All Photos © Mario Barberio 2018
Beyond The Spotlights was honored to photograph and interview Leeann Tweeden. Leeann is an American television and radio host, sportscaster, and model who was born and raised in the Washington DC suburb of Manassas, Virginia.
At 18 years old, Leeann launched her career when she became a spokesmodel on the famous Ed McMahon talent show, Star Search. Later, she was cast on the ESPN workout show Fitness Beach, which the New York Times called the number 1 rated fitness show of its time.
These shows lead to a successful modeling career, appearing on the covers of Maxim and FHM, and the pages for Sports Illustrated. According to reports, her magazine covers were some of the highest selling of all time.
Next came a wide range of hosting and sportscasting jobs including LA Today with Roggin & Tweeden, Dr. Drew On Call (HLN), UFC Tonight on FOX SPORTS 1, Good Day LA, NBC’s National Heads-Up Poker Championship, Fox Sports The Best Damn Sports Show, Blue Torch and 54321.
Her most notable appearances, however, were away from the glamour of Hollywood and right smack in the middle of war zones. She’s traveled on 16 USO tours to visit the troops in the outskirts of Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Always looking for a way to give back to the military, she started a non-profit charity called Heroes and Patriots to help wounded warriors and military families. She was recognized in 2011 for her ‘outstanding contribution to America’s Armed Forces in the form of entertainment’, by the VFW with the 2011 Hall of Fame Award, and in 2008 with the Heart of a Patriot award that was presented by The USO of Illinois.
Leeann recently made the headlines when she talked about being sexually assaulted by Senator Al Franken when they performed on a 2006 military tour overseas. The worldwide headlines brought out additional women who also accused the senator of inappropriate behavior, leading to his resignation. She continues to share her experience in speaking engagements with the organization, Difference Makers, in an effort to affect change in individuals and communities.
Leeann lives in Los Angeles with her Air Force pilot husband and two children, and is currently a morning News Anchor on talk radio, McIntyre in the Morning show, on 790 KABC.
What is the most uplifting thing happening in the world right now?
Sometimes it’s hard to feel positive about what’s happening in the world these days, but then you see stories that restore your faith in humanity. Like when a young boy stops what he’s doing to help an elderly lady across a busy intersection. Or when you hear of that anonymous person who bought a million dollars worth of toys from the closing Toys R Us chain so they could donate them to charity. Or the guy who went viral when video of him scaling a high rise apartment building in France saved a child dangling from the balcony before other help could arrive. It’s having my faith in humanity restored over and over again that gives me hope our future…my kid’s future…is going to be OK.
Who had the biggest impact on the person you have become?
My Dad had the biggest impact on me for sure. The values and lessons I learned from him I am now teaching my two young children. He taught me that your word matters. Always follow through when you give your word. Your time is the most precious thing you’ve got to offer. He always said you can make more money, but you can’t buy more time. Always give it 100%, and in the end even if you don’t win, you know you gave it your best and you’ll practice and get better for next time. Loyalty matters. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Respect and love for family and country. He always used to say to me before an audition: Go break a leg…hell, break ‘em both! His way of saying give it everything I’ve got an then a little extra! He also taught me that even if you don’t have a lot of money, you can still have dignity and self respect. If you can do it, always be willing to help those that need it. And family doesn’t always have to be blood.
Who are you heroes and why?
My Dad is my hero. He was a 17 year old knowing his number was going to be called for the draft. This was during the Vietnam war. Instead of sitting around and waiting, he and his best friend from the neighborhood went down and enlisted in the United States Air Force. He was first stationed in the Philippines and soon deployed to Phan Rang, Vietnam as a B57 Chief Mechanic. Going to boot camp was the first time he ever flew on a plane!
My husband is also my hero! He is a C-130 pilot in the California Air National Guard. He previously served over 10 years active duty before joining the Guard. He had to deploy to the Middle East when our son was just 7 months old. I knew how hard that was for me, but I knew how heart wrenching it was for him as a new father going into harms’ way. He is also one of the few pilots in the Guard that are qualified to fly the MAFFS mission for fighting fires. MAFFS stands for Modular Airborne Firefighting System. They can take their C-130 aircraft and put this system inside it and it becomes a plane that helps fight fires by dropping the bright red retardant, Phos-Chek. Chris was part of the firefighting force last year during the Thomas Fire…the biggest wildfire in California history. He said this was some of the most gratifying flying, as he knew they were helping to save lives, homes and businesses.
