Newton native Sara Haines brightens 'Good Morning America' as star of new hour
Sara Haines’ day job is being Sara Haines.
Not in the new age way of living your truth (though the Newton native subscribes to that, too), but, literally, her job description demands she be her uber-gregarious self — while on TV, live and for a viewing audience of millions.
As one half of the “Good Morning America” third hour, appropriately called “Strahan & Sara,” Haines doesn’t have to stretch to play the part of curious storyteller. She wears the same excited sparkle whether she’s dishing with celebrities, detailing last night’s “Housewives,” dissecting that morning’s headlines or discussing the newest parenting trends.
“The best compliment I get is when people who knew me growing up or people that have known me since I started out, are like, ‘Sara Haines has not changed even one bit,’” Haines told me recently from the show’s Times Square set. “I mean, I have learned some stuff along the way, hopefully, but that groundedness that my parents placed in me, that hasn’t changed a bit.”
But the unsinkable Sara Haines now faces her biggest challenge yet. After years as a featured player — first on the last hour of the “Today” show and then as a panelist on “The View” — she’s been given top billing on her own show, and all the pressure that comes with it.
“Strahan & Sara” had a slow start, but former football player Michael Strahan and Haines have relaunched the show with a new title, a fresh set and a tone that’s more in line with their personalities and aesthetics.
Oh, and Haines is doing all this while pregnant with her third child and caring for two other kiddos under three. (She tries not to think about those numbers, lest she really freak herself out, she said with a laugh.)
But Haines thrives on low expectations she can blow out of the water. She came to New York with no industry connections after a childhood in rural America and used her wit and a hefty dose of hard work to leverage an entry-level production job into a position in front of the camera. Once there, the naturally bubbly blonde flourished.
Her secret is she has no secret, she says with a laugh. She lives her life unfiltered, and she’d be doing that whether there were cameras pointed at her or not.
“I want the show to be a place where people can check out for one hour during their day,” she said. “Honestly, all I hope for is that people are smiling when they watch because I definitely am.”
‘Idyllic’ childhood in Iowa
Like so many other Newton immigrants, the Haineses landed in town when her father got a job at Maytag.
The third of four children, Haines spent her days driving to Des Moines for dance and gymnastics, joining local sports leagues or climbing hay bales and chasing stray kittens with her “farm” friends. In a tight-knit place like Newton, kids her age were raised by teachers, neighbors and the community at large.
“I still remember how when it started to get dark, you would hear parents screaming from their front porch and someone would be like, ‘That's your mom,’ and we'd all scamper home,” she said.
“It feels idyllic when I look back at my life; I feel very lucky.”
Despite being raised by the Jasper County collective, Haines’ biggest mentors were her parents. Her father, Dick, worked for years at Maytag, and her mother, Sandy, was a nurse and an early volunteer with the Sister Cities program in Ukraine.
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Giving back was important in the Haines family, as was working for what you got because, as her parents would tell her, “You’ll love it more because you did.”
“My parents never stepped in; they never called a teacher or coach,” she said. “They were like, ‘You've got to handle this on your own,’ so that kind of gave me the muscle to get where I am today — and to survive New York.”
Juxtaposition of production role, performing
Since as far back as Haines can remember, she always loved the adrenaline of performing, but she wasn’t married to any one type of entertainment. She loved acting, off-script improv and even considered being a starter in basketball and volleyball to be a kind of performance.
She studied government at Smith College in Massachusetts but moved to New York City after graduation to try her hand at sketch comedy.
She got a job as an NBC Page, where she soaked up everything she could about show business and made money to support her headshots, acting classes and audition workshops.
After a year in the prestigious program, she landed a gig in production for the “Today” show and went to work behind the scenes, booking cars and travel for the on-air team.
As she ascended into full-time in the early 2000s, social media was just beginning to blow-up and the “Today” show wanted to be part of those nascent communications platforms. Everyone associated with the show was tasked with creating content — even the head of finance had to pitch in on the blog, Haines said.
Haines saw this as her chance. She started hosting a series for the “Today” show website about the people who worked behind the scenes. Branding it “Backstage Pass,” she got the attention of Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford, who invited her on-air to read online comments from their fans.
“After the third straight day I appeared on-air, the executive producer pulled me aside and said, ‘You know your life just changed,’” she said.
Haines started to come on every day but stayed in her production role. After a few months, the grind of all that responsibility wore her down.
“I remember one day sitting on the couch, about to do an on-air hit, and I turned to Maria Menounos and I was like, ‘While I have you here, what time would you like your car tomorrow?’” she said. “That was the moment I realized the juxtaposition within my life.”
She had come to New York to perform, and now she could seek out opportunities to do only that. She was hired on “Good Morning America Weekend Edition” shortly after putting feelers out and left scheduling cars behind.
Relishing her home life
At ABC, Haines continued to thrive and, after two seasons on “The View,” the network jumped at a chance to move her from a featured role to a named co-host.
But somewhere along her climb, she realized that in focusing on the professional, she had eschewed the personal. At 35, she wanted to find “her person” and start a family as close as the one she’d grown up in.
With her own brood now, Haines said she’s realized that her job — however much she fought for it and truly enjoys it — will never be as important as her home life.
As someone who talks with celebrities regularly, it’s easy to tell when people really relish their status. (Find me in a bar and maybe I’ll share my thoughts on which Iowa celebs have inflated egos.)
Despite living in the rarefied class of people “on TV,” Haines seems like she hasn’t let any of it go to her head. She may be chatting with the hottest stars of stage and screen, but with the way she carries herself — laughing maybe a little too loud, talking with her hands and smiling so big her eyes scrunch closed — she could just as easily blend in at half-priced wine night at Hy-Vee.
And on social media, her image is the opposite of a Fyre Festival influencer. It’s her son with crazy hair, or her daughter with a food-covered face or a photo of her recreating (unsuccessfully) a J Lo Instagram picture.
“My whole upbringing raised me to realize that none of the lights, none of the sparkle, none of the impressive people you meet really matter,” she said. “It's actually distracting from what makes us all similar, which are those human elements of family and where we come from and being true to ourselves.”
Make no mistake, Haines may be the star of her own show, but, at heart, she’s still that girl from Newton.
COURTNEY CROWDER, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She used to watch TV for a living. You can contact her at (515) 284-8360 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.