I, Claudia

TVK-TV's Claudia DiFolco reaches for my hand and gently brings it to her face. Sliding my forefinger under wisps of hair, she says with a coy smile, "I've got something for your story." She blinks her eyes and they reveal a bright, mirthful innocence.

Her cameraman, standing off to the side, rolls his eyes in mock jest. She presses my finger to the center of her cheek. There, hidden beneath a thick coat of tawny base makeup, is a lump. A hard, nuggetlike knob the size of a raisin. A giant pimple. I instantly jerk my finger away.

DiFolco busts out a huge, childlike laugh, a sixth-grade playground hoot. "It feels like it has a bone in it, doesn't it?" she cackles, bending over like she's just been punched in the gut. "Isn't that gross? It feels like there's a bone in it!"

You may know Claudia DiFolco as an itinerant, on-the-scene entertainment reporter on Channel 3's hourlong 10 p.m. program, NewShow.

The comely Canadian-born Italian ignites public imagination -- she's either loved or loathed. Viewer response runs the gamut from "slut" to "news goddess." Her job description, meanwhile, spurs debate over the future of TV journalism.

She stands in the shadow of the KTVK van at the entrance to Desert Sky Pavilion on a particularly muggy July evening. Britney Spears is to perform soon.

The show is sold out, and the area teems with glistening preteens, pubescents and grown-ups, all queued in long, disorderly lines, awaiting access to the 20,000-seat outdoor amphitheater. A local radio station is drenching the scene with distorted teen-a-rific radio fare. The throng whoops whenever a camera or mike is pointed in its direction.

Everybody, it seems, except for the ruddy-faced dad here, or the overwhelmed single mom there, wants to be on TV. Smiles are big and fat.

The entertainment in the pavilion's main entrance is, apparently, Claudia DiFolco. And DiFolco -- who arrived in Phoenix in October, an alumnus of Canada's version of MTV -- is not doing anything. She's just hanging around the van, waiting to go on air. A wait that lasts hours.

Young girls saunter by. Some perched perilously on platform shoes, with belly piercings, garishly tinted hair and nails. Lips are greased in hues of crimson and pink. A few girls have DiFolco-esque bullion-colored streaks in their hair. There are leopard tops and leatherette trousers and schoolgirl uniforms with hems edged high. Some snap bubblegum to a rhythm of their hips.

Hundreds of girls recognize DiFolco. They stop in their tracks, nudge their friends, then approach for an autograph. They advance slowly, as if approaching royalty. Some even gasp. The littlest girls -- many no older than 5 -- burst forth and shriek at the top of their tiny lungs. "We looooove yooou, Claudia! We loooove yoooou!"

Boys, too, graceless with mushrooming hormonal hankerings, bony elbows and distressed complexions, notice the reporter, and stop and stare. They just stare, adoration and yearning playing across their faces.

Grown men with tractor-soled shoes become instant fanboys and ask their companions for permission to approach DiFolco, a few for an autograph. Others offer embarrassing whispers based on some perception of DiFolco's TV persona. Eyes belonging to balding, beer-bellied dads make clumsy thrice-overs of DiFolco's frame.

A willowy African-American woman, late 30s, approaches. She grasps DiFolco's hand, bends forward to her ear and, shaking her head slowly, says, "You are one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen." DiFolco's olive skin turns the color of a strawberry smoothie.

She scribbles autographs on arms, shirts, hats and napkins.

On a local scale, Claudia DiFolco is a full-on rock 'n' roll star. You'd think she was Britney Spears herself. She has that kind of celebrity. Yet she doesn't sing, dance or play an instrument. She's famous for being seen. A woman known, as Daniel Boorstin would say, for well-knownness.

Not everyone is in love with her. And she doesn't care.

"Celebrity journalist" was a phrase coined in 1986 by journalist/author/speechwriter James Fallows to describe reporters famous for who they are as opposed to what they report. The idea took root after reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped topple Richard Nixon. That was nearly 30 years ago.

