Originally created 01/14/02

'Weakest Link' lady: It's not easy being mean



Anne Robinson's on-screen persona is so terrifying she makes the Wicked Witch of the West look like a favorite aunt. Decked out in outfits as black as her treatment of contestants on the NBC series "The Weakest Link," Robinson is a ruthless game show dominatrix.

"Which village is missing their idiot?" is Robinson's favorite dismissal line for contestants voted out of the game by fellow players.

The Brit's abusive style has redefined the American game show genre. She's not the traditional sparkling-teeth male game show host that has dominated television for a half-century. Robinson is a strong-willed woman who seems to get a sadistic pleasure out of reducing players to pools of emotional jelly.

Viewers appear to have a love-hate relationship with Robinson. "Link" is the second-highest-rated game show on the networks (behind "Survivor"). But Robinson says, "Most people think I have not smiled since I was a child."

Actually, Robinson smiles a lot. The game show host's poison tongue and ego-piercing wit are all just part of an act that has made her a hit on two continents. The real Anne Robinson is a successful journalist and author who has achieved 23 years of sobriety.

There is one shaky part of Robinson's life: motherhood. Robinson grew up in a household where a very strong mother sent out mixed messages.

"Mother didn't think men were important. But then she would tell me to find a man to keep me. But I was not to trust anyone. I was totally unequipped to be a wife and mother," Robinson says.

Robinson decided to discuss her motherly maladjustment in a very American way. She wrote a book. Reflections of the emotional whirlpool Robinson endured are documented in "The Memoirs of an Unfit Mother" (Pocket Books, $22), which came out Nov. 13.

She writes: "We lived permanently in extremes. A confusing seesaw existence in which best intentions were constantly thwarted by unintentional abuse."

The 56-year-old Robinson dealt with the confusion through alcohol abuse. Drinking became so consuming Robinson found her life a shattered mess. When she finally did get sober, the reality was just as dark.

"I came out of a haze and realized I had an 8-year-old daughter (Emma) that I had lost," Robinson says. Mother and daughter have since reconciled. But the wounds are deep. Emma refused to read the book until it was published.

Life is generally good for Robinson these days. She's hosting a highly rated prime-time game show in two countries and has been the highest-paid female journalist in British history. (She has been a print reporter, covered violence in Northern Ireland and has been a consumer reporter on the BBC. She has written columns for British newspapers.) She is the highest-paid woman on British TV... But it is the game show that has made Robinson an international star.

The mean-spirited role that earned her the fame is a combination of her mother and father, she says. Her father was involved in show business. Her mother had a "great wit" and a "sense of authority."

British fans love to hate Robinson so much they want her to play a villain in the next "Harry Potter" movie. She's holding out to be the next James Bond baddie.

Any movie deals will have to be squeezed into a hectic "Weakest Link" schedule that keeps Robinson working in Britain and the United States. She jets every three weeks between continents to film the game show, which has celebrities and noncelebrities answering rapid-fire questions on the way to one winner-takes-all jackpot.

Robinson offers some tips for winning the game: have good general knowledge, do not appear to be too clever and be judicious in your voting. That goes for celebrity and noncelebrity versions.

Celebrity "Weakest Link" lineups have included comedians, WWF participants, "Star Trek" cast members and other game show hosts.

Robinson prefers the noncelebrity games. Maybe its because she's been asked some odd questions by celebrities. Martin Sheen once asked her how long she had been working as a stand-up comedian. She shot back that she had been doing stand-up as long as "The West Wing" star had been president of the United States.

"Quite a lot of celebrities are clueless," Robinson says. Or as she might put it on her game show, some celebrities are doughnuts who have run out of jam. "The stars are much more nervous. I suppose it is not within their nature for someone to come across to take the Mickey out of them."

Robinson finds it funny to ask a television personality like talk show host Jerry Springer or "Star Trek" legend William Shatner just why they are famous.

Sheen's misconception that Robinson refined her quick wit in bars and comedy clubs comes from the fact that she dishes out insults to contestants with the same ease that Vanna White turned letters on "Wheel of Fortune." It's just a knack.

Some critics suggest Robinson comes across as too mean. NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa disagrees.

"We try to do these shows with a little sense of self-deprecating humor," Sassa says. "If you watch the end of the 'Weakest Link,' she winks. It's a game. It's fun."

That fun for contestants comes with put-downs that suggest the players have the mental capacity of slugs. Robinson is the author of most of what she calls "slams." But she gets plenty of help. Crew members, people on the street and fellow journalists always are willing to offer a zinger that might add to the humiliation of a contestant.

There's also a Web site for outside suggestions such as, "Whose brain cells have died of loneliness?" The best of her poison-tipped barbs come after players have stumbled through a round, more often than not missing political questions. British and American players' lack of political knowledge boggles Robinson's mind. She's a news junkie.

Robinson also will be getting some competition in the world of game show slams. A syndicated version of "The Weakest Link" launches Jan. 7 with a different host. George Gray, last seen helping direct activities on "Junkyard Wars," the Learning Channel game show that has competing teams build workable machines from junkyard parts, will host the syndicated version of "Weakest Link" airing weekdays.

But it is Robinson's sneering style that has become ingrained in American pop culture in less than a year. (The show debuted on American television this past April.) Last Halloween her all-black look was a popular costume pick. Besides on the television show and board games, Robinson's image can be found in Activision games for the PC, PlayStation, Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube and Game Boys.

"It's as if I am in your home," Robinson says, with no hint of whether she considers that a good or bad thing.

Activision president Ron Doornink promises the video games will provide for players "the biting wit of Anne Robinson from the comfort of their own living rooms."

Robinson's basking in all of the attention, especially that from sheepish fans on the street who always want her to say her trademark line, "You are the weakest link, goodbye," into their cell phones.

"This is all an adventure. At my age you don't suffer from angst. You just take each day as it comes," Robinson says of the good and bad bits of her own life.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)