It’s 4:30 a.m. — time for Abby Ham to begin her conversion. She walks into the studio bathroom at Channel 3, takes her makeup out of her Vera Bradley bag and begins to add 10 years to her face. “I look like a kid without makeup,” she says.
The 27-year-old has a point. She stands only 5 feet 2 inches tall and, although she looks almost sultry on camera, without makeup she’d pass for an exceptionally pretty college kid. But this is the woman who, next to co-anchor Mark Nolan, won Channel 3 one of the most coveted demographics in the morning news business — the most female viewers between the ages of 25 and 54.
Within minutes, morning meteorologist Hollie Strano rushes in and hugs Abby. “How was your Christmas?” she gushes. There are hair dryers, flatteners and curling irons of various widths plugged into a power strip. Eyelashes are curled, concealer is applied, and lips are made bright enough to pop on camera. But even clouds of aerosol hair spray can’t slow down their chatty, happy conversation. They sound like old friends, though they’ve known each other less than two months.
A lot has changed in the last year for Abby. Professionally, she went from the 58th largest news market in Knoxville, where she was adored and where her parents live, to the 17th largest in Cleveland, where she began as the morning anchor on
Nov. 8. Personally, she got engaged last March to Herby Lambert, the man she met during her first job after college at a TV station in West Virginia.
“Christmas was a little bit different,” Ham says. Without family in town, she and Lambert spent the day alone unpacking in their new house in Rocky River.
By the time Abby’s done, her huge pale green eyes have an intensity that a local blogger called “soul piercing.” She’s reviewed nearly 100 stories that will air this morning, put her twist on the ones she will read and even wrote a few to give the producer a hand.
It’s 5 a.m. and the show’s about to begin.
Abby’s day begins at 2 a.m. in the upstairs bedroom of her Rocky River home. Every night, she sets two alarm clocks — just to make sure. She grabs one of about 50 suits (BCBG Max Azria and Banana Republic are her favorites), then heads to the little room off her bedroom that she’s converted into a dressing room. She painted the walls a soft pink and sits at an antique dressing table her mother gave her. When the time is right — maybe in a few years — she and her husband-to-be plan to convert the room into a nursery.
During my Saturday-afternoon visit, we sit in the downstairs living room, a space dominated by an elegant light-blue tufted suede couch and a set of cabinets that she salvaged from her 1920s house in Knoxville and turned into a sideboard. She loves pieces with a past. We are joined by an uninvited but welcome guest — her fiancé, who sits with his arm around her shoulder.
She’s just come from the salon, motivated by our upcoming photo shoot with her for this article to cover up what she calls “black roots.” Without all the makeup and her usual on-air blazer look (she’s wearing black leggings and a tunic top) she again looks like a coed.
Her voice, however, remains that of a broadcaster, but without quite all of the dramatic cadence. The daughter of a salesman, she was born in Atlanta, but also lived in Philadelphia and Dallas before the family moved to Tucson when Abby was 14. Over the years, her accent changed with her location, but she says it “all evened out” in Arizona.
That’s where she went to college — at the University of Arizona, intending to be a magazine journalist. Her first big story was on the consolidation of city and county government. When it came time for her first internship, however, she ended up at a TV station — and was hooked. “What I loved about it was the visual aspect,” she explains. “Putting together something I could see.”
Did she look in the mirror, realize she had a face photogenic enough for TV and decide to go for it?
Lambert intercepts the question. “Abby’s still not aware of it. She doesn’t think like that.”
Lambert and Abby met in August 2005 in Parkersburg, W.Va., at a bar called J.P. Henry’s. “He drove me crazy at first, wouldn’t leave me alone,” Abby says.
“I don’t think that was the case,” Lambert playfully retorts.
“That was totally the case. But we ended up hanging out and having fun.”
Lambert, who works in beer and beverage sales, is the guy who rolls with anything. Move him from his family in West Virginia, then to Knoxville, then to Cleveland? Sure, especially since his new home has three professional sports teams. Ask him to go on air with Abby for a segment on visiting the Ronald McDonald House? Absolutely, and he’ll be so much fun that the kids email days later to say they miss him.
Lambert’s schedule doesn’t require him to go to bed at 7 p.m. when Abby does, but he lies in bed until she falls asleep, because she sleeps easier when he’s by her side.
When Lambert points out that, in their yin-yang relationship, Abby is the one who is “easily stressed,” I expect a quick denial. Both during and before the show, I see her focused, but never flustered.
“I totally am,” she says, with a joyful, rippling laugh.
“We just fit,” Lambert says, gently patting her shoulder.
