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Originally published Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 10:50 AM

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The stormy rise of Ginger Zee

A lightning rod for objectification, she weathers the turbulence

Chicago Tribune

Tonight in Prime Time

CHICAGO — A lightning rod for objectification, she weathers the turbulence just fine

Ginger Zee is a pretty face and a perfect example of the perils of objectification. She punches a few numbers on her phone and hands over the receiver. A slow, drawling man's voice comes on: "Yeah, hi, uh, I got to tell you, you got that real cute weath'r gurrrrl right there. ..." She hangs up before he's finished. "It goes on for 10 minutes like that," she says, grinning. She couldn't stand to erase it, though. The message is hilarious, and everything she's not, explained in a single voice mail.

See, people look at Ginger Zee and they see things — project things.

She does weather on Chicago television; and a regular green-living report. And that's about it. She's on screen maybe a total of 10 or so minutes every week. But people write to say their marriage was floundering until they discovered their shared hatred of Ginger Zee. And people write to complain about "her gravelly voice thing." And people write to call her a prostitute and worse. And they write to say they will never watch her again.

Well, let me tell you something: Ginger Zee doesn't want to talk to your elementary school anyway — that's right Ms. So-and-So who e-mailed Ginger the other day, gravely disappointed that Ginger's schedule wouldn't allow her to visit your little darlings. Ginger didn't say that, of course; Ginger is too polite. But the tone of your e-mail was so spiteful ("we won't be asking in the future"), so uninterested in the fact of the matter (which is that every elementary school in Chicago wants Ginger Zee, yet there is only one Ginger Zee), a defense of the TV personality seems warranted:

Look, lady, Ginger Zee spends every Wednesday talking about weather with schoolchildren. Every Wednesday. On her time. You do that, and see how long you last.

As for you, Mr. So-and-So who e-mailed recently to say her outfit was so trampy it looked as if "she belonged in a back alley." Let it be known that the shirt she was wearing — her father bought her that for Christmas! Also, in response to another e-mail she received: No, Channel 5 will not be installing a stripper pole in the studio.

In fact, despite what these e-mails suggest, Ginger Zee is not a soulless, slutty monster with few thoughts in her head.

Of course, she also gets lots of nice e-mails too.

She is the popular weekend meteorologist at WMAQ-Ch. 5. She has been there four years. She is both strikingly blunt off the air ("I'm bad with the emotional part. I think I might be a little bit cold or something") and strikingly human on the air. She does not write herself a script. She wings it. She said she has a hard time fake-smiling through anchor banter or pretending to be astonished by goofy pieces about unusual animal tricks. She said she's aware of this; she said she occasionally gets notes from the news director about needing to "look more interested." But she doesn't want to look like some idiot who just reads a script. She spends hours every day building weather reports. She has a bachelor's degree in meteorology from Valparaiso University, where she is an adjunct professor.

A couple of other fun facts about Ginger Zee: She's narcoleptic, though that's not really fun; and she's Ginger because her father, who moved here from the Netherlands and didn't speak English, loved "Gilligan's Island." Though she's more of a Mary Ann.

Also, she has worked weekends for the last 10 years, double shifts, waking in the middle of the night to be ready for a morning show, taking a break, then returning for the evening news — that's getting old. Her real last name is "long and Dutch." And she is not a "weather girl" — though, that said, there was a time when she would have chafed at "weather girl," but now, pushing an ancient 29 years old, she thinks, "At least they still think I'm a girl."

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She is, though, the recipient of some of the most hilariously obnoxious e-mails in Chicago TV but also savvy enough to horde every misspelled word of it. She keeps it on her computer, in a file labeled "Mean." She's planning, someday, to publish a book of crazy e-mails to meteorologists ("Were those her nipples we saw protruding through her shirt the other night? The weatherman at Channel 7 never does that."). A great idea. But of course it is. Ginger Zee thinks a lot about her career. And she should. She's already filled in, nationally, on the "Today" show and MSNBC; she's shot episodes of Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers." And despite working weekends, and receiving an intense volume of mail from the oddly offended ("Tell that woman to wipe the smug smile off her face"), she's one of the most popular on-air people at the station.