As in any major U.S. metropolis, faces of local TV journalist/media goobs are ubiquitous in Phoenix. Waxen visages stuck to billboards abutting freeways, above Dairy Queens, adjacent to gas stations. Faces that coast effortlessly in airbrushed glory on sides of buses. Faces that throw puppy-dog preens from print ads.

Entertainment Tonight was the salvo that shaped the feel and look of scores of newscasts across the country. Journalists with personal hair stylists were coifed and molded into "personalities" when, in fact, they often lacked personalities. Loads of these pop star/newscasters will barely outlast their youth.

Claudia DiFolco's stature and TV demeanor suggest a celebrity journalist purpose of the highest order.

Unwavering sexual tension tempers her soft, sea-green eyes and shelved cheekbones. Even on the hottest days, she dresses in black, tight-fitting stretch jeans, big-heeled boots and bust-accenting tops. A thick mane of gilded hair bounces below her shoulders. She's a randy blend of Carmen Electra, Bond girl and porn queen Jasmine St. Clair.

Her task at NewShow is to deliver snappy bites of Valley nightlife throughout the hour. A recent week saw her feigning bliss at the Blue Note with Tim Hearn and Gray Matter on Monday, at Sound Vision Studios with the Robies on Tuesday, D'Angelo and Brian Setzer shows at Celebrity Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, and at Brokers Bar & Grill on Friday. One day a week she's at Zia Records or Blockbuster Video, touting the latest releases. It's all live and documented in quick-moving morsels of vérité-like video.

"I hang out for an hour a night at a place in town where most people would like to hang out," she says of her job. "I take them somewhere without them having to leave their home. I don't just bring a camera there. What I try to do is talk in a way and make them feel like they actually got a front-row seat at Alice Cooper'stown, for example. With live TV, you either get it or you don't."

DiFolco has the kind of face that generates preconceptions -- primarily that she landed on the pedestal of celebrity by the advantage of good breeding.

"She's all porn star," quips Mark Norman of local band Ghetto Cowgirl. Norman recently caused a minor ruckus after flipping the bird on a NewShow telecast before a Ghetto Cowgirl performance. He reportedly left the studio in humiliation.

An employee at a Phoenix Zia Records location from which DiFolco does a weekly broadcast sees her otherwise and rattles off quick judgment. "She's just synthetic, you know?"

A glance at the NewShow online discussion board reveals confusion as to her journalistic role at Channel 3: ". . . Claudia needs to go or change her style, I really hate watching her on the news. But I saw her once out at Cooper'stown doing a show, dressed in black of course. I have to say she seems nice she was very quiet when she was not doing the show (Hard to believe). Even though I hate the way she dresses & she really bugs me she seemed really nice."

DiFolco possesses the winning recipe for success in TV pop culture: huge ambition and stunning looks. Up front, she's the seemingly quintessential media prop. Part of an overt attempt, critics of the NewShow harp, to doll up mediocrity with transparent prurience.

Onscreen, she does little to dispel the notion.

On a number of NewShow broadcasts, DiFolco offers up what could be described as an elaborate parody of earnestness. There are cheesecake poses, pouty make-faces and insufferable TV reporter mannerisms, all neatly held together and brandished about with a heady, frequently goofy sexual verve. Her canned answers can seem insultingly glib -- a habit of saying "nice" as a descriptive term, dialogue with the meter of rehearsed speech. Think local newscast, MTV's Spring Break, Entertainment Tonight as comfy bedfellows. It's all part of her job description.

On-scene reports and band interviews reveal little more than how something or someone is "cool" or "hip." DiFolco can gush over a less-than-mediocre pop band thusly: "One of the Valley's foremost power-pop bands."

On a recent remote from a D'Angelo/Lucy Pearl concert at Celebrity Theatre, DiFolco and studio anchor Liz Habib convinced a guy with a chiseled torso to remove his shirt, then cooed their approval as the man flexed his pecs.

DiFolco explains, "Hey, that's what our viewers want to watch."

Despite her appearance and onscreen mannerisms, DiFolco retains an inner core of clear-eyed skepticism. She knows where and why she fits in. She shows no signs of taking herself seriously and remains aloof to celebrity jibes. DiFolco, paradoxically, doesn't buy into the TV "personality" mythology.

