"Guidance, Guts and Good Advice" the ad said. It was a nation-wide open call to replace Ann Landers who mysteriously left one newspaper after 30-odd years to ladle out advice at the competition across the street.
"You'd be a great Ann," my friend the photojournalist said to me as we ran from an enraged, rock-throwing three-card Monte operator. (We were on assignment to expose some of Manhattan's less notable tourist attractions.) I hadn't the slightest idea of what he was talking about, and considering that up to that point my own name had worked just fine, I thought maybe he'd been beaned by one of our pursuers.
When we ducked into a coffee shop after a two-block run with heavy camera equipment, he said, "Haven't you heard? They're looking for a new Ann Landers. You'd be great. Think of the demographic profile! A divorced mother, a funny writer, you're good on the tube. And you run fast. Let's face it, toots, you're a shoo-in." Hmm.
After looking over the full-page ad that ran not only in the Chicago Sun-Times, but in USA Today, I had to admit that yes, I would be a good Ann. Maybe even a shoo-in. So I, along with 12,000 other shoo-in writers, carpenters, guidance counselors, shrinks, ex-Playboy bunnies, and all others who felt divinely placed because they'd lost everything from their spouses to their houses, wrote letters, which included recent photos and re'sume's.
I sent my daughter scampering to the Federal Express office early on a Saturday morning, about four minutes under the deadline. She wasn't too happy about missing the "Muppet Babies," so I even had to pay her off. That was my second mistake. My first was listening to a photojournalist.
The following Saturday morning, the Federal Express man arrived at my door. I ripped open the envelope without first checking the return address, sure that someone had come dunning for me. "Congratulations!" it said. My God. I've been drafted, I thought. Then I read further. It seemed that I and 107 others had been weeded out of the 12,000 hopefuls to become semifinal Anns. Almost-Anns, you might say.
Answer these four test questions by next week, the letter said, and we'll let you know if you're one of the six final-finalists by April 15, which was the day after I would turn the dreaded 40. So I did.
Three days later the Chicago Sun-Times called and asked me to fly to Washington to be on TV. "You're right up there with the top contenders or we wouldn't ask you to do this. Being on TV will be an important part of the job. If you get it." One of the other guest-finalists was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who was covering the story. He said that he thought the winner had been picked before the contest started.
On April 15 the call found me in Aspen, on vacation. "Congratulations! You've made it to the top seven! Can you be on 'Nightline' tomorrow night?" My daughter and I found out at the airport that our no-exchanges-ever-as-long-as-you-live airline tickets meant just that. I openly wept as I paid the fee and bought new tickets to New York. And even though my ski tan made me look as though I'd been held captive by farm animals, and I was now several hundred dollars poorer, this truly was the chance of a lifetime. But not on "Nightline." After I arrived back in New York, I was informed that my services were no longer needed ... at least on that show. But could I answer four more questions and be in Chicago by Monday? It was now Friday night.
On Easter Sunday I called the head of Phoenix House at home for expert advice on one of the questions. For the first time ever my daughter's Easter basket consisted of three candy bars and my hearty good wishes. But my spirits were lifted as my family gathered round me on Easter to exclaim my shoo-in status.
On Tuesday we (the other finalists and myself) found ourselves in the "green room" of Oprah Winfrey. Well, all the finalists except one -- a mystery woman who refused to do public appearances because her job might be jeopardized by publicity. Huh? Here we were interviewing for that same job in front of 80 million people. Well, since publicity was so important, we thought the poor mystery woman had done herself in. They made a brunch for us, and then made the mistake of leaving three of us alone in Chicago with three hours before the next appearance. We went to a bar. There were Linda Moore, Gary Provost and myself.
We discovered that this was probably not a job interview as much as a karma convention. We were all the same age, had all written books, all had kids, all ordered a beer, all became friends. We decided that the losers should start their own column called "Almost Ann," and it could be hilariously full of self-serving lousy advice.
A few days later I was called back to Chicago where several of the editors sat around me in Ann Landers' old pink, PINK office and fired questions at me: What did I think of premartial sex, drugs, booze? Could anything about my divorce cause embarrassment? Thanks, we'll let you know in two weeks. But first submit three years' worth of IRS forms, and data on every job you've held since high school. I sent off my forms and remembered later that I once was a sweater folder in a store that no longer exists. I was 19 and got fired in three days.
Two weeks became three. Everyone I'd ever known was called by the detective hired to check me out. What does she really think of premarital sex, drugs and booze? I started to think I should wear makeup to put out the trash.
USA Today came to my house, and my office. I spent every other day sneaking out of my office to appear on yet another TV show. My publisher was losing his patience. Fast. He wasn't crazy about his editor in chief publicly auditioning for other work.
At 3 1/2 weeks we broke. We became paranoid Almost-Anns. Why did USA Today photograph only two of us? Why were only my references thoroughly checked? Why did an editor fly to Indiana to personally visit Linda Moore at home? We formed CA (Contestants Anonymous).
Then an advertising agency friend called and said that he'd been told that the winner was picked long ago and it was going to be a real shocker.
I got on the wire to the other finalists. We mulled that over and put it into the rumor mill. Was this turning into Ann Scam? A newspaper article quoted the editor who said we all acted like we had a divine right to the job. We didn't know then that one of us actually did.
After four weeks with no word whatsoever, my 15 minutes of celebrity was becoming wearing. Every time I answered my phone, someone would say, "So ... any word yet?" It felt like when I was pregnant and all I got were "You're still home?" calls.
I did "Live at Five" in New York. Sue Simmons, the anchor, said I was her choice for the new Ann Landers. The news director said I was dynamite. Definitely a shoo-in.
Finally the newspaper called Boston. Sorry, buddy. Indiana was called. Sorry, sister. They called me and told me it was a man and a woman. But not me. But wait ... could it be California? No. she got a sorry-sister call, too. There weren't any women left ... except ... the mystery woman! And it turned out she was the original Ann Landers' daughter. So much for my shoo-in status. The other winner was the reporter who was covering (and uncovering) the story for The Wall Street Journal.
We felt enraged, we felt ridiculous, we felt used. We also feel relieved ... and excited. Soon there's going to be a new syndicated almost-advice column -- "Almost Ann." It's amazing what three journalists can do when they sit around laughing in a bar in Chicago for three hours.
Linda Stasi is editor in chief of Beauty Digest magazine and author of the upcoming book, "The Field Guide to Impossible Men."