BEVERLY HILLS, CA – “Charming” is the word cardiologist Michael Ozner uses to describe Debbie Matenopoulos in the foreword of her new book, It’s all Greek to Me. That adjective certainly applies to her – as do a dozen other praiseworthy ones – but her most evident quality, as revealed in an interview with TNH, and arguably the greatest quality a person can have, is that she is just plain “nice.”
The youngest permanent daytime host in television history (at 21, on ABC’s The View), and having spent the following two decades on USA, TBA, the TV Guide Channel, Fox, the E! Network, and the Hallmark Channel, the friendly, courteous, and good-natured Matenopoulos embodies the phrase: “success hasn’t gone to her head.”
Though this Virginia-born and New York City-educated Greek-American now lives in Beverly Hills, the land of TV and movie stars, and continues working in that glamorous industry, her biggest professional passion is the launch of It’s Greek to Me – which contains 120 of her family’s most delicious Greek recipes – and this is only the beginning: “the first in a series of other cookbooks and Greek lifestyle products I plan to continue developing,” she told TNH.
Dr. Ozner, who wrote The Complete Mediterranean Diet, praises Greek cooking for its healthful benefits, and Matenopoulos is living proof. Having been raised in an all-Greek family – her parents, sister, and brother were all born in Greece, she was the first of the bunch to be born in the United States – Matenopoulos grew up eating Greek. By the time she moved to New York, attended NYU, started working for MTV, and was handpicked out of 700 candidates by View host Barbara Walters to be a cohost on The View, the 21 year-old had become accustomed to a typical American eating lifestyle of fast foods and processed foods. She gained weight and lost energy. It was only when Matenopoulos reverted to her Greek culinary upbringing that she regained her shape and stamina.
GROWING UP GREEK
On a recent segment on the Hallmark Channel’s show Home and Family, Matenopoulos demonstrated how to cook moussaka – a staple of Greek cuisine – and without warning changed gears from English to fluent and flawless Greek.
“I grew up in a very traditional Greek household,” she told TNH. “We only spoke Greek in the house growing up. We went to church every Sunday, I went to Greek school twice a week, I was very active in GOYA and I was part of the Greek Dance Troupe until I graduated high school as well. I was raised around lots of love, laughter, and food!
“There was always something happening in my house. We were always surrounded by family and extended family, cooking, laughing, and telling stories,” which explains her comment on the Hallmark show when introducing her karidopita – walnut cake, and advising to always keep some on hand “because Greek people like to stop by the house without actually being announced.”
“I feel so fortunate for my very traditional Greek upbringing,” Matenopoulos says, and “this book really is a love letter to my father [Niko, who died in 2012 of ALS-Lou Gehrig’s Disease; she is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to the ALS association], to my family, and to Greece.”
A STAR IS BORN
It was somewhat by chance that Matenopoulos made history by becoming the youngest regular daytime host ever – at 21 in 1997 – a record that remains intact to this day. “I moved to NYC when I was 17,” she relayed to TNH, “and began an internship at MTV while simultaneously going to NYU and studying journalism. When my internship at MTV ended, they hired me on full time to work as a production assistant, a story coordinator, and then finally an associate producer. I worked at MTV throughout my entire time of going to school at NYU. One night during my senior year at NYU, I was at a friend’s going-away party and I met a casting director who asked me to come audition for a new show with Barbara Walters. I didn’t think much of it so I never bothered to follow up with him the next morning. He however managed to track me down at MTV and asked me to come over to Barwal Productions (Barbara Walters’ production company) that afternoon for a meeting. I did, and then the rest is history. I was handpicked by Barbara Walters from over 700 other hopefuls for the very coveted spot of ‘the young one’ on the original panel of The View.”
Not only was Matenopoulos’ stint on The View short-lived – her contract a year later was not renewed – but she was the subject of much lampooning by Saturday Night Live, being routinely portrayed as a ditz. Though in reality very articulate and not at all ditzy, the good-humored Matenopoulos takes it all in stride. “Believe it or not, I loved those skits,” she told TNH. “First off, SNL has been one of my favorite shows for years. I have such respect for sketch comics. I think they do such a great job.” And after all, she added, “imitation is the biggest form of flattery.
“With SNL spoofing us, it really put [The View] on the map as a show. It never bothered me that they spoofed me as a ditz. I was very young on that show and next to Barbara Walters and Meredith Vieira, I probably did seem like a ditz. There was a huge generation gap. Also, unfortunately it’s a bit how this business works…it’s always easiest to pick on the new kid on the block. But it was all in good fun. I didn’t take it too seriously. It didn’t affect my career in a negative way. In fact, it probably opened more doors. I even went on SNL and spoofed myself. That is still one of my favorite career highs.”
While living in London (yes, she lived there, too!) “my father became ill and diagnosed with ALS. I immediately packed my things and moved back to Virginia to help care for him. Unfortunately, he lost his battle with this hateful debilitating disease. It was the most difficult time in my life and in my family’s lives alike,” she recalls.
“My father was my strength, my courage, my reason, my heart, my laughter. He was my hero. To see a man so full of life and strength deteriorate so quickly before my eyes is something that changed me forever. After my father passed, I vowed to do everything I could to raise money and awareness in hopes of finding a cure for ALS,” she told TNH. “I am planning on donating 10 percent of the proceeds of the sales of my cookbook to the ALS Association of America. I am involved closely with the NYC chapter of the ALS association and I do at least a few fund raisers a year with them when I am back East.”
In addition to donating to help find a cure for ALS, Matenopoulos told TNH she also plans to donate money from the sales of her books at a Barnes & Noble signing in New York City (86th Street and Lexington Ave., April 25 7PM) to local (New York) Greek schools in need of money.
GREECE IS FRESHEST
So what does the author of a cookbook, who has been all over New York, California, and Greece have to say about where to find the freshest food? “Even here on the West Coast where our super-fresh fruits and veggies are so abundant, the truth is nothing tastes quite as fresh as it does in Greece.” Her entire crew for the book, who went to Greece with her, comprised of “American kids echoed that same sentiment. They were beside themselves with how the tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, fish, and meats just tasted so much more flavorful.”
Thankfully, we can still enjoy all of Matenopoulos’ Greek recipes without having to trek across an ocean for the ingredients, as long as we use “the freshest fish, meat, and produce available,” she advises. But if you really want the absolute best, she says, “well, then, I guess a plane ticket is in order.”