After Ashleigh Banfield and her boyfriend-producer broke down a glass door to escape the dust cloud on 9/11, her career seemed golden. MSNBC sent her under burka across the Khyber Pass to viewer acclaim (while inside the network, she earned the nickname Tali-Banfield).
But lately, things haven’t been going so well: Banfield’s banter has drawn more and more critics of me-first reportage. And her bus tour across America was about as exciting as C-span’s. Though a Salt Lake City broadcast on Elizabeth Smart’s disappearance drew interest, fewer viewers have wanted to tag along with Banfield—only 147,000 during one lonely late-August week. The numbers are inching up but still trail her channel-mate Phil Donahue’s own meager following by a full 150,000.
The trauma, the travel, the tragedy, they have all taken their toll. “I’m certainly not going to do any self-diagnosis. I haven’t had time yet to see anybody professionally, but I do intend to because it has been a difficult year,” Banfield says from a taxi on her way to 30 Rock. “I’m fifteen pounds heavier than last year. I’m smoking a pack of cigarettes a week.” Banfield, 34, has even broken up with her boyfriend, Drew Nederpelt, the tech entrepreneur whom she deputized as a field producer and then upgraded to fiancé. In past interviews, she peddled their love-in-the-ruins romance, showing off a rock from Tiffany that he gave her before a trip to Afghanistan. By July, though, the engagement was officially kaput.
Her love now is the road, no matter how bumpy it gets. “I’ve been in 45 countries, if I could do some quick arithmetic,” she says. “Once, in Israel, I was so sick with some gastrointestinal nastiness that I wound up passing out on Ehud Barak’s sofa. It was very embarrassing.”
If war comes to Iraq, it’s a safe bet that Banfield will be there (or as close to there as she can get). However, her gonzo style of travel will be toned down. After going brunette (when in Kabul … ), now she’s back to lightly frosted. She no longer travels with “armed gunmen” like a desert princess, and she’s ditched her trekker’s backpack for a little wheely drag-along.
But she hasn’t lost her flair for drama. During a war, “we’d have to be in a location for hours on end, and could very easily become targets in the dark skies with our bright lights,” she says. “We are very much sitting ducks when we do our program.”