'The Jam' host wants 'to be like the millennial Barbara Walters'
Danielle Robay spent years interviewing A-list celebrities on Hollywood red carpets, and going to parties alongside stars such as George Clooney. But she's just as comfortable covering news and politics, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's appearance in Chicago last month.
"It really was one of the best nights of my life. She is amazing," said Robay, who admits she teared up several times listening to the 84-year-old justice speak.
Being fluent in both politics and pop culture serves Robay well in her job as co-host of WCIU's new morning show, "The Jam." The 26-year-old Glencoe native is believed to be the youngest woman ever to host a morning news show in Chicago.
"I want to be like the millennial Barbara Walters," she said, during an interview near the station's West Loop studio. "Whatever the topic, I always do my research."
The live two-hour show (produced by Kane County resident and Chicago TV veteran David Plummer) aims to be a youthful, genuine, local show, mixing everything from opinion-filled roundtable discussions on hot news topics to Robay's health segments, "Living Well with Danielle."
A staunch feminist, Robay plans to start a "Beyond the Ceiling" segment where she profiles women doing great things in Chicago.
"When I was young, I called it Girl Power. Now I just call it feminism. Because that's where my heart really beats," she said. "I want to change the way women are spoken about on TV."
Robay clawed her way into the entertainment business, starting with an internship at Chicago's B96 radio station during her senior year at New Trier Township High School and another internship at Fox News in Madison while attending the University of Wisconsin.
At age 22, she moved to Los Angeles to become an entertainment reporter. Not knowing anyone in the business, and living in a family friend's garage ("This was NOT a Beverly Hills back house. This was a garage," she says), Robay wasted no time trying to find work.
To get her first reporting and producing jobs, she hunted down people's phone numbers and called them repeatedly, sent cookies as gifts, and waited outside buildings to introduce herself.
"I never looked at the qualifications for jobs. It'd say three years experience, and I'd think, 'Well, I can still try.' I went with blind naiveté and a false sense of confidence ... but I had a pretty good hit rate," she said, laughing. "I had to claw always, but I think that makes you better."
That persistence led to her first unpaid job doing red carpet interviews on a small YouTube channel. She used that as a steppingstone to bigger and better gigs, eventually becoming a Hollywood news reporter for several TV stations and websites, including Clevver TV (which has 100 million online views per month), "VH1's Morning Buzz with Nick Lachey" and Entertainment Tonight Online. When she heard about the new morning show in Chicago, she jumped at the opportunity.
On "The Jam," Robay wears high heels and often stands on a not-seen-on-camera apple crate -- at 5-foot-1, she's a lot shorter than her co-hosts Jordan Cornette (6-foot-8) and Felicia Lawrence (5-foot-10, before heels).
Robay also has to get up at 2:15 a.m. each day and keep a grueling schedule. But she loves being on TV in her hometown, and working on a show that covers her wide range of interests.
"This has been the greatest ride. I feel so fortunate and grateful," she said. "My mantra is always, 'I think you should just go for it.' The best things in life are on the other side of fear. That's how I live my life."
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make an interesting feature, email them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Airs 6 to 8 a.m. weekdays on WCIU Channel 26