TV legend Barbara McKay dishes out stories and recipes in new memoir
Plus: Top news of the week — Cam's back — CMS suspends administrators and Myers Park High gets a new principal — Redistricting for CMS and city — NCDOT faces $12B shortfall to build roads
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In her new part-cookbook, part-memoir, Barbara McKay delves into her roots, her years in television and what life was like when the cameras were off
For decades, Charlotte TV viewers invited host Barbara McKay into their homes each day on popular shows like “Top O’ the Day” on WBTV. In her new memoir, McKay invites readers into the behind-the-scenes world she inhabited and into her kitchen with some of her favorite recipes. (Photo by Mark Hanson)
by Cristina Bolling
Before there was Oprah Winfrey, before there was Martha Stewart, Charlotte had Barbara McKay. A TV personality whose cheerful voice was a fixture in homes for decades, McKay hosted daytime shows for WBTV including “Top O’ the Day” and “Close to Home,” authored cookbooks and published magazines.
McKay has had a full life both on and off the television screen. The Shelby native was a flight attendant and taught grade school before she followed her dream of landing a job on TV (inspired by a firm nudge from her mother), she struggled with infertility before having two children, and she coped with intense public scrutiny while going through a divorce.
After another firm nudge — this time from her daughter Elizabeth and her son Michael — McKay decided during Covid to write a memoir, recounting events big and small from throughout her life with anecdotes that are both humorous and poignant, and 127 easy-to-make recipes.
The result is “Coming Home: Recipes and Reflections from a Life in the Spotlight.” It reads in part like a biography, in part like a love letter to Charlotte and in part like a behind-the-scenes peek at the rich and famous through the eyes of a fashionable yet humble globetrotting local celebrity.
McKay is perhaps known best for her work as co-host of the daily noontime show “Top O’ the Day” from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s. In the years that followed, she has continued to appear on TV and radio airwaves in a variety of hosting roles, public appearances and advertisements.
Many of McKay’s celebrity stories are funny and relatable, like the time she failed to recognize that the man sitting next to her at a Hornets game (who told her he was a singer from Tennessee) was famous country singer Vince Gill. She offered to give him some exposure on her local Charlotte TV show and asked him to watch her coat and bag while she went to talk to friends.
She shares her experiences meeting A-listers like Steve Martin, Harrison Ford, Michael Jackson and Jerry Seinfeld and befriending Earl Charles Spencer, brother of Princess Diana. And she discusses her passion for fashion and her thrill at befriending designers like Oscar de la Renta.
Recipes play a central role in the 261-page book, and McKay includes ones from her family and friends including some names Charlotteans will recognize: radio host Sheri Lynch, Linda Hendrick (wife of NASCAR motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick) and local chefs.
Copies of “Coming Home,” published by Charlotte-based SPARK Publications, are available for purchase on McKay’s website or at local shops including Paper Skyscraper and Botanica. The book costs $29.99.
McKay, who when asked for her age charmingly answers “I have seen my 70th birthday,” took time out between recent book tour appearances to speak with The Ledger about how writing the book was a silver lining during a challenging time in her life and what she’s learned by reflecting back over the decades.
The conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Congratulations on your book. This is the fifth book you’ve authored, but the other four were cookbooks. What inspired you to gather up all of these memories — and recipes — and put them all in one place?
A lot of people had been asking me when I was going to do another cookbook, because I had not done one for 27 years. That question came up all the time. And then my children said, “Why have you not done that book? And by the way, this time, let’s make a beautiful coffee table-like book that people can use and tell your stories.” I resisted, but my children kept on and said, “We do not care if you do not sell a single book. Write these stories for us.” And then Covid hit, I had another accident [McKay fell while exercising outside and broke a bone in her back], and I was home on bedrest. In true fashion of the way I have lived my life, I focused on the positive and I said, “OK, what can make this better? It’s time to write the book.” I used Covid and an accident to get to work.
Q: Something that struck me as I was reading your book were the opportunities you had as a local, Charlotte-based TV personality to interview big name celebrities and travel across the world. TV hosts in markets like Charlotte don’t seem to do as much of that these days. When you look back now, how lucky do you feel to have done that job when you did?
I couldn’t believe it. Those were things that I didn’t dream about, and they began to happen because I went after the original dream. From all kinds of reporting around the world to meeting these amazing people. I couldn’t put them all in the book. When I was meeting all these people, we didn’t have iPhones where we could just take a selfie. I would have had to walk in with my great big Polaroid and say, “Could I have a picture?” I was trying not to impose on their time. I would zoom in and do my interview and get to know them in that moment and leave. I had no images to keep but I had images in my mind, and I never lost those.
Most all of (the celebrities) were so wonderful and they were role models for me too, to see how they were managing their lives. They were in a far bigger fishbowl than I was. I owe WBTV so much. They gave me so many opportunities.
