Behind The Cult Of Julie Chen
Two decades in network news, 17 seasons as the host of Big Brother, five years on The Talk, and one of Hollywood’s most high-profile marriages has turned Chen into the obsession of millions.
Two words have come to define Julie Chen’s career: “But first.”
Overtly, it’s her oft-used transition between Big Brother segments. A viral video highlighting her nearly identical delivery of the line and accompanying movements over many seasons earned her the nickname “The Chenbot.” But over the course of the series' 17 seasons, she’s learned to embrace the expression and even turned it into a cheeky catchphrase.
More significantly though, “but first” is essentially what Chen heard at every turn as she embarked on a career in television news.
Yes, you can be an assignment reporter, but first you have to do it at half the salary.
OK, you can be an on-camera anchor, but first you have to look less Asian.
Sure, you can have this high-profile job, but first you have to agree to take on an additional, less prominent job as well.
That constant barrage of caveats would be enough to deter most people from continuing to reach for their dream job in their dream profession. But for Chen, every single “but first” fueled her relentless drive to become the multihyphenate of the highest order that she is today: The host of CBS’s long-running Big Brother, the co-host of CBS’s The Talk, mother to 5-year-old Charlie, wife to CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves, and object of infatuation for the millions of viewers who tweet about her perfectly coiffed hair, impeccably styled ensembles, lavish lifestyle, and all the other ineffable elements that have turned her into one of the most beguiling and beloved figures in television today.
But for a very long time, Chen was unsure if there truly was a place for her on television — no matter how hard she tried to carve one out for herself. “My whole life I’ve been told, ‘No. No. No. No. No. You can’t do this. OK, maybe we’ll let you slide in here but don’t expect to be treated equally to the others,'” Chen told BuzzFeed News while seated at a table in her dressing room at The Talk. “But every negative thing that’s happened to me along my career path has ended up being a blessing in disguise and gotten me exactly where I am today.”
Julie Suzanne Chen was born in January 1970 in Queens, New York, the third of three girls. A self-described “teacher’s pet,” Chen said she was never cool enough to hang out with her older sisters, Gladys and Victoria, who were “thick as thieves.” Instead, most of her childhood was spent clinging to her mother, Wan Ling Chen. “My mom was my best friend,” she said. “To this day, whatever my mom says is law. I have so much respect for her. She’s the wisest, most level-headed person I know.”
Education was always of utmost importance in the Chen household — both formal and informal, which meant that the nightly news was a constant in her life from a young age. And one night in the early 1980s, the Chens experienced a local news broadcast that changed young Julie's life forever. “There was a broadcaster by the name of Kaity Tong on ABC back then doing the 5 o'clock news. And back then, any time you saw any Asian face — I'm Chinese, but it didn't matter if the person was Korean or Japanese or whatever — it was a very big deal. It was a special moment,” she recalled. “My father started shouting, [Chen shouts in Chinese]. Which means, ‘Hurry up! Hurry up! Everyone get down here, there's an Asian face on television!’”
“My mom was like, You know, you could do that, and I was like, I can?” Chen continued. “It was like she planted that seed and I watered it myself. From that point forward, I just didn't know any other path.”
After Chen graduated from high school, she set out to become a television reporter. The first step was applying to colleges “far away from home … so I could grow into my own person,” she said, smoothing a stray hair that escaped her off-air ponytail. “There were always a lot of people telling me what to do.” In the end, the distance and celebrated journalism program at the University of Southern California proved to be the perfect fit. “From day one of my freshman year, I was committed to my path,” she said.
By the time Chen graduated, she had had a few low-level assistant positions that earned her a job as a general assignment reporter in Dayton, Ohio. It was her first major job in news, and it was also the first time she would hear “but first” in her career.
“When I got that job, they said to me, ‘You don't have experience and we're a medium-size market. We'll give you a job, but first we're going to start you at a much lower pay than everyone else,’” she recalled, the frustration still lingering decades later. “They were like, We're doing you a favor.”
Professionally speaking, the job provided invaluable training ground; but on a personal level, it was hell — she found herself dealing with the kind of ingrained racism she hadn’t experienced since childhood. “In grammar school, you're getting on the school bus and someone goes, ‘Oh, ching chong,’ and they'd pull their eyes to the side,” Chen said, growing uncharacteristically quiet. That taunting became nonexistent in junior high school, high school, and college, but things changed for Chen in Dayton. “I grew up in New York City, I came out to Los Angeles — two hugely diverse cities — and then I go to Dayton and I’m the only Asian person in the entire town,” she said. “It was so weird. … It was not the world I knew. It was eye-opening and shocking, but a lesson to me.”
But Chen tried to make the best of a bad situation in Dayton by clocking some time on the anchor desk during holidays. Her boss, however, let her know it would not turn into a more permanent position — and he didn’t mince words. "'You will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese,'" she recalled him saying on an episode of The Talk in 2013.