Indeed, she is so popular that there is a reason she probably hasn't friended you on Facebook lately; she can't, because two years ago she reached the 5,000-friend limit that Facebook allows everyone. Don't be offended. At the moment, the waiting list to be Facebook friends with Ginger Zee has edged past four digits.

Which is good, because she plans on becoming iconic, maybe having a morning show, or a green-living show, spun off from her popular green-living reports.

Trouble is ...

"Trouble is she is very attractive, as I have told her," said James Spann, chief meteorologist at the ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Ala., where Ginger did her first internship. (Ginger calls him "the Tom Skilling of the South," partly because she also did an internship early in her career with WGN's own iconic weatherman.) "When people see someone so attractive doing weather, looks become a big thing to overcome," Spann said, "and she is hard-core science. A serious dweeb. But at the same time, polished and ready for stardom. Five years ago we offered her a morning slot. But I took her to dinner and said, 'Look, Ginger, why do you want to come here? It's a good market, money's good, but you're destined for a bigger market.' Which she is. There are a lot of phonies in this world, and she's real. But it's hard convincing people if you look like that."

Which is how we found her the other day, in Chicago, the third-largest U.S. TV market, picking through computer models of the weather, in a small room in the NBC building off Michigan Avenue. Though a weather office, it has just one thin window, overlooking a parking lot; and behind her, on a shelf above a computer screen that displays only a green, spiraling radar map, there was a row of rotting fruit, shrunken apples, oranges, left by meteorologist Brant Miller. Because it's interesting how things rot, she said. "But sometimes weekend cleaning crews come in and throw them out, and Brant gets pissed."

She finds herself explaining this fruit thing to tour groups a lot because, by request, she leads a lot of tours of the NBC building. Which again, is all about branding, and not because she's a performer, which she isn't. "Sometimes you get people who are performers," said Frank Whittaker, WMAQ station manager and vice president of news. "And sometimes you get students, and I think Ginger is definitely, first, a student of the weather. It's all she wants to talk about." Said Channel 5 reporter Natalie Martinez, who does charity events with Ginger, "She comes across so serious I think because she has to. She doesn't want to be perceived as not knowing her craft. There are a lot of wonderful meteorologists around, and she has a need to be seen in that same light. But Ginger is on camera who she is off, and she knows that a fake smile doesn't necessarily mean you know what you're talking about."

Before Ginger Zee came to Chicago, though, she was known primarily for one thing. At her previous job, in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she grew up, she was doing a live report when a man wearing a sombrero and sneakers and nothing else ran by the camera, screaming wildly. She did not break composure. This footage is a remarkable study in focus and became a popular viral video. She spent her first years after college in midlevel markets, suffering the standard insults — in Flint, Mich., an on-air graphic accidentally identified her as "Osama Bin Laden."

So when the opportunity arose to come to Chicago, she said she broke her contract in Grand Rapids and left.

Well, she kind of broke it. They wouldn't let her go unless she bought herself out of her contract. It's hard to say what's worse: that Ginger Zee had to sell her house and pay her station a year's salary, or that her salary was in the low five figures.

To support herself (not unlike many local TV news staffers on a low rung), she worked second and third jobs. In Grand Rapids, she worked as a bartender. Even in Chicago, until a couple of years ago, she taught aerobics (when she wasn't also teaching at Valparaiso). Today she still gets only two weeks of vacation. She lives in Streeterville with her dog, Otis. She is single, and again, not so different from a lot of local TV news people, seriously overworked.

A couple of hours later, at NBC's studio, right after the early evening news, but just before she would walk home to feed her dog, she stared hard at a bank of computer screens showing a Rorschach of greens and reds rushing from Omaha toward Chicago. The colors stopped, rushed forward, stopped, rushed, a computer graphic cycling. She gathered her bag, then turned back, lingered a moment, murmuring, "OK, walk away from the radar, Ginger."

She went out the back door, then stopped on the sidewalk and swiveled on her heels to the south. Between a pair of skyscrapers, clouds curled upward. "You see the hard edges on those?" she asked.

Yes.

"That's what you want."

What you want?

"If you want a storm."

You want a storm?

"I'm a meteorologist."

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