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Rachel Maddow's Amazing Rise from Geek to Big-Time Cable News Host

Maddow is a clever, idealistic and skeptical geek, and her growing audience can't get enough.

America's latest media darling -- not counting the one in the White House -- is kneeling on the floor like a big kid, scribbling notes on a scrap of paper. In eight hours' time 35-year-old Rachel Maddow will be sitting alone, in front of a teleprompter, about to present the highbrow political television program which bears her name.

For the moment she's brainstorming ideas with her production team. What should they focus on? President Obama's proposed closure of Guantanamo? The 45,000 jobs lost before nine o'clock this morning? The banking meltdown? More troops in Afghanistan? There's a level of intense and nerdy discussion in the room which makes John Humphrys and James Naughtie look like Ant and Dec. This isn't the kind of cheery material for which American television is generally known. But these are changing times, and The Rachel Maddow Show has become an unlikely hit.

Rachel Maddow -- in her own words a mannish lesbian policy wonk who doesn't own a television set -- is not your average anchorwoman in America, or indeed on this side of the Atlantic. Later today when she goes live on air she must swap her Red Sox T-shirt and baggy Levi's jeans for what she calls "lady clothes" -- a bland slate-grey trouser suit. (She won't say who it's by for fear of insulting the designer.) Her chunky Eric Morecambe glasses will be exchanged for contact lenses (which she's still getting used to). Reluctantly, there will be the merest smear of lipstick and blusher. She will, however, cling on to her trainers, safely out of sight under the desk. (The stylists at American Vogue recently offered her an array of extravagantly high-heeled Louboutin shoes for a photo shoot. She insisted on a pair of Converse boots.)

With their ironed hair and shrink-wrapped foreheads, women on American television news programs all too often come across as shrill harpies or eye candy. Maddow seems to have both types on the run. She goes on air as if she's got nothing to prove, this despite the fact that she'll have done hours of preparation: a cheerful and clever geek, fluent in irony, alternately idealistic and skeptical, who doesn't believe in talking down to the viewers. Her aim? To raise the level of debate in America so that the right kind of decisions are made in the future.

From the beginning of her show, she made a policy decision to avoid the kind of bar-room slugging match which political programming in the United States is famous for. "I did that Punch and Judy stuff for so long on other people's shows. It may be kinetically entertaining but I don't think you learn very much in that environment." She's opted instead for arch analysis and informed banter. It's set a rigorous tone that has been surprisingly popular, somehow in tune with the tenor of the new administration. Within a week of the launch last September, she'd more than doubled the viewing figures. True -- her timing couldn't have been better -- everyone's viewing figures were enjoying a spike. However, she was regularly beating her CNN rival Larry King Live, a cable-news institution, in the sought-after, and elusive, 25 to 55-year-old demographic.

In the same way that Ann Coulter emerged as the public face of the Bush era, Maddow swiftly emerged as the go-to media figure in the most picked-over election in American history.

Suddenly on the net everyone was talking about their new girl crush. Here was someone on television with whom they connected; who, in the cosy familiarity that comes from being on screen five nights a week, they imagined that they could be friends with. They liked the fact that she can mix a mean cocktail, never shops for clothes and is more interested in her pick-up truck than lunchtime Botox injections. "My husband is in love with Rachel Maddow, I am in love with Rachel Maddow, my eight-year-old son is in love with Rachel Maddow," gushed one girl fan. Gay, straight, parents, teenagers, rabbis, Republicans: everyone, it seems, was smitten. One enterprising site began selling "Why I'm Gay For Rachel" T-shirts. As one commentator on Salon remarked: if the election campaign was indicating that America could be proved post-racial, maybe it could be post-gay too.

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