Nancy O’Dell: The Host with the Most
Posted On Jul 23, 2014
While Nancy O’Dell joins us in our living rooms on Entertainment Tonight, there’s much more to this charming southern belle than interviews and celebrity scoop. O’Dell is a wife, mother, daughter, author, actress, and entrepreneur, who has become proficient at balancing work with family.
BY Ruchel Louis Coetzee
“‘IT’S ONE BIG GUILT TRIP,’ IS WHAT MICHELLE OBAMA said,” recalls Entertainment Tonight’s Nancy O’Dell, referring to the time she asked the First Lady about life on the campaign trail while leaving Sasha and Malia at home. The topic of their discussion: That old, mythic “work-life balance” sought after by all of us.
O’Dell and I are sitting under the oaks of a quaint Los Angeles bistro, as conversations buzz around and the sun begins its languid descent. “I want my daughter to have a great example of being a working mom so that she can pursue her career, dreams, and aspirations,” O’Dell says. “I want her to see that strong side. As a working mom, you have to find the best way to balance your life.”
Juggling career and family is all about stamina, she says, as well as time management, carving out personal time, and overcoming the “mom guilt” jokingly referred to by Obama. “We have this nurturing thing,” says O’Dell. “My mom said it’s OK to have guilt every now and then, as long as you work around it.” And “working around it” is what O’Dell does best. Each night after work, she dons her sweatpants and plays a game of tag with her six-year-old daughter and two teenage stepsons for a bit of family time and exercise. In addition to working out with her trainer at 5:30 am, O’Dell recommends that working mothers get in sync with their kid’s schedules. “Our daughter gets into bed at eight, so we go to bed at eight,” she says. “We may not go to sleep right away, but we’ll get in bed at eight. People laugh at us, but it’s a great time for my husband and me to watch a movie.”
There are times in life, however, when things don’t go according to plan. Take, for example, when Entertainment Tonight switched from 7 pm to 7:30 pm—meaning that O’Dell would have to make herself available every night at 5:45 pm. “In my mind, I calculated: I’m not going to eat until seven, seven fifteen,” she says. “My daughter goes to bed at eight. I’m going to New York to do The Butler junket… and I leave that weekend. I just said, ‘I’m taking them to New York with me.’ There are ways to figure it out.”
Often, the demands of work can eat into family time. “You have to live in the moment,” insists O’Dell. “If you told your work that you cannot be there on a certain day because you have something to do with your child at a school program, don’t sit at that school program thinking, Gosh, I hope my boss is not mad at me. Because then you’re not living in the moment.”
For O’Dell, home and office demands are at best a well-rehearsed symphony. “My schedule is really tough, because it depends on a celebrity’s schedule,” she says. “That makes it really difficult to negotiate.” Her husband, Keith Zubchevich, reminds her to go with the flow, although she admits it’s not always possible to swim happily downstream. O’Dell’s boss once observed that she did not seem her bubbly self and asked if there was anything wrong. O’Dell fessed up that she had a busy week that ate into her family time at night. She found it hard to feel present. “My boss was great,” says O’Dell. “She said, ‘Let your daughter come here.’ All of a sudden I became a happier person, and did my job that much better that day.”
O’DELL’S SUNNY DISPOSITION HAS CARRIED HER a long way. “The other day, I was fretting about something and Keith asked me if it could really happen,” remembers O’Dell. “I replied, ‘It could possibly happen.’ He said, ‘Don’t create the boogie man if the boogie man doesn’t exist.’ So often, we moan and gripe, then things become worse than they really are. I try hard not to do that. It helps that I had really even-keeled parents.”
O’Dell hails from South Carolina, and was valedictorian of her high school before graduating summa cum laude from Clemson University. “I was a perfectionist,” laughs O’Dell. “I always wanted to make a hundred on a school test, and studied like crazy. My parents would say, ‘How about you don’t study as much for this test and see what it’s like to make a B once in a while?’”
O’Dell gives credit for her drive and accomplishments to her parents. “I felt so loved, and could tell they were so proud,” she says. O’Dell’s mother was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) a few years ago. “I was very close to my mom,” she tearfully reflects. “She passed away three days before my daughter turned one. She was an overprotective mom, but not in a bad way. With everything I say to my daughter now, I hear my mother. I get everything she used to say that would protect me from danger. That makes me the most emotional sometimes. I wish she were here for me to say, ‘Everything you did for us, everything you wanted, everything you worried about, it’s all good.’”
