The Philadelphia Inquirer (and Reuters nationally), August 18, 1996
Sari Locker's Sex Chat is Not Just Sweet Nothings
By Jennifer Weiner (famed novelist of books including In Her Shoes and Good in Bed )
The TV show. The book. The apartment in Manhattan, with original Haitian art on the walls and a Jack Russell terrier named Monkey Jones waiting patiently for her return. The transcontinental flights, the national lecture tour, the articles in People and Playboy and USA Today, the column in Sassy magazine.
Sari Locker is 26. She is the host of Lifetime Television's Late Date With Sari, author of Mindblowing Sex in the Real World, and she has everything she ever wanted, everything she ever expected to get, and she will list her accomplishments, and the age she accomplished them by, with an assurance so absolute it transcends basic boastfulness, entry-level arrogance or mere bragging and rises to the level of a diva's recitation of givens. Of course she is a smashing success, an author, a hostess, a columnist, and a star at an age when many people are still living with Mom and Dad. How could it be otherwise?
She was 16 when she finished high school, 20 when she finished college, 22 when she earned a master's degree in human sexuality, 24 when her first book came out. Ask about her achievements and she'll say,. "If you looked at what I've done and tried to figure out how old I ought to be, well…I don't even know how old I'd have to be."
Like any good diva, Locker can back it up. She doesn't downplay her achievements, but she doesn't exaggerate them. What she's gotten came from working hard; from spending spring break schlepping around New York state high schools when her peers at Cornell were sunning on beaches; from studying talk shows with a Talmudic scholar's devotion, taking notes on the credits and deconstructing the form when her grad-school classmates were just watching Oprah for kicks.
And, like any good diva, she's all about control.
Like lots of stars, she looks different in the publicity shots than she does in person. In Playboy and Sassy, in sheer shirts, short skirts and artful makeup and looks that vary from kittenish to come-hither, she's Dr. Ruth as slinky glamourpuss; a sex educator who's actually sexy.
On the set, in a power jacket with power shoulder pads, stage makeup caked on her translucent skin and her shiny hair sprayed into a flip, she looks older, more solid and more serious like big sister on a job interview, instead of the hip prom queen with the hunky boyfriend.
Remember the old saving. "He puts his pants on the same way you do, one leg at a time?"
Well, it's perhaps the most revealing measure of how far, how fast Locker has come that she puts her pants on the same way, but with professional help. When she gets dressed to tape segments of her forthright, frank, freewheeling show, there's a guy who's paid to pick out her outfits, press and accessorize them, whisk them to her dressing room and, finally, hold each pant leg open so that Sari can slip inside.
Does she scare people? Sari doesn't even have to think about it. "Yes," she says succinct and matter-of-fact. That can complicate things her love life, for example. Meeting guys and telling them what she does, she's discursive not quite dishonest. She will say that she "works in TV," instead of instantly announcing that she hosts a show, although sometimes, not even that helps.
Locker was born in Nyack, N.Y., and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Her father had a doctorate from MIT in metallurgy, and eventually returned to school for a law degree. Her mother was a dancer and teacher.
Even though both were high achievers, Locker doesn't remember pressure. "It was always, 'Do what makes you happy. And figure out what makes you happy for yourself.' "
Her first love was acting. She performed professionally from the time she was 5 until she turned 11. "Every musical that had kids, I had a part," she recalls.
Her real passion, though, was for animals. She had rabbits and hamsters, and bred cocker spaniels. When she was 9, she walked into a pet shop, asked for a job and got one for $1 an hour. That was when she thought of using television to educate the public only back then, she thought she'd be talking cats and dogs, not birds and bees.
The family moved to Long Island, N.Y., when she was 12. By the time she was 14 she was on the air, hosting her high school's talk show on cable access. She'd have guests "from the Humane Society, the French exchange students, the boating safety people. I was the same me on TV then, but a lot more shy."
But her interests began to shift. "When I was in high school, kids would come to me for advice about sex and dating." Sari wasn't sexually active, but kids respected her and felt they could come to her with anything. "And I thought, if I could help more girls with these situations, there'd be fewer girls sitting in the halls crying."
By 16, she was at Cornell, where she'd always intended to go. Locker had started elementary school a year early. She skipped 10th grade and took classes when the other kids were eating or doing homework. "I never saw the point of study hall. And how long does it take to eat lunch?" she asked.
