Profile with Faith Salie

Faith Salie (Georgia & Magdalen 1993) is an Emmy-winning television and radio host, comedian, journalist and actor. She holds an MPhil in Modern English Literature from the University of Oxford and a BA in History & Literature of Modern France and England from Harvard University.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in New York?

Faith Salie: My favorite thing to do in New York is to take a walk with my son, early in the morning. He’s now a little over a year old; I have surrendered to his schedule, and I have learned to absolutely love it. Now that my days are so busy and take me away from him during most weekdays, I really cherish the time that I have with him. So I strap him on me and we walk to Central Park and look at the doggies, or we walk to Lincoln Centre and look at the fountain, or we walk to Riverside Park and look at the boats in the river. It’s a pleasure to be able to kiss the top of his head and walk through the streets of New York, the place that I’ve always dreamed of living.

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Faith Salie: I always wanted to be an actor. I started dancing when I was three, and started acting in plays when I was about eleven - although I was performing with my brother in the driveway long before then. Somewhere around twelve and thirteen, I started doing musical theatre and continued into professional musical theatre.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging job that you’ve ever held?

Faith Salie: The first was when I was living in Los Angeles and trying to go the conventional route of being an actor. It sounds like a cliché, but the constant rejection was the most challenging aspect. When you’re an actor, you’re putting your entire self out there; people are judging if you’re pretty enough, if you’re thin enough, funny enough, charming enough. It can be incredibly devastating. In the long run, I look back and don’t regret a thing because it made me very resilient. I got used to rejection, hard work and creating self-possession from early on, but it still takes its toll. There were times in LA when it felt very erosive. I lost my mother after I left Oxford and moved to LA, when I was twenty-six.  It was a very tough time in my life since I felt so uprooted. I was geographically away from my family, I no longer had my mother, I watched my peers fall in love and start families, and my Rhodes scholar peers were having more conventional success than I was. Though I did always, unapologetically, want to go into the arts, I would say that was very difficult because the things for which I was awarded academically and for which I had been valued in college and grad school played virtually no part in creating success as an actor.

My new challenge, now that I am a mother, is just figuring out how to make peace with myself every day for how much time I devote to my son and how much time I devote to my career. I have the type of career that never turns off. I can always be preparing for my next interview; I can always be working on my book, and I can always be watching some television shows on which I’m supposed to comment the next day. I am the arbiter of my energies, and I am trying to figure out when to switch them off and focus a hundred percent on my son. I’m learning the art of how to be in the present moment. Any time I’m with my son, I focus entirely on him. It brings me such happiness that I don’t feel distractions from my other obligations. That is my later-in-life challenge – figuring out how to make all of that work.  Not for anyone else’s judgment but for my own.  I could quit all of my work tomorrow, but I would not be a happy person, and therefore I would not be a good mother. In my own heart, I have to come to peace with how I devote my time and my energy.  Perhaps I feel this challenge more acutely because I became a mother for the first time in my forties, and I am so grateful for it and conscious of the preciousness of each moment that it’s almost exhausting!

Rhodes Project: How do you think male Rhodes Scholars struggle with this issue of work-life balance?

Faith Salie: I don’t suspect--though I hope that I am wrong--that male Rhodes Scholars have this conversation either with their friends or in their heads. If I’m wrong, that means that we are at a point in our society where men are wanting to spend time with their children and struggling with the way that our professional lives are structured. They’re mutually exclusive, work and family, but shouldn’t be. One of the things that I do for a living is interview people such as celebrities, writers and thinkers. I occasionally ask famous men who are working all of the time when they see their children. And, is it all right with them that they see their children so infrequently? (I try to do this not aggressively but sincerely.) It is assumed that Dad goes off, and he has a wife who stays home to take care of the kids and perhaps has a lot of professional help hired to take care of their kids. There still seems to be, even among progressive men, this retrograde notion of “Oh, my wife/kids’ mother is the ‘CEO’ of the family, thank God for her.’” That is Victorian separate spheres redux, cloaked in seemingly generous appreciation.  I’ve never found a man whom I am interviewing to address this topic unsolicited by me, whereas a woman might. It’s rarely common for it to be on the top of men’s minds that their careers are great but they need to figure out how to spend more time with their families. It either seems as though there is not a lot of sacrifice on their end, or the sacrifice isn’t as deeply felt as it is with most women.  I would love to be wrong about everything I’ve just said! 

Rhodes Project: Did anyone ever have an issue with you going into something not academic?

