By Cory Johnson
Staff Reporter

The first hip check came at 9:32 a.m. Then an elbow. A shot to the arm followed, then another elbow. With a smile, she dodged an oncoming shoulder and subtly turned away from a beer belly with malicious intent. This is how CNBC's Wall Street correspondent Maria Bartiromo began Aug. 7, 1995, as the first woman to broadcast from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Unbeknownst to Bartiromo, there was reportedly a bounty on her head, with traders intentionally bumping into her while she was on the air. But she endured that day, and hundreds more like it. "I love being in the middle of the action," says Bartiromo. "And I think I've gotten to a point where I've proven I can take it."

Now the elbow assaults have virtually disappeared, and Bartiromo's attractive face -- indeed, one of the only female faces the male-dominated securities industry sees every day -- has made this 29-year-old from Brooklyn into an unlikely Wall Street icon. She's everywhere, as CNBC is in 62 million U.S. households (just 10 million fewer than CNN), most every brokerage house and trading floor, each pit on the commodities exchange, on 34 high-definition monitors at the NYSE. In short, the network has become virtual wallpaper for Wall Street, and Bartiromo has become, in the words of the National Review, the " Sharon Stone of business cable." Now she's about to take her act to a bigger stage.

In September, Bartiromo will join an as-yet-unnamed co-host on a prime-time CNBC show. The new program, also unnamed, will fill the all-important 7 to 7:30 p.m. time slot -- a slot that's been a disaster for the network, losing most of the viewers who watch the previous hour of market news. And Bartiromo will be going up against the popular Moneyline, one of CNN's top-rated shows, hosted by the popular Lou Dobbs -- the very man who gave Bartiromo her start in this business. So the question lingers: Will Bartiromo's Wall Street act play on Main Street?

In 1989 Bartiromo took a job on the business assignment desk at CNN in New York after graduating from New York University with a bachelor's degree in journalism. "Maria had as many jobs as anybody had at CNN," says Kelli Arena, then Bartiromo's supervisor, now a CNN Washington correspondent. "But even then she would live, eat and breathe the markets. She was always on the phone, asking a million-and-three questions. She'd read everything you asked her to read. Even then, she was psyched by the news that rocked the markets, the news that moved stock prices. On a management level, we were regularly asked to name our stars, and Maria always made that list."

Bartiromo worked every job they had for her at CNN: college intern, production assistant, line producer, writer, update producer and field producer. "Eventually, I would come up with story ideas, shoot pieces, edit pieces and write the scripts," says Bartiromo. "Then somebody else would be on air." For some that might be frustrating, but Arena says Bartiromo rarely chafed at being behind the scenes. "She's not competitive like TV people can be," says Arena. "She wasn't competing with anyone but herself. She set her own goals and was really hard on herself when she didn't meet them. But I don't think she ever thought she wanted to be on air."

Dobbs was a big supporter of Bartiromo, once complaining to the rest of the staff that "we need some more Marias around here." But when he took her away from markets reporting and put her on overnights -- a traditional fast track to management at CNN -- Bartiromo was morose. "Lou said it was a promotion, that I'd be a producer for the morning business show," she says. "It was more money, but I just didn't want to be off the desk. It was pretty obvious that my strength was in breaking news." Dobbs told her: "You're not going to advance like you want to if you stay on the desk." But Bartiromo was determined to keep her beat. So unbeknownst to Dobbs and the higher-ups at CNN, Bartiromo secretly began assembling a "reel" -- the video resume used by broadcast journalists.

"I'd go out on a story and ask the camera crew to hang around and shoot another version with me reading my own script," she says. "I wasn't very good, my hair was long, but I sent it to CNBC anyway." Knowing a good thing, CNBC scooped her right up and assigned her to the New York bureau. Finally able to focus exclusively on the markets, Bartiromo began to show her reporting chops. "I think she's an extraordinary gal," says one of Bartiromo's favorite sources, Seth Glickenhaus, president of Glickenhaus & Co. "When she calls to interview me, she knows just which stocks are the key movers of the day. And she asks really penetrating questions that'll open you right up. For example, I'm famous for liking Chrysler ( C), but she won't just call me and ask what I think. She'll point out some negative, and I'll have to explain that the public perception is wrong, and why."

When CNBC canned NYSE correspondent Roy Blumberg in 1995, Bartiromo was assigned the gig. "I felt a good-looking woman would really stand out there," says Jack Reilly, executive producer of CNBC. "You're out on the floor among a bunch of people running around; a smart, intelligent voice would stand out. She had the tenacity and passion, and with that passion, she could really turn that assignment into something special." Indeed, rather than use the trading floor as a backdrop, Bartiromo began plumbing it for more contacts.

