The life of Rachel Maddow: how a Rhodes scholar and AIDS activist became America's most unlikely cable television host

Rachel Maddow.Rachel Maddow.Cassi Alexandra / The Washington Post / Getty
  • Rachel Maddow never set out to be a television news host. Friends thought she'd be a professor, or an activist. 
  • After studying at Stanford and Oxford, she got her start as a news announcer for a local Massachusetts radio station. She went on to be a radio host on Air America, before becoming a regular political commentator on MSNBC and CNN.  
  • Since 2008, she's hosted "The Rachel Maddow Show." She's the first openly gay host of a primetime news program in the US. 
  • She's a new type of host, forgoing confrontational attack-style interviews for deep-dive monologues on whatever news item she thinks is worth analyzing.
  • Here's her life so far.  
  • Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.

Rachel Maddow might be the most unlikely cable television host in the country. 

Combining humour, empathy and some serious research, Rachel Maddow was the first of a new, less angry political television host. She's also the first openly gay host. 

Maddow is known for being extremely intelligent - she won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, but it's obvious too, in her lengthy, well-researched monologues that she opens her show with every day. She's also more civil than some of her peers. She's chided Pat Buchanan for telling another commentator to "shut up," and she refuses to act as a referee while guests fight between each other, unlike her competitor's shows.  

Maddow did not come straight to journalism. Friends thought she'd be a professor or an activist. But after deciding she liked explaining things to people on a local radio station, it was only a matter of time. She went from radio station to bigger radio station, to television, to being the face of MSNBC. 

As Ben Wallace-Wells put it for Rolling Stone, "What Maddow is trying to build is a different channel for liberal anger, an outsider's channel, one that steers the viewer's attention away from the theater of politics and toward the exercise of power, which is to say toward policy."

Here's her life so far. 

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Rachel Maddow was born on April 1, 1973.

Rachel Maddow was born on April 1, 1973.

She grew up in a centrist house in Castro Valley, east of San Francisco. It was what Maddow describes as a "middle class, suburban upbringing." Both her parents were Democrats, but they voted for former President Ronald Reagan.

She went to school at Castro Valley High School.

She went to school at Castro Valley High School.

At high school, she was athletic. She was particularly good at swimming, basketball, and volleyball. But when she injured her shoulder in her final year, she had to decide whether to carry on as an athlete, which meant get surgery and delay attending college, or to push on. She decided to push on.

In 1990, when she was 17, she enrolled at Stanford University to study public policy.

In 1990, when she was 17, she enrolled at Stanford University to study public policy.

Stanford's then-director of Public Policy, Roger Noll, said Maddow was the sort of brilliant student that only appeared every few years. Her professor, Debra Satz, still shows Maddow's undergraduate thesis on changing perceptions of AIDS to her students.

While she was a freshman, the Stanford Daily, the university newspaper, published a story about how she was one of two openly gay freshmen. She was open about it, in comparison to others at the university. When a reporter asked if the other person was her girlfriend. She told them, "Funnily enough, only one other person was out, and she was not one of the many girls I was sleeping with."

As Jill McDonough, a close friend of Maddow's, put it, "The choice was, 'I'm not going to be a hypocrite. I'm going to have courage.'"

A clipping of that article was mailed to her parents, which was how they found out she was gay. They didn't take it well right away.

For a year after college, she worked as a prison AIDS activist with ACT UP and the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, in San Francisco.

For a year after college, she worked as a prison AIDS activist with ACT UP and the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, in San Francisco.

"We were taking this overwhelming, maddening, depressing, very sad thing that my community and my city were going through and figuring out what pieces of it we could bite off and fix, finding winnable fights in something that felt like a morass and was terrible," she told The New Yorker.

She would continue working with AIDS groups and studying how it was perceived and dealt with for years to come.

In 1995, Maddow moved to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. She was the first openly gay women to do so. She studied AIDS in prisons for her PhD.

In 1995, Maddow moved to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. She was the first openly gay women to do so. She studied AIDS in prisons for her PhD.

She was also on a Marshall Scholarship for "intellectually distinguished young Americans likely to be future leaders." Despite her scholarships and undergraduate success, she felt out of place and put her studies on hold. She moved to London and worked for an organization called AIDS Treatment Project.

She ended up finishing her PhD in Western Massachusetts, after several stops, telling The Nation she wanted to live somewhere where'd she be unhappy.

"And I have no interest in New England, hate winter, don't like the country, not fond of animals," she said.

Maddow was friends with now Sen. Cory Booker at Stanford and Oxford.

Maddow was friends with now Sen. Cory Booker at Stanford and Oxford.

Booker said he was surprised she went the way she did, but she was always about making a contribution. "She wasn't just about giving commentary; she was an activist. She wanted to change the world."