"A big part of it could be looks, a big part of it is talent -- you hope -- and intelligence," she says. "I think a very, very huge part of it is the way you relate to people. I'm lucky enough that people want to watch me.

"I learned early that there is gonna be someone prettier, there's always gonna be someone more intelligent, there's always gonna be someone that's liked more, there's always gonna be someone that works less but makes more money. That's just the way it is. That's the business. Unfortunately you're a commodity."

"I get the sense she's pretty protective of her persona," says Bruce St. James, program director at KKFR-FM radio. St. James met DiFolco not long after she moved here from Toronto last October. "But my bet is, she's probably been burned a couple of times by people who've had ulterior motives and were disingenuous about things. When you get sucked up to all the time you have difficulty telling who's real and who's trying to sell you something.

". . . I think a lot of people expect her to be ditzy and to have this huge ego. I think she downplays it [her intelligence] because it's maybe not cool or it comes across a little egotistical. Believe me, I deal with people every day that are very affected. People come up to me and go, 'Oh, yeah, Claudia, she seems a little uhh . . .' And I go, 'No, she's actually pretty normal and nice especially.'"

And DiFolco is comfortable with her lot. Yet she considers herself to be on the wrong side of the broadcast lens.

"I never wanted to be in front of the camera," she explains, "but people keep putting me there, so I figure I must be doing something right. I wanted to work behind the scenes. I wanted to be the one that gave out the budgets and decided how a show should look. I was very insecure about my abilities when I first started doing this. I'd be lying to you if I told you I believed I was the bomb. I'm here because somebody pays me to let me play in front of the camera. Pays me to talk to people and make friends and go do these things. It could be worse."

Born 27 years ago in Toronto to first-generation Italians, Claudia DiFolco is the middle of three siblings. Growing up, she traveled back and forth between parochial school in Rome and public schools in Toronto. Hers was an upbringing that instilled a sense of self-reliance, a duty to self. She worked throughout high school, earning enough to purchase her own car, to go on her own vacations.

DiFolco is quick-witted, intuitive and bright. Very bright. She can toss out a blue streak of profanities and order dinner in four languages.

She can tender a treatise on women's role in society, and why, in her belief, feminism failed: "Feminism just confused men. They don't know if they are coming or going." She nailed the provincial dialects of women chatting at a nearby table in a Biltmore eatery. (Women who scoffed outwardly at DiFolco's appearance.)

She not particularly well-read, though she's midway through Memoirs of a Geisha. She pores through pop glossies such as Spin and Rolling Stone for "job research."

She can be droll, interrupting conversations with descriptive and narrative-driven jokes. Slowly, if she trusts you, her voice slips from a polished, TV-ready timbre to a southern Canuck twang. It's then that her armor subsides.

"Sometimes I just feel weird all the time," she says one morning. "I just don't know exactly where I belong. Sometimes I just want to curl up on the couch in a fetal position and stay there all day."

In truth, DiFolco is principled, a good Catholic girl.

"One misconception about me is I don't sleep around," she says in a bit of maimed syntax. "I don't sleep around."

She is a woman motivated by ambition and purpose.

"I don't think I'm a master at anything, but I believe that I can do shit. With me, it's determination."

After high school, DiFolco had plans to study law, but eschewed college for a career. Any career. She went to work briefly at the Italian consulate in Toronto with hopes of becoming a diplomat. That was a snooze fest.

"That was a great-paying job," she says. "You get the little title there and the red license plate, but it was really boring. Really, really boring. Could you imagine me a diplomat? Walking in with my glam-rock tee shirt, jeans."

Work with a Canadian media mogul came next, and that led to a gig at the nationally broadcast TLN Telelatino. She worked in the promotions department before producing and hosting her own entertainment-driven show, Graffiti.

"That station broadcast in Italian and Spanish. And since Toronto is incredibly multicultural, it did very well, and it was nationwide. I had no experience whatsoever. I winged it. That's what I did on every job, I just winged it."

