The Edge Of Fame

As a high-profile correspondent for "`60 Minutes II," former WBAL-TV reporter Vicki Mabrey is on the verge of joining those journalists who become network celebrities.

January 08, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

NEW YORK - She can't help herself - she's watching out of the corner of her eye.

Vicki Mabrey is sitting in a dark, windowless meeting room on the eighth floor of an office building on Manhattan's West Side. Colleagues sit nearby in padded chairs salvaged from an old movie theater. A story on the political activism of U2 rocker Bono that Mabrey has submitted for CBS' "60 Minutes II" is airing on a wide-screen television. But she keeps glancing over at the end of a long conference table, set behind the theater seats, where a single banker's lamp stands.

The lamp, and command of the room, belongs to Jeff Fager, executive producer of "60 Minutes II," the young progeny of "60 Minutes," network television's most esteemed newsmagazine. Mabrey, formerly a reporter for Baltimore's WBAL-TV for eight years, is now one of the show's five on-air correspondents.

Team Mabrey is there: a story producer, the video editor and other associate producers involved in reporting the piece. Also present are a publicist and a sound-bite cop, who checks the piece against interview transcripts to ensure that people's words are shown in precise context. A writer is there, too, in case a graceful transition is needed.

Mabrey silently gauges her colleagues' reaction. She can sense if they are laughing, or stiffening, or relinquishing themselves to the story. Interpreting body language can be an act of self-preservation.

But the only reaction that really matters comes from the man whose face is illuminated like a conductor's in the orchestra pit. Fager, a veteran of the original show, is driven to put his stamp on the new one. Mabrey has joked with colleagues that she doesn't even need to look at Fager during these submission sessions, as he sends off hate rays when he doesn't like a piece. But she watches him nonetheless.

The screening ends; the tape freezes. Fager swivels, turning his attention from video to correspondent. Mabrey awaits the verdict.

She thought she was an unlikely prospect to be in the camera's eye. As a child, Mabrey developed Bell's palsy - the deadening of a cranial nerve. It partially paralyzed the left side of her face, leaving her with a slight sag in her left lower eyelid (she can't fully close it), and forcing her to depend on the right side of her mouth. It's slightly noticeable on air and more pronounced in person.

When Mabrey compiled her first tape as an intern at Washington's WUSA, she pointed out her condition to the news director. "For a long time I thought I could never be on TV because of that," she says. "He said, `Don't ever mention that to me again.' "

Indeed, her look has helped Mabrey to stand out in the vanilla world of broadcast journalism. She's slender, forceful and tall - "5'10" in flats," she says, "but who's ever in flats?" Her voice is a deep, rich alto; it suggests sobriety unless you hear her playful digs, often aimed at herself. Her dark hair is streaked with silver - an uncommon acknowledgement of time on a medium not known for its hospitality to aging in women.

Yet Mabrey, a four-time Emmy winner, is on the cusp of joining the small ranks of reporters who break into national consciousness as a network celebrity. It's a prospect embraced by the network. But it's a goal that does not appear to animate Mabrey.

Her work is informed, rather, by her own experience. Mabrey's maternal grandparents, Frank and Hattie Johnson, a sharecropper and a homemaker in the Mississippi Delta, migrated to St. Louis in the early 1920s. The way the family tells it, Frank Johnson always said he wanted to get as far from Mississippi as possible, aiming for Minnesota.

The couple settled for Missouri, a state that was still segregated when Mabrey, now 44, was born. She was one of the first African-American students to integrate her grade school.

"I used to think, I want to be a teacher of English. My mother and my aunts and my uncle were all educators, and my mother said, `Nope, that's what was open to us. There's a lot more open to all of you now.' "

More meant Howard University in Washington, where she studied political science, graduating with honors.

She later landed a training fellowship at WUSA and joined WBAL, then a CBS affiliate, as a junior producer after pestering the station for a job.

After a year, she became a reporter, covering accidents and fires and shootings. But she tried to find more compelling stories, as well. One feature, on a local photographer, led to an enduring friendship, not uncommon for Mabrey, who acquires friends the way a pack rat acquires trinkets. Mabrey later set the photographer up in her Mount Washington home because the woman was too poor to support herself in retirement.

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