|Wednesday, August 15
Updated: September 4, 5:31 PM ET
Where Are They Now? Maria Sansone
By Will Weiss
If you noticed a familiar face while watching Live! With Regis and Kelly this June, you were not mistaken. No, it wasn't Kathie Lee. Maria Sansone from Erie, Pa. was back.
Now a 20-year-old junior at Syracuse University, it wasn't long ago that Sansone could be seen roaming the grounds of Howard J. Lamade Stadium as a correspondent for ABC Sports' coverage of the Little League World Series. With years of live television experience under her belt, she co-hosted Live! as part of "Co-ed Week," when five college students were picked to co-host the show with Regis while Kelly Ripa was on maternity leave.
Sansone made the most of her opportunity.
"That was a contest. I got up to school, and I only get one channel, and it happens to be the channel that Regis and Kelly are on," said Sansone, a TV/Radio/Film major at Syracuse's S.I. Newhouse School of Communications. "I didn't think much of it until my father called the next day, and he asked if I happened to see anything on this contest.
"He said he thought I should do it, that I had nothing to lose."
Sansone's show, which took place on Wednesday, June 13, was the highest rated of the series for that week, and was the highest-rated network talk show for the entire week.
"What you had to do was make a two-minute video, send in an 8x10 photo and write a short letter telling the producers, or Regis, why you should be Kelly's replacement while she's on maternity leave," said Sansone.
"Some of these people just said the most bizarre things," said Sansone. "Some of them knew me from TV and would be like, 'I know you,' and it ended up being really funny. I did a stand-up and a close, sent it in, not thinking much of anything. But for some reason, I kind of knew."
The announcements came while she was job hunting in New York City. First she made the top 10, then the top 3. Within two days, Sansone had everyone she knew go online and vote. It worked. A crew was sent to her house to get the reaction when Regis did or didn't announce her name. Sansone and her friends waited in anticipation. The crew passed when they couldn't fit all their equipment in her tiny apartment.
"We had to stand on the street and listen through a little box with no audio," said Sansone, chuckling. "Then all of a sudden, right as he was about to announce my name, the audio cut in and you heard, 'Maria Sansone, Erie, Pa.' And we just all started jumping up and down and screaming."
She battled nerves and lived the frantic confusion of preparing for a one-hour talk show, not seeing Regis until minutes before the show, when he whisked her out of the dressing room and took her on stage.
"He wants everything out there to be natural," said Sansone of the talk show and game show host. "If he came back there and said, 'Hey, how are you, what did you do last night,' then it would ruin the spontaneity of the show.
"As soon as I stepped out onto the stage and was holding his hand, I could not stop smiling. I was smiling, I was waving like I owned the place. From that point on, it was great. It went by fast."
Sansone started her broadcasting career at age 11 as a kids' sports reporter at WJET, the ABC affiliate in Erie, Pa. After winning a slam dunk contest at an Erie Waves basketball game, she appeared on a live show, and her performance during the interview sparked the interest of Mike Gallagher, then a sports anchor at the station. Gallagher was looking to incorporate a kids' sports segment into the local news.
"My co-host at the time asked her if her friends knew about her sudden fame, and I'll never forget it," said Gallagher, now the News Promotions Manager at the station. "She looked at him and said, 'Not yet, it's a holiday weekend with Memorial Day, but I'm going to make sure they do know about it because I'm not going to pass up this opportunity for my moment in the spotlight.'
"That was the line that made me go to my boss and say, 'I want to hire this kid to do what I do -- feature reports' -- mainly on kids, but once or twice a month we wanted to give her a big-time athlete to give her credibility. She was a natural in front of the camera." In the segment, called "Down to Size," Sansone's honesty and radiant personality made her a hit with athletes like Jim Kelly, Bill Cowher and Michael Jordan.
The interview with Cowher changed her life. A reporter from the Wall Street Journal noticed her and interviewed her. The profile ran on Nov. 17, 1992 and ignited a whirlwind of events that no kid or family could ever prepare for.
