On a cool early winter evening in Las Vegas, many people were arranged on the balcony overlooking the Bellagio's famous dancing fountains. As the show ended, WPT announcer Mike Sexton approached a lovely young lady, who turned to him and cooed, "Don't you look handsome tonight? And what a nice tie...," as she reached up and adjusted the poker champion's neckwear. It is obvious that the new hostess for the WPT, Courtney Friel, has found herself a home with the World Poker Tour and the Travel Channel.
At the end of the third season of the WPT, previous hostess Shana Hiatt decided it was time for her to end her run. This prompted a full-out blitz to find a replacement before the Tour's fourth season started just a couple of months later. What they found in Courtney is someone who is just as beautiful as the previous hostess but also brings some formidable skills along with her to the premiere poker program on television.
Courtney has earned much of what has come her way. She graduated from San Diego State University (after a stop in my neck of the woods at Elon College in North Carolina, which we laughed about) with a BA in Political Science and minored in Broadcast Journalism. She has since taken that to working in the high pressure world of network television and reporting with Channel One in Los Angeles, working as an anchor and reporter in Jackson, TN, and currently still works in news with KPSP in Palm Springs, CA. Beyond just her news skills, she has also been highly sought after by other networks for her entertainment reporting, including E! Entertainment Television, Nickelodeon, EBTV Gaming and other shows.
With all of that in her background, Courtney should be ready for Season Four of the World Poker Tour! What I found, as I sat down to talk with her at the Bellagio, was a young woman who has achieved some great things already and, with her work on the WPT, wants to do even more.
PN: Hello, Courtney, and congratulations on your position with the WPT!
CF: Thank you!
PN: With something as established as the WPT, what do you want to do to bring yourself into the program?
CF: I really want to be able to produce some of the segments that come up on the program. I like to write and I think I can bring some great things to the Tour. With it being the Travel Channel, as well, I would like to look at the many interesting things that are part of each stop that we have on the Tour and bring that to the viewers.
I already am getting out into the audience more than what has been seen in previous seasons. I enjoy doing interviews with the audience, the family members of the players and the players themselves. It wasn't something that was done too much in years previous to this one.
PN: What has the fan reaction been like to you?
CF: The people have been really great, really positive to me. I am stepping into a job that was readily recognized as being Shana's, so I am looking to make it my own. One person said to me, "Look at Kelly Ripa (the now-longtime host of "Live With Regis & Kelly). It's almost like 'Kathie Lee Who?' (Laughs) I'm ready for that challenge!
PN: What have Mike and Vince (Van Patten, fellow host of the WPT) been like?
CF: They have both been so nice and a pleasure to work with. In fact, everyone associated with the WPT, from the PA's all the way to the top have been great to me. They have all been a tremendous help.
PN: One thing that I was impressed with is your background in news and television. Are you going to be bringing that same work ethic to the WPT?
CF: Yes I am. I've done pretty much everything when it comes to reporting. I've lugged my own cameras, edited my own tape, even operated the teleprompter with my foot...just everything! All these skills, and more, I am hoping to bring to the fans of the WPT during the broadcast.
I really want people to like me, but I also don't want for them to think of me as just another pretty face. While I do have to do some scripted things for the programs, I want to write some of my own work, have a big hand in the interviews, things like that. I have been working closely with the producers to bring more to the broadcasts and I would like to think that my background in news and television has to be something that accentuates the show.
PN: You're originally from Philadelphia...
CF: Just outside of there, yes...
PN: Valley Forge, right?
PN: And now you find yourself in California. What kind of change was that like?
CF: Well, I always have thought that I was a California girl!
PN: You do have that look...
CF: (Laughs) Well, I actually moved to Los Angeles in 1999. I love it so much! It's very laid back, much like me, and the weather is perfect there. I love to travel, so in an odd way, moving there and starting my work with the WPT and the Travel Channel is right up my alley. I said a couple of years ago that I wanted to be working on the Travel Channel and now, at 25, here I am working there! It's been almost too perfect!
PN: What experience have you had with poker?
CF: I had some experience with video poker, but I was a true poker novice when it comes to this game. During my audition, I didn't even know what going "all in" meant! (Laughs) I would kind of say (lightly and airily), "OK, he's going all in...," not truly grasping the severity of how serious that move is! Once I explained my background in news, where I had to take a large amount of information in a short time and then present it convincingly to viewers in a manner that they could understand and that I would learn the game, the people at the WPT were a little more comfortable with me.
I have no problem learning about things! I definitely studied up on the players in the game and the WPT sent me to the WPT Boot Camp to learn more about it. I must have done pretty well there, because I won my first tournament! My problem in poker is that I lack the courage to jump into the game. I also blush when I get great cards, so that's a tell I have to work on! (Laughs) Overall, I have to work on my poker face!
PN: In addition to the WPT and all your news work, what else are you working on?
CF: I am going to have a show on CourtTV called "The Saturday Night Solution", where we take episodes of "Law & Order" or movies and go more in-depth with the producers of the program, people like Dick Wolf (the producer of "Law & Order") and others. I also have a pilot that may come up with the E! Network, but that's not firm yet. People will be seeing quite a bit of me outside of the WPT arena, that's for sure!
PN: What do you do to get away from it all, and what would people be somewhat surprised about you?
CF: I am a huge power walker. I love to power walk in a canyon near my home or, when I really want to get away from it all, I jump in my car and drive an hour through California traffic to head to the beach to walk. It is truly my alone time when I do that! I listen to my IPod, watch the sunset and appreciate Los Angeles.
Surprised about me? (Pauses) Well (sheepishly), I am a big news junkie! I don't watch many network or cable television programs. In fact, in my room now, the television is on the Fox News Channel and I will flip around to the others to keep up with what is going on. That's something people might find a little weird!
PN: Not at all, Courtney, I do that very same thing! Thanks a lot for your time and good luck with the WPT!
CF: Thanks, Earl!
I would like to thank Courtney for her time at the Bellagio. She is definitely a breath of fresh air to the program and, with her beauty, skills and abilities, should make an already great program even greater. Be sure to catch Season Four of the World Poker Tour with Courtney Friel (and, oh yeah, Mike, Vince and some poker!) when it kicks back into action on March 8th! Also, if you would like to learn more about Courtney, visit her website at courtneyfriel.com.