Made in Cola Town: Ainsley Earhardt
Fox News anchor Ainsley Earhardt soars
Ainsley Earhardt is not afraid to use the word “dream.” Right now so many have come true, from getting her dream job as co-host of “FOX & Friends” at Fox News in New York City to having her second children’s book published a few weeks ago. And then there is Hayden DuBose Proctor, born Nov. 6, 2015, to her and her husband, Will.
“Spending time with my daughter is the most fun I have ever had in my life,” she declares. “I can’t wait to put my key in the door and hear her squeal ‘Mama, Mama, hold me.’”
Before birth, Hayden was the inspiration for Ainsley’s first children’s book, Take Heart, My Child: A Mother’s Dream, coauthored with Katheryn Cristaldi; it sold out a week and a half following the release, the Tuesday after 2016’s bruising presidential election. With its soothing rhymes and enchanting imagery such as a “butterfly sea” and a “polka-dot tree,” Take Heart, My Child, with its beautiful illustrations by artist Jaime Kim, seemed to offer a quiet balm to battered spirits. Now, it is in its sixth printing.
“It’s a feel-good book,” Ainsley says. “The country was divided, but we all love our children and do the best we can.”
A graduate of Spring Valley High School and the University of South Carolina’s College of Journalism, Ainsley says that her daughter is her favorite teacher now. “It’s so fun to watch a child who happens to be yours discover life.” She describes Hayden’s delight in seeing her first dog, her first raindrops. “She has taught me to take a step back and breathe and enjoy everything.”
Stepping back and breathing is a fairly new behavior for Ainsley, who was hired at Columbia’s WLTX before graduating from USC in 1999. She says she is grateful all four of her grandparents lived to see her on air. After four years there, she was hired by another CBS station, KENS-TV, in San Antonio. Two years later, her agent called with an invitation to interview with Fox News Channel. She flew to New York her birthday weekend and soon was co-hosting “FOX & Friends First,” a 5 a.m. show. In six years, she jumped from the 79th market to the 37th to the first. Now celebrating her 10th anniversary at Fox, broadcasting from the “curvy couch” from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays, she says she has no desire to leave.
“I can finally breathe,” she acknowledges. “I’m in the job I always wanted, and I worked so hard to get here. I worked across the country, weekends, late night, overnight. I would come in right after 8 p.m. and stay all night, anchor the morning show, and stay and do the headlines. I was on the campaign trail; I went to both conventions. I’ve seen this country. I’ve met celebrities, soldiers fighting for this country, and people providing scholarships for our children. I worked crazy hours and loved every single minute of it, and I’m grateful. I’m finally in the job I love.”
Ask Ainsley what she is proud of, and two of her many responses are being an American and the American dream. She has achieved much of the latter. She lives in the Upper East Side of her dream city in walking distance of Central Park and works at Fox News on the flag-lined Avenue of the Americas. Ainsley likes to tell students who want to be anchors to be patient. She is 41, and it took her about half of her life to get where she is.
“Always say ‘yes,’” she advises. “Be willing to volunteer. If you have a positive attitude, treat people as equals, and don’t burn any bridges — you’ll make it.”
She attributes her beliefs and work ethic to her parents, Dale and Wayne Earhardt, who made sure their three children went to college and to church. Wayne coached basketball at Wofford College and at Dorman and Orangeburg-Wilkinson high schools before taking a sales job and starting his own company in order to pay for their children’s college educations. Because Dale, who taught early childhood development in Richland District 2, left home at 7 a.m., Wayne got the children ready for school. At the breakfast table they found inspirational notes, poems, and Scriptures. Those notes formed the impetus for Take Heart, My Child. When staffers at Simon and Schuster turned down Ainsley’s children’s book manuscript about a dog, they asked her about her childhood. Her father’s notes of guidance and lessons to his children led to their suggesting Ainsley, then pregnant, write a book of lessons for her child.
“Take heart” comes from John 16:33 in the Bible, assuring a child of a parent’s steadfast love and care. It also encourages them to follow their dreams, not be afraid to change course, and do the right thing.
“My dad sometimes worked three jobs and would write thank-you notes to all his customers. My mom took care of our clothes, did the cooking, and had dinner on the table every single night. I don’t know how they did it,” she marvels. “My siblings and I are all hard workers, and we all have jobs.” Older sister Elise teaches in Charleston, and Trent, Ainsley’s younger brother, is in medical sales in Columbia. A YouTube video captures the Earhardt siblings and Trent’s wife, Darcy, on “FOX & Friends’ After the Show/Show.”