Q: You got your start in TV when you were a young mom and your own mom urged you to follow your dream and simply call up WBTV and ask to interview for a job on TV. You describe a disastrous interview and then a surprising job offer. How much of an imposter syndrome did you have when you started out?
Betty Feezor [McKay’s predecessor, who McKay replaced after Feezor died of cancer in 1978] had the number-one locally rated women’s show that was on in North Carolina and Virginia, and she was known all over the country. She was a home economist. She had a degree in home economics. I did not. I thought, “People are going to say what gives her the right to tell us how to manage our home and how to cook?”
I told the station, “I need to have some sort of credentials for this.” So I would tape my Monday show [ahead of time], get up at 2 a.m. every Monday; I had a 2-year-old and I was pregnant with my second child. I would get on a plane and I would fly to Washington, D.C. I went to cooking school, L’Academie de Cuisine, and a chef taught me from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every Monday. I did this for months. Then I would fly back and do my show live for the rest of the week. What I learned from that was that not one person cared about that. Not one person has ever asked me how I learned to cook. I realized that I just needed to be authentically who I am, and they could accept that or they could not, but they did. Huge gratitude goes to all of these people out there who said, “let’s give her a chance.” And they did.
Q: You lived your life in the spotlight for so many years. When you were doing “Top O’ the Day” and the other shows that you hosted, total strangers felt like they knew you. Did you mean for this book to sort of pull back the curtain and set the record straight on what was really happening behind the scenes in your life?
Absolutely. My son kept saying, take it head on, Mom. Let people know the truth. You are real. Let people know that you are real. That’s what I tried to do. Some people will like it and some people will not, but I just wanted to be authentic. Authenticity was really important to me. I listened to my children and I listened to my friend who said, “Talk about it even if it’s uncomfortable.” I would send those parts (of the book) to my children and say, “Are you sure I need to share all this?” They’d say, “You do. Because other people have been through it too.”
When you were on (TV) the way I was during that era, people expected you to be perfect and perky and happy all the time, and I tried to be that. And that’s the part that was so hard. I tried to be that during some of the most personally difficult times ever. I was sent horrible letters. People confronted me. It was not something I wanted to delve into with strangers. Ninety-nine percent of them were supportive and wonderful, but it only takes 1 percent to make you cry.
Q: Your book is a story about your life, but Charlotte and its personalities play a major role, from local spots like Simpsons Produce and the Duke Mansion to people like Ken and Donna Lewis (the former Chairman of Bank of America and his wife) and the women who helped take care of your children. You have many of your friends’ recipes in your book. Why did you decide to fold all these names and personalities in?
I wanted people to know the people I know as down-to-earth, wonderful people because that’s who they are and it’s why we became friends. Throughout my career when I had opportunities to go to other cities, I never went. I knew that my strength was right here because of this city and the people who gave me these opportunities, and I never wanted to move my children around. I wanted them to love and respect this city that made my life wonderful. I never wanted to go anywhere else.
Q: You’ve suffered through a couple of rough accidents and had to undergo breast cancer treatment in the last several years. How is your health these days?
I am wonderful. I just feel so blessed. I am healthy, fully recovered from every injury, every sickness, and I’m loving being out there with people. I’m doing lots of book signings. If anybody would like me to do a book signing in a certain town I would be happy to go there.
Cristina Bolling is managing editor of The Ledger: email@example.com
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This week in Charlotte: Panthers sign a familiar face; school board approves new election map; NCDOT faces giant shortfall; mask mandate clock ticking?
On Saturdays, The Ledger sifts through the local news of the week and links to the top articles — even if they appeared somewhere else. We’ll help you get caught up. That’s what Saturdays are for.
Leandro decision: (EdNC) A North Carolina judge ordered state leaders Wednesday to spend about $1.7B on a comprehensive plan aimed at ensuring students have access to a sound basic education. The decision angered Republicans, who argue that only lawmakers can appropriate funds in state accounts and that the judge’s order violates the state constitution. The judge’s action will likely set up a showdown between the three government branches.
More CMS administrator suspensions: (WBTV) Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has suspended the principal and assistant principal of Hawthorne Academy High School with pay after two students told WBTV about the handling of sexual assault complaints at the school. A sophomore has told the station that she was suspended for filing a false report even though police charged a juvenile with sexual battery in connection with her complaint. CMS has not provided its version of events, citing student privacy.
New principal at Myers Park High: (WFAE) Robert Folk, who has been principal at Alexander Graham Middle School since 2010, was named principal at Myers Park High School on Tuesday night. Folk replaces Mark Bosco, who was reassigned to a newly created position in the school district after accusations he discouraged and downplayed reports of sexual assaults.