"'On top of that, because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, sometimes I've noticed when you're on camera and you're interviewing someone, you look disinterested, you look bored.'"
At the time, Chen spoke openly about how that statement — coupled with similar sentiments from a "big-time agent" — led her to have plastic surgery in an effort to appear less Asian. And that conversation with her boss in Dayton marked the beginning of the end for Chen living and working in Ohio. "As soon as my news director told me I would never see the anchor desk as long as he was news director in Dayton … it told me, 'Don't think of building a life in Ohio — or a future,'" she said. "It motivated me to go where I would be welcomed."
After coming up with an unfortunately short list of cities that might be more open to the idea of an Asian-American news anchor, Chen moved back to the East Coast and began working as a general assignment reporter at WCBS in New York City. But again, she found herself in a “but first” scenario.
“Normally they paid $125,000 for entry-level general assignment reporters in New York City, but they said, ‘You're lucky we're giving you this shot,’” she recalled of being offered substantially less money to do the same job as her colleagues. Still, Chen accepted the job. After all, she wanted out of Ohio and WCBS was offering more money than she was making at the time.
It was 1997 when Chen joined the network, which was simultaneously working to launch a revamped version of The Early Show that would eventually replace CBS This Morning. The new series centered around Bryant Gumbel, the beloved host of NBC’s the Today show, who had been lured away to headline the new program at CBS. Because Gumbel was bringing in an entirely new team for his show, the existing CBS This Morning crew was let go. For Chen, that meant pulling double duty: In addition to her job as a general assignment reporter at WCBS, she was to asked to act as the newsreader on CBS This Morning until the revamped Early Show launched. It was a lot of work, but it was exactly the opportunity she had been waiting for — to prove exactly what she was capable of doing.
But again, she found that opportunity diminished by others before she even had the chance to begin. “I remember my news director saying, ‘Don’t get your hopes up. They just need someone to keep the seat warm,’” Chen said. The Early Show was scheduled to launch in November 1999 and Chen was initially filling in as the newsreader for the month of June, but after being informed that she “didn't totally screw up,” CBS This Morning extended her informal deal through Labor Day.
And that single move, unbeknownst to the then 29-year-old burgeoning reporter, set Chen on a path that would lead to Big Brother, The Talk, and Les Moonves.
The powers that be at CBS were so preoccupied trying to find Gumbel’s female co-host for The Early Show that they completely overlooked the fact they were supposed to hire someone for the newsreader position Chen had been filling in for. “They gave me the job simply because I had been doing it,” she said, with a laugh, of how she came to be staffed on one of the network’s flagship programs.
Although, once again, that “but first” reared its ugly head. “Because I was already in the family, they looked at my contract and said, ‘Oh, great, she's only making $75,000 a year, we'll get her for $125,000. So, again, they were like, ‘The starting salary is normally around $350,000 a year, but we'll pay you $125,000.’”
“I thought, When is this shit going to end?!?,” Chen shouted, looking up, arms outstretched. “Like, Haven't I proved that I earned my spot here? Now can you tell me what's fair? But it made me work harder to prove myself.”
Financial frustrations notwithstanding, Chen found herself exactly where she had long dreamed of being before she even turned 30: working alongside a professional idol on a respected newscast that was nationally syndicated. “It felt like I had been invited to the grown-ups table,” she said. “I remember Bryant Gumbel calling to congratulate me on getting the job. He was just like, Congratulations, Chen! And I was like, Oh my god, Bryant Gumbel knows my name!’”
The success of The Early Show (which aired for over a decade) gave Chen her first high-profile, steady job and — more important — put her on the radar of Leslie Moonves, CBS’s president and chief executive officer.
After her impressive start on the program, Chen’s bosses approached her in June 2000 about hosting a new reality show called Big Brother, the American version of an insanely popular Dutch series of the same name that had already spawned several other incarnations in Europe. While Chen was flattered, she was worried Big Brother would be the nail in her hard news career coffin. “When I went into news, my career goal was to be a foreign correspondent on 60 Minutes,” Chen said. “So I asked the head of news, point blank, 'If I take this job, am I forever closing the door on ever becoming a 60 Minutes correspondent?' And to his credit, he was honest with me and said, ‘Probably yes.’ So I said, 'I'm not going to do it.'"
Besides, Chen already had a job — one that, incidentally, was based out of New York City, which would make it difficult to host a show based out of Los Angeles. “They said, 'We worked out your schedule and the minute you get off the air in New York, you’ll fly to L.A.,'" Chen remembered. “I was like, What if I say no? And they said, 'That would be considered insubordination because we could technically assign this to you.' … So I was like, ‘OK…let me go home and cry and then I'll give you my answer.'"
