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Lisa Ling Talks Tackling Tough Issues on 'Our America' & Her Pop Culture Obsessions

by Maggie Furlong, posted Feb 21st 2011 12:00PM
Lisa Ling, 'Our America'Lisa Ling's latest project, 'Our America with Lisa Ling,' is her most thought-provoking work yet.

Ling has proven herself in the journalism world over nearly two decades in the business, from her start on Channel One and her stint on 'The View,' to her more recent work for National Geographic, 'Nightline' and 'The Oprah Winfrey Show.' But nothing comes close to how in-depth she's going on her new OWN series.

Each week, 'Our America' (Tuesdays, 10PM ET on OWN) introduces a taboo topic in our society, and then proceeds to break down the walls to get to the heart of the issues. From faith healing and people who believe you can pray gay away, to the transgender community, sex offenders, mail-order brides and those with debilitating drug addictions, Ling doesn't shy away from any topic, no matter how controversial it is.

But the real reason these episodes resonate, says Ling, is "there's hope in every one of them."

'Our America with Lisa Ling'After bawling my eyes out during the entire premiere episode -- in which Steve Felton, a paralyzed man in a wheelchair, believed God would give him the strength to walk again at a faith healing conference -- I realized that the show had made me forget my initial skepticism and had, instead, immersed me in the culture and the energy of that niche community.

I can't remember the last time I was so moved by something on TV.

With five more episodes still to air, I caught up with Ling to hear more about this week's, 'Transgender Lives,' where we meet some incredibly brave transgender Americans of all ages and from all walks of life. For most viewers, the most surprising part of the episode will be how inconspicuous most of them are.

Even Ling had to keep reminding herself about Hailey, a seven-year-old girl who was born as Harry: "I would have to like pinch myself and recall that Hailey has male parts, because she's so girly girl."

Then there's Ton, a transitioning ladies man who used to be known as Tonya: "I was so attracted to Ton!," Ling laughs. "I actually asked Ton about having a vagina, because Ton says he's only attracted to straight women. 'How?' And he said, 'I'm a professional at things.' [Laughs] It was such a guy response too! And he didn't even miss a beat."

There's also a middle-aged couple, Deb and Mitchell. They have two grown sons and are happily married -- except Mitchell now goes by Michelle. They're still together, as two women now, and they honestly seem like they couldn't be happier.

'Our America with Lisa Ling'Of course to find these gems, these intriguing, highly relatable characters, Ling and her production team had to sift through a lot, some of which didn't make it into the final cut. "But they make the webisodes," Ling plugs, genuinely enthusiastic about the show's online component. "I love our webisodes almost as much as I love the shows. They're really beautiful little pieces."

And there are still countless more stories to tell, hopefully in future seasons of the show. But there's one in particular that Ling is still pushing hard to produce, and while she won't give too many details, she did tease the topic: "It's not even shocking -- at all -- but it's a part of our population that we really ignore. The only thing I'll say is that we will all be there one day."

While she realizes that, sadly, this type of series is considered alternate programming in the current TV landscape, she's hoping people will continue to respond so positively to the episodes because it's truly the passion project of a lifetime.

"I would never be able to do this anywhere else. I recognize that this opportunity may never come again, to do this kind of programming. It's this brand new network that has Oprah's name on it, and this team of people who are just really wanting to do provocative TV. I don't know how long that window will last, but while I'm in it, I want to try to stay in it as long as I can."

Having been on the ground in foreign countries, reporting on uprisings and attacks, she also opened up about the place of journalism in current events and discussed the unfortunate number of journalist attacks in Egypt lately, including the beating of her old Channel One pal Anderson Cooper and the brutal attack on colleague Lara Logan.

