Nancy Giles: She found her voice, and America is listening

01/14/2013 3:03 PM

05/16/2014 8:47 PM

If there’s one thing that Nancy Giles, an acerbic, ’fro-wearing, black woman trying to lose weight has plenty of, it’s opinions. On just about everything.

She doesn’t stifle them, either. She’s not the type.

Giles is smart, quick witted and paid by CBS to share her social and political commentaries — be they cutting, comedic or both — on Sunday mornings. It’s a job that took 31 years of theater, acting and standup comedy to land.

“And I love it,” Giles said from her home in New York.

On Tuesday, Giles will visit Kansas City as keynote speaker for the annual community luncheon sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City. She will talk about how she found her public voice.

“A lot of it happened to me by accident,” said Giles, who grew up during the ’60s and ’70s in Queens, N.Y., with aspirations of becoming a writer.

She’s a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio. On the way to her current celebrity, Giles worked as a standup comic in Chicago and then as an actress on stage and screen.

Being a commentator, and being called on to sit among the usual political pundits, means Giles is often mistaken for a news reporter. But she’s the first to set the record straight.

“I am not a journalist. I’m an opinion writer,” Giles said.

“I’m a black female version of what Andy Rooney was ... It’s my world view and I’m honored … I’m the only African-American female doing opinion on network television.”

Giles said that through social media, she hears from women of all ages and races, men, soldiers and people from different parts of the world, “who say they felt the exact same way that I feel.”

Giles has been an opinion contributor to “CBS Sunday Morning” since 2003 and taken positions on most of the hot-button issues of the day.

It’s her job to be provocative, she said, and that sometimes means ticking folks off, as she did last November during an on-air discussion with MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry about the impact of demographics on the presidential election.

When Harris-Perry said talk about the demise of the white man is “vastly overrated,” Giles joked: “Maybe that’s why they’re trying to eliminate all these abortions and stuff. They’re trying to build up the race.”

That statement, which Giles later explained was just a joke, generated calls for CBS to fire her. Some labeled her a racist.

“But that’s all part of the job.”

She knows how to take a bit of lambasting. After all, she started her career portraying a singing bag of garbage and playing Santa at New York City’s Macy’s on 34th Street.

Later, Giles would tour for three years with the Second City comedy troupe, a kind of farm team for “Saturday Night Live.” It was with Second City that Giles heard her own voice begin to murmur.

She was coming up with witty, funny things and saying them right on the spot. She realized that “making stuff up on my feet was writing.”

She later worked many Manhattan theaters before winning a prestigious Theatre World Award for her off-Broadway debut in the musical “Mayor.” Giles also made a bunch of television appearances

She was female GI Frankie Bunsen for three seasons on “China Beach,” and hostile waitress Connie on the comedy series “Delta.” She’s been a guest on other shows, including “LA Law,” “Spin City,” “Law and Order” and “Fresh Prince.”

She’s appeared in more than a dozen movies including “Working Girl” and “Big.”

With all she has done, Giles is still discovering elements of her voice.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and he came with a wife whom much of America fell in love with, Giles garnered a lot of material.

“Michelle Obama inspired me,” Giles said. “As a brown-skinned woman with a butt, she has changed the landscape for a lot of us.”

Giles hopes to do some inspiring, too. She has a message for America’s young voices.

“Be open to change. Be flexible,” she said. “I didn’t know ’til I started doing this that this is what I wanted to do. But I knew it when I got there.”

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