After the PhD, she continued working as an activist, but to pay the bills, because she wasn't "a trust-fund kid," she worked as a delivery girl, a yard worker, and she cleaned out buckets at a coffee bean factory.

After the PhD, she continued working as an activist, but to pay the bills, because she wasn't "a trust-fund kid," she worked as a delivery girl, a yard worker, and she cleaned out buckets at a coffee bean factory.

She was also rejected from a job at a video store.

During the period Maddow worked with AIDS advocacy organizations, she wasn't particularly interested in politics, but she did donate to Harvey Gant's campaign for North Carolina's senate.

During the period Maddow worked with AIDS advocacy organizations, she wasn't particularly interested in politics, but she did donate to Harvey Gant's campaign for North Carolina's senate.

His opponent Jesse Helms vehemently opposed funding AIDS research because of his views on homosexuality, according to The New York Times.

Maddow had a life-changing year in 1999. She started dating artist Susan Mikula...

Maddow had a life-changing year in 1999. She started dating artist Susan Mikula...

The couple met in Massachusetts, while Maddow was still finishing her thesis. Mikula was looking for someone to clean her yard, and Maddow applied. When they met it was love at first sight. "Bluebirds and comets and stars. It was absolutely a hundred percent clear," she said. It helped that Mikula had her initials in metal leaf on her jeep's door. Maddow, a fan of kitsch, though it was very "hot."

Their first date was at an NRA event. They went because they both like shooting. Although Mikula is the only one with the hand-eye coordination for it. Their relationship is Maddow's "proudest achievement."

...And in 1999, her first break as a host came when she entered a local radio's open audition to be a sidekick on a show called "Dave in the Morning."

...And in 1999, her first break as a host came when she entered a local radio's open audition to be a sidekick on a show called "Dave in the Morning."

The radio station held auditions for a morning news announcer and she got it. Dave Brinnel, the show's host, said she had a beautiful voice.

Maddow said though she stumbled into the job, it just really clicked." She liked explaining things to people. It helped that she was allowed to place her favorite music — Radiohead and Lucero.

In 2004, Maddow landed a job co-hosting a program called "Unfiltered," with Chuck D and Lizz Winstead, which was on Air America.

In 2004, Maddow landed a job co-hosting a program called "Unfiltered," with Chuck D and Lizz Winstead, which was on Air America.

While the new radio station hoped to profit off well-known names, it was those with radio experience, like Maddow, who really thrived. It was on the radio that she established herself as a "smiling but obstinate liberal."

In 2005, she started hosting her own show three-hour show.

In 2006, while she was still working for Air America, she started appearing as a guest political commentator on CNN and MSNBC, appearing alongside Tucker Carlson, Larry King, and Paula Zahn...

In 2006, while she was still working for Air America, she started appearing as a guest political commentator on CNN and MSNBC, appearing alongside Tucker Carlson, Larry King, and Paula Zahn...

She was a guest on cable news for about three years, described by The Nation as a "ballsy gremlin of the left." It was her appearances on Carlson's show that made her want to be a host. It made her pine for the ability to choose what was discussed. Story selection is half the battle and more than half the fun," she told Rolling Stone.

...Although she was only invited onto Fox News once — when Madonna and Britney Spears kissed.

...Although she was only invited onto Fox News once — when Madonna and Britney Spears kissed.

Maddow declined the offer.

In January 2008, she became an official political analyst at MSNBC.

In January 2008, she became an official political analyst at MSNBC.

She was brought on as a left-wing commentator, and although says she's a liberal, she doesn't have strong feelings against the Republican Party. She's interested in the sociology of the political styles, especially Republican's "arcane" style which fascinates her.

In 2008, "The Rachel Maddow Show" was launched.

In 2008, "The Rachel Maddow Show" was launched.

It was a milestone. She's the first openly gay woman to host prime-time news in the US. In her first month, she beat Larry King in ratings, which was unheard of for MSNBC.

Maddow was a different type of news host. She did things like wear pajamas on her show to show solidarity with bloggers. And the actual show is shot differently to other talk shows. Typically, Maddow sits to the side, whereas other cable shows tend to focus on the face of the host. Others are about personality, and Maddow's is about creating a narrative outside of her. As Rolling Stone's Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote, "Bill O'Reilly, on Fox News, is a combatant and a champion. Maddow is a guide. O'Reilly's show says, Look at me. Maddow's says, Picture this."

When Maddow's show began, MSNBC president Phil Griffin said his channel had more "swagger" than it had ever had and that was due to Maddow.

When Maddow's show began, MSNBC president Phil Griffin said his channel had more "swagger" than it had ever had and that was due to Maddow.

"And trust me. The other guys see it. They are watching. And they are scared," he said.

On the Sunday night before her first show, at a party thrown for the staff, she told the group who had been working on "Verdict With Dan Abrams" to forget everything they had ever learned.