"It's scary what happened to Lara, and all the other journalists who've been assaulted. It's really a very unsettling feeling, and it's scary for all journalists. But I really feel even more convicted about the need for journalists to be out there even more telling these stories. Journalists always have to take security precautions -- that is hugely important. But I hope it doesn't dissuade people from wanting to tell stories, and organizations from wanting to send correspondents out, because otherwise we remain an ignorant society. And I think that's the worst-case scenario. If this makes them even more conscientious of security, then I think that's OK."

For someone who so freely admits that it was the attacks on 9/11 that made her realize her daytime gig at 'The View' was keeping her from telling the stories she wanted to tell, does she wish she was on the ground in Egypt today? "It's a tough question because when you hear about anything that's happening in the world or domestically, you want to be there -- it's a journalist's instinct."

Laura Ling & Lisa Ling reuniteAnd all of this despite what happened to her sister, fellow journalist Laura Ling, who was sentenced and being held in a North Korean prison in 2009 until Lisa managed her rescue. After something so unimaginable, so horrific hit that close to home, the Ling sisters did what any journalists would do: they wrote a book about it. It seems like nothing can stop Ling's appetite for storytelling.

Then, as if I needed more proof of why she's such a watchable, sympathetic host, we delved into some lighter fare, like her current pop culture obsessions. "I love 'Twilight' movies more than anyone -- I'm obsessed with them. [Laughs]"

I never would've guessed that would come out of her mouth, but since she brought it up ... which team is she on? "Completely Jacob. Edward's way too pasty for me."

And on the topic of Twitter, her eclectic interests come through again: "I follow Ashton, I follow Lady Gaga. I've been contemplating following Justin Bieber, but I'm not there yet. [Laughs] I'm kind of fascinated by the whole sort of business of Justin Bieber. I'm kind of curious, from that perspective, so I've been tempted to follow him, but I haven't hit the button yet. [Laughs]"

Is Lisa Ling actually admitting to have a slight case of Bieber Fever? "Whenever my husband and I see him, we just kind of chuckle. He's such a cute little boy, and he's like the ultimate sex symbol for millions and millions of girls."

Just don't expect her to be reporting on that teen sex symbol anytime soon ... although his headline-grabbing Rolling Stone interview did catch her eye: "I did think what he said about health care was pretty interesting." Awesome.

For now she'll stick to shedding light on the facets of our country that otherwise go ignored or unnoticed, because above all she believes in one very basic thing: "Everyone has a story."

Have you seen the show? Will you watch it now? And what other stories of our America would you like to see her tell next? Sound off in the comments.

Follow Maggie on Twitter @TheTVShowGirl

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Having spent most of my life, being Transgendered,or aware of being different, I would like to thank you for bringing to the forefront some of the problems that we as individuals face daily in our lives. The loneliness to be who we are, the loss of family and friends, the unhappiness of not being able to live the life that, that we feel but living as to how society demands that we live. I am 64, and have only recently,due to retiring, been able to now live my life as the woman I am. I wasted to many years trying to live for some one else only to become very depressed, very unhappy, very angry. No one really realizes just what it is to be Transgendered. Most perceive us as being a sex toy for some over loaded testerone loaded males. Au contraire, most aren't, we just want to live our lives and be happy, no more no less, to be a productive member of society. After all we do pay our dues,,ie taxes etc. This show just touched the extreme tip of the ice burg and more indepth shows need to be shown on this subject. At least some one did finally touch this, so called "Life Style". No doubt, we won't be as accepted as are Gays or Lesbians, but at least, more information is now being shown about us and allowing us to come out of the proverbial closet. That closet, is oh so lonely. Again,,thank you!!

February 23 2011 at 9:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Having been through the process of changing gender with a friend i felt the show was excellent. I wish them all the happiness that my friend found.

February 22 2011 at 10:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Karyn Crompton

I love the episode on your show !!! The transgender episode with "Ton" is great and I must say , HE'S ONE HOT MMMAAANNN!!! Would love to meet him, a 26 yr old straight and beautiful women!! Xoxo

February 22 2011 at 10:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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