In 1996, DiFolco landed a swank gig at City-TV as an entertainment reporter. City-TV is the parent company to Much Music, Canada's answer to MTV. For three years, she produced, wrote and anchored an entertainment package for the 6 and 11 o'clock news. Once her contract expired, City-TV offered her a new one, but she declined.

At City-TV, DiFolco was its poppier, in-house Charlie Rose, interviewing almost daily a cache of celebs, from Lenny Kravitz and the Rolling Stones to Tom Cruise and the Backstreet Boys.

"It wasn't like here, where going to a new restaurant is entertainment. If they [celebs] went to Toronto, I talked to them, unless it happened on a day when I wasn't working. Toronto is big-time entertainment, it's incredibly entertainment-driven."

Last September, when the NewShow switched from a traditional newscast to entertainment flag-waver, the station needed an entertainment reporter. DiFolco decided to move stateside.

"It was kind of a good deal for her and for us," says KTVK's chief news exec, Phil Alvidrez, a man who gives meaning to "mild-mannered."

Was she pricey?

"No, not particularly. I don't normally talk about that kind of stuff, but it was in line with, you know, what reporters in Phoenix would make."

"I mean, here [in Phoenix], I needed this," says DiFolco matter-of-factly. "Could you imagine leaving your family, leaving your country for a job that was just as busy or more busy than what you had? I see this job as rest. I don't just go to work every day and learn about a new local band or . . . it's like a whole experience for me. I'm getting a feel for a whole new culture that I didn't even know existed."

DiFolco turned down multiple offers in larger markets -- one with a major sports network -- in coming to Phoenix. She thought she'd be shortchanging the viewer because she knows nothing of sports. Phoenix was the best choice.

"The big job is always going to be there for me. The job in L.A., the big-paying job in L.A. with all the glitz and glamour is always going to be there. If you're good at what you do, it's all there."

St. James believes DiFolco's determination will take her far.

"When you see how focused she is and career motivated," he says, "you know she won't be a quick burn. . . . I think she's got a tremendous future.

". . . unfortunately, we don't treat women equally and they don't get the fair shake for the fair level of talent. We throw all these other equations into it. You know -- 'Well, what does she look like? She's not gonna be one of those pushy ones, is she?' So I think she is trying to be cautious and smart about it at the same time. She's a nice girl, but she's not so nice as to get run over."

DiFolco claims she doesn't mind that it's a man's world. "I mean, I have more problems with women than I do with men."

Does she believe she stands a much better chance at gaining whatever interview, say, ambushing a rock star at an airport, because of her persona -- that men find her desirable -- more than somebody else doing a similar job?

"No, because this is all being done [arranged] over the phone. But I don't know. Maybe it is about that [persona]. Maybe it is about the exterior. If I looked like Ricki Lake -- and I don't mean to make names here, I think everybody's beautiful -- I dunno, would I get an entertainment gig at some station? No. They would probably give me an anchor gig. But then again, if I wanted to do serious news, would that come really easy to me? Probably not. People associate beautiful women with being really stupid. So it could work for you and against you, too."

When Smokey Robinson balked at an interview, DiFolco says she turned up the heat.

"I told the manager, 'Listen, we've promoted this, you're gonna do it with us or you're gonna look really bad. Don't expect your fans to go to Virgin tomorrow and pick up CDs, because it's not gonna happen.' So that scared him."

She got the interview.

Part of DiFolco's work includes a spotlight on a local band. The band typically is interviewed by DiFolco and plays between news pieces. Some may argue that by trumpeting so many local bands hardly worthy of prime TV airtime, that she's trumpeting mediocrity.

"Just because a band from around here doesn't have a No. 1 record around the world, it doesn't mean that they are not a good band. It doesn't mean that I wouldn't take pleasure in covering [them]. But does it get monotonous sometimes? Yes, it does. But was it crazy doing what I did before? It was crazy. I had [in Canada] six very successful and stressful years where it was live, every day live."