The same work ethic carried her through her college years. When her peers were jetting off to Cancun for spring break, Locker continued the work she'd started in her impromptu hallway counseling sessions. She booked herself on bus trips across Upstate New York, lecturing high school students as a "near peer" sex educator. She used what she was learning in her classes in education and psychology to give teens barely younger than she the straight dope about condoms and commitment and STDs and AIDS and dealt with the occasional silliness of her near-peers. ("My cat watches us have sex. Is that damaging to the cat?")
She was 20 when she finished Cornell and went for a master's degree at the University of Pennsylvania's Human Sexuality Education program. At that point, Locker figured, she was a near-peer for college students. She hired a booking agent and went national with her tour, visiting campuses all over the country. "I'd talk about sex and communication and decision making, or contraception and STDs and AIDS, or alternative lifestyles. I'd check the school papers and if there'd been date rape in the news, I'd talk about that," she said.
As she was studying the medium, she was also plotting her next move. By day, she'd go to class. By night, she'd watch the tapes she'd made of Oprah and Geraldo and Sally Jessy and Phil. She studied the guests, and the hosts. She took notes on the credits, including producers' names.
With degree in hand and years of lecturing under her belt, Locker put together a packet of biographical information and started pitching herself as a guest expert to talk shows.
She knew the format. The guest expert showed up for the last segment of the show and made two points at most -- carefully pruned sound bites that would be broadcast all over the country. Her specific goal is getting out one sound, positive message per show. Her larger goal is a show of her own. "I knew that if I got tape of myself on national TV, I could get my own show," she said.
This being Sari Locker's life, that's exactly what happened.
"First I did a Geraldo on teen sex. . . . He had me do a condom demonstration on a banana. It was the fastest condom demonstration I'd ever done. . . . But I figured, if one person learns to squeeze out the air bubbles, it's good."
Then came Montel. Then Maury. Then Sally. Then about 50 more shows.
Sari moved to East Hampton, N.Y., and kept up the lecturing and the guest-expert gigs (about one a month) and started what would become her first book, Mindblowing Sex in the Real World, published last summer and now in its third printing. She approached the publishing industry with the same attitude that worked on the TV folks: talk shows need guest experts, and publishing houses need books. "And I always had in mind that I'd write my first book when I was 24," she said.
She hosted a radio show in New York City, taking the bus into town from 1992 to 1994 to do Let's Talk About Sex on WBAI-FM. It wasn't long before the networks came knocking. Locker weighed her options, studied the field and decided on the Lifetime show "They were very excited about me."
The show tapes in a gigantic studio over the river from Manhattan in Astoria, Queens.
It is a Monday, which means work begins about 9 a.m., continues through all-day tapings and won't end until after dinner, about 9pm.
For this segment (Locker tapes for about an hour straight, and the footage gets edited into a half-hour show), her guests are married or committed couples, all in their late 20s and early 30s. Most of the guests come from New York, which means lots of aspiring actors and models guests who'll talk about their sex lives on the air and slip Locker's producer a head shot on their way out.
Locker's set is a funky dream pad, along the lines of the digs that roommates on MTV's The Real World enjoy.
The guests treat her more like a teacher than a peer. She steers the conversation "it's like steering a ship," she says later jumping in with questions, redirecting the flow. "How did you meet?" "How much does money matter?" "Do you feel like you've always known each other?"
She reveals nothing of herself, tells no personal stories, and lets slip no secrets about her own love life, which she describes only as "pretty typical."
Even though she's writing a second book all about relationships, Sari is single and looking. No, she won't date guests from the show. "In my training and education, I learned that you never flirt with or date your students. It feels like my guests are my students. It's unethical, and I can't do it."
And what's next? Well, vacation isn't on the agenda. "I went away for a weekend. ... " she begins, then thinks. "Well, actually, I guess it I was just 24 hours. But I have a friend with a boat in the Hamptons, so maybe I'll go there. Mostly, I guess, it's just long I weekends and working vacations."
What she really wants, Locker says, is to keep the show on ("in TV, just staying on the air is a triumph"), and fresh and evolving. After that: supersuccess. "Women of our generation grew up with wonderful female role models. From Madonna to Oprah, anyone can be supersuccessful. My lofty goals have to do with continuing until I'm supersuccessful," she says and quickly adds "but the genuineness of wanting to help people is still there."