When Elizabeth Vargas left ABC News nearly three years ago, this was in her rearview mirror: A two-decade-long run at the top of network news and a pioneering stint as co-anchor of "World News Tonight" that abruptly ended when her co-anchor, Bob Woodruff, was nearly killed in an IED attack in Iraq.
Also this: Her 2016 bestselling memoir "Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction," a harrowing account of her battle with alcoholism and panic attacks.
Vargas, 58, left ABC in 2018 for a "first-look" production pact with A&E, where she remains as its top news anchor. Starting Monday at 9 p.m., she becomes host of Fox's relaunch of the legendary crime-buster series, "America's Most Wanted," which aired there from 1988 to 2011 (then briefly on Lifetime).
She recently spoke with Newsday.
Oh my gosh, I've had an interest for years. I interviewed [first host] John Walsh several times, and when they asked me I was over the moon. I've spent decades reporting on true crime, at '20/20,' and before that 'Dateline' [but] this gives viewers the opportunity to actually do something — to bring justice to victims and to law enforcement who have been working on some of these cases for decades. I jumped at the opportunity. Really.
And of course technology has been revolutionized in the intervening decade.
That's the biggest thing — the explosion in technology and social media. That alone is a game-changer, not to mention what we're doing through augmented reality and 3D avatars. What we can do now is bring these stories to life — and fugitives to life — in ways that viewers can more readily recognize [but] we really want to keep the DNA of the original show intact too.
You left ABC News after a 14-year run there. Did you just need a breather?
I guess so but I had just written the book, got on the board of Partnership to End Addiction, and have since launched the podcast ['Heart of the Matter,' about addiction and recovery] and there were just other opportunities that were presenting themselves. When you are under contract at a network, there is only a certain kind of work at that network.Leaving allowed me to do all sorts of other things, including speaking engagements, and not just in this country but around the world. I'm about to go to New Zealand to give a speech about mental health in the time of the pandemic, and we are having a mental health crisis by every account. I feel it's really important to help people.
In a sense, the "new" Elizabeth Vargas is the public face of recovery almost as much as the veteran newswoman. True?
I see myself as someone who struggled with an experience that's all too common. Only twenty percent of all those in this country who need help actually get it and I'm dedicated to changing that. . [Meanwhile] there's an enormous stigma surrounding addiction [and] we have to chip away at this.
The book was certainly courageous on your part, but any regrets? Brave! I was outed [by a gossip column] when I was in rehab and probably wouldn't have written it otherwise. It was devastating to be outed like that, in the middle of this great personal struggle, but when I got better figured everyone knows part of the story, so I might as well tell my own story. But I did wake up every night thinking, 'I'm calling the publisher and telling them 'nevermind. We can't do this…'"
How are you doing during this terrible pandemic?
I'm doing great but the pandemic has been challenging for a lot of people. Connection is the key to recovery so I go to meetings with other recovering alcoholics — Zoom instead of in person — and I feel lucky that I have a wonderful group of friends and we can stay connected. I never felt lonelier than when I was in the grip of this disease and connection is really key for people suffering from all kinds of anxiety and from depression. And with the pandemic, these are off the charts.
What's your message to them?
That you're not alone — that other people feel the same way. Reach out and talk to someone if you think you're having a problem. There's no shame. People are embarrassed to admit they're struggling and we have to overcome that. But it can be like turning an oil tanker — very slow and gradual — but people have to understand they're not alone. A lot of people out there are struggling and it doesn't have to be this way.
Speaking of books, what's the next chapter in the Elizabeth Vargas story? None of us know what's going to happen next. For me, part of recovery is focusing on the present — not future-tripping or excoriating yourself over past mistakes. It's about making amends and moving on. I'm thoroughly enjoying work and thrilled to be hosting this show.