The charmed life

Is Sacramento native Lisa Ling just another celebrity? On the contrary, there’s more to this television reporter, actress and would-be media mogul than meets the eye

Lisa Ling, who knows the difference between a burkha and Burberry.

Lisa Ling, who knows the difference between a burkha and Burberry.

Photo By Michael O'Neill/ABC

Sacramento native Lisa Ling has done a lot in 29 years.

She has met with heads of state, had tea with the Dalai Lama, interviewed Colombian guerrillas at a cocaine-processing lab and reported on the Algerian civil war. She was in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. She produced eight documentaries for PBS, some of which have won awards.

She claims she has traveled to every Islamic country. She also has appeared on Politically Incorrect, Late Night with David Letterman and The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. Ling has played herself on the television shows Spin City and Dangerous Minds and acted as a Korean marriage broker on the NBC show Ed.

If that isn’t enough, she ran the Boston Marathon in four hours and 35 minutes, dated movie star Rick Yune, appeared on Hollywood Squares, pitched clothes for Old Navy, acted in The Vagina Monologues in Sacramento and New York City and has appeared on hundreds of magazine covers. She’s a contributing editor for USA Weekend, and she’s writing a novel and starting a magazine. Not to mention that she has been one of the hosts on the ABC morning chat show, The View.

With all of these accomplishments, you’d think that the first-generation Chinese-American would get a little respect from the Asian community. “While the overwhelming e-mails and letters that I get are extremely positive,” said Ling via phone from her apartment in Manhattan, “there certainly are some that are critical, and a lot of them come from within the Asian community. And I think that it’s really unfortunate. Because, rather than applauding the efforts that other Asians are making, there’s this inclination to tear one down and criticize. And I just think that is really unfortunate because there are so few Asians in the business. I certainly would like to see more solidarity and support.”

Ling was emotionally exhausted the day after her last show on The View. To make matters worse, her sister had dragged her kicking and screaming through the snow to a surprise party, and Ling was up until the wee hours of the morning. “Yesterday, they did this whole big show that was all about me, and it was really uncomfortable,” she said. “I would rather immerse myself in a story. It’s not to say that I don’t like doing on-camera reporting, but when it’s literally about you, it’s kind of weird. That’s why I didn’t even want a party for myself.”

On December 5, Ling ditched her cozy job as the resident 20-something spokesperson on the Barbara Walters-produced morning program The View. Ling had joined that show in 1998 after seven years of reporting for Whipple Communications’ Channel One News, which creates commercial programming for public schools. Before that, at age 15, Ling was one of four hosts of Scratch, a Sacramento-based magazine-format show for teens that, like Channel One, was piped in to high schools around the country. “Channel One News was the most phenomenal job that any young person could ever dream of,” said Ling. “I went all over the world, 10 times over. I didn’t want to go to the network news to just be some sort of low-level correspondent and then try to fight my way up. The View gave me the opportunity to do a pretty high-profile job and allowed me to employ my own views and opinions.”

Despite her experience as a news reporter, Ling had a few things to learn about television, including the seven words that you can’t say on TV. During her first month on The View, Ling referred to her breasts as tits. The tabloids and entertainment media reported that Walters took Ling to the woodshed. “I personally didn’t think that ‘tit’ would be such an offensive word,” said Ling, “but it was like three weeks into the show, and it basically referenced my lack thereof. I didn’t get in trouble for it; they just kind of told me that I shouldn’t say it.”

Rebecca Budig, a.k.a. Greenlee Smythe of the ABC soap All My Children, engaging in some network cross-promotion with The View’s Joy Behar and Lisa Ling.

Photo By Steve Fenn/ABC

After a few years of being on the weekday chat show, Ling was itching to get back to reporting and investigating. So, when National Geographic Explorer called, she jumped at the opportunity to host and report for the show, which is carried on cable network MSNBC. She also will host Ultimate Explorer, a series of hour-long, issue-driven documentaries. “I’m not going to be doing much of the natural history or the animal stuff that National Geographic is known for,” she said.

