The Straight Gay World of Steve Kornacki

4.16.2014

By Joe Pompeo

The MSNBC anchor and politics wonk will kick your ass at the game show of your choice. But not if he has to fly there.

This was the menu at Steve Kornacki’s Super Bowl party: six boxes of pizza, 150 Buffalo wings, and enough Narragansett, PBR, and Yuengling to stock his fridge for a month. The 34-year-old anchor of Up, MSNBC’s 8 a.m. weekend show, invited 15 friends to his one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s East Village. Not one of them touched the green pepper he’d cut up for kicks. After the Seattle Seahawks slaughtered the Denver Broncos 43 to 8, Kornacki’s gathering dwindled to a die-hard group of five. That’s when they raided the liquor cabinet. The revelry continued until 1 a.m.

Kornacki is still nursing a hangover when we meet for dinner at a Midtown pub the next day. And that’s OK, because it’s Kornacki’s day off. When you spend your week furiously mapping out a newscast only to wake up at 4:35 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday to shoot it, you deserve some downtime.

A lifelong politics wonk, Kornacki inherited the early morning slot from Chris Hayes, another bright young thing on a roll, a little over a year ago. Hayes made the show a hit in the hinterlands of weekend morning television, especially among the kind of millennial viewers who make advertisers drool. Kornacki’s now building on that momentum.

That he’s doing so through a mix of nerdsmanship and old- fashioned shoe leather, as opposed to partisan zeal, makes him a curious specimen of cable news, where the loudest, most opinionated pundits tend to win the most eyeballs. “He’s doing something unusual on TV,” says Josh Benson, a close mentor and one of Kornacki’s former editors. “He’s a natural facilitator of conversation, but at the same time his reported analysis is so good that he’s actually leading coverage of national stories.”

Kornacki fills another role: He’s one of a growing lineup of media figures who are dispelling the tired myths of what it means to be a gay man or woman. Can you be gay if you’re a politics nerd who loves sports? The answer is yes. (See also: Nate Silver, the star statistician who now has his own slice of the ESPN empire.) You can, in the same way you can be gay if you’re a muscular dude like Thomas Roberts who never looks out of place talking current affairs with resident MSNBC man’s man Joe Scarborough. Or if you’re a glamorous morning show star like Robin Roberts, whose audience on ABC largely consists of Middle American housewives. Or if you’re a stylish, flirty prime-time anchor like Anderson Cooper who also parachutes into war zones and natural disasters.

“Most people used to be exposed to only a select cross-section of gay people,” says Kornacki. “But the atmosphere has changed so much, and so quickly.”

At 6-foot-2, with flawless skin and teeth that look like they were ripped from a Colgate commercial, Kornacki is nothing if not telegenic. Lots of girls would love to bring him home to mom and dad. But that was never in the cards.

“I was the All-American kid, or so I told myself — good grades, never in trouble, bright future, well-respected by my peers,” Kornacki wrote in a coming-out essay for Salon in November 2011. “After a trip to Cape Cod with a friend and his family, the kid’s mother said her favorite moment was watching ‘straitlaced Steve’ struggling to make sense of all the hedonism around him when we drove out to Provincetown. I remember seeing drag queens and men dressed in skimpy attire and thinking to myself, Get me out of here so I can watch a baseball game.

It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school, at a basket- ball game where the guys he was with were ogling cheerleaders, that Kornacki began to wonder: “Why wasn’t I looking at the cheerleaders that way? And why was I sometimes noticing the players instead? My heart rate quickened and a thought surfaced: This is what it means to be gay.

The seeds of Kornacki’s TV news career were planted at an even younger age. “The earliest thing I ever wanted to do was just be, like, the next Brent Musburger,” Kornacki says, refer- ring to the legendary sportscaster. The politics obsession was full-blown by the time of the 1992 presidential race; 12-year- old Steve was utterly crushed when Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas lost the Democratic nomination to Bill Clinton. “He’s always rooted for the underdog,” says his sister, Katie.

Kornacki’s path to the small screen was circuitous. After graduating from Boston University in 2001, he rented a car with two friends and drove to Los Angeles. (An inveterate hypochondriac and notoriously picky eater, he also has a fear of flying.) There they booked an extended stay at a Days Inn. Kornacki counts game shows among his various obsessions, and he’d hatched an ill-conceived plan to make money as a perennial contestant. After many unsuccessful tryouts for The Weakest Link, Win Ben Stein’s Money, and Smush, he came home empty-handed and started writing news copy for a regional TV network. Dozens of applications for a full-time- reporter job later, he finally landed a gig in 2002 at a New Jersey politics website. He moved on to jobs at Roll Call, The New York Observer, and Salon, where he was hired in February 2010. Guest appearances on the cable news circuit put him on the radar of MSNBC brass. By 2011, he was a regular on The Rachel Maddow Show and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.

Behind the scenes, however, there was some inner turmoil. Kornacki had finally found someone he was ready to be in a serious relationship with — he just wasn’t ready to tell everyone that the someone was a guy. His Salon piece was both an intensely personal public disclosure of his sexual orientation and a bold attempt to save a relationship that had crumbled under the weight of his closeted life. He’d written the story and filed it to his editor but there was one caveat: He still had to tell his family. He wanted to do it in person, and had a weekend to pull it off. With his sister’s help, Kornacki hatched a plan to meet his parents — a social worker-turned-homemaker and an executive search consultant — in Hartford, Conn., a midpoint between Kornacki’s apartment and their home in Brunswick, Me. As bait, he planted a white lie about work-related news. When the four sat down in a restaurant that afternoon, Kornacki passed around a copy of the text.
 

Photography by Clayton Cubitt

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