"I came home from school and my mom and dad were just looking at me like something happened," Sansone recalled. "They said, 'All right, you might want to sit down for this. Good Morning America called, The Tonight Show called, David Letterman's show called,' and the list went on. I just panicked. My grandma was there, and we went shopping or something, to take my mind off of it, so my parents could sort through all these things.
"I guess I never expected it, and when you're that young, it's tough," said Sansone. "So I decided to pick and choose."
After a great deal of consideration, she decided to appear on The Tonight Show and Good Morning America. The GMA spot led to her assignment with ABC Sports.
"One of the interviews that sticks out in my mind is Sean Burroughs," said Sansone of the current star third baseman of the Portland Beavers, the Padres' Triple A team in the Pacific Coast League. "I remember walking with him and asking him what he had for breakfast -- just stuff that maybe an older reporter couldn't ask them."
After interviewing some of professional sports' biggest stars, talking to someone her own age should have been a snap. Not so.
"I asked a boy if he had any superstitions. I had read that a lot of the kids had these major superstitions," said Sansone. "And he goes, 'Oh yeah, I have to wear this green underwear every day.' My face was so red. I was 12 years old. I had no idea he was going to say that. I don't know if they told me to ask that on purpose or what, but it was pretty funny."
Sansone went on to host Wide World of Sports for Kids, and reported from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, witnessing first-hand the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding saga. Later, she hosted Nickelodeon's Gladiators 2000 and did spot reporting for NBA Inside Stuff.
She was, in effect, no different than a Macauley Culkin or Haley Joel Osment, in terms of being a child star, a difficult thing to handle at a young age. The threat of losing childhood and friends kept Sansone grounded, and she included her friends in whatever she did. In school, she and her friends would take time out to open fan mail.
"It was always more important to her to maintain her childhood and her friends," said Gallagher. "Her friends were always a part of whatever we did."
Jessica Nason, Sansone's best friend since second grade, was there from the beginning, convincing Maria to take chances and take advantage of the opportunities that were there in front of her, but was also there as a support system.
"I told her she'd be missing out on the best opportunity ever," Nason said. "And she said, 'Well, I'll go if you go.' So I said, 'Yeah, I'll go.' I could just sit back and go with her. I didn't have to do any of the work.
"She just had so much talent doing that. It was important for me to be there."
But even in trying to maintain her childhood and trying to be a normal 12-year-old kid, the grind wore on Maria.
"There were moments where we asked ourselves, 'Are we doing the right thing?' And I think all child stars go through a degree of that," Gallagher said.
"It just got to be too much. I wanted to go to high school. I was like 13 or 14 when I decided to stop," remembers Sansone. "I wanted to play basketball and focus on that. I wanted to be a normal kid. Not that it was a bad thing going to California and New York City and all of that, but as a kid, that's really hard to deal with. I look back on that stuff now and think, 'Is that really me?'
"Stopping when I was ready to stop was probably one of the best decisions I made because I had my break, and now I know what I want to do. If I'd done it straight through, I would be burnt out by now. Now I'm ready."
Sansone plans on pursuing a career in television, either in the talk show venue or to learn screenwriting and other parts of the production process. At this point, Maria's thought process regarding her future isn't all that different from any other 20-year-old college student.
"I have two more years of school left, and I plan on sticking to that, regardless of what happens," said Sansone, who plans to study abroad in Italy in the spring semester. "I'm sure I will do a million things before I actually figure out what I want to do with myself. I'm sure it will all work out."
"She's a special kid," said Gallagher through a proud smile. "And I always used to tell her that I don't want her to mention me when she wins her first Emmy, I want her to mention me after she graduates from college."
And if Maria maintains the confidence and level-headedness she exuded as a youngster in the spotlight, there's no doubt that everything will work out for her.
Will Weiss is an assistant editor at ABC Sports Online.