Unapologetically is a Yahoo Life series in which people get the chance to share how they live their best life — out loud and in color, without fear or regret — looking back at the past with a smile and embracing the future with excited anticipation.
Broadcast news vet Joan Lunden has an anecdote that she likes to share often: “When I was 29 years old, I married a guy who was 39, and it didn’t work out,” she says, repeating it for Yahoo Life. “Twenty years later, when I was 49, I got married again — and again, I married a guy who was 39! The first one was 10 years older, the second one was 10 years younger.”
That second one, to Jeff Konigsberg, an owner-director of children’s summer camps, stuck — and is a testament to women not giving in to societal rules about romance and age differences, she says.
“Nobody would ever say are, are you older? They might ask if he was older,” Lunden, 72, says — noting that her youthful energy and drive still fascinates Konigsberg. “When I come back from doing, like, three stories in a row and being in three cities in one week, my husband will say, ‘You know, I want to be there at your autopsy — not that I’m looking forward to it anytime soon, but I want to be there to find out what that little chip is.'”
It’s a fair question, as the septuagenarian, breast cancer survivor and mother of seven has done just about everything but slow down since leaving her iconic Good Morning America anchor slot in 1997 after nearly two decades (not by choice, but more on that later). Among her many current roles: hosting the health-driven public TV talk show Second Opinion With Joan Lunden; lending her voice to the A Place for Mom assisted-living service, and to events that turn to her as their keynote speaker; and writing books, including her 2020 Why Did I Come Into This Room? A Candid Conversation About Aging.
Lunden, who keeps her mind young in ways that include doing jigsaw puzzles, learning Spanish and taking hip-hop classes, says the “little chip” that keeps her going so full-throttle can actually be attributed to her late “go-getter parents” — as well as to an early-in-life tragedy. Her father, Erle Blunden (Joan ditched the B for broadcasting) was a cancer surgeon and an avid private pilot who spent the late ’50s and early ’60s flying around the country to assist other doctors in early-stage cancer surgeries. He was also an entrepreneur who built and developed hospitals.
But at 51, “he was flying home from giving a speech at an American Cancer Society Convention in L.A. and crashed in Malibu Canyon with another cancer researcher, and was killed,” says Lunden, who was just 13 at the time. She then watched her active yet “technically stay-at-home mom” have to “pick up the pieces.”
“[My parents] had just bought this hospital in Bel-Air, Calif., that they were going to reopen into a general hospital. And my mom had to become a businesswoman overnight,” Lunden recalls. “I think that’s probably where a lot of my stamina comes from — watching her retain her composure and her strength, and be able to face that kind of adversity, and just maintain her resilience. That was a lesson that I absorbed, and I think it very much turned me into the woman that I became.”
She’s had many chances to put her own strength and composure on display — including as a new mom, as she was working as a local New York City news anchor when she found herself simultaneously pregnant and being offered the biggest break of her career.
“My phone rings in my little news cubby, and I answered, and it was my gynecologist, telling me that I was pregnant with my first child,” she recalls. “And then, like 20 minutes later, the phone rings again, and it’s my agent, telling me, ‘You’ve just been offered the job as co-host of Good Morning America.’ And it’s like, 20 minutes of delight, then dilemma: ‘Can I do that? Is that possible?’ And he said, ‘Well, lucky for you, this is 1980. And last year a bill was passed in Congress that made it impossible for a company to fire a woman or deny her a job because of pregnancy.”
She started just eight weeks after her daughter was born and became the new-mom anchor, with a separate dressing room for her baby and baby nurse, so they would never be too far away.
“I really hand it to ABC for being a courageous enough company to have allowed me to do everything I did and to actually put it in my contract. It was unheard of, and it set a precedent that rippled through companies across America for years to come,” Lunden says. “At the time, I was just putting one foot in front of the other … I didn’t realize that I was, like, out on this wild frontier and that I was changing life for working women everywhere.” (Years later, she’d become a different kind of parent pioneer, opting to become a mother through surrogacy — twice, with two sets of twins — at the ages of 52 and 53, and going very public with that journey; her children, including three daughters from her first marriage, now range in age from 19 to 42, and she has two grandchildren.)
Even now, she says, fans run up to her, referring back to those early GMA years with nostalgia.
“That time of morning is very different than any other time of the day when it comes to television. It’s very intimate time of day. People aren’t dressed. Kids are running around. And here we were in their house with them. So, the relationship that ensued was almost familial … To this day, people will come up to me sometimes and, like, throw their arms around me … and sometimes they’ll say, ‘I love you in the morning!’ I haven’t been on that show for 20 years.”
Still, it was recent enough for those involved with The Morning Show — the dramatic series about a morning news show not so unlike GMA — when it premiered on Apple+ TV in 2019.
“I went to the premiere at Lincoln Center … and Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, they came running over to me and they said, ‘You gotta give us some more dirt!'” she says. After the screening, Apple’s CEO approached her.
