adult,” she goes on. “There are a bunch of us who feel like losers. I know I’m not alone in that.”
Menendez is getting a chance to work on figuring out herself and her generation in the most public of ways. She is the audacious and high-risk choice to host an evening news and culture show on Fusion, an audacious and high-risk cable network that debuted last week on providers including Verizon FiOS, Cox, AT&T U-verse and Charter, which serve about 20 million homes. The English-language channel, a heavily hyped partnership of ABC and Univision, is angling to attract millennials with a melange of news, commentary, humor and satire. It will draw on a few established stars, such as Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, and it’ll push the wackiness envelope by pairing some of its anchors with puppets from a Southern California company founded by Muppets creator Jim Henson.
But its elevation of Menendez — a relative unknown who has sparkled as a cable talking head and Web programming host but has never carried her own television program — says more than anything else about the channel’s bravado. Menendez is the foremost example of the network’s utter confidence that it can spot the next big thing in places everyone else has missed. Her success would be an affirmation of the network’s unconventionality; her failure a sign for the naysayers of its recklessness.
She’s hosting a half-hour program, “Alicia Menendez Tonight,” out of a 160,000-square-foot warehouse in Doral, Fla. Fusion spent $100 million on the building — that’s not a typo. Projectors change the colors of the soaring walls throughout the day: purple one moment, soothing green the next, lending a mood-lit ambiance more reminiscent of a Virgin America airline cabin or a W Hotel than the grungy newsrooms of the past.
The place is so crammed with technologically complex equipment that staffers say they know how to use only a fraction of it. Packs of “answer people” in bright orange vests roam the newsroom floor to explain how things work.
Menendez’s program is billed as an examination of the “intersection of politics, sex and money.” But you get the sense that, like everything at Fusion, it is a work in progress that could morph into something entirely different at any moment. For now, network executives gush about her potential to be an even brainier version of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, but with less of an emphasis on Beltway politics and more on feminism and millennial cultural issues.
In her first week and a half as host, she boasted about airing the word “vagina” eight times in a single show that featured a lengthy discussion of the definition of virginity. (“A personal best” that was all the more impressive, she told viewers, because she has twice appeared in “The Vagina Monologues.”) And she read an open letter to “parents of horny teens” urging them to have “awkward” conversations about sex.
But it hasn’t all been sex. She called JPMorgan chief executive Jamie Dimon “the luckiest mofo in the world” because he’s still considered “a banking god” despite the company’s possible $13 billion settlement deal with the Justice Department. And she prodded tennis star Venus Williams to run for Congress. No thanks, Williams told her. And told her. And told her.
In the days leading up to her debut, Menendez, who can be a surprising and arresting communicator, sounded a tad scripted as she rattled off the show’s mission. It was as if she were sticking to the talking points while she worked it out. “I want people to feel informed so that they can make educated decisions in their own lives,” she said somewhat mechanically. “That’s really it; it’s a simple goal.”
But “simple” plus “Alicia Menendez” does not compute.
“She’s complex; Alicia is about the steak and the sizzle,” says Simon Rosenberg, founder of the center-left Washington think tank the New Democrat Network, where Menendez was a senior adviser for two years. “She sees herself as a leader of this next wave.”
Politics and persona
Menendez rolls her eyes as the camera cuts away during rehearsal. The over-caffeinated segue music for “Alicia Menendez Tonight” irritates her.
“It needs to be a little less ‘America’s Top Model,’ ” she says later.
The elevated studio stage at Menendez’s feet lights up from below, evoking a disco. It was inspired by the flashing, lighted dance floor in the movie “Saturday Night Fever.” Everything about the studio screams. Menendez seems intent on lowering the volume and making people listen.
On weeknights, her 7 o’clock program follows a hyperkinetic show anchored by charismatic Ghanaian musician Derrick Ashong, whose producers sit off camera during rehearsals chanting his stage name, “DNA! DNA!” and hollering, “Woo! Woo!”
But when it’s Menendez’s turn, she is planted behind a riveted metal desk that resembles a bent airplane wing, and she’s talking about . . . the debt ceiling. For six minutes. An eternity in TV time.
“She’s an animal in the studio; she dominates the room,” says Fernando Vila, the hunky Fusion programming director who sets a saucy tone for the newsroom with shirts unbuttoned to his navel. “You can’t teach that.”