Who or what in your life brings you the most joy?
My two kids definitely bring me the most joy in my life! I never realized how much my life would change before I had them. They give you a sense of greater purpose knowing that you’re trying to make respectful citizens of the world! Just watching them experiencing life for the first time, brings me immense joy!
If you could learn the answer to one question about your future, what would the question be?
Ok…these are questions that I always avoid, as I never want to know anything about my future. I don’t want to alter the way I live my life. If you knew what was going to happen, you would try and change your behavior to get to that outcome instead of letting life just take its course. I would rather not know anything.
If you were born in a new life, would you rather be alive in the past or future?
I love me some history, but to be honest, we are living in the greatest time period right now. When I read about old monarchies of England or when I read about Greek history, it’s hard to ignore how hard life was for the masses. Disease, sickness, and famine were always lurking. Today, our world isn’t perfect, but it’s better to be alive now than at any other time in history. Think about it…modern medicine has saved millions and millions of lives. We understand why hygiene is important and we have vaccines that make large groups of people immune from diseases that used to kill them a short time ago. We are connected like never before…look at the internet and how we have everything at our fingertips. We have smartphones and laptops and wifi. Information is instant and you can do things like FaceTime with family all the way around the world! It’s nothing short of miraculous. So with all that being said, I would rather be alive in the future, because I know more great things will be developed and created for future generations! (I’m waiting for the transporter to become reality so we don’t have to take planes anymore! ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’)
What’s the most historic thing that has happened in your lifetime?
The first thing that comes to my mind is the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. I can still remember being a young girl in middle school and seeing the images of teenagers and young adults literally breaking apart the wall with sledgehammers. There was great fear of a Cold War with the Soviet Union when I was growing up. I can still hear President Reagan saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Two years later, this became a reality.
What do you think is the greatest invention of all time?
This question is a tough one for me. I love technology and the invention of the Internet to connect everyone at their fingertips. I love aviation and being able to fly to every corner of the planet. But at the same time, modern medicine has given us a longer and better quality of life.
Who is your oldest friend and where did you meet them?
Brandi is my oldest and best friend. We were 12 and in 6th grade when we met. I remember this spunky girl that wore multiple Swatch Watches on her wrist at once. She even wore the biggest boy-sized watches and I just thought she was the coolest! We split up and went to different high schools and made it through stupid boyfriends and cross-country moves, but never lost touch or our love for each other. We loved hair bands and going to concerts! She is my sister from another mister!
Who are the 3 greatest athletes of all time?
Kelly Slater. Greatest surfer ever. I’ve been fortunate enough to see him surf some of the greatest spots in the world and there’s always something that makes him just a little better than everyone else. He’s the youngest and oldest to ever win a world title. And he’s still going!
Michael Jordan. I remember growing up watching him do awesome things on the court. He was so fun to watch. I’ll never forget his confidence and drive. He wanted to win and be better than everyone else. And he created Air Jordans…the first shoe my brother and I had to save up money to buy!
Serena Williams. She’s just amazing. Her strength and her stamina. Her powerful and well-placed serves. It’s hard to take your eyes off her when she’s playing. She’s been at the top of her game for over 2 decades. Her dominance over competitors has been incredible to watch over the years.
Which celebrity have you encountered that you think is the most down to earth?
The first person that comes to mind when I think about this question is Vince Vaughn. I remember the first time I met him when we were both racing in a Cadillac Celebrity Go Kart race during a SuperBowl week in San Diego. He saw my custom painted helmet and asked if I was the ringer. 😉 I ended up winning the race and he was convinced I was brought in to beat everyone! A few years later I saw him again, this time backstage at a Kenny Chesney concert, and he was still just as cool as ever. We talked about our kids and I remember him telling me they didn’t have a nanny. They wanted to raise their kids on their own and I thought, it doesn’t get any more real or down to earth than that!
