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Mole Man

At 33, Anderson Cooper has been a model, a war correspondent, and an anchorman. Now Gloria Vanderbilt's son has gone underground -- as host of a new show, The Mole.

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Of all the people who have fallen for Anderson Cooper, no one has fallen harder than Jessica, a 19-year-old Mount Holyoke sophomore. Four years ago, Jessica -- radical libertarian, animal-rights advocate, and Elvis Costello fan -- started the unofficial Anderson Cooper fan club, in hopes of "bringing together Anderfans around the globe." She called it Gunmetal Grey, in honor of Cooper's hair color. On her Website, she included a faq section, to answer such questions as "Who is Anderson Cooper?" The answer: "He is a god among men."

This modest assertion is made on the basis of Cooper's impressive rise in the news business, first as a war reporter for classroom-news network Channel One and later as ABC News' youngest correspondent (when hired, he was 28). In quick succession, Cooper worked for 20/20 Downtown, as a reporter for the weekend news, and as anchor of the overnight broadcast World News Now.

Predating the posse of MSNBC Gen-X pundits and current ABC tyro Chris Cuomo by at least a half-decade, Cooper -- the son of writer Wyatt Cooper and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt -- deployed an earnest, no-nonsense reporting style on difficult assignments, like war-torn Rwanda and Bosnia. At Channel One, he scored with a generation of young fans; at ABC, he won over baby-boomers and peers alike.

But last month, Cooper announced that he was departing from news to host a new ABC reality show called The Mole. Beginning this week, and for the eight hence, Cooper will be found not on the West Bank but rather in "dozens of exotic locales." As in Survivor, the ten contestants in The Mole compete for $1 million. The twist? One of them is a saboteur whose identity is kept secret even from Cooper, the show's commentator, mediator, and wise man; the contestant who figures out the mole's identity wins. Cooper says he leads viewers "on a journey." He wears a black leather jacket. A recent post on Gunmetal Grey reads: it's the apocalypse!!!!

"It was a scary decision," admits Cooper, who speaks with the camera-friendly suavity of most TV journalists. "However, I wasn't happy at the network," he continues. "I'd found myself worrying about things like how much airtime I got. I was becoming someone I used to make fun of."

Though a reality-show host also seems like someone he'd make fun of, Cooper says that he liked the plot of The Mole enough to risk the potential damage to his news career (he also might have been tempted by the salary, rumored to be in the mid-six figures for ten weeks of work). But the risk factor was far compounded when ABC News decided that its onetime golden boy would not be welcomed back if he crossed the entertainment-news divide, perhaps to avoid a controversy similar to last summer's over newswoman Julie Chen's role on CBS's Big Brother. "That line has been blurred so much," retorts Cooper. "I don't really think this is the place to take a stand."

In any case, he has no plans to make his living as a game-show host; he'll continue to work on serious journalism, presumably somewhere other than ABC. Last year, USA Networks gave the young newsman his own one-hour documentary show. "Anderson's work is idiosyncratic and damned good," says USA chairman Barry Diller; nonetheless, the series was canceled over creative differences six months later. Currently, Cooper is working on a documentary about transgendered teens, and another on pedophiles. He talks of traveling to Uganda to cover the ebola epidemic, or to Pakistan in pursuit of a notorious serial killer. "I'm flying blind," he admits.

So it is that at noon on a bitter December day, Cooper is just hanging out at home, a pretty floor-through in a pale-blue Chelsea townhouse. "I've been concentrating a lot on my Quogue house," he says apologetically as he descends into a red velvet chair. "That's why I live in a hovel."

Though these spacious chambers hardly deserve such derision, Cooper's is a basement apartment, very dim, with a battered front door behind a flimsy gate. It's not quite the way he was brought up as a child, but his past is still very present here. Dozens of family portraits hang throughout his home, including a vivid painting of his father, who died when Cooper was 10. Wyatt bears a startling resemblance to his son -- premature gray, eyes the color of acid-washed jeans. There are photos of his mother as well; now 76 years old, Vanderbilt lives alone near Beekman Place. Cooper spent Christmas there, just the two of them, sharing a dinner of spaghetti and Vanderbilt's special sauce.

Her son, however, has none of his mother's flamboyance. Quick-witted but serious, Cooper was purposeful even as a child, embarking on a modeling career when he was 11 to make his own money (Ford booked him for ads for Macy's and sittings for Polo). "My mom thought it was weird, but she wanted me to be independent," he says, recalling that Vanderbilt often sang Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child": "Mama may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child that's got his own."

With modeling income in hand, the teenage Cooper frequented Phillips auctions, where he bought thousands of toy soldiers from obscure wars: Even now, tiny iron Zulus, Indians, and Sudanese are arranged in elaborate tableaux in the corner of his living room. War was his first passion as a child; journalism came later, though it seemed an odd calling for a man whose parents spent much of their life trying to elude public scrutiny.

His mother has always been an obsession of the press, which has documented her inheritance battle, love affairs, declining fortune, and an incident that most shaped Cooper: the suicide of his brother, Carter. Two years Anderson's senior, he leapt from his mother's penthouse in 1988.

"I don't know why that happened," Cooper says of his brother's death. He pauses for nearly two minutes. "But I'm trying to figure out a way to not have to ask that question. I looked for a why -- why some people starve and some thrive, why some survive and some die. Now I'm trying to figure out how to live in a world where there isn't always a why."

What better way, then, to celebrate the randomness of life than on The Mole?

"I guess so," says Cooper. "I just hope it's not cheesy."


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