Faith Salie: I had very supportive parents who took heart that I loved school too. I loved doing my homework, and I loved performing. I’m a very curious person—I’d say all Rhodes scholars are, as well as most happy people. I loved getting good grades, so there was never a concern on the part of my parents that I was sacrificing my school work to be able to be in plays. And there were times when academia and art would overlap in a really satisfying way as I got older, particularly in improv comedy when I really would be called upon to use my brain. When I applied for the Rhodes, I was at Harvard as an undergrad. The standard procedure was that you first get the approval of Harvard - so some council of elders at Harvard looks at your application and decides if they’ll endorse you. Then, they send your application to the Rhodes Committee. I was a straight-A student at Harvard and sent them my application. I stated clearly that I am applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, I do want to continue to be an actor, I want to study literature at Oxford, and I want to continue to do theatre. They refused to endorse my application. So, I had to “go rogue” on Harvard, who presumably did not think that I was on a Rhodes Scholarship track by being an actor. Thank God the Rhodes committee had enough faith in me, no pun intended, to see that I would appreciate the opportunity that they were going to give me.

Rhodes Project: What do you enjoy most about your job?

Faith Salie: I love that every day is different. I get to meet all sorts of different people: Presidents, Pulitzer Prize winners, movie stars, documentarians changing the world, a family of elk callers. I am so lucky and blessed that I get to satisfy my curiosity so often. If there are stories that I think are interesting, I get to pitch them to CBS Sunday Morning. I’ve gotten to go to the jungles of Belize to study ants with a famous myrmecologist, and I’ve gotten to find out about what’s so fascinating about refrigerator magnets. I get to be myself, too.  I’m not scripted. I can be playful or serious about all of it, when appropriate. 

Rhodes Project: What story you’ve reported has been your favorite?

Faith Salie: I did a commentary in 2010 about freezing my eggs. It focused on how empowering a choice I think that is for women who want to have a little more freedom to pursue their careers in the same way that men can, and how women could be too alacritous in choosing a mate because they want to become mothers. People kept telling me that I was so brave to be so public about it, which I found surprising.  I have no shame in anything that I have done for my fertility and to be able to create a family. I don’t think any woman should ashamed of using what science has to offer. It allows us to have the careers and lives that we want to have, which includes doing meaningful things professionally and becoming a mother on our own terms. This past Mother’s Day, I did a commentary about being an “old” mom. I don’t feel old;  I’m forty-two so I was forty-one when I had my first baby, but all of my medical records were stamped with AMA, meaning “Advanced Maternal Age.” I will try to have another baby, which will also be a “geriatric pregnancy.” It meant very much to me that the producers of CBS Sunday Morning allowed me to talk about the poignancy and density of emotion that comes with being an older mother. I get such wonderful responses from people that I have never met thanking me for talking about this—and then asking how much it costs!

Rhodes Project: Who are some of your role models?

Faith Salie: The genuine, unsexy answer is my mom, Gail. In many ways we couldn’t be more different because she married very young and had children very young. I do think that if she had been raised in the generation that I was and with the opportunities that I had, she probably would have chosen to have a career, too. She was fifty-three when she died. As I approach that age, I appreciate her more and more. There are so many questions I would love to ask her now that I am a mother which I will never be able to ask. She was unbelievably compassionate and graceful. She was absolutely full of gratitude. She was funny, and, in some ways I now recognize, she was the best interviewer. She never did it professionally, but you couldn’t meet my mother without somehow being forthcoming; she wanted to know about everybody and made you feel very special. She was also very philanthropic, most often anonymously, but spent tons of time volunteering and had an incredibly optimistic attitude toward life. She was the most open-minded person of faith I’ve ever met.  She would say her rosary while she was doing sit-ups – that’s pretty impressive!

Rhodes Project: What are you looking forward to?

Faith Salie: I don’t want to rush a moment of my son’s childhood, but everyday there is something new that’s happening with him. I am looking forward to nurturing that and having a kid who can talk to me in something more than the crazy, special language that he has now. I would be blessed to grow my family and have one more child. I am looking forward to seeing where my career goes. It has taken unexpected twists and turns that I couldn’t have anticipated, and they have been incredibly fulfilling. I am looking forward to finishing my first book. Currently, I’m working on the book proposal. The working title is Approval Junkie, and it consists of first person essays that are both true and, I hope, funny, about all of the things I have done to win approval from others and from myself. The stories have quite a range. One chapter is called “Ovary Achiever”, which chronicles events like how CNN and CBS filmed my egg retrieval.  Then there’s stuff about trying to get Oprah to notice and love my shoes when she was interviewing me on her show.  And how I told my ex- husband “yes” when he asked me, seriously, if I would ever consider having an exorcism.  I am happy to report that my current husband has never once suggested that I harbor demonic forces. 

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