Christiansen admits that the outlines of her story seem too perfect to be true. She came of age in Arvada and was named Miss Colorado in 1980 in part because of a skill she hasn't had much of an opportunity to show off lately: baton twirling. Five years later, after earning a journalism degree from the University of Colorado Boulder, she was hired by 9News and has been there ever since.
Dig deeper, though, and you'll find a tale of perseverance that reveals the grit beneath the glamorous exterior. Christiansen was hired as a writer, not an on-camera personality, and it took years of effort, and a willingness to battle for each step up the ladder, before she was finally allowed to become a regular on the anchor desk. She credits former 9News anchor Ed Sardella, who became a mentor (and tough taskmaster) while she was still at CU Boulder, with helping her along the way, even though she was strong enough to ignore his advice at the outset of her career.
In addition, Christiansen talks about her advocacy for breast cancer self-exams via the Buddy Check9 program and the subsequent diagnosis of her beloved younger sister, Keri, plus the changes in the TV news business, her personal style and her doubts that "the Colorado girl," as she refers to herself, would have a chance to be Arakawa's successor, not to mention her willingness to step aside if her bosses think the new gig isn't working.
Fat chance of that happening. Get to know Kim Christiansen better below.
Kim Christiansen: This is a little bit of a myth. I was actually born in Omaha, but my parents moved here when I was eighteen months old. That has come into discussion in the past, where people will say, "Colorado native!" And I'm one of those people who wouldn't really correct them, like if someone misspells my last name. I grew up here, in Arvada. I don't remember living anywhere else. But my sister was the one who was born here.
What was growing up in Arvada like for you?
I can't imagine a more idyllic environment to grow up in. Arvada was very much a small town when I grew up there, and I still feel like it's a small town in a lot of ways. You knew every single neighbor, and I still remember the neighbors I grew up with. Ironically, I still bump into some of the people I grew up with. We always say that the people who grew up on the west side of town — Arvada, Golden, that whole area — might leave for a while, and I did. I lived in Denver for, I don't know, fifteen years at least. But you always come back. And there you are in the King Soopers, where you push the buggies and see them and say, "Hi!"
I love that side of town. I think the older you get, the more you appreciate it. And the fact that it's sort of still a small town and you see the mountains every day is wonderful. There are some good, hardworking people there, and I remember all kinds of crazy things about growing up there, like every kid does. Having water fights, playing hide and seek. I was a baton twirler, and people will tell you they saw me twirling my batons in front of my parents' house every single day of the year. They will all remind you of me out there practicing, because that's what I did. I thought it was going to be a long-term career [laughs].
All of the references online to you having been Miss Colorado and having participated in the Miss America pageant talk about you winning a special talent award. Was that special talent baton twirling?
It was. I juggled one, two, three and four batons — and by the way, if you watched the [Miss America] finals last year, they had a really good twirler — and that is more of what I did back then. I wasn't a majorette who stands there and marches in the high boots. That isn't really what I did. It was really competitive at the time, and it's coming back — it's undergoing a resurgence.
I twirled at CU. I twirled for the Denver Gold. I twirled occasionally at a Broncos game or a Nuggets game. Things like that.
How long has it been since you twirled? And could you manage four batons today?
I could not manage four, I can promise. I could probably do three. It's more of a juggling thing, and it's been a long, long time. I got them out for fun in the driveway five or ten years ago, when no one was around, and tried it [laughs]. Some of it did come back. But back then, when I was younger, I really did practice every day, like a good hour or two a day.
I need to read up and learn a little bit more. I'm a huge fan of Gretchen Carlson [chairwoman of the Miss America board of directors]. I think she has done what I think they tried to do for decades, which is a Miss America pageant focused on women achieving success — getting scholarships and going on to have wonderful careers. And I'm here to tell you, it's never not been that.
By the way, I'm really close to Becky Dreman [a Miss Colorado who became Miss America in 1974 under her maiden name, Rebecca Ann King]. I always go to her for her views on these things, because she's stayed really active in the Miss America program. She likes the idea a lot, so I kind of go with her. And she's worked closely with Gretchen for a long, long time.