"DiFolco always gets a reaction," says Phil Alvidrez. "She was different than anybody else who'd been on television. She's a pretty normal person. She's very different, I think, in person than the image. I mean, Phoenix is a fairly conservative market. I think [anchor] Liz Habib standing up [to read the news] and Claudia are the two things that threw people. I'm sure there were those that thought, 'They've finally gone and lost their minds there at Channel 3.'"

Phoenix? Conservative?

DiFolco wore a navel-revealing top on a recent NewShow. Cries of "slut" arrived in the form of e-mails and calls from as far west as Sun City. As Susan Faludi pointed out in Backlash, as women's assurance in the professional field has grown, so their confidence has been assaulted by a growing media obsession with their appearance.

That same NewShow episode was screened for a group of 20 or so senior citizens that happened to be taking a tour of the station the next day. Alvidrez says the group was divided; half thought it extremely unprofessional, the other half saw nothing wrong with it.

"It just kind of highlighted the fact that if you do something that is perceived as controversial, then it runs the risk of being polarizing," he says. "For us it was tough, because if you don't like criticism, at least it was a reinforcement that the NewShow wasn't being seen as the same kind of show as everybody else's 10 o'clock newscast."

Which is surely the point for the honchos at Channel 3. Hence, NewShow, not necessarily the News Show.

DiFolco herself is mildly defensive about the belly imbroglio. "You know, people call Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston sluts, too. So someone is going to call me a slut for showing my navel? To an intelligent person, does that make sense? And who are these people? They are usually people who are two times as old as we are who have totally different lifestyles. . . . These are women that have very monotonous lives, or women who could be incredibly unhappy with themselves.

"Because I may not like the way a woman dresses," she continues, "I'm not gonna call her a slut." She pauses, then adds softly, "That's a really strong word.

". . . I would rather have 40 percent of the people totally adore me and remember my name, and have 60 percent of the people totally hate me and remember my name. If you are good at what you do, you are gonna divide people."

If prudes are turning off the television in disgust at DiFolco's umbilicus, younger, wide-eyed kids are flipping it right back on. The ratings for the NewShow are on par with the more traditional newscast it replaced last September. But, significantly, a shift in NewShow's demographics shows a rising accent on youth, while viewers of Channel 12's top-rated newscast have gotten older.

In May, comparisons of local 10 p.m. newscasts showed NewShow inscreased 60 percent in rating and 50 percent in share among 18- to 34-year-olds but lost 31 percent of its 65-and-older audience to KPNX Channel 12 since May 1999. NewShow is ranked second to KPNX in the 18-to-49 demographic.

TV news is getting younger. Stations are going for youth; glossed graphics, long bits celebrating the trivial, hard news stories made terse and angular.

KTVK news director Dennis O'Neil points out that older people are traditionally more interested in conventional news, that to secure a younger audience a station must reflect the interests of youth. Viewership equals ratings equals advertisers. It's a simple lifeblood formula for contemporary media.

"[Other stations] hire young people," says O'Neil. "But what they immediately do is put them in three-piece suits and they teach them how to write and act and cover all the same traditional things that every reporter has ever done. So they turn 25-year-olds into 40-year-olds. So all of a sudden there's no voice for a 25-year-old. And what we really wanted to do was reflect her age in the newscast in the interest of the people who are her age and younger and a little bit older."

Alvidrez sums up DiFolco's mission: "What we really wanted to do was capture Phoenix at night. Depending upon whether you like it, hate it, or fall someplace in between, we've done it with varying degrees of success."

The genesis for the NewShow came from KTVK news execs who simply wanted to challenge the standard newscast formula. They were intent on putting across what they considered a protean look at Phoenix life.

KTVK sports a news staff heaving with accomplished reporters, some with ink-stained journalistic backgrounds. It was the only local newscast, for example, that didn't simply gloss over Joe Arpaio's and Fife Symington's bungles in recent years. A TV newscast that, as far as newscasts go, garnered respectability.

What of the gadflies who chimed "fluff" and "sellout" when NewShow hit the air last September?

"I don't think that's selling out, I think that's broadening," retorts O'Neil. "Our opinion was the same thing going in as it was today. And, quite simply, it's that there's a lot of different kinds of information.