In the past, Chen felt like she “kind of just had to say, ‘Thank you for the chance.’” But this time, she realized she had a bargaining advantage. Not only was she gaining recognition for her work on The Early Show, but some crafty calculation revealed a weakness in CBS’s armor. “I was holding the cards because I realized they boxed themselves into a launch date of July 4 and they came to me on June 4,” Chen said of Big Brother. “I knew they only had one month, so I told them to go with their Plan B.”
But there was no Plan B. In fact, Chen believes she was technically the network’s third choice — a fact that is, to this day, a sticking point between her and Moonves; then solely her boss, now also her husband.
“When we were putting together Big Brother, I said, ‘If we could find somebody who has a real credibility, like a newsperson, that suddenly gives the show much more cache,’” Moonves told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “I did say, ‘How about Julie Chen? She's young, she's pretty, she's hip, and she's a newsperson. I don't know if she wants to do it’ — because I didn't even know her at the time. I just knew her as somebody working at CBS News.”
Chen countered, “I have read articles where Carson Daly said they offered [Big Brother] to him and it's so funny because … if I bring it up: ‘You could have been married to Carson Daly!’ [Moonves] says, ‘It's not true.’ All I know is that I read it in Variety." And eventually, years later, Moonves confirmed Chen’s suspicions. “My husband did say that the person they did want was Meredith Vieira, but she turned it down,” she said, before adding with total sincerity, “That would have been good if they could have gotten her.”
Chen started her tenure as the host of Big Brother on July 5, 2000, and immediately experienced a kind of backlash she never expected, thanks to CBS’s Survivor, which had premiered less than two months earlier to rave reviews and insane ratings, setting a tough precedent for Big Brother. "Because we weren't Survivor, but it was similar — with people forced to live together, getting voted off, and the last person standing getting a whole chunk of money — people hated us," Chen said. "They didn't like me, they didn't like the show, they thought the furniture and the lighting in the house was cheap, they thought I should go back to news and how could I do news and a reality show?”
The first few seasons of Big Brother continued to be just as rough for Chen. She struggled with the criticism that viewers lobbed directly in her direction as she flew coast to coast every single week to film the series. “I read what was written about me and — surprise, surprise — the majority wasn’t kind,” she said. “It's a scary, dark, lonely place. Part of me thought there would always be haters, but sometimes you read a comment and realize there's a grain of truth to it: I could see why they think that of me.”
In retrospect, Chen readily acknowledged that she struggled at first to present herself in a relatable and natural way, thus earning the Chenbot moniker. (“I’m Asian, I’m not supposed to have personality,” she joked of the criticism to Larry King in 2013.) And though she’s greatly softened over the course of Big Brother’s 17 seasons, Chen contends that being likable is not technically what she’s there to do. “My job is the facilitator because the stars of the show are the houseguests. I'm just there to interview them in their three minutes of final fame before they get kicked out,” she said. Then, she smiled coyly. “But, I am the Chenbot.”
Chen may consider the houseguests the true stars of Big Brother, but for the millions of fans who tweet about everything she says, does, and wears, the grand doyenne of the series has become as big — if not bigger — of a draw. “She's unbelievably accessible, very smart, and delivers a great deal of trust, yet you feel like she could be your friend,” Moonves said of Chen’s unique connection to the audience. “She's someone you want to hang out with.”
Allison Grodner, who has served as executive producer of Big Brother since Season 2, cites Chen’s superfan-like knowledge as one of the reasons why she’s so inextricably linked with the show. “Julie is the face and heart of Big Brother,” Grodner told BuzzFeed News in an email. “She has been there through it all — every eviction, every fight, and has revealed every BB winner. … She has been able to make a genuine connection with her fans over the past 17 seasons. Summer doesn't start until you see the Chenbot on TV.”
For a long time, Chen endeavored to understand the infatuation with her. Was it genuine affection, gentle mocking, or outright dislike? Eventually, she came to realize it’s a combination of all three.
“I think a lot of it is that, for a long time, I was this enigma,” she said. “I'm 100% Asian, but born and raised in Queens, and I can get real Queens in two seconds, so that's weird. Then suddenly, I marry the head of the network, so people think, Hmm, what makes her tick? People can write their own script and they think they know me — people like to judge other people. When you see me on the news or you see me on Big Brother and I have no personality, you think, Oh my god, she's like the dragon lady! And then I do The Talk and you see that I can make fun of myself, that I have a sense of humor about anyone and everyone who has ever said negative things about me.”
