I visited Los Angeles last week and had the chance to sit down with Entertainment Tonight host Nischelle Turner. As we know, Los Angeles attracts people from all over the country and the world - which means we can learn a lot from the education experiences of others, if we’re willing to listen. Nischelle and I (Tracey Wiley) talked education, reminisced on teachers who make a difference, and explored Nischelle’s love for my native New Orleans.
Tracey Wiley: Hi, I’m here in beautiful Los Angeles, California standing in the kitchen of Entertainment Tonight host and CNN correspondent Nischelle Turner. Nischelle, can you tell us a little bit about yourself.
Nischelle Turner: Yeah! Like you said I’m one of the hosts at Entertainment Tonight, but I’m also a contributor at CNN, which is more of an analyst role. So I can have a little bit more of an opinion. I live here in Los Angeles, and I have been in the television business for a little more than 20 years.
TW: So can you tell me your background? Where are you from?
NT: I’m from a little town called Columbia, Missouri. Most people don’t know it. It’s in rural Missouri, the halfway point between St. Louis and Kansas City. You’ll miss it when you blink if you’re driving by. I call it everybody’s bathroom break when they’re driving from Kansas City to St. Louis.
I grew up on a farm on a gravel road. I’m a country girl at heart. I still am a country girl even though I live in the big city. I’m an only child, but I have a huge extended family - my mother has 8 brothers and 2 sisters and all of them live in Columbia.
Columbia’s a college town - University of Missouri is there, which is where I went to college and where I graduated from. They have the best journalism school in the nation!
TW: Did you attend public school back in Columbia?
NT: I’m a public school kid and I’m proud of it! I went to Rockbridge Elementary, Jefferson Junior High School and Rockbridge High School. I recently did a fundraiser for the Columbia public school system to give to the school foundation, because I believe in education for all. In lot of metropolitan areas and urban areas charter schools are a necessity for the under-served and underprivileged to get a good education, but I’m a firm believer in the public schools system.
TW: So you grew up on a farm and went to public school. You graduated, went to college and journalism school. Did you always want to be a journalist?
NT: I always wanted to be a journalist. I knew early that it was what I wanted to do. I mean there’s only two things in life that I ever really thought about doing and that was either being an attorney or being a journalist.
NT: At about the age of 13 I started writing and I learned that I loved to write. When I was 15, I took a class in my 10th grade year called Media Communications, and I didn’t know what that was at the time. I just took it because I needed an elective and it was a radio class that was being taught by the former voice of the Missouri Tigers, a black man named Rod Kelly.
So for me seeing someone who looked like me in a medium that I didn’t know about was really a spark. He taught me the love of journalism. He taught me the love of broadcast and he taught me to fall in love with the medium. And I did. So by 15, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Then I saw a black woman on television in my hometown by the name of April Eaton. I have no idea where she is today but she solidified it for me because I had never seen a woman who looked like me on television until her. I didn’t know I could do that until I saw April. When I saw her I really said "oh my god". And THEN, I saw Oprah.
TW: Ah ha!
NT: And that was it!
TW: So thinking about the the little black kids in my hometown of New Orleans. The kids who feel they do not have a chance because they don’t have access to all the things that the rich have access to…what would you tell them?
NT: Well education is what you make it. There is a disparity in how kids in less privileged areas are educated. There is some truth to that, but I am one of those kids. So I do also know that sometimes you just have to go the extra mile on your own. And it’s fine to do that. I learned about everything I could get my hands on. I made sure I knew a second language. That was essential and now it’s paid off in dividends for me to be conversational in Spanish.
I also just never took no for an answer. I will tell you I even heard from inside my own family sometimes doubt about what I wanted to do. “What do you mean you want to be on television? Man, you from the country!” Some of my uncles would be like: “What we did for a living isn’t good enough? I worked for the city my whole life!” But I also had people that said “Don’t ever think that you’re dreams are too big.” You need to follow your dreams.” I also had a mother who sacrificed everything for education.
TW: Say more about her.
NT: She wasn’t college educated so she was bound and determined to make sure that I was. For people and women of color, society puts us in a box of what they think we’re supposed to be, how they think we’re supposed to act and where they think we’re supposed to go in life. I’m the first black woman to be hired at Entertainment Tonight in almost 30 years.
NT: And if I listened to society I never would have thought that I would be there. Because don’t get me wrong, I love where I work and I love the people I work with. But the nickname the show had for a long time was “Entertainment Too White” because black people weren’t there. So if I would’ve listened to that I never would’ve gone after that job. I never would have thought I could fit there. I never would’ve taken the step to do that.
TW: What helped you build that belief?
NT: It came from learning in a public school system where at every step I had someone that had my back. My principal in elementary school, Mr. Mason, I remember him to this day. He always had my back. My guidance counselor in junior high school, Dr. Clinton Smith, always had my back. Rod Kelly, who was my teacher in high school, but then became the assistant principal at my high school, always had my back. Greely Kyle, Stacy Wolfel, Kate Collins, in college, professors of mine, always had my back. It’s been that way every step of the way. My first news director, Michael Valentine, in Evansville, Indiana, always had my back. My second news director, Keith Esperros, in New Orleans always had my back. Y’know it’s…it’s just…it’s sometimes you gotta have a partner in this walk.
TW: Wow. Well, Nischelle, I’m gonna wrap this up. One last question.
NT: What was that? How do you make biscuits?
TW: No, not how do you make biscuits! You have a strong connection to New Orleans.
NT: I do. It’s my second home.
TW: Tell us…tell us your love.
NT: It’s hard to describe my love for New Orleans because it’s one of those things that’s palpable and I’m not really able to put it into words. When I was offered the job in New Orleans I turned it down twice. I never…I didn’t even know anything about it.
TW: I didn’t even know that.
NT: I hadn’t been there. My mother said “that place is crazy…no…no…I don’t want you to go there.” I turned the job down twice and Keith Esperros called me up personally and said to me, “Listen, just get on a plane. Just get on a plane and just come visit. It’s all I’m asking. Just get on a plane.” So I said okay fine. I’ll do it so this man will leave me alone.
I got on a plane and the minute I stepped off the plane something hit me. And I knew I was home. I kid you not. Something hit me. Something stuck with me. The first meal I had was at Arnaud’s. I had trout almondine. I remember it to this day. Green beans. And I said I never want to leave this place. I tell people all the time, for me New Orleans is the most genuine place in the world that I’ve ever been. The people there are what stick with me. The greatest people in the world. The most welcoming people in the world. It’s where I fell in love with live music. I tell everyone it’s where I found my soul. It’s where I became a woman. I lived most of my 20’s in New Orleans.
TW: Uh huh.
NT: It’s really where I became a woman and shaped who I am, my values, my social values. And New Orleans represents joy for me. It represents joy and it represents peace and I know people will talk about all the turmoil and everything that goes on in New Orleans, but there’s a calmness and there’s a heartbeat of love there and culture there that I had never experienced anywhere else. And that’s why I love New Orleans. That’s why I will always love New Orleans.