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October 20, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Fashionable news anchors

Hot pink trench coats. Pointy stiletto mules. Gold hoop earrings. You’d expect them on the designer catwalk — but greeting you first thing in the morning along with your breakfast bagel and latte? You bet your Blahniks.

Today show host Katie Couric, 43 — with her lighter, longer coif, hip outfits, and eye-grabbing accessories — is emerging as a bona fide style maven. And with ratings that have 6 million viewers tuned in throughout the program’s newly expanded three-hour telecast, the world is definitely watching. So are the show’s guests: When ‘N Sync stopped by to perform on Today last summer, a smitten Lance Bass remarked, ”Katie Couric is hot!”

It’s not only her daytime look that’s garnering attention, either: ”Katie Couric looked crazy hot, didn’t she?” said The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart at a recent Manhattan charity event that Couric cohosted clad in a black sequined mini-dress. ”I’ll go on the Today show and say, ‘Hey Roker, move to the side, you’re blocking her.”’

”She definitely looks more glamorous,” confirms Teri Agins, style reporter for The Wall Street Journal and author of last year’s The End of Fashion. ”And now she is the barometer.”

Which means that Couric’s sleek new image hasn’t escaped the notice of her fellow broadcasters: Gone are the days of shoulder-padded power suits, paisley-tie blouses, and heavily blonded helmet- hair sprayed to back-combed perfection. ”Everybody gets a chance to be themselves a little bit more with their clothes,” says Good Morning America‘s Diane Sawyer. ”[There isn’t] so much of a uniform anymore.” Rather than channeling the houndstoothed spirit of Murphy Brown circa 1987, female anchors are getting freer, looser, and, yes, sexier with their on-air clothing choices.

”There was a standard back then that women felt they had to uphold — they were competing just to get on the air and have equal footing with men,” explains The Early Show‘s Jane Clayson. ”Now that we have that equality, we can be ourselves and be comfortable while doing it.” Says Maria Bartiromo (dubbed ”The Money Honey” by enamored Wall Streeters), host of CNBC’s Market Week: ”Women are not afraid to be women anymore. As they become more powerful in the workplace, they have let go of old, typical notions that were very present a decade ago.”

But if TV journalists were dipping their pedicured toes into the ever-swirling fashion pool, it’s Couric (who declined to be interviewed for this article) that’s prodding them to cannonball right in. ”I want to wear everything Katie does,” gushes MSNBC anchor Ashleigh Banfield. ”I make choices because I feel it’s appropriate when Katie has made certain choices, absolutely.”

And what does this mean for the fashion-forward newswoman? Twinsets instead of blazers and stretchy tees instead of blouses. As Frederic Fekkai, Sawyer’s stylist and author of the current A Year of Style puts it, ”It’s elegant — without looking too boxy or too bimbo-ey.”

”The old look was just so manicured — every hair was in place, like a permanent Le Cirque hairdo,” sniffs Louis Licari, whose salon created Couric’s lighter shag. ”Now they are embracing their femininity and sexuality…. It’s the attitude that ‘I’m a newscaster, but I’m not just a talking head.”’

Viewers may see her makeover as more than skin deep. Couric’s new look comes nearly three years after the death of her husband, Jay Monahan, from colon cancer, and Today show fans may be responding to Couric’s brighter style in part because it’s a sign that she’s dealing with her grief. ”She looks very happy — and I’m sure she is — and it’s really nice to see,” says Fekkai.

The $28 million contract Couric inked with NBC in 1998 to host the Today show through 2002 may have also played a part in her changing appearance. ”Once you become really successful, you take a lot more chances,” says Agins. ”She’s not looking to Barbara Walters or anyone else for fashion advice, and that’s giving her a lot more confidence about dressing up. She’s at the top of her game.”

How do these anchors feel about such attention? At a recent celebrity benefit, Couric just grinned and waved away questions when quizzed about her new look, while a publicist for NBC got downright snippy when EW queried her on Katie’s cutting-edge clothes.

But is it sexist to spend so much time focusing on what Couric and co. wear on the air? Not if viewers are taking fashion cues from these women. ”It’s the same thing that happened to Hollywood: The media shows when somebody does and doesn’t look good,” says Fekkai. ”We see a lot of Katie in gossip columns, and [TV personalities] are very visible. There’s pressure.”

Which includes the stress of the actual newscast. ”You don’t have a second to think about your clothes when you’re on the air,” explains CNN Moneyline host Willow Bay. ”You’re really concentrating on delivering the news and keeping control of your show, so clothes have to be a no-brainer.”

But that doesn’t mean you have to wear flats.

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