"People are going on the Internet now more and more trying to figure out what information best suits their life. So how do we try and reach those folks and how do we try and compete with that? We need to broaden our audience, not narrow it."

Alvidrez says at first there were a lot of people "who tried to judge it by the same standards that late newscasts had been judged historically. We thought it [NewShow] was a pretty spiffy newscast. It was No. 2 to Channel 12, which had this huge NBC lead-in. What was really hurtful was you were only hearing from people saying, 'I love you guys, but I hate your show.' So the personal comments about Liz or Claudia or other aspects of the NewShow, I think those were more hurtful because they were coming from our fans."

Frederic "Fritz" Leigh, deputy director at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, says this type of entertainment-driven newscast is becoming more commonplace nationwide, with the line between journalist and entertainer increasingly blurred.

"Channel 3, for the past few years," he says, "since they lost their network affiliation, have focused more on news but very much on a kind of local, folksy kind of presentation which has been very successful for them."

Success of entertainment-driven news programming mirrors the rise of journalism students aspiring to become "entertainment reporters."

"We're having more students come to us," Leigh continues, "coming into the program and saying, 'My goal is to become an entertainment reporter.' We've had that just over the last couple of years where we've never had that before. And they consider it a legitimate part of journalism, whether we do or not.

"And that tells me that the general public, the viewers, are interested in that type of reporting and information. Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and Inside Edition, those kinds of programs are very popular. And that's what they do. I think Channel 3 puts more emphasis on these people as personalities.

"In many ways, these folks have become entertainers themselves."

Does he find this sort of journalistic "dumbing down" an insult to the intelligence of the viewer?

"I don't know if I would find this insulting, but it's going in a direction that we don't support, or teach, necessarily. We're trying to turn out good journalists and people who are not trying to be, necessarily, personalities and entertainers, really. And that's part of it. People like to watch people who are attractive, you know. We like to think there's more to it than that."

Before the Britney Spears concert ends, Claudia DiFolco is cornered against the TV van by two men. The pavilion's west entrance is deserted. The men, both in their early 20s, are wearing backward baseball caps and rigid expressions uncharacteristic of the typical teddy bear, fanboy type. There's apprehension.

"Why won't you just go out with me?" asks one of the men. He's standing close enough to DiFolco to erase any sense of her personal space. "Aren't I good enough for you?"

The other kid just stares at DiFolco. His eyes travel up and down her body, spending the most time centered on her pelvic area and breasts. His eyes sport a diabolical glint.

DiFolco soothes the uncomfortable and potentially threatening situation with composure and ease.

"I have sons older than you," she winks. "Besides, I'm already taken."

If the NewShow technician and cameraman had not been lurking around, DiFolco's well-being would have been in question. When the Spears concert lets out, the two men vanish.

DiFolco later talks of being stalked. Of being followed home and having to watch her rearview mirror. "They would just wait for me outside of work and stuff. It was scary."

It's past 10:30. After five hours of standing, sweating and getting swarmed by fans, dealing with moody promoters, the concert lets out. DiFolco freshens her makeup in the van using a hand-held compact. It's time to actually get in front of the camera. She's tired, hot and "in need of a shower." She's been wearing the same clothes all day.

A day that started at noon with a photo shoot in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, followed by a NewShow staff meeting, voice-overs, myriad phone calls haggling for Britney Spears meet-and-greet passes and long talks with her news director. As soon as the TV lights are triggered, the seemingly indefatigable DiFolco flips on that switch.

The exiting crowd seems grumpy and tired. But the TV lights draw them like moths.

DiFolco is mobbed again. This time she's in front of the camera with mike in hand, beamed into thousands of living rooms. Gone is that Canadian twinge in her voice. Gone is the person. Hello, persona. The entertainment reporter cracks to life.

Girls with happy faces vamp for the camera by offering stilted grade school picture poses.

The oldest one in the crowd, a pudgy man, maybe 40, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, lifts a mobile phone to his ear. "Dude," he shouts into the cell, "you turn on the VCR right now and record. Do it right now. Don't worry about what's already on the tape. Just hit the record button. I'm on TV, man!"


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