With a newfound bully pulpit, her reputation as a reporter quickly spread on the Street. "I found her to ask the best questions and be the most prepared for interviews," says Lisbeth Barron, Bear Stearns senior managing director in charge of media and entertainment corporate finance. "And she has the best set of contacts in the industry. I think she does an awful lot of background work that never shows up on the air, meeting contacts, reading reports, getting to know who and what matters. She's also selective about who she had on the air, making sure she has different viewpoints represented. I think she's learned over the years who she could trust with the right information. And so, in many respects, she's getting better and better all the time."

As Bartiromo began to get recognition -- a Cable Ace Award nomination, a mention in 1996 as one of Swing magazine's most powerful twentysomethings -- CNBC muckety-mucks realized they had a budding star on their hands. So they decided to turn their 7 p.m. problem over to her. The show will be executive-produced by Reilly, a veteran of the Mike Douglas Show, Good Morning America and the founding producer of Entertainment Tonight. "I love Mary Hart, she's a great professional, doing what she's done as well as she's done," says Reilly. " Joan Lunden -- if you've done it that long, that well, you've got something. Maria has a chance to be on that caliber. Absolutely."

Reilly says the show will be more Entertainment Tonight than Moneyline. "We're not going to do CBS News from 20 years ago," says Reilly. "It's a very, very difficult time slot. The surfing that takes place between 6 and 8 p.m. is the highest of any time of the day. It's a time of change -- people eating, sitting down, getting ready for prime time. So we're going to be up against evening news, Seinfeld, Cosby, Hard Copy and the rest of the tabloid shows. It's a very fast-paced time of the day, so we're going to do a fast-paced, lively show."

For Bartiromo's part, she expects the show to take a forward-looking view of the market. "I want this show to tell the viewer what's going to happen tomorrow on the markets," she says. "You know so much happens after the bell, and I want my show to have exclusive reports."

In the meantime, she's not planning any big lifestyle changes. Bartiromo says she's still single, with kids and a husband in the long-term plan, but not for now. She just left her native Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in favor of an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side with Maxie, her 4-year-old Maltese. Every morning at about 6:30 a.m. she drives to the NYSE in her sensible white C-220 Mercedes (with, no joke, a baseball cap in the rear window). "I'm kind of paranoid about getting to work on time," she says. "So I don't risk taking the subway."

Bartiromo is, by all accounts, singularly dedicated to her work. "There are thousands of investors out there who depend on me to ask the tough question," she says. "Today the individual investor has access to all the information the big boys have." And Bartiromo is redefining who the big girls are. "You're seeing the first women in the boardroom running the companies," she says. "It makes me proud to be one of the first women covering these companies."

And she says she doesn't mind all the attention she's gotten for her looks -- the flowers, the love letters delivered to the NYSE, the romantic emails from fans who guess her email address, the "Business Beautiful" headline in Newsweek, the citation on the slightly disturbing News Babe Web site, the New Yorker-esque cartoon in Grant's Interest Rate Observer where a catcher lectures a perplexed pitcher: "Well, you're just going to have to stop thinking about Maria Bartiromo."

Says Bartiromo: "Who wouldn't be flattered? It's fabulous."

She doesn't quite know where this new show will take her, but she's determined to stay involved in the market. "I could never cover local news, chasing fires; no," she says. "And politics, well, I like Washington, but there's nothing that excites me like business news. I like stocks, deals, markets. I think it's extremely sexy."

"She's had to overcome quite a lot," says Arena. "She didn't look the part. She had to overcome a Brooklyn accent. And did you see the way they used to slam into her when she was first broadcasting from the trading floor? They probably thought: Here is a pretty little girl on the floor of the Exchange. They think it's a big joke. But let me tell you something -- you don't knock somebody from Brooklyn on their ass. The fact that she hung in there, really hitting back. And she held her own. She didn't stab anybody in the back, she didn't sleep with anybody, she didn't get there because she's some kind of glamour girl. She's busted her butt. She deserves every bit of attention she's getting. And you haven't seen the best of her yet."

You can respond to this story by posting in the CNBC Forum.

Easy Money is a regular column about life on the Street.

Previous Easy Money Features

  • To 'NY$E,' Imitation Isn't Flattery -- and Thus, a Lawsuit (6/23).

  • Morgan Stanley's Wien Says Y2K Problem Is No Paranoid Joke (6/9).

  • When We Were Kings. At Least at the Barbers. (6/2).

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