Your nickname is Pepper, so what’s the spiciest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Yes, Pepper is my nickname! I love all things spicy. I carry around a medium sized bottle of Tabasco sauce in my bag at all times. I can eat raw jalapenos like nobody’s business. But my favorite of the moment is the Serrano pepper! I love making my own pico de gallo using jalapenos and serranos. And I also use that mixture in my special guac!
What do you think you are much better at than you actually are?
Spelling!!! I think I’m a good speller, but if I was honest, I’m not as good as I’d like to think I am.
If you could pick one song to play every time you walked into a room full of people, what would it be?
Funny, Brandi used to have the DJ play “California Love” by 2Pac & Dr. Dre when I’d come home to our local bar in Virginia to visit.
If I had to pick my own song, it’d probably be something from Bon Jovi. I’ll go with “It’s my Life”…
What questions would you like to ask a time traveler from 200 years in the future?
I’d like to know what they thought about our civilization. What places they’ve traveled in the universe. What their world is like now.
What TV show character would it be the most fun to change places with for a week?
No brainer…Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman.
What’s your “Back in my day, we…”? Back in my day we used to play outside after school and climbed trees and got muddy. We didn’t have a lot of the electronic distractions that are present for kids today.
What was the last thing you Googled?
Harry Styles tickets at the Forum.
Where is the farthest location you’ve been from home?
If we’re considering Los Angeles home, then it’s probably down in South Africa. I’ve been a few times for work and play and it’s pretty incredible!
What’s the most amazing true story you’ve heard?
I have to say the most amazing true story I ever heard was that of John Finn. I heard this account first hand as I got to sit at a table with him during a MOH event here in LA years ago. He enlisted in the Navy just before his 17th birthday and was the first person from the attack at Pearl Harbor to receive the Medal of Honor. During the attack, he grabbed a .50 cal machine gun and rolled it out to the runway in the complete open to shoot at the Japanese planes. Damn. What a HERO! Rest In Peace, Mr. Finn, and THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE!
What do you think could be done to improve the media?
This is a loaded question. First and foremost, having a free and open media is a great thing. With that, comes great responsibility. There are things I worry about with the media. The first problem I find with being a part of the media on a daily basis is seeing news organizations trying to get information out to the public faster than the next news outlet. With Twitter and Facebook and every other type of social media where news can be displayed in real time, people run the risk of putting out false information in the race to be first. This is something we’re very aware of at KABC when a breaking news story happens during our show. Almost 100% of the time, the first wave of news you hear from a situation turns out to be incorrect. We find that you have to be patient and wait for verified sources to give accurate accounts to our listeners. Usually, outlets are not being malicious when delivering false information under these circumstances. They just think that being the first to give information out to the public means they ‘win.’
The second problem is even worse, and that’s when stories are presented when the anchor or producer know they’re false. We have seen this creep up in media outlets that we used to trust without question. ABC News veteran Brian Ross and his longtime producer had to leave ABC after he falsely reported a story on President Trump & Michael Flynn that sent the stock markets crashing in December 2017. ABC had to apologize for their error and for running a story that was not fully vetted beforehand. For most Americans, we just believed whatever news organizations like ABC News told us every night in our living rooms.
How has your life changed since the story about Senator Al Franken became headlines around the world?
Life during and immediately after my story came out was overwhelming. In good and bad. A few minutes after my post, my phone started ringing and didn’t stop for days. Every media outlet (TV, radio and online) called and asked for an interview. I only did 3 TV interviews in that first 24 hours. (The Lead with Jake Tapper for CNN after my show ended that morning, and then I flew to NYC that afternoon to appear on Good Morning America and The View Friday morning). I’ll never forget the complete outpouring of love and support from family, friends and acquaintances. I heard from people I had lost touch with or had worked with years before to offer their support. On the other hand, Jake Tapper gave me sound advice when he said to never look at Twitter again! HA. He wasn’t kidding. There are trolls and haters and people who just spew out complete lies that know nothing about the truth. I’m always surprised by people who were not there during a situation talking as if they were in the room with you. I knew that telling my story might make some waves, but I had no idea it would be to the extent it was. I mean, I was trending on Twitter, the President of the United States tweeted about it twice, I was the lead story on all the nightly news shows, I was a part of all the night time talk show monologues, Saturday Night Live mentioned it that weekend on their Weekend Update segment, ‘Franken’ became a new entry in the Urban Dictionary and there were countless cartoons and memes about the situation. Not to mention having neighbors call you and ask what was going on because their kids saw me on the news when they were getting lunch. Throw all that in with rape, torture and death threats to you and your children and you get an idea of what I dealt with.
