FOXBORO It's 1 p.m., about an hour before she has to leave for her job at WCVB-TV, Channel 5 in Needham. Maria Stephanos is sitting in her sunny white kitchen in Foxboro. She looks movie star-glamorous in a tight-fitting dress that screams confidence.
"I wear red on Fridays to show solidarity for our troops," she says.
Her makeup is thick, better for the unforgiving lights and high-resolution TV cameras. She is warm, animated (sentences are punctuated with exclamation points), unfiltered and refreshingly real.
"I'm a local girl," she says. It's a phrase she will repeat many times throughout the conversation.
On the table are home-baked chocolate cookies, tea and her phone. Ray Flynn, former Boston mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, has just responded to a text she sent him.
"Doing tests. Missed you. Glad you're back on TV. The Best. Your Pal, Ray Flynn," he replies. Flynn made news the day before when he crashed his car into his neighbor's house in South Boston. Maria was checking on his status.
Stephanos recently debuted as news anchor at Channel 5 for the 7 and 11 p.m. broadcasts. Previously, she had been with Fox 25 for 18 years before a departure that prompted buzz around the city and in her hometown.
"Was there really a bidding war for you by other stations?" she's asked.
"Let's just say I had a lot of wonderful offers...from everywhere," she smiles broadly.
As for the reason she left?
"I was at the end of my contract and had an offer to stay with Fox, but I thought it was the perfect time to explore what was out there."
Maria and her husband, illustrator Dale Stephanos, moved to Foxboro in 1994 and lived at Shaw Place.
"I was working at WJAR-TV, Channel 10 in Providence and we were looking for a half-way spot between Providence and Boston. We checked out Sharon and Mansfield, but we loved Foxboro. It was affordable, the people were genuine and very invested in their town."
Among her favorite memories, she says, is pushing her daughter on the swings at the Booth Playground.
Isabella, 18, and Liam, 15, attended the Igo Elementary and the Ahern Middle School. Isabella went to Foxboro High School, where she captained the swim team; Liam played baseball and currently attends Xaverian High School. The entire family enjoys the YMCA.
"It's a center for us. People go to fancy health clubs but for me, this is the greatest place," she explains, adding that the facility is a shared connection with Patriots football team owner and Y patron Bob Kraft, whom she recently interviewed for Channel 5.
Active in the community she loves, for years Stephanos has been a fixture at the Foxboro Relay for Life (American Cancer Society) and McGinty Fun Day (a college scholarship fundraiser in honor of Michael McGinty who died in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks).
Does "fame" ever get in the way of everyday living?
"I don't find that in Foxboro," she responds. "I worked out this morning then I went to CVS to buy my Valentine's Day cards. I was sweaty and had last night's makeup on. I'm a human being."
She shrugs. "What I love about the people in Foxboro is that they really don't care that I'm on TV. They're so used to me."
The eldest of two girls, Stephanos grew up in Groveland, in what she calls a traditional Greek family.
"Our parents were super-attentive to me and Nicole. So kind. It was almost like, 'Maria, that's the best burp we've ever heard.'"
Every Sunday, they traveled to her grandparents' mom-and-pop convenience store in Dorchester, later in Milton, and then they sat down for a family dinner.
"My grandparents worked so hard. That's how I learned to be a reporter. I saw them interact with customers. Someone would come in for a candy bar and they would be talking about politics, their lives."
She notes that her grandmother was a "talk radio addict" who listened to Gene Burns and Jerry Williams, but the death of Elvis Presley may have been her first real news awakening.
"My parents were transfixed to the television. I'd never seen them so focused on something. It captured my attention."
Stephanos's interest in storytelling took her to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and then to Emerson College, where she says she soared. "I never set out to be on TV, I just wanted to be a reporter or even someone behind the scenes handling equipment."
A series of positions in radio and TV eventually landed her at Fox where she became the primary anchor in 2001.
"Let's be honest, I evolved on air. My hair was too short, too dark, my clothes were too ... (she searches for a description).
"THIS (she points to herself), takes time and eventually you get it."
What about viewers weighing in on her clothes - something TV reporters/anchors complain detracts from their journalistic skills?
"OK, let's cut right to it ... they talk about my boots all the time," she says. "I wear boots. If that's what they want to talk about, fine. At this point, my skin is as thick as an alligator's. It has to be."
She admits there's a vulnerability to being live on TV. "I make mistakes. You know, I say to my kids, 'You are going to make mistakes, but how you recover is key. You have to move on.' If I dwelled on every mistake I made, I wouldn't be sitting here at my kitchen table in Foxboro talking to you."
Family is her top priority and her home is a testament to that. Welcoming, comfortable, open and artistic. Dale's stunning celebrity portraits - Neil Young and Muddy Waters among them - adorn the hallway. The illustrator's work has appeared in national magazines including Rolling Stone, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. A massive bookcase lines the living room wall.
"Dale really reads these," says Stephanos. "They aren't for show."
Pictures of the kids are everywhere, as are pictures created by the kids. Dale shows off a favorite in the kitchen: "Mr. Gallon Man," drawn by a young Liam. It depicts how pints, cups and quarts convert to gallons. "No need to look up measurements, we have everything we need right here," he chuckles.
"You know, I never cook with measurements," she corrects. "So, recipes might turn out differently each time."
Sundays are for cooking, she explains, and she makes meals that can be eaten throughout the week. "Not that Dale's a bad cook, wink, wink, (the couple has been married 25 years). I make him a big chicken soup. I use the Crock-Pot for beef stew, chili, chicken croquets. The Greek mother in me wants to be part of their lives and that's how I can do that."
Cooking, as it turns out, played a big role during her hiatus between jobs.
"I didn't take some exotic vacation like people said I should. I did something I've never done which is prepare and eat dinner with my family. That's all I wanted to do because I never could. It was the greatest four months of my life."
While the break was great, she's happy to be back to work and especially to be covering politics.
"I have never seen anything like this," she comments about the presidential election. "People are dying for anti-establishment and the poll numbers are reinforcing that. They are sending a strong message that 'we don't want what we usually have.' That's exciting! Incredible! I love the revolution of it!"
Starting Feb. 29, she's looking forward to anchoring a new 10 p.m. newscast on WCVB sister station MeTV Boston (the co-anchor has yet to be announced). "I love being on at 10 and 7, they're rogue times - that's totally me."
As for the 11 p.m. news slot? "I'm an early riser and I could never stay up for that. Now I have to!" Her laughter fills the room.
And what about that comparison Channel 5 GM Bill Fine made to Stephanos and revered news anchor Natalie Jacobson?
"Let's just set the record straight on that one. Bill was taken out of context. He said there will never be another Natalie, and there won't. She's in a league of her own," Stephanos says emphatically.
"I'm just Maria from Foxboro who tells the news and is lucky enough at the age of 50 to be able to work at her dream station. Grateful. Grateful."