A portion of the proceeds from her first book and the new one, Through Your Eyes: My Child’s Gift To Me, benefits Folds of Honor, an Oklahoma-based organization that provides scholarships and assistance to families of America’s fallen or wounded soldiers.
“My father always encouraged us to give 10 percent of our salary to the church,” she explains. “Since Take Heart is my ‘icing on the cake,’ I give it to a charity that puts the children of fallen or injured soldiers through school. But it is my pleasure to give back to the people we love, who serve and sacrifice.” Unlike many books, both of Ainsley’s were made in America, something she insisted upon.
A third book will focus on her Christian faith. Members of St. James Episcopal Church in New York, Ainsley and Will serve the hungry and homeless there on Friday nights. Her faith was built as a child at Ebenezer Lutheran in Columbia and strengthened as a USC student at Shandon Baptist.
Of the people she would like to interview, she says she would love to go back in time to talk to Jesus Christ, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. As for those she has interviewed already, the list is long. Celebrities and politicians have shared air space with her; she counts musicians among her favorites.
“They have a gift God has given them,” she says. “I always loved Dolly Parton. She just exudes love. She has the duty of entertaining us with her voice, and she’s helped us get through hard times and good times, and it’s not political. Most musicians don’t want to be political.”
She has experienced several “pinch-me moments.” One occurred when she interviewed Garth Brooks. “He asked me, ‘Do you have any children? Show me your pictures.’ I remember getting a CD of Garth Brooks in high school.”
Another such moment included Kirk Cameron, her elementary school crush. Back then, she had gone so far as to write him for an autograph. Decades later, he was a guest on the show. “I thought how interesting life comes full circle.”
As a teen, Ainsley wanted to be an actress. She participated in theater and never missed the Academy and Grammy awards shows. Enthralled with the entertainment industry, she says she still loves it but is star-struck no longer. She has interviewed too many “giving” celebrities to think they are different from anyone else. “We are all important and have equally important jobs,” she says.
Dissuaded from a theatrical career by her parents, she took advice from her part-time employer, Columbia orthodontist Richard Boyd. He suggested she consider following his path. As an orthodontist, he told her she would work with wonderful families and be able to visit New York — already her dream city — any weekend she wanted. Majoring in biology at Florida State, she loved her sorority and student life, but not her coursework. “Chemistry was impossible,” she recalls. Then one day she turned on the TV and saw Irmo native Leeza Gibbons talk about how her years at USC prepared her for a career in television. Ainsley began taking steps to come home.
It has been a whirlwind ever since. Ainsley covered Pope Francis’ American tour, the murder of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and the Veterans Affairs hospital investigation in Phoenix. She reported on college spring break from Panama City Beach and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and she contributed to FNC’s New Year’s Eve special, “All-American New Year,” live from Times Square. She was the first anchor to get an interview with newly elected President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump. She regrets not being able to secure an interview with Hillary Clinton, though Fox did get interviews with members of her staff.
During her early years at WLTX, Ainsley wanted to do news stories only as chatting casually on a couch with guests and colleagues lacked appeal. But her boss, Larry Audas, thought otherwise. He told her he would be pairing her with Curtis Wilson, a radio deejay, and the two would host the “WLTX News 19 Morning Show” together.
“He said, ‘Y’all will work together, and your personalities will click,’” Ainsley remembers. “I told him I was a hard news person; I wanted to cover the accidents and the political stories. I didn’t think I was funny and didn’t want to cover the fluffy pieces. I was a blonde woman and wanted to be taken seriously.”
Audas proceeded with his plan. His instincts were right. “Curtis and I had a blast,” Ainsley recalls. “He’s the most generous person. We are still good friends.”
Through it all, she has reveled in the medium of television. “I love getting the news before anyone else does and telling the entire world. That’s a high. It’s also a high when the camera goes on. When the show is done, your day is done. And if you make a mistake — it’s live TV — you have another chance to do it all over.”
Ainsley is one of a handful of women anchoring the national morning news. “It’s fun to know you’re waking people up. I’m in their bedrooms or kitchens while they’re preparing their kids’ lunch boxes. It’s an honor.”