“I felt a tap on my shoulder and it was Tim Cook. And he’s like, ‘How accurate were we?’ And I said, you know … things could have really changed, but when I was there, nobody said ‘f***’ every five minutes. Nobody talked that way. And I would never have thrown the temper tantrums. It was very congenial. We were almost like a family of people. In fact, so much so that every single year we still have a Christmas party — all the people that worked at Good Morning America during about ’78 to ’98, about 150 of us.”
But, she adds, “the new females trying to edge out the existing anchors? That went on. I used to see people I liked go into the studio … auditioning, trying to get my job. It happened all the time.”
Sexism and ageism, actually, were the reasons behind her GMA departure, as she was pushed out by the network, replaced with a “30-year-old version” of herself. But it’s yet another situation that Lunden has handled with grace.
“I didn’t talk about it for a long, long time. I believe in going out with class … as opposed to getting angry, like, what’s the point?” she says. Instead, back then, she shares, “I picked up the phone and I called the president of the network and I said, ‘I’m about to do you a very big favor.’ I said, ‘A year ago, NBC let Jane Pauley go and brought in Deborah Norville, and the audience was so upset with them because it was so obvious that you pushed out a woman, as she was getting older, to bring in this younger woman. Like, did you guys not learn anything?'”
Then she suggested the official reason for her leaving be that she was “tired of the morning shift” and wanted to be at home with her kids more — to which he readily agreed.
It’s clear, though, that the experience still stings. “I mean, I was 47 years old. That’s not old. They don’t push men out because they’re 47,” she says — but quickly adds, “I don’t look back. I’m not the kind of person that looks back.”
And if she does, it’s for a greater purpose — like raising awareness around breast cancer, for example. In 2014, Lunden was diagnosed with an aggressive form of the disease — triple-negative, stage 2, requiring intensive treatment that involved chemotherapy, radiation and a lumpectomy. And while, initially, she felt the inertia that comes with shock, she quickly turned the experience into not only a higher purpose, but a way to honor her father.
“Even when I was a Good Morning America, I hogged all of the health stories — I think because I always felt that I had made this promise to myself that I would become a doctor and carry on my dad’s legacy,” she explains. “I finally came to peace with the fact that, as a broadcaster, you can disseminate health information and help massive numbers of people. And then I got diagnosed with breast cancer, and I didn’t think it would happen to me … I just was flabbergasted when I was diagnosed. But it took me about 24 hours to say, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute: This is my opportunity to take the baton from my dad, the cancer surgeon, and run with it.'”
She focused on learning everything she could about breast cancer and sharing it online, encouraging women to get their mammograms and know that dense breasts are a risk factor (as Katie Couric has joined her in doing following her own diagnosis recently) — and has heard from countless appreciative women, telling her she “took the scary” out of breast cancer for them. “It changed me from a patient into an advocate in a heartbeat,” she says. “And it made the rest of my cancer journey way, you know, nicer, if you can call it that. It just changed it in the most positive way.”
One of the most memorable moments of her early cancer experience — at least for the mesmerized public — was when Lunden appeared on the cover of People magazine, bald, with the cover line, “I will beat this.” She recalls that, at first, she “wasn’t so inclined” to do it.
“Not because of vanity,” she explains. “I just didn’t want anybody to think that I was being exploitive or anything … I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do. And their editor-in-chief came to me and said, ‘If you do this, not only will it be one of our most iconic covers, but you’re going to help a lot of people, cause you’re going to instill bravery in a lot of other people facing cancer.”
That convinced her, but the magazine still shot the cover three different ways: with her wig on, with a “beautiful Hermès scarf” on her head and, finally, with her bare, bald head.
“We cleared the room and I took the wig off and I remember the photographer was so close to me, and I just said, ‘you’ve got to dig down inside, Joan, and you’ve got to put the strongest, most compassionate, most resilient smile on your face,'” she recalls about the shoot. Two years later, it was all worth it, when a woman came up to her to tell her what it had meant: “She tells me that when her doctor said ‘you have breast cancer,’ the first image that came into her mind was that cover — not the cover, but ‘the twinkle in your eye and the smile on your face,’ she said … And you know, like, for any of the time that I ever wondered if I was doing anything wrong, that moment just took it all away.”
Today Lunden is cancer-free, and says it was her oncologist who helped her face her fear of recurrence one day when she came “unglued” about it in his office.
“He took my hands inside his hands and he looked at me and he said, ‘Don’t you remember Wile E. Coyote, the cartoon character who had run off the top of the cliff? Well, he was never, ever, ever in trouble until he looked down. You’ve taken the best medicine, you keep your head up, you expect a good outcome,'” she recalls. “And I walked out of there and thought, you know, he’s totally right. And that’s how I just kind of choose to live my life.”
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