I also understand the critics who say, "Really, no one's going to watch if you're not standing there in a swimsuit. The ratings are going to go down." And let's be honest: It's still a pageant, even though they've tried to get away from calling it that for decades. I absolutely understand that. But I will tell you, back in the day when I did it, there weren't multiple opportunities for women to earn scholarship money. And for me, it was an opportunity to do what I did every single day, which was twirl batons, and to present myself in an interview experience that was really challenging. I was the second-youngest person in Miss America that year. I was surrounded by women who were in their mid-twenties, who were getting their MBAs or headed off to law school, going to medical school. I look back at those women and see the emails that say, "So-and-so is now a district attorney in North Carolina, and someone else is now finishing up her medical degree." And they really did. They really did follow up and do all of that. So I saw that perspective, and for me, being eighteen or nineteen years old, it was an awesome experience. Where else was I going to be challenged like that and be put in front of people like that? And once you win [the Miss Colorado crown], you get an opportunity to be in appearances across the state — and I even did appearances out of the state a few times.
I thought I wanted to go into this profession, but I wasn't 100 percent sure — and that was complete, on-the-job training in many ways. Getting to speak off the cuff, doing some ad-libbing, getting to know a little bit about reporters, understanding the expectations of being on stage, if you will, and being a public figure in some respects. So it was a really great experience for me, and I'm glad I did it when I was really young, because I think going back to college was really important for me — getting back into the college experience. But having some real-life experience in the middle of it was really important. If I had won the title at 23 or 24 years old, I would have thought, "Wow, that's great. I'm going to get that big-time job and really move into it right away." But you really don't do that. It's on you to try to pursue your dreams. And believe me, working the overnight job at 9News was certainly not the glamorous job of my future that I dreamed about when I was eighteen or nineteen years old. But that's what I did, because that's what I wanted to do. I had my dream and my passion.
What is it that drew you to journalism? Was it something specific? Or were you a news junkie who just loved the idea of working in the profession?
It was a little of both. I was interested, certainly, in news. But I loved my high school English writing teacher, and she always said, "Find something you really enjoy on some level." And I just got fortunate. Besides having some really good professors, some of whom are still there, I also got to take a class with Ed Sardella my senior year — and he really became a mentor for me. It was a very small class, and it was the hardest class I'd ever taken. It was like he didn't think we took any other classes [laughs]. The workload was unbelievable.
You know how you are in college. Like, "This man is teaching me journalism, and if I don't earn an A in this class, that means I'm an epic failure." One of my classmates said that: "If you don't get an A in this class, you're never going to make it in this business! You're never going to make it!" And only one girl in the class got an A, and we both got Bs. But he went into the business, and so did I.
Everybody knows Ed was great. But he really helped me open my eyes to what it's like in a newsroom every single day. He put us in breaking-news situations every single day and asked us to update scripts every single day and told us to rewrite things and ask the right questions. We were saying, "Whoa! What? It can't happen that fast!" But it can. And it does.
Was 9News your first professional job? Have you only worked for 9News during your career?
Yes. Put me in the circus for that. That just doesn't happen. I started with the idea that I would be going to a small market, like most people. And I had done an internship the summer before my senior year and talked to a lot of people about it. But it was the influence of Ed and that class that shifted my ideas. I got to the end of my senior year and called him and said, "My idea is that I don't go to a smaller market. My idea is that I go to a large market. I get a behind-the-scenes job in Denver and be surrounded by people who really know the business and I can go from there." And Ed was really honest with me. He said, "I think you can get that behind-the-scenes job, but I don't think you're going to transition into an on-the-air job in that market. You're going to invest x number of years behind the scenes and then you'll still have to move to a smaller market to get your on-the-air experience."
He said, "It's up to you. If you don't feel like you're wasting your time, start applying for jobs behind the scenes and see what happens." And he was right. This stuff normally doesn't happen.
I spent, gosh, three and a half years or maybe even more behind the scenes. I applied everywhere. It wasn't like I only applied for 9News. But the first job I was able to get was the writer for the 6 a.m. news here, and they technically considered it a part-time job, even though you worked full-time hours — and you didn't get benefits [laughs]. So I would come to work at 11 or 11:30. Sometimes I'd push it until midnight. And then I'd work until 8 in the morning. And I think I made close to $800 or $900 a month.
I was on that for about nine months, and then I was promoted to writer for the late shows — for the 5 and the 10, because we only had those two newscasts at the time. And then I worked directly with Ed every night. So I got promoted and was given benefits and had a full-time job for the next three years. And it was very, very hard, but very, very rewarding.