Anyone watching Ainsley at work might be dazzled by her smile, her glamour. She would remind them of the lesson of not judging. “I’m a terrible singer,” she confesses. “I love to dance, but I’m terrible. I want to be good, but I’m just not.” Her voice is dejected, and then brightens. “But I try and have fun — I’m always on the dance floor at a wedding, and I’m always singing loudly in church.”
Despite her love for New York, she hasn’t given up her Southern manners. “Ma’am” and “Sir” are entrenched in her vocabulary, and she is teaching Hayden to use those words, too. She has never been asked to drop her Southern accent; however, she did take voice lessons from a USC professor to learn to speak a little differently for marketability.
Though she was born in Charlotte and spent her earliest years in Spartanburg, Ainsley considers Columbia her true hometown. She moved here in fourth grade, and says her two best friends from that year are still her best friends now. Her father grew up in Earlewood Park; her mother attended Columbia College. She is named after her great uncle Ainsley, a member of the Ainsley family that owned Ainsley Hall. The mansion was designed by Robert Mills and is also known as the Robert Mills House in downtown Columbia’s historic district. She spends summer vacations and Christmas holidays on the South Carolina Coast. She also dreams of buying a beach house in South Carolina and giving every family member a key.
For now, Ainsley is content mothering a toddler and being wife to Will, a former Clemson quarterback who works for a private equity company. Hayden loves Central Park, and Ainsley enjoys volunteering with Playground Partners, a group within the Central Park Conservancy that makes sure its playgrounds have clean water, soft turf, and working bathrooms.
Are there plans to expand their family? “I will give that to God,” Ainsley says. “If God wants me to have more children, I’ll let Him lead the way. But I’m content with where I am. If we could give Hayden a sibling, we’d be so blessed.”
Sitting down with Ainsley
Q: What is your favorite Columbia restaurant?
A: The first time I ate at Al’s Upstairs was my prom night with a bunch of friends. That was more than 20 years ago, and it’s still one of my favorites. Also, any restaurant of Dianne Light’s is always a hit. I used to eat at Dianne’s on Devine, and now I love Di Prato’s. It’s delicious, a fun atmosphere, and Dianne always comes over to speak to our family.
Q: What part of the city do you miss most?
A: I miss tailgating at the USC football games and watching my team. I come back for a few games, but wish I could be home for all the games.
Q: What is your favorite location?
A: I love Devine Street and Five Points — the restaurants, shopping, and friendly faces.
Q: What is your favorite thing to do with your family in Columbia?
A: Gathering around a table with my family, enjoying good food and conversation. I also love when we are all at church together. The churches in the South are phenomenal. I love the music, preaching, and being surrounded by the people who mean the most to me.
Q: Do you think you would ever move back?
A: My heart is in New York City and South Carolina. For now, I need both.
Q: What was your favorite thing about living in Columbia?
A: I loved the familiarity, like going to the grocery store and seeing people I knew, knowing which mechanic to call when your car breaks down, or which doctor to call when you don’t feel well. I love the connections and how most people from S.C. never leave S.C. (and if we do, we always come home).
Q: Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
A: Extrovert. I wear my heart on my sleeve and am pretty open about past experiences.
Q: What is your favorite movie?
A: The Family Man
Q: Is your desk messy or neat?
A: Very neat. I like organization.
Q: What was your first job?
A: Hallmark in the Spring Valley area. My best friend’s mom owned it, and I worked there after school and on the weekends.
Q: What is your pet peeve?
A: A sudden loud noise.
Q: What was your first car?
A: A gray Buick Skyhawk.
Q: What books are on your nightstand?
A: The Bible, a guide book for nursery schools in Manhattan (we apply this fall for my daughter’s school for 2018), and Charles Martin’s When Crickets Cry.
Q: What is your favorite comfort food?
A: Pasta and pizza.
Q: Where would you choose to max out your credit card?
A: I miss the malls and being able to shop at many stores at once (even when it’s raining outside). I could easily max out my card at Columbiana Mall.
Q: What is the “coolest” experience you’ve ever had?
A: Jumping out of airplanes with the Army’s Golden Knights and the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds.
Q: What is your favorite thing to cook?
A: Zucchini pasta with marinara sauce and lots of parmesan cheese.
Q: How did you meet your spouse?
A: On a blind date.
Q: What are your hobbies?
A: Tennis, working out, spending time with my daughter, going to church.