The show later folds in remote guests and in-studio yakkers, mulling subjects aimed at young women such as alcohol dependency and social-media do’s and don’ts for couples. But you get the sense that it’ll live or die based on how viewers react to its star. No pressure there.
“I feel like there are conversations I have all the time about choices before us,” she says. “Whether to believe in marriage as an institution. Whether to buy a home. Whether to participate in an election.”
She doesn’t pretend that she or her show has all the answers. Her opinion is less important than her perspective. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s meaningful. She doesn’t wield her intellect like a cudgel. Indeed, she seems to be working hard not to appear to be the smarty-pants know-it-all. She’s not trying to impress you. Or is she?
“She’s incredibly intelligent,” Rosenberg says. “Yet she puts people at ease. She’s both grounded and ambitious.”
Fusion was originally conceived and promoted as a network targeting young Latinos who felt more comfortable speaking English than Spanish. But focus-group research revealed that young Latinos were wary of pandering — they preferred to be “winked at” rather than shouted out to, says Isaac Lee, Fusion’s chief executive. Also, the sample programs the network was producing were scoring well with non-Latinos. So, presto, a new approach, one that Menendez, tellingly, was dispatched to the popular ABC show “The View” to deliver during a guest-host appearance.
Is Fusion “primarily for a Latino audience?” “View” co-host Barbara Walters asked.
“It is for all America,” Menendez chirped, “but is particularly for a young America. We champion a young, diverse America at every turn.”
That youthful vibe surrounds Menendez. After a planning meeting one afternoon, she refers to her crew of mostly 22- and 23-year-olds as “the kids.” But then she couldn’t help turning that comment over in her mind — its implications, the message it might send.
The next day she says: “I had a stress dream about that last night. I called them kids? How could I call them kids? I feel like a kid.”
She certainly is the kid when paired with Ramos, the polished, 55-year-old anchor whose silver hair makes him look a decade older and who is unquestionably the network’s biggest star. Ramos, who will continue to anchor a nightly newscast on Univision while headlining a show called “America” on Fusion, is a serious, intense, focused presence. It was earth-shattering news here when the distinguished anchor agreed to do his Fusion show without a tie.
Menendez is eager to establish herself as her own person and anxious about being typecast as a political daughter — her father is a Democratic senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez. They’ve had a complicated relationship, friends say, but are so close now that they e-mail and call each other throughout the day. When I ask Menendez via e-mail how she’ll handle news related to her father, such as the accusations — since discredited — that he cavorted with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, she says she’ll call back to discuss it. But she never did.
Still, she doesn’t seem inclined to avoid the topic of her father altogether — on air. One afternoon, she does a piece about the popularity of Cory Booker, New Jersey’s newly elected Democratic senator, during an “anchor buddy” rehearsal with Ramos. “Poor Bob Menendez,” she says at the end of the piece with a wry smile. “He never gets to be the most popular senator from New Jersey.” She doesn’t need to mention they’re related. The audience ought to get the joke.
When Fusion hired Menendez, staffers took her clothes shopping. “They had to!” she says. Off camera, she favors jeans and hoodies; flats, not heels. She is prone to letting her shoulder-length brown hair lie limp, and she wears nerdy glasses. (“Nerd,” she says, is not a “past tense” description of her.) On camera, they have her looking sleek and glamorous. No glasses. The camera angles give frequent glimpses of her long legs, shown off by short, stylish dresses. The makeup accentuates her piercing green eyes and full lips.
After rehearsal one afternoon, she’s tugging at her sleeveless Diane von Furstenberg dress before she has left the studio. She kicks her Christian Dior heels into an unruly pile of footwear beneath her desk.
“These are the clothes,” she says, “that I wear when I play the role of Alicia Menendez.”
Finding her way
Menendez grew up in Union City, N.J., “the last exit before New York,” as she likes to put it. Her mother, Jane Jacobsen, was a sex-education teacher, and though Jacobsen is not Latina, she has always been a “Latina-phile,” even referring to herself as “Juana” in a “self-deprecating way,” Menendez says. She “tawks” like this, Menendez says, mimicking her mother’s accent. “Sooo New Jersey.”