New CMS school board map: (WFAE) The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board approved a new election map last week that splits Mecklenburg’s southern suburban towns into three separate districts. Matthews, Mint Hill and Pineville are currently in District 6. The new plan puts Mint Hill into District 4 and Matthews into District 5, leaving Pineville in District 6. Debate was heated among school board members prior to the 5-3 vote for the the change.
Cawthorn switches districts: (Observer) U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn is changing congressional districts in his run for reelection. The first-term Republican will run in Western North Carolina’s newly created 13th Congressional District instead of the 14th Congressional District. Cawthorn said he would run in the 13th district to ensure that establishment Republicans would not get elected. The 13th district includes the western part of Mecklenburg County and all of Polk, Rutherford, McDowell, Burke, Gaston and Cleveland counties.
Redistricting map: (WFAE) Charlotte City Council voted this week to adopt a redistricting map that will remove four precincts from District 4. The change will move two precincts in the mostly Black Hidden Valley neighborhood to District 1, a predominantly white district. Residents preferred to keep the precincts in District 4, where there’s a larger number of Black voters.
Covid spread low enough to end mask mandate? It’s unclear when Mecklenburg’s mask mandate might end. Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the percentage of Covid tests coming back positive in Mecklenburg County fell below 5% this week, the level needed for the mandate to end, but the county says it’s following state numbers, which remain above 5%. Health officials say the state number needs to be below 5% for seven straight days. (Joe Bruno on Twitter)
NCDOT is billions short: (Transit Time) The N.C. Department of Transportation is facing a $12B shortfall to build roads, which is leading it to postpone some projects that were expected to start in the next few years. Higher cost projections are causing the huge gap, which was $7B at the start of this year. “This is a really big deal,” an NCDOT board member from Hickory told us.
Holiday parties: (Wednesday 🔒) Company holiday parties are coming back for some businesses, but expect them to be smaller, largely outdoors and with more Covid-friendly food options than in years past, event industry experts say.
Apartment tower at pub site in South End: Southern Land Co. said Tuesday it’s planning a residential high-rise at the one-acre site that contains Tyber Creek Pub, at South Boulevard and Tremont Avenue. It will have “approximately 300 luxury apartment homes and elevated outdoor amenity decks.” Tyber Creek will be part of the development, with construction expected to start in 2023. The height of the building has not been determined, but current zoning (TOD-UC) allows buildings of up to 130 feet by right and potentially as high as 300 feet.
Return of Cam: Was there any other sports story this week besides the return of Cam Newton to the Carolina Panthers? He signed a one-year, $10M deal on Thursday, practiced with the team Friday and will suit up against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. He’s not expected to start but could play, the Panthers said.
Historic election in Mint Hill: (Observer) Twanna Henderson was the first person of color to be elected to a seat on the Mint Hill town Board of Commissioners, a victory that leaves her feeling hopeful but also incredulous. “I mean, that we’re talking about the first person of color ever to be on the town board is mind-blowing. That in 2021, it’s newsworthy. That we’re still here,” she told Observer reporter Théoden Janes.
From the Ledger family of newsletters
University president remembered: (Ways of Life 🔒) Robert Albright was the 11th president of Johnson C. Smith University, a role he used to boost the university’s faculty development and he become involved in development on Charlotte’s west side.
Hiring boom expected: (Monday) Economists expect hiring in the Charlotte region to pick up in the next few months, as Covid numbers fall and seasonal workers are needed for the holidays. The Charlotte region still has fewer jobs than it did at the start of the pandemic, with manufacturing and hospitality faring among the worst, while finance and construction have more than they did in February 2020.
Discrimination complaints: (Monday) With Charlotte’s new nondiscrimination ordinance on the books for five weeks, the city department in charge of enforcing it says it has received no complaints. The change, adopted by the City Council in August, prohibits discrimination at public businesses based on gender identity and sexual orientation, among other reasons, and a similar ban on employment discrimination takes effect Jan. 1.
Clearing out of Morehead: (Monday) The Uptown Cabaret says it will move to a new location because of a planned development on Morehead Street. And there’s a filing in city records that lists plans for an “uptown diner” at 4th and Caldwell streets, which might be a hint on where Midnight Diner, which will also be displaced, will wind up.
Mural legality: (Wednesday 🔒) In our series in which we answer reader questions, we looked into the Bojangles mural painted on the side of The Evening Muse this summer. Was that legal?
October rezonings 🔥: (Wednesday 🔒) Where are developers planning to build townhouses? Our monthly look at rezoning filings has the answers.
Purple lights: (Friday 🔒) You may already know that faulty lightbulbs are to blame for an increasing number of streetlights around Charlotte casting an odd purple glow. But have you wondered who paid for those bulbs, and who’s paying to replace them? We have the answers.
Surprise from Babcia: (Wednesday) The United States began allowing foreign visitors to travel into the country this week, and we have the story and video of two Charlotte brothers who were delighted by a surprise visit from their Polish grandma.
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