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Woman Around Town: Magee Hickey—On the Scene

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Magee Hickey, a reporter for WCBS-TV in New York, is such a busy Woman Around Town that we have difficulty even finding time for her interview. Several attempts to meet for lunch are cut short by stories breaking elsewhere in the city. At the earliest hours of the day, the New York native can be found covering news developments in all corners of the five boroughs, connecting with the myriad lives she encounters. And after thirty years in the industry, she remains captivated by her work.

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Each day, Magee calls the station around 2:30 a.m., as she’s having her bowl of Special K with strawberries, to learn about her assignment. “I call in and say, `What’s it gonna be? What’s my story?’ and it’s generally something that’s happened between 11 and 2:30 in the morning. A fire, a shooting, something that I can’t have prepared for,” she explains. “It’s different every day, [and] that’s the most important thing. I’m at a different location, facing a different challenge. I could never do a job where you go to the same office every day.” It’s a demanding job, but Magee seems to thrive from it.

little-baby-face-foundationAfter some schedule maneuvering, I finally get a chance to catch up with Magee on a Thursday evening benefit for the Little Baby Face Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing interdisciplinary medical care and surgery for children born with facial deformities around the globe. Although Magee has been awake and working since 2:00 that morning, she arrives at the benefit full of energy, looking polished in a chic black dress and gold belt. Within moments of greeting me, she begins to sing praises of the organization, introducing me to the president and his wife and making sure I’m taking notes as we go. It’s clear to me right away that this quintessential vivacious redhead is in the right business. She’s not there to promote herself in any way. Rather, her focus is on the people surrounding her—on uncovering and connecting their stories with her own questions.

Magee, who was born in Brooklyn but raised on the Upper East Side, grew up in what she describes as a “very interesting” family, characterized by an eclectic mix of show-biz and community service. Her mother was an actress, and Magee became interested in theater at a very early age. However, while she was an undergraduate at Brown University, she began to doubt her future in both the acting and music industries. After a professor noticed her propensity for asking questions, he encouraged her to try working in the television news industry.

“The minute I walked into a news room—I was an intern in Providence, Rhode Island my junior year in college—I just loved it,” she explains, glowing. “And from then on I just worked hard to get jobs in TV news.” She tells me later that she was drawn to the field by her “curiosity about people,” adding that “if you’re a person who asks a lot of questions, journalism is the field for you.”

Magee with Woman

At the Little Baby Face Foundation benefit, Magee chats with other guests about the organization itself, about season three of Mad Men, and about the merits of voice control. She explains that her goal, when reporting, is usually to keep her voice low, to keep it musical and soothing for her audience at 5 a.m. Her aim is not to change her voice, but to relax it.

When the conversation turns to signing, Magee explains that, despite her high-profile profession, her biggest fear is singing into a microphone in front of an audience. For this reason, she tells the group, she’s enrolled in an evening cabaret class. Not only does she want to conquer her fears and learn “how to sing,” but she hopes to perform a few songs at her father’s birthday party in the spring. She tells me, “My husband was confused, he says, ‘We’ve been married for 26 years. I know you’re scared of singing. I can’t believe you’re doing this!’”

Magee and man

Nonetheless, she’s committed to the course, and plans to sing three Cole Porter songs at her class’s live performance on January 16th at the Don’t Tell Mama cabaret club in Manhattan, alongside the eight other students in the course. “The other seven are singers,” she admits, “with big voices… and then there’s me, with a little voice.” She smiles.

Kate Sullivan, a morning news anchor at WCBS-TV, takes a moment to praise Magee while she’s in conversation with another benefit attendee.”Isn’t she incredible?” she asks me. Before I can nod in return, she continues, “What’s so great about Magee is that she supports people, she’ll introduce everyone to everyone, kind of playing a public relations role.”

The two women start to look tired (and I don’t blame them) as they discuss the merits of their 5 a.m. call times and their lives on morning television. I’m still surprised that they have enough energy to even be here.

“How do you do it?” I ask incredulously.

“Oh, you just do it. And you actually get used to it, don’t you?” Magee answers, looking at Kate for confirmation.

“No,” she laughs, suddenly looking just as incredulous as I.

magee-headshot2When we finally get the chance to sit down and talk in depth about Magee’s life as a reporter, I’m curious to hear about her experiences as a woman claiming her stake in the industry over the past thirty years. Within one hour of knowing her, I’ve already come to admire her strength, and I’m eager to learn more.

Although she’s never faced explicit discrimination as a woman, she does admit that she’s always faced challenges in the field.