Abby, Nolan and Strano first appear on the air together only three days after meeting. After Strano introduces herself, Abby’s first broadcasted sentence in Cleveland is a jokey “They know you , they just might not know me .” She turns to Nolan, “And they definitely know you.”
The banter then turns to how it’s Nolan’s first day acting not as a meteorologist, but as an anchor. “Are you going to do the weather toss?” Abby asks playfully. “Is this going to happen?” Strano jokes that she’ll be kind of nervous doing the weather in front of Nolan. He replies that he’ll be “watching her intently.”
In her very first minute on air, Abby cracks three light jokes and uses the insider terminology of “toss” to describe Nolan’s handoff to Strano to give the day’s forecast. She looks relaxed. The whole exchange is amusing and makes you feel like you’re in on their fun. Over the weeks to follow, they’ll joke about Nolan’s dating life, Abby’s first winter in Cleveland and that, while Strano set up a winter wonderland in her home, Abby initially lived in a sterile corporate apartment.
The day I’m in the studio, the banter is so authentic that, several times, I actually think they’re on the air when they’re not. “There’s no way I can fake a relationship,” Abby says. “It’s all about the people you sit next to.”
Channel 3 news director Rita Andolsen is well aware of that. In her search for a new morning anchor, she looked at dozens of tapes. Abby’s enthusiasm and way with people made her stand out. “She can be serious, but she can also have fun,” Andolsen says. “She strikes a balance, which is very important in morning news.”
Equally important is that when Andolsen met her, she felt that all-important connection called chemistry. And she says she knew Nolan and Strano well enough to know they’d feel it, too. “Boy, she’s really going to click with them,” she remembers thinking. She offered Abby the job.
Not even Abby was expecting her career to move so fast. After two and a half years in West Virginia, she’d only been in Knoxville a little more than a year and a half.
And Knoxville would have been a great place to stay. She describes the people she worked with as her “best friends.” She worked for a station that was always way ahead of its competition. Her parents lived there. She was so content there that she even cried a bit on her last day on air. Maybe she would have been happy there forever.
“Personally, yes,” Abby says. “Professionally, I need to be challenged.”
Here’s the thing about Abby. To get from West Virginia (the 190th largest media market) to Cleveland in only four years is not a normal thing. And it takes more than talent. It takes drive. Abby knows how to get a story, too. In West Virginia, she wasn’t just the talent. She produced the show, wrote the stories and sometimes even shot the video. In Knoxville, she was caught on air — and criticized by some — for pushing her way a little too hard at a fire scene to get her crew’s cameras a good angle (she was nominated for an Emmy for the story).
“My heart’s in it every day,” she says.
By all counts, the new trio on the morning show is doing well. In the last ratings period, the show snagged not only the demographic everyone wants, but placed second for overall viewers. It was a risky move to put Abby on the air just one week into the ratings period, says Andolsen, but it paid off.
After the show ends at 7 a.m., Abby is in the studio taping promos and preparing for the next day till about 11 a.m., after which she works out and heads home.
It’s clear that she doesn’t feel nervous when she’s on the air, but she says she doesn’t quite feel elated, either. It’s not that same high that some actors describe when on stage, because she’s not acting.
She thinks about it for a moment, searching for the right words. “I feel like the best version of myself,” she explains. “I’m always happy, always on.”
Mark and the Mystery Move
Mark Nolan had just gotten back from visiting his family in Indiana when his news director called him into her office. “I have a crazy idea,” he remembers her saying. “What do you think about anchoring the morning show?”
With a quick “sounds great to me,” Nolan left 13 years of meteorology behind him. And he says it doesn’t feel the least bit odd.
“I’ve always considered myself a broadcaster over a weather guy,” he explains, adding that he’s a news junkie. “I always felt that if you sat me down in front of a camera and said, ‘Here’s a subject,’ I could do it.”
Unlike many news anchors, the challenge for Nolan has not been the banter in between segments. “When you do weather, you ad lib for three minutes,” he explains. He’d gotten that part down. The hardest transition was learning to read from a teleprompter. After a few days, though, he’d gotten the hang of that, too.
Since making the switch to morning anchor, Nolan’s schedule has completely flipped. He used to get to work at 2 p.m., now it’s 2 a.m. He actually prefers it this way. “I never overall enjoyed working in the evening,” he says. “I grew up in a family where everybody was home for dinner. It just never seemed right to me.”
Nolan has received e-mails from viewers saying they’re surprised, but they’ve all been positive and supportive.
As Nolan’s biggest fan, his mother, says: “The more Mark, the better.”