The Talk has been a huge part of Chen’s life since 2010 when it launched as CBS’s attempt to compete with ABC’s dominant daytime series, The View. The hourlong series saw Chen act as moderator, leading her co-hosts — initially executive producer Sara Gilbert, Sharon Osbourne, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Leah Remini, and Holly Robinson Peete — in a discussion of the day’s hottest topics. As The Talk was first conceived, Chen’s role was designed to keep her out of the drama. “I [wasn’t] supposed to talk if I didn't want to and I didn't have to give my opinion,” she said. The concerns that made her resistant to signing on to host Big Brother didn’t apply here.
The series had a rocky start — Winokur, Peete, and Remini were all gone by the end of Season 1 — and Chen quickly discovered that the initial plan for her position didn’t actually mesh with the show’s conversational environment. “I didn’t know how to talk about my feelings on television [because] my whole career was spent keeping my mouth shut about what I think of topics,” she said.
Morning television relies heavily on the audience tuning in because they actively care about the host’s opinions — a harsh reality for Chen, who had actually come to cherish her enigmatic persona. “I was so concerned with preserving [that] image,” she said of her initial reticence to open up. “Maybe part of me was hoping I would be able to go back to news if The Talk didn't work out, so I didn't [want to] taint myself.”
But all of that changed in Season 2 after The Talk revamped its roundtable by adding Aisha Tyler, Sheryl Underwood, and — finally — Chen’s voice, thanks in part to the encouragement of the show’s executive producer. “He used to come over to me at breaks and say, ‘You need to get in there, Julie. We haven't heard your opinion on anything! Get in there!’” she remembered. “That's when I started thinking that I should reshape the narrative.”
That shift was palpable to viewers and to Chen’s colleagues — particularly co-host and executive producer Gilbert. “Everyone can tell there's a fun girl inside of her ready to come out and it's so great when she does,” Gilbert told BuzzFeed News in an email. “Audiences love Julie because she's fair and relatable. She's measured, but her humanity shows through.”
Chen said that initially she didn’t see The Talk as a way to change the public’s perception of her, but it quickly became clear that a daily, live platform was an invaluable way to let people get to know the real Julie Chen. “I slowly started to realize, OK, Julie, you're probably never going back to news, so you have to not only be moderator and the person who sets up the story for everyone else to weigh in on, but you have to be one of the girls at the table and weigh in yourself,” she said. “I think people were surprised when they saw that I had a sense of humor about myself and that was refreshing.”
And that’s been a total game changer for Chen. Both personally — “I’ve started to feel more secure and more confident with myself” — and professionally. After more than two decades in the industry, Chen earned her very first Emmy — for Outstanding Writing Special Class for The Talk — in 2014. She looks at that moment as not only a career highlight, but an opportunity to witness a rarely glimpsed side of her parents. “To see my parents beam with pride — my parents, especially my dad, who’s like hardcore Chinese, so, like, no emotion — makes this all so worth it,” Chen said. “It doesn't matter if you're 45 years old, you still want to please your parents.”
Chen has come to understand that in an entirely new way since September 2009 with the birth of her son, Charlie, who stopped by for a quick, post-school visit — and hug — with his mom during this interview. "Mom" is a strange word for Chen to associate with herself because, as she said, “I never wanted kids and I never wanted to get married.” With her eye long-trained on finding her way to 60 Minutes, family always felt like an obstacle that would keep her from grasping that brass ring. But that all changed when she began dating Moonves, whom she married in 2004.
There are obvious — and endless — advantages to marrying the president of CBS, but Moonves believes his wife is vastly underrated. "It probably hasn't helped her to be married to me in terms of that," he said.
That’s a sentiment Chen believed to be true in the years immediately after their wedding. “It was an area I was learning how to navigate the first four years — not so much being married to ‘the head of the network,’ because when we were alone together, it was always just about us — but it was me learning to navigate my spot in the workplace because I had already spent a good chunk of time working with my co-workers and then the day we got married, I saw certain people treat me differently,” she said. “I will never forget the small handful of people who treated me exactly the same, good or bad. Those people will always have a special spot in my memory bank because they didn't care who I was married to. I'm their co-worker first, you know?”
Exactly how much longer Chen will be able to call those people her co-workers is something very much at the forefront of her mind right now. While The Talk and Big Brother show no signs of stopping, the importance of Chen’s personal life has, for the first time, recently begun eclipsing her career.
Yes, she’s an Emmy winner, a beloved talk show host, the object of reality television obsession, and the Chenbot, but first these days, she’s a wife and mother. And this time, it’s a "but first" she’s established for herself.
"I look at my life outside of [work] and my family is so important," she said. "I could never see having the life I have now at home with my son and my husband and being a foreign correspondent. I can't imagine being a mother of sound mind who is thousands of miles away from her child. I couldn't do both things well. So I am more than fine not being a 60 Minutes correspondent because I'm pretty lucky to have what I have.”
She paused for a moment as that scenario sunk on. Then, she added, "That being said, I would still love to one day maybe do one piece for them."