National Geographic Explorer will debut in early March, and Ling has already started working on the show, with no down time between the two programs.

Ling is looking forward to getting back to investigating news stories and getting in the middle of things. Like her immigrant parents, she’s a fighter who is used to working hard. Her grandparents escaped China just before the Cultural Revolution and moved to America, where their college degrees meant nothing. “Despite the fact that both of my grandparents had degrees in higher education,” said Ling, “when they fled China and came to the United States to live, they couldn’t get hired to save their lives. My whole family ended up living in a converted chicken coop for a while when they first came to the United States.”

Ling’s father and various aunts, uncles and cousins of hers still live in Sacramento, and she visits several times a year. She loves a certain Vietnamese noodle restaurant, the old Victorian homes in Midtown and the Tower Theatre marquee on Broadway. “I really like Downtown having a lot of character,” she said. “I hope that it retains that kind of character. I hate to see the mini-mallization.”

All of her traveling can get pricey, so Ling found a unique way to help cover her expenses—by appearing on Hollywood Squares, a show that usually features more has-beens than The Love Boat. It isn’t the kind of show on which a person of Ling’s caliber usually appears. “I’ve got to tell you honestly,” she said. “I had a boyfriend in L.A. for a very long time, and my mom and sister live there. So, Hollywood Squares always offered to fly me first-class back to L.A. Whenever they offered to do that, I usually said yes because it gets pretty expensive flying across country so many times, and I probably do so at least once or twice a month. So, it helps to defray the cost a little bit when someone else is paying for it.”

With her keen sense of observation, Ling has a pretty good grasp on what her generation thinks and feels. “I think that my generation is very savvy,” she said. “It has an abundance of information, and it’s the first generation to grow up in the technological era, where we are obsessed with e-mail and cell phones and so on, and I think that’s very distinct. I don’t think that it’s a very politically conscious [generation], but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because I think that it’s a generation that sees through that contrived BS of politics. So, that’s what I mean when I say it’s savvy. On the other hand, I would like to see it be a little more proactive in seeking other political alternatives.”

Having traveled Asia and Africa and having visited many Muslim countries numerous times, Ling also has some opinions about that region of the world. “The most oppressive place that I’ve ever visited,” she said, “was Saudi Arabia, and the scariest places were parts of Pakistan. And those two countries right now happen to be our allies? Saudi Arabia is our biggest supplier of oil, so they are our friends.

“One of the places where I felt most secure,” she added, “was Iraq.”

Although Ling tried to be diplomatic about President Bush, she couldn’t contain her real feelings about him. “I’m very concerned about their position on Iraq and the Bush administration’s desire to possibly attack this country,” she said, “because I wonder if it’s an attempt to deviate from the real issues—which are homeland security and the economy. For the most part, Americans don’t make the time to make the distinctions between Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Al Qaeda. They’re all different entities, and I think that if we did take that time to learn more about them, we’d have different opinions about what the government is doing.”

With Ling’s interest in current affairs, it shouldn’t be any surprise that she plans to launch a quarterly magazine, which she hinted will be more than just another celebrity fluff rag. “I’m working on a magazine that’s geared toward the Asian-American community, because there’s a complete void in the market,” she said. “There isn’t anything that sort of speaks to that segment of the population, despite the fact that it’s a pretty highly educated and upwardly mobile one. I think that the Asian community is extremely diverse. You have your Koreans and your Chinese, your Japanese and Cambodians and Indians—different languages, different cultures—and it’s hard to find a uniform voice, so it’s definitely a challenge with magazines. I think that we’ve come up with a strategy that could be a successful one.”

Can Ling add “media mogul” to her already impressive list of accomplishments? For someone to succeed as a field reporter and commentator despite being so young and not having a college degree, don’t bet against her.