Julie Chen says she was 'terrible' when Big Brother began
"Let's just say what everyone knows," the host says. "I was the Chenbot. I deserved that name because I was robotic."
There is a reason Julie Chen is beloved as the host of Big Brother. She knows the players are the stars and never tries to draw attention away from that… except perhaps a bit with her awesome eviction night ensembles. But Chen is also super self-aware, and able to tell it like it is when it comes to her own performance. When fans started commenting derisively about her robotic delivery when the show first launched in the summer of 2000, the host (who now goes by Julie Chen Moonves on air) did what few expected — she actually embraced the nickname and made it her own.
Now, 20 years later, on the eve of the live Big Brother: All-Stars premiere Aug. 5 on CBS, Chen did not mince words when she called into EW Live (SiriusXM, channel 109) and talked about her evolution as a host on the reality competition program. "Season 1, I was terrible," says Chen. "Let's just say what everyone knows: I was the Chenbot. I deserved that name because I was robotic. I came from a news background and I was asked to do this show and I thought, 'Okay, I'm going to be really straight, with no personality, because my original dream was one day to be a correspondent on 60 Minutes. And I was told if I do this reality show, I probably am shutting and sealing that door shut from ever going through it. I'm going to prove them wrong.' They were right, by the way. I was never asked to do 60 Minutes. I was also told that if I didn't take the assignment, it would be considered insubordination. Because I was already working at CBS News doing the morning newscast."
Chen took the job, as well as the barbs from fans that came with it. And in time, she not only learned how to conquer a new medium, but also learned how to strike the right tone and balance — while also having some fun with her new nickname. "I finally learned how to embrace the Chenbot," she says. "It only took me, I don't know, how many years? And I think I strike the right balance between being Chenbot-y and like very, like, no personality. The stars of the show are the ones in the house. I'm just the conductor of this train. So sometimes letting my personality show. I learned that also from I did eight years on The Talk, where again, I had to learn how to not be so newsy and just not editorialize and kind of bring a little bit of my real personality to the table. So it's been a journey for me."
Of course, that doesn't mean the host will ever become truly comfortable: "There are old shows I look at and old moments where I cringe, but the good news is I can kind of laugh about it now. You know, we all make mistakes and we all grow, and hopefully I've grown and hopefully I'm still growing. I'll probably watch an episode next summer from this summer and go like, 'Ugh!' And then laugh."
That's not all Chen expanded upon. Read on for more from the host about how they are bringing Big Brother back to life in the middle of a pandemic.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me what it has been like in terms of when the conversations started up about trying to get Big Brother back on the air. How long has this process taken?
JULIE CHEN: Well, in January, pre-quarantine, it was like, life is so simple. The meetings I had were just about "Hey, we're going to build you a new set." I was like, "Great, thanks! When are we going to premiere?" "Well, we're talking about, you know, the typical late-June, but we're talking about a live premiere." "Live premiere? We've never done that. That's kind of crazy." Because how do you throw in 16 strangers at once? Our poor director is going to be like, "Which camera do I take the audio person?" And "Which microphone do I put up? What do we take?" It's like an explosion of noise. So everything changed, but the good news is I think we really found a safe way to do it.
If you can work on the staff of Big Brother and do your job from home, you do. Or, if you're high-risk, you do. If you are essential to be on the lot, then you are. You must wear a mask. You must get tested every week. You must get tested every week leading on to the first day you're on the set of Big Brother. I'm the only person that's not going to be wearing a mask for the limited time when I'm on television, but when we're in commercial or what have you, that mask is going on.
I've watched nine different COVID safety videos. We are happy to be back at work. And I truly believe we're doing it in such a safe way. And if we can pull this off, how about we show the world how we're doing it and doing it safely so that wherever you work — whether it's the, you know, five-person operation or whatever industry you're in‚ take what you can from what we've done, and maybe you could apply it so that you could keep your workers safe and get them back to work.
I've heard you guys have color-coded lanyards and everyone's going to be separated into their certain areas and not really allowed to intermingle with other areas just to make sure that if something does happen that it's not going to spread throughout the entire crew. The cast is about as protected as you can get, but with the crew, there's still some danger there that you guys have to manage, I imagine.