On the Sunday night before her first show, at a party thrown for the staff, she told the group who had been working on "Verdict With Dan Abrams" to forget everything they had ever learned.

Maddow did not like the "gimmicky" show that had preceded her's and wanted her show to be nothing like it. But the staff's reaction wasn't great, and she realized right away she had not worded her speech very well.

At "The Rachel Maddow Show," her workday typically begins at 12.30 p.m.

At "The Rachel Maddow Show," her workday typically begins at 12.30 p.m.

Before work she goes to the gym, fishes, or spends time with Mikula. Her show airs at 9 p.m. and she doesn't start writing until 4.30 p.m., or even 6.30 p.m.

She said she's tried starting to write in the morning. But it didn't work for her. "It's not that I have anything so important going on in my life that I wouldn't trade it to be better at my job, but it's that you can only have your brain lit up for that long before it starts to break down and you stop making sense and stop being creative. What I don't want to do is give up is the originality," she told The New Yorker.

Maddow is known for her lengthy and in-depth opening monologues.

Maddow is known for her lengthy and in-depth opening monologues.

They go on for a long time, up to 24 minutes, without interruption. She makes sure not to repeat stories that have already been in the news cycle. What viewers get is something else.

"By reducing the story to its mythic fundamentals, Maddow creates the illusion of completeness that novels and short stories create. We feel that this is the story as we listen to and watch her tell it," The New Yorker's Janet Malcom wrote.

She also marks up the teleprompter with notes to tell her when and how to physically act — whether to laugh, frown, smile, move her hands, or pause for a moment.

It takes her 15 seconds to get dressed, and it's only from the waist up.

It takes her 15 seconds to get dressed, and it's only from the waist up.

Behind the desk the jeans and sneakers remain on.

Maddow takes her job seriously, but she has hobbies, too — she's an amateur bartender, and has served her peers at the annual White House Correspondents' dinner.

Maddow takes her job seriously, but she has hobbies, too — she's an amateur bartender, and has served her peers at the annual White House Correspondents' dinner.

Maddow researches vintage cocktails and makes them for her and Mikula. She doesn't like mingling with politicians and only attends the annual White House Correspondent's dinner's after-party, not the actual dinner, as long as she's allowed to be the bartender.

To relax, she also likes to fish and watch films on her laptop. Her favorite film is the original "The Manchurian Candidate."

In 2012, she published her book "Drift The Unmooring of American Military Power," which was on the New York Times' bestseller list.

In 2012, she published her book "Drift The Unmooring of American Military Power," which was on the New York Times' bestseller list.

Maddow's book is about the United States going to war and how it's changed. According to the New York Times, the book is a reminder that Maddow was a Rhodes scholar, but it also is filled with Maddow's "cheerfully snarky voice." It's not a piece of left-wing writing either. One of the book's blurbs was written by Roger Ailes, former chief executive of Fox News, who said that the book was worth reading.

Of the writing itself, she told New York Magazine, "Writing makes me want to blow my head off. I was very open with Crown about that. They assured me it wouldn't happen."

In 2012, Maddow had a "clash" with Republican strategist Alex Castellanos over whether women earn less than men.

In 2012, Maddow had a "clash" with Republican strategist Alex Castellanos over whether women earn less than men.

Castellanos said that women didn't make any less than men and kept interrupting Maddow. He finished by telling Maddow he loved how passionate she was. "I wish you were as right about what you're saying as you are passionate about it. I really do," he said.

Maddow told him he was being condescending and clarified her passion was based on facts.

It's instances like these that her producer Bill Wolff believed was what Maddow's fans liked. They like to see her defending rights: women's, voting, reproductive rights. Any type of rights.

In 2012, Maddow also spoke openly for the first time about having depression.

In 2012, Maddow also spoke openly for the first time about having depression.

She called it "cyclical" depression. When she's suffering from it she struggles to focus.

"If I'm not depressed and I'm on and I can focus and I can think through something hard and without interruption and without existential emptiness that comes from depression, that gives me – not mania. But I exalt. I exalt in not being depressed," she said to Rolling Stone .

In December 2015, Maddow focused in on the Flint, Michigan water crisis, while other national media outlets paid it little attention.

In December 2015, Maddow focused in on the Flint, Michigan water crisis, while other national media outlets paid it little attention.

Media matters said Maddow had distinguished herself for her show's in-depth coverage of the Flint water crisis. Her show spent more time looking into the issue than all of the other major television networks combined.

In January 2016, she also hosted a live town hall in Flint about the crisis.

In 2016, Maddow and Chuck Todd hosted a Democrat election debate between Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton.

In 2016, Maddow and Chuck Todd hosted a Democrat election debate between Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton.

Maddow and Todd were praised for letting the candidates do most of the talking, although they stepped in to ask pointed questions.

