Be young, be professional, but don't be sexy

Posted: Jan 14, 2002 12:00 AM
The "sexy" Paula Zahn promo ad that provoked a hissy fit at CNN proves two truisms: It doesn't matter what people are saying as long as they're talking about you; and, we're getting back to normal. First, what they were saying about Zahn in a television ad that enjoyed a gnat's longevity is that she's provocative, super-smart and, oh, yeah, just a little bit sexy - all to the sound of something like a zipper being unzipped. The ad, which ran only a few times, was torn from the airwaves in a network jihad of moral indignation. Zahn was "offended." CNN head Walter Isaacson was "outraged." Viewers, the lucky few who got to see the ad, most likely were amused. Compared to CNN and Co., Hamlet's mother was an amateur in the "doth protest too much" department. What could be better than being positioned to express moral outrage at being called "sexy" while earning $2 million a year? (OK, $10 million a year would be better.) Still, for a nanosecond of offensive flattery, Zahn got the attention the ad was intended to get, she got to decry the "insult" that she's an appealing woman, and she gets weeks of coverage in which her professionalism is praised amid apologetic admissions that, well, she (start italics) is (end italics) a little bit sexy. And you thought (start italics) you (end italics) were having a bad day. The story, meanwhile, has great legs. Columnists, critics and TV personalities have written and spoken zillions of words about Zahn. CNN's home paper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was running polls for sexiest CNN woman (and man) on its Web site. As of Thursday, Daryn Kagan, whose delivery style brings the words "come hither" to mind, had received more votes than Zahn. In the interest of full disclosure, Zahn is the hands-down favorite at my house. Hate the girl for being gorgeous, but she's good. Poised and professional, she's handled events since 9-11 as well as anyone. And she's downright dowdy compared with the luscious babes on Fox(y) News Network, where some of the gals' lips are so moist 'n glossy, they look like Venus flytraps. Heaven forbid an airborne insect should wander into the studio and be attracted by the reflection. Could this be the secret to those bee-stung lips? Herein lies the distinction we're after - the difference between sexy and sex appeal. Zahn isn't zipper-sexy, but she does have sex appeal. There's nothing more appealing than competence, confidence and intelligence, which, by the way, also explains the popularity of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. His press conferences to explain to reporters why we're carpet-bombing Afghanistan - "Because we're trying to kill the bad guys" - is a testament to the equation: Competence IS sexy. So is honesty. CNN's protests following the Zahn promo - a woman did it; no one outside the promotion department reviewed or approved it - are silly and don't ring quite true. I see all of my syndicate's promos in advance of release. Surely top network talent does, too? Frankly, the "woman" who created the ad ought to get an Addy Award, or at least a promotion, for accomplishing the network's goal of raising Zahn's profile. So she gets a slap on the wrist for the zipper, which was more prurient than sexy. And inaccurate besides. I personally visited every closet in my house this morning and couldn't find a single zipper that made any noise. With little ado, we've entered the era of the Noiseless Zipper. All of which confirms the second truism - we're getting back to normal. In a world of very serious news, which Zahn has delivered with appropriate gravitas, we may have needed to paddle around in the shallow end for old times' sake. After all, if America isn't obsessing about something sexual, the terrorists win.