Until Menendez was 5, the family lived in an apartment above her Cuban American father’s law office. “He was terrible at making money,” Menendez says, and the family scrimped on much during her childhood. “I didn’t understand why we had professional parents, but we didn’t have cable,” she says.
Still, she says, she grew up with “a sense of privilege” because she was surrounded by people — many of them recent immigrants from the Dominican Republic or Colombia — who had much less. “I had my own bed. In Union City, others shared a bed. We lived in houses. I had two parents. Both were college-educated. Even as a kid, I felt a responsibility to speak on behalf of other people who didn’t have as much.”
She had childhood friends who were undocumented immigrants. And that has informed her world view, says her close pal, Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter who grew close to Menendez while he was deciding to “come out” as undocumented after years of concealing his status.
At Harvard, she studied women, gender and sexuality and says she was one of the first 500 or so people to join Facebook. Menendez, who considers herself a feminist, thought she’d go to law school and then follow her father into politics. But she came to have a more and more jaundiced view of political life as she saw its corrosive effects on some political families. In 2005, her parents divorced; her father by then was a member of Congress, and his divorce made the news.
“I always knew — but I don’t think I knew — that you can’t have a private life as an elected official,” she says, looking back. “It’s not a family-friendly institution.”
That same year, she worked on the opposition research team of Jon Corzine’s gubernatorial campaign in New Jersey. “Hated it,” she says. Because researchers have to dig up dirt on opponents? “Or make up dirt,” she interjects.
Her career path took on a “ping-ponging” nature, as she puts it, bouncing from New York to Washington and back. Media, activism, politics, a think tank — she did them all. There were stints as a producer and on-air broadcaster at Regional News Network, as host of a radio program on SiriusXM and as a featured host and producer at HuffPost Live. She founded a news Web site called DailyGrito.com. She did outreach for Rock the Vote and served as a media director for Democracia USA, which was a project of the National Council of La Raza. And she was a co-founder, along with Vargas, of Define American, an organization dedicated to stimulating a national dialogue about immigration.
While at Democracia, she met and started dating Carlos Odio, the Obama administration Hispanic outreach official who was her White House point of contact. When she told Patrick Gaspard, a top Obama administration political adviser, about the relationship, his response was succinct: “This had better end well.”
The sapphire engagement ring on her left hand indicates that it didn’t end at all. The couple has yet to set a date for a wedding. And she won’t be changing her name — she has put too much time and effort into developing her brand. Plus, she jokes, his last name means “hate” in Spanish — not that that had anything to do with her decision, she adds.
When she lived in Washington, Menendez let Vargas sleep on the couch in her Columbia Heights apartment for about a month during the intensely emotional time surrounding his revelation about being undocumented. Menendez was the clear-eyed adviser at each step in the process, Vargas says, even helping write a speech that he delivered shortly after he unveiled his status in a much-discussed New York Times Magazine article.
She’s “just so emotionally intelligent,” Vargas says. “We can easily go from talking about something in Us Weekly to something we read in the Economist. . . . It’s going to become abundantly clear that she’s a new and singular voice.”
Menendez “hated” much about life in Washington. She encountered people who were “there to climb some ladder I couldn’t even see.” She’d meet someone who was rude and dismissive. Then she’d encounter the same person in a different context — when it dawned on them that she was a senator’s daughter — “and they couldn’t be nicer.”
Miami, she knew, would be different. There, she might have a chance at just being Alicia.
Questions of identity
In Miami, Menendez attends a Bikram yoga class. The instructors speak to all the students in Spanish — all, that is, except Menendez.
“I have generic white girl face,” she says with a shrug. “No one speaks Spanish to me.” (As it turns out, she resembles the original target audience of Fusion in this way — her Spanish isn’t so great.)
She thinks of herself as Latina, but “the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way,” she says over lunch.
For a while, there was an Internet meme that she was a lesbian. You could Google her name, she says, and the autofill would add the word “lesbian.” She figures it was an incorrect assumption derived from stereotypes about her college major. She doesn’t care, she says. “Should I care?”
To test it, Fusion’s communications director, David Ford, pulls out his iPhone and types her name into the Google search field. Lesbian doesn’t pop up. But something else does.
“Look,” he says. “Alicia Menendez — hot!”
She rolls her eyes.
“What?” he says. “You are hot.”