After the debate, Maddow hugged Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders which was criticized by some, for showing her "liberal bias."

After the debate, Maddow hugged Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders which was criticized by some, for showing her "liberal bias."

Some people, like Fox News' Howard Kurtz thought the hug was a step too far, and her left-wing views should have disqualified her from being a debate moderator. But others, including Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, said it was fine, and that a hug was a gesture not unlike a handshake. Regardless, the hugs didn't do any long term damage to Maddow, and she took it in her stride.

If/when GOP invites me and MSNBC to host a primary debate, rest assured I am definitely hugging those guys, too. #ImAHugger

— Rachel Maddow MSNBC (@maddow) February 5, 2016

In the 2016 presidential election, MSNBC centered its coverage around Maddow and "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams.

In the 2016 presidential election, MSNBC centered its coverage around Maddow and "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams.

According to Forbes, Maddow's position as a "dominant prime-time star," stemmed from this coverage.

In 2016, Maddow's show brought in the most viewers at 9 p.m. that MSNBC had ever had.

In 2016, Maddow's show brought in the most viewers at 9 p.m. that MSNBC had ever had.

Source: Variety

In 2017, Maddow honed in on the possibility that President Trump had collaborated with Russia.

In 2017, Maddow honed in on the possibility that President Trump had collaborated with Russia.

Between February 20 and March 31, she covered Russia more than any of the other news items combined, according to The Intercept. During the six week period, 53% of all of her broadcasts were about Russia. With such an intense focus Maddow had less time to talk about other issues arising from the Trump administration.

In March 2017, Maddow was criticized for a disappointing show about President Trump's tax returns.

In March 2017, Maddow was criticized for a disappointing show about President Trump's tax returns.

To build momentum for the show, Maddow tweeted out at 7.30 p.m. that she had Trump's tax returns. MSNBC put a countdown on for her show. But when the show went to air, instead of demonstrating he hadn't paid his taxes, which many expected, it showed he had earned over $150 million in 2005 and he had paid his taxes. Many were disappointed, and the show was criticized by the late night comedy circuit. But the episode brought in over 4 million people watched the episode, her biggest audience ever.

In late 2018, Maddow thrived as she explained all of the documents that were released by former FBI director Robert Mueller.

In late 2018, Maddow thrived as she explained all of the documents that were released by former FBI director Robert Mueller.

According to Washington Post's media commentator Erik Wemple, Maddow "devoured" all of the documents Mueller released, and went onto explain to her audience what was in them, what it meant, and what was missing.

In 2018, she averaged 2.9 million viewers every night — the second most viewers on cable news, but despite her popularity, she keeps most of her personal life outside of the media.

In 2018, she averaged 2.9 million viewers every night — the second most viewers on cable news, but despite her popularity, she keeps most of her personal life outside of the media.

Maddow said part of her is on the television every night, but it's not all of her. "The rest of me is my own. It's not for everybody else. You sort of pick a slice of your life that you're going to share as your non-TV persona and you give that to people—and they find it more or less interesting," she told The New Yorker.

To help with the privacy, she and Mikula escape from the apartment they live in in New York during the week. They disappear to their farmhouse in western Massachusetts on the weekends.

To help with the privacy, she and Mikula escape from the apartment they live in in New York during the week. They disappear to their farmhouse in western Massachusetts on the weekends.

They love the house, which was built before the Civil War, but it's one issue was that it only had a bathroom at the top of a very steep staircase. So they built an outhouse, which also has a television that Maddow can watch football in, with the volume up very loud.

In 2019, One America News sued Maddow for $10 million for calling it "paid Russian propaganda."

In 2019, One America News sued Maddow for $10 million for calling it "paid Russian propaganda."

On her show, Maddow spoke about how an employee of OAN also worked for Sputnik News, which has ties to the Russia government. "The most obsequiously pro-Trump right-wing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda," she said.

The network is claiming Maddow knew what she said wasn't true, and that it's "as American as apple pie."

In 2019, showing how influential Maddow has become, strategists told Politico that Democratic candidates had to get onto Maddow's show to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

In 2019, showing how influential Maddow has become, strategists told Politico that Democratic candidates had to get onto Maddow's show to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

Politico called her the "New Democratic Kingmaker."

Despite her success, Maddow is not taking being the face of MSNBC for granted.

Despite her success, Maddow is not taking being the face of MSNBC for granted.

She still worries whether being a pundit is a worthwhile thing to be. But she thinks its a good thing to be an outsider, which has been a pattern of hers all her life.

"Yeah, I'm the unlikely cable news host, she told New York Magazine. "But before that I was the unlikely Rhodes scholar. And before that I was the unlikely kid who got into Stanford. And then I was the unlikely lifeguard. You can always cast yourself as unlikely when you're fundamentally alienated in your worldview. It's a healthy approach for a commentator."

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