April 1, 2009
17:15 PM EDT
RACHEL MADDOW: "Trust me, you're not ready for this."
Rachel Maddow has surprised a lot of people in her young life. At 35, she commands a large and influential audience as the rising star of MSNBC's stable of political talks show hosts, despite having a relatively short background in broadcasting and a distinctly progressive agenda. That she openly identifies as a lesbian is only one of the many factors that make her meteoric rise to stardom surprising.
But nothing she has said or accomplished until now prepared her friends, colleagues and fans as much as her announcement at a private dinner late last night, on the eve of her 36th birthday.
According to Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, a guest at the dinner who had earlier appeared on Maddow's 9 pm live broadcast, the host had two shockers up her sleeve. First, she announced that her on-again, off-again study of the Qua'an, which friends had known about for over a year, had led her to declare her faith in Islam. As her dinner guests sat in silence, trying to decide how to react, Maddow erupted in laughter. "April Fool!" she said. "I know it's a little early, but I couldn't hold it in any more. Got you, didn't I?"
Initial reaction was mixed, said Taibbi. Not a few of her friends thought the joke was in poor taste, but "a few more glasses of Shiraz and everybody came around pretty well." Then Maddow dropped the real bombshell, very casually this time.
"Oh, and by the way, I 've decided to announce something on the show tomorrow night that will really blow your mind," Taibbi quoted her as saying. "I'm not really gay."
The reaction was predictable. "Give it up, Rachel," said her producer, Bill Wolff. "You're really terrible at this kind of humor."
But Maddow insisted this latest pronouncement is not a joke. "Really, guys, it's true. Ask Susan. I've been working toward this for a long time. The whole point is that it just shouldn't matter who I sleep with, for good or ill. And the fact is, as much as I like her, I don't really sleep with Susan. We're just friends -- well, we're also co-conspirators in the longest-running joke you've ever heard of, but you get my point."
Heads swiveled toward Susan Mikula, long identified as Maddow's partner. Struggling to keep her composure, Mikula confirmed Maddow's claim. "It's true," she choked out between fits of laughter. "I honestly don't know how you all didn't figure it out years ago. The only thing that gets Rachel hot is infrastructure policy, and she's told everybody that like a hundred times."
Mikula continued, "I think Rachel's probably the least sexual person I've ever met. She's a great friend, a great roommate, but she lives in her head, and seems perfectly happy with that."
"Seriously," Maddow interjected, "this was an important point to make, about sexual preference not being a basis for deciding what to think about a person's ideas. It's been sort of nice to be a gay icon, but enough is enough. My work should be judged on the merits, just like everyone else's work should be judged on its merits."
It was at this point, Taibbi says, that one of the female guests, whom he declined to identify, abruptly vomited into a nearby wastebasket. In the ensuing confusion, Taibbi surruptitiously Twittered the basics to his editor. Shortly afterward, he called in to the Rollling Stone office with quotes.
"What was I supposed to do -- ignore the biggest scoop that ever landed in my lap?" Taibbi says, "I was the only person at the table -- besides Susan Mikula -- who doesn't work for MSNBC, and Rachel did not ask for any of this to be off the record. But it wasn't a 12-step meeting, and I'm not an idiot. I can't be expected to maintain confidentiality if the source didn't ask for it."
In the end, Taibbi's story was held by RS editors for almost 20 hours, as they scrambled to make sure it wasn't a second round joke. But MSNBC spokesperson Avril Phoule confirmed just before airtime that the announcement is real and will air tonight in the live show beginning at 9 pm EDT. Maddow's self-outing is expected to follow her interview with former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Taibbi reports that the reaction of Maddow's colleague Keith Olbermann sums up most of the reaction quotes he was able to get ahead of the show: "I know I'm paid to talk for a living," said Olbermann, "but for once, I'm speechless."