Thankfully things have calmed down for the most part. There are still trolls on the daily who don’t have anything better to do with their lives than to call me a liar and spew hate and try to hi-jack my story to make it fit their own agenda.
Who was the most unlikely person that contacted you to offer support during the media storm?
There were a couple of guys I had been on previous USO Tours with that reached out and said they wished they were on that tour with me. We’re talking really big, Hollywood names. I cried when the first one reached out. He understands what it means when we all decide to do these tours…the sacrifice and the meaning behind them. He reminded me we are a team together with a sole purpose when we embark on such an endeavor. And said that me having that violated in any way was pretty terrible. I realized how much that meant to me, having him say that.
What was the best piece of advice you received about the situation?
I was lucky to get really good advice from many different people. The first is Robin Roberts from Good Morning America. We were able to chat for a couple minutes before we went live on the show and I told her, I had some guilt that my story was getting so much attention when other women had suffered worse. And she told me to stop it with that attitude. She said every one has a different experience and mine is no less important to tell.
Doug McIntyre also reminded me on the daily that nobody could take away my story because it’s the truth.
Does the #MeToo movement cross political party lines?
The #MeToo movement is not about politics. It’s about empowering people who have suffered abuses to speak up and be heard. To be believed. There are bad people out there who want to make it about politics or political party. I was disgusted that self-proclaimed progressive women came out and attacked me with such ugly vitriol and hatred because of who they think I am politically. My story was not about politics. It happened to be that the man who did this to me was in politics.
I know you continue to share your story in an effort to affect change, so can you tell us about your recent speaking engagements with the organization, Difference Makers?
Difference Makers LLC is comprised of a group of speakers, referred to as 10 Strong, and we are passionate about eliminating toxic behaviors in communities. Collectively we seek to address the real issue of bystander inaction and collective silence that allows for the perpetration of sexual harassment and assault. We feel that if done correctly, we’ll be able to shift culture in communities and organizations around the globe. We’ll be able to cultivate Difference Makers! For additional information, please contact Eric Barreras at his email – firstname.lastname@example.org
How has your life as a public figure transformed you?
I don’t think it’s transformed me. I’m still the same person I was when I was a teenager moving to LA with hopes and dreams. I was always aware of the pitfalls of fame and money and my Dad always reminded me of what was important and where I came from. If you are always true to yourself, you’ll always be that same person, but a little older and a little wiser.
What is the hardest life lesson you’ve learned?
Both of my parents are gone. My mom died when I was 23 and my dad in 2014. You always hear people say, ‘Tell the ones you love, you love them before it’s too late.’ My parents knew I loved them, but I’m sad I didn’t get to spend more time with them before they left us. Both of them were still in Virginia while I was living in California, so I didn’t see them as often as I would have liked.
What advice would you go back and give your younger self?
Hmm, I would have told myself to take that trip to Goa, India when I had the chance! Traveling is one of my favorite things to do, but it’s harder to do these days with 2 little ones and mommy and daddy working.
If you could live your life again knowing what you know now, what would you change?
I wouldn’t change anything! I’ve been pretty blessed to have this life and to be here today with an amazing husband and 2 awesome kids!
As you continue your career in the entertainment industry, what is your definition of success?
My definition of success is having a job that I love. I have accomplished things in my professional life that I’m super proud of. I have crossed the borders of being a model, a TV host, a News Anchor on the radio and everything in between…and I’m still working! That’s success!
What three words best describe you?
Loving, loyal and fierce.
What are your goals for the future?
Someday I want to go back to school and finish getting my degree. I’d like to produce someday. And this is going to sound funny, but coming from a racing family and watching Daisy Duke on the Dukes of Hazzard as a little girl…I’d like to learn how to rebuild an engine!