Joan Lunden on overcoming fear of public speaking, finding a rewarding new mission and her admiration for Laura W. Bush Institute
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By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
For nearly 20 years, Joan Lunden was the woman most TV viewers spent their mornings watching. And now, two decades after leaving the air full-time, Lunden still tends to an attentive audience.
These days, though, Lunden works as an advocate, both for senior caregiving and, especially, for women's health. It's the latter role that will bring the former Good Morning America host to Amarillo as the featured speaker April 6 at the Power of the Purse Luncheon for the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women's Health.
The annual fundraiser event begins at 11:30 a.m. April 6 in the Amarillo Civic Center Complex Heritage Ballroom, 401 S. Buchanan St. Tickets are $100, and tickets are still available. Call 806-356-4617.
"I'm on the road all of the time, in front of audiences all the time, and I see their faces," Lunden said in a telephone interview today. "You can tell by their faces that you're reaching them, that you're reminding them to be conscious about their own health.
"We women are really good about worrying about everyone else in our lives, to make sure they go to their doctor's appointments, but we get so wrapped up that we forget ourselves sometimes," she continued. "I'm there to annoy them, to remind them that it's not being selfish to take time out for your own wellness, your own sense of serenity. That's actually allowing you to be the best you can be as a woman, as a mom, as a wife. You go back to those jobs in better shape."
To break through those barriers in her audience members' lives, Lunden said it takes someone like her — a familiar figure from whom people are accustomed to getting vital information.
"It gives me an added ability to get through to them, probably more than a doctor who would come to speak to them, because they know me, they relate to me," she said.
After becoming the full-time co-host of Good Morning America in 1980, Lunden was a morning TV fixture for 17 years, the longest-running female host ever on early morning television. Before and after her time on GMA, Lunden authored 10 books; the most recent, Had I Known, was a memoir of her battle with aggressive breast cancer. She also continued her journalistic pursuits as a Retirement Living TV correspondent and, since 2014, a special correspondent for NBC's Today.
But since her successful battle with breast cancer, Lunden has primarily spent her time advocating for women's health care issues.
"You stumble into these roles," she said, admitting that, at first, she wanted to keep her cancer diagnosis private. "Then, like, two days in, I thought, 'Your entire life has been up for public consumption because of being on a program like GMA and here you have an area of your life that, by sharing it, you could make a significant impact on others.'
"It would have been antithetical to being Joan Lunden," she continued. "My whole mission in life is to educate and inspire and motivate, and it has been that way since I was little."
Though she's no longer a full-time journalist, those skills and impulses never fade away, she said. Ahead of next week's speech, she has done copious research on the Amarillo-based institute and its mission to advance science and research into women's health. She spoke knowledgeably of the institute's efforts in expanding research, in changing medical school curriculum and in providing resources for women and young girls.
"I'm just so impressed with the approach they took," Lunden said. "It's been so long in coming. We have needed this for eons, and now, they're doing it."
Researching her hosts is old hat, she said.
"I can't help myself," she laughed. "By the time we get to an event, I've scoured the website from stem to stern. You write a better speech, you understand the institute better and why people came that day, what (the institute hopes) to impart, the impact they hope to make. I write to that. My story is my story, by my speech is different every time because I write to the event."
Back when she was appearing in millions of American households daily on TV, Lunden was actually petrified of speaking to audiences without a camera between her and them.
"It completely, 100 percent unnerved me," Lunden said. I used to get so nervous. It was horrible. ... But after GMA and when I was deciding what I was going to do next, I knew I was going to get over this."
That's when she got a call from motivation guru Tony Robbins, who asked her to join him at several speaking engagements — and not the small ones, either.
"We would go into these huge venues, 24,000 people in the room. ... It was almost surreal."
After a few months, though, Lunden was able to let go of her adherence to prepared text — and her death grip on the podium — and would relax more and engage better with the audience.
"Today, this is a huge part of my career and, dare I say?, the favorite part of my career," she said. "I am a living, breathing example that you can turn a total fear into a total passion. I've lived it. I've done it.
"I like living in this world. I know I can make an impact on people when I go in and speak. I see it on their faces."