“There was a job I applied for at a radio station in Providence Rhode Island, I was a senior in college,” she tells me. “And they couldn’t believe that I really wanted to do this as a career, full time. They were sort of more old-fashioned men. They sort of viewed it as ‘oh I’m gonna do this until I get married.’ And I was so gung ho that it never occurred to me that after marriage I wouldn’t be working just as hard. But there was always a sense that this is something you do until you find something better…”

“And then I remember when I was at Channel 4 and I told the news director I was expecting my first child, people actually asked me—and this was 1987—if I was going to work after I had my child. And I was so shocked by that question. ‘Of course I’m going to work! This is my career! I’m going to be a mother, and I’m going to be a TV reporter….’ It never occurred to me that it’s one or the other,” she explains. And yet she never saw any of these expectations as obstacles. “I think the biggest obstacles I’ve ever faced are my own, my lack of self confidence, and just pushing myself to be more aggressive, and being surer of myself.”

Magee’s always been her own toughest critic, pushing herself to uncover the most that she can about her city and its people. When I ask her which stories have affected her most over the years, she tells me about the killing of John Lennon and the various murder trials she’s covered. But then she pauses, adding, “Every story affects me. If it doesn’t affect me there’s something wrong with the way I’m doing the story. At one point I was covering the aftermath of a fatal fire in Crown Heights Brooklyn, where a stay-at-home dad died and his two year old and his one year old died in a fire. He didn’t call 911, he had been burning incense, the mattress caught on fire… the police and fire department came, but they went to the wrong address first, because it was called in at a different intersection….” She slows down. “It all affects me. I think about that man. But that’s what I love about the job, it’s about life.”

And what better city than New York to teach you about life? Magee explains that while she began her career in television reporting while finishing college in Rhode Island, she was eager to get back to her home city as soon as she graduated. She elaborates, “The typical career path was for me to go to a medium sized market and work my way up to New York. And I was impatient. I wanted to come to New York. I didn’t want to get to know another city. I loved Providence, but it was time to come back to New York. My boyfriend at the time was here (and I knew I was going to marry him), my parents were here, my two sisters, my brother, all of my childhood friends. And I wanted to get to know the city.” Her eyes widen as she reflects on the years she’s spent both growing up and living in New York.

“To me, the greatest thing about my job is getting to know the city,” she continues with child-like enthusiasm, “and going to parts of the city that I don’t know. I can tell you the best places in the city to get breakfast,” she chuckles, and stops briefly to collect her thoughts. “All of that is really the best part, that I really know New York. And [at the same time] you can never know New York well enough, there’s always so much more to be learned.”

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Shop: (And I am quite a shopaholic!) are Topshop on Broadway in Soho and the Pookie and Sebastian boutiques throughout the city… but particularly the one on 78th Street and Second Avenue.
Favorite Place to Eat:
There are so many. One was Hacienda de Argentina on East 75th Street, but it recently shut down. I’m hoping it will reopen soon. I also love Amber, an Asian fusion restaurant on Third Avenue and 80th Street, and I love Blue Smoke in the East 20s. Right now, I’m trying out a hot and trendy restaurant on the Lower East Side, called Marfa, where my niece Meg Lavin is a waitress extraordinaire.
Favorite New York Sight:
The Brooklyn Bridge. I love the look of it, and knowing that my ancestors helped build it. I get a thrill going to Brooklyn. At least four generations on both sides of my family lived in Brooklyn and I feel closer to my roots and personal history there.
Favorite New York Moment:
I love New York in the early morning hours. On the shift that I work on at CBS 2, I am up at work before the sun rises. And there are often these glorious moments when I watch the city wake up slowly. I love being on the Brooklyn Heights promenade and watching the day start.
What You Love About New York:
The people, our spirit, resilience and plucky personalities. Practically everyone’s a tough, independent character, tough on the outside but with a mushy heart on the inside. I also love going to movies in the daytime. The noon show at the Lincoln Plaza is always packed. I want to ask, who are these people, and how do they have time to go to movies in the middle of the day? I also love the courses at the 92nd Street Y. Right now, I am taking Cabaret and tap dancing. The teachers Collette Black and Norma Curley are fantastic and so are my classmates. I love that you can stumble your way into a class and find this wonderful community of soul mates.
What You Hate About New York:
How expensive everything is. I don’t want my life to be about making money and having money. I want it to be about something so much more spiritually rewarding. I am very aware in my job about how so many people have so much less than I have… so the inequity of life in New York is upsetting.

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