Exactly. So let's say you're in the orange pod and your lanyard and ID has orange on it. You can only go into the spots where orange can go into. That way, God forbid one of us who is in that orange pod, if we find out someone has tested positive weeks into production, then maybe that whole pod goes down. And we have four COVID compliance officers on campus at all times. It's a full-time job checking to make sure all the safety procedures we've put in place are in place and we're being COVID safe.
So with the lanyards and the color coding, then I know, "Hey, someone in gray pod got coronavirus. I'm not allowed to go there. I've never gone there. And so far everyone in my orange pod, we're still testing negative. We're good." So this was a big undertaking. I have to say, I think Big Brother did an amazing job.
What's the situation going to be like on set for you in terms of your interaction with other crew members? I want to protect the Chenbot!
Well, here's a perfect example: Pre-COVID, in my dressing room, you would have me; my assistant, who I employ; a production assistant, who's assigned to me who gets my cards and updates; one person who does hair; one person who does makeup; one person who is in charge of wardrobe. So that's six people. That's not happening anymore. It is me by myself. Oh, it's time to do hair? Let's send in the hairdresser. She does my hair with a mask on. And then when she's done, she leaves and we give like a 10-minute warning. Then someone can come in to do makeup. Obviously, those people have to be in close contact with me, but everybody is masked. Obviously, I have to take the mask down when the makeup goes on. Otherwise I'll look like Homer Simpson, or I have a 5 o'clock shadow. Not the look that Chenbot is going for in season 22.
So then when the houseguest gets evicted, usually I shake their hand. Some of them ask for a hug — obviously, that's not happening. When I'm mic'd up, I think it's a union thing and they probably do have to physically mic me up, but they're going to be wearing a mask and they're going to be wearing gloves and it'll all be disinfected. So it's good.
It's very interesting, Julie, because even when houseguests have just been voted out of their game and their dreams have been dashed, what used to happen is they'd come out and there'd be a huge roar from the crowd. They'd see you sitting there, their adrenaline would rush, and they'd run over to you and get a hug. Obviously, this is going to be a very different situation because there's not going to be that crowd. There's not going to be the cheering. You're going to have to put the hands up, like "Hello, but stay back." It's going to be very different, right?
It is. But if you think about it, season 1, we had a live audience. And in season 2, we brought in new producers and changed up the game because season 1, it was the audience voting people out. And then we changed it so that until maybe season 7 or 8, we did not have a live audience. But that was so long ago when we didn't have a live audience that it's going to take a second or two for me to remember what it was like. Well, we have new music and we're not going to have cardboard cutouts of Mary Hart and other Dodgers fans where the live audience would have sat.
Actually, if you were to be on the set, normally there's a long table with about eight people side-by-side next to the teleprompter — you know, the script runner and other staff members. They will now be where the live audience used to sit, but six feet apart and wearing a mask. But when the person gets evicted, we have new music. And because we've done it for many seasons early on without a live audience, by the way, some of the returning all-stars, I think when they did originally play the game, there wasn't a live audience. So maybe, you know, what's old is new again. I don't know. We always say, expect the unexpected. I mean, truly, truly, truly this summer.
How are returning players in general different from newbies?
There's good and bad. By the way, newbies who are fans of the show? It always kind of bums me out when they know so much because they've watched it and they speak the lingo like they're professionals. They're like, "Oh no, is this double eviction week? You think it is going to be double eviction?" And I'm like, " You don't know if we're doing eviction or not this summer!"
But the good thing is this: On one hand, these returning players, the "all-stars" — they're professional Big Brother players. But you have to think about the concept of the game. They've never played this game with these other 15 people. So that alone is going to have a built-in dynamic that keeps the show fresh. That's what I love.
By the way, even if we brought back the entire original cast in season 1, that's 20 years ago. People's lives have changed. And people change and mature. They grow up. It's always going to be a different dynamic, and that's what keeps it fresh. You're like, "Huh? I thought I was good at this game. I finally met my match." Or "That person really gets under my skin and brings down my game because I can't shake that person." So it's going to be interesting to watch, whether you see someone practice something from their playbook from seasons past and it works, or they practice something else.