Today, O’Dell is a National Vice President of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and an ALS National Ambassador. After her mother lost her own ALS battle, O’Dell and her family formed a foundation in her name called Betty’s Battle: Fighting ALS. “When you have a tragedy happen, you have to do something,” insists O’Dell. “It was such a thing for my family and me; feeling so helpless because there is no cure. My dad became very instrumental in the foundation. It gave him meaning and helped us all with the healing process.”
AN ACCOMPLISHED AND AWARD-WINNING journalist, O’Dell has been honored with three Associated Press Awards, two Society of Professional Journalists Awards, and an Emmy. Her broadcast career began as a reporter and anchor at WPDE Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, after being crowned Miss South Carolina, then becoming runner-up to Miss USA in 1990. While her life has had blessings galore, O’Dell vividly recalls the sting of that near-miss at Miss USA. “To work so hard for something… I mean, it hurt,” she says. “You need some of that in life because it drives you to do something else. I had somebody tell me, ‘Don’t try and be a reporter because they’re a dime-a-dozen. Your chances of succeeding are slim-to-none.’ That gave me the drive to say, ‘What do you mean I can’t do that?’”
Suddenly, O’Dell recalls her wedding song, “God Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts. Its lyrics describe every life’s journey—sometimes you take the wrong path, but you’ll always be guided back. “Keith and I say that if it weren’t for our first marriages, we would not be together,” she says. “I knew by my first marriage what I wanted in a mate, and I feel so lucky to have two incredible stepsons and our daughter. We met in an airport, you know.”
This begged an explanation. Here’s how it went: O’Dell’s parents were supposed to visit her one weekend but her mom had phoned to say they wouldn’t be coming up. “I was going through a tough period and I remember feeling, ‘Really?’” she says. “But my mom said that she had this weird feeling that I was going to meet someone that weekend.” O’Dell found herself at the airport that weekend, waiting for her bags and shoes to pass through screening. She noticed a cute guy—Zubchevich—smiling behind her. She smiled back. She noticed that he was flirting with her, and decided to flirt back. They both realized that each of them had changed airline tickets the previous night, putting them at the airport at the same time. And then the conversation led to her line of work. “I told him I’m in entertainment, and the look on his face said he thought I was a stripper,” laughs O’Dell. She quickly set the record straight and after a few minutes he gave her his number. “I told him, ‘I’m southern; I will never call you,’” she says. “I gave him my number. I could see he was not a player because he was nervous writing my number down.”
AFTER A MONTH OF DINNERS, ZUBCHEVICH ASKED O’Dell to accompany him and his two boys to Hawaii. She said she would think about it. “I thought, If I am supposed to go I will get a sign,” she says. “I’m not a big believer in signs, but… He told me he was going to Hanalei Bay in Hawaii. A couple of days later, I was supposed to do an interview with Halle Berry, who had just finished an interview with Oprah. I’m fast-forwarding and rewinding the Oprah interview. This was a Saturday in the middle of the day—a time I would never normally be watching TV. I pop the tape out, and the announcer goes, ‘And now for our feature presentation from Hanalei Bay.’ And then my phone rings because he is watching that same special, and called to tell me to turn it on. I told him to book the tickets. That was the trip when I fell in love with my husband.”
It has been eight years since O’Dell and Zubchevich made that fateful trip—and she still looks fabulously slim and youthful, long after giving birth to her daughter at age 41. “I haven’t done any plastic surgery… I’m too chicken,” laughs O’Dell. “But I am constantly asking my dermatologist what I can do to rejuvenate my face that will require no downtime. I do have a lot of oxygen facials.” O’Dell engages in plenty of exercise, and eats pizza only after the Oscars. The camera can be cruel, after all. “The biggest thing is to not beat one’s self up,” she insists. “Often I’ll think, Oh my gosh, I wish I had better abs. I look at myself on the red carpet and see my stomach sticking out. Then I think, That was the week I had this wonderful vacation with my family. If I had spent four hours in the gym, I’d have been giving up that time with the family. I’m going to do healthy things; I’m going to run and get in my cardio. But mental happiness is going to be there, too, because I spent time with the kids.”
It was getting late. As O’Dell and I hugged each other goodbye, I realized why she’s found so much success—in her career and throughout her life. She has all the traits of a genuine friend, someone who will walk loyally by your side through anything. Lucky for us all, we can tune into such a friend, each and every night.