Tim Stack
August 26, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Here are a few things you learn after spending some time with Anderson Cooper: Truman Capote, a regular houseguest of Cooper’s parents, was mean and had long, curly toenails. The granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin, another family friend, is a trapeze artist.

The Real Housewives of Atlanta star NeNe Leakes has been known to drunk-dial him. He has a signature dance move that involves placing one hand on the small of his back (according to close friend Kelly Ripa). As a child, he was on the game show To Tell the Truth and managed to get Nipsey Russell to vote for him. And he’s obsessed with reality TV, like the deliciously awful Toddlers & Tiaras. (The guy did host The Mole, after all.)

The most surprising thing you learn when hanging out with Anderson Cooper is that Anderson Cooper is a whole lotta fun. While he’s best known for his steely-eyed news coverage of tragedies like Hurricane Katrina and his CNN series Anderson Cooper 360°, in person the 44-year-old is a charismatic, easy-to-talk-to charmer who has quite a silly streak — something the world recently glimpsed when a video of him giggling over potty puns went viral. (Thank you, Gérard Depardieu.) And it’s exactly this side of Cooper that he’s set to unleash come Sept. 12 with the premiere of his new daytime talk show, Anderson. (In fact, the topic of one of his test shows was…Toddlers & Tiaras!) ”There are sides to him that are coming out now that are spontaneous and fun and charming and even flirty,” says Anderson executive producer Lisa Morin. Adds Cooper’s friend (and executive VP of programming at Bravo) Andy Cohen, ”He’s this weird combination of a little shy and even awkward sometimes, and completely disarming and friendly and approachable and fun. He’s this fantastic mix of hard news and a total devotion to pop culture.”

For Cooper, this new stage is about showing his versatility — he plans to stay with CNN and 360° — while also finding another way to connect with people, something he’s chased throughout his career. ”There is this connection you can have with viewers that really resonates with their lives,” says Cooper. ”As much as there is sort of an impulse to go to some far-flung region, there’s also this other influence to have that connection. I’ve been [traveling] for 20 years. I’m kind of excited to try the other part.”

May 2011
It’s a Thursday afternoon at Cooper’s CNN office in New York City, and the host is revealing how much progress has been made on his new chat series. ”I have my little show corner,” he says, pointing to a small square of his desk that holds a laptop, an iPhone, and a whiteboard. Photos from his various travels to the Middle East line the shelves, while six framed collages of press passes hang on the wall. Behind his desk is a walk-in closet/anchorman Batcave that contains a rack of Cooper’s nearly identical navy suits. ”I’m excited,” says Cooper of the talk show. ”It’s starting to feel a lot more real. I’m a big fan of daytime TV. There’s going to be a lot of audience involvement in the show, sort of like the old Phil Donahue show.” He’s been watching old tapes of Donahue, in fact, in preparation. The question on most people’s minds is, why would Cooper do another TV show when he already has a successful career on CNN? ”The whole reason I started as a reporter was because my brother had killed himself — I was reeling from that, and I wanted to be places where there was real emotion and real feelings,” says Cooper. ”I now realize you don’t have to go far away to extreme situations to be able to connect with people.”

When Anderson Cooper tells stories of his childhood, it’s hard not to be awed. His parents, Gloria Vanderbilt and author Wyatt Cooper, were Manhattan socialites on a level that the Real Housewives of New York City can only dream of reaching. In the ’70s, the pair threw dinner parties that attracted the likes of Chaplin, Capote, and photographer Gordon Parks, among others. ”We had Carr’s water biscuits for pété whenever people were coming over, and chilled aquavit. That’s what we had [in our refrigerator],” says Cooper. ”Then my mom would be like, ‘You should eat more.’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, but what?”’ He adds, ”I’ve got a really unique and amazing mom. It wasn’t Ozzie and Harriet, but I don’t think Ozzie and Harriet were Ozzie and Harriet. I think Ozzie was wearing latex lederhosen underneath his suits.”

Though it was marked by elegant parties and lavish homes, Cooper’s early life also had a surfeit of tragedy — specifically the deaths of his father and his older brother, Carter. Wyatt Cooper passed away from a heart attack when Anderson was 10 years old. ”A lot changed with my dad’s death,” he admits. ”I was a much more interesting person before the age of 10. I was more outgoing and funny. In my teenage years, after my dad’s death, I became serious and focused on being independent and working.”

Anderson was entering his senior year at Yale when he received a phone call from his mother saying that his brother, Carter, had killed himself by leaping off the balcony of their Upper East Side home. ”I think particularly once suicide has entered your reality, once it’s entered your lexicon, it’s always sort of there,” says Cooper. ”That’s one of the insidious things about it. Skin grows over a wound, but it’s still there.” Cooper’s way of treating that wound was by plunging headlong into dangerous situations to tell other people’s stories. At 24, he created a fake press pass and traveled to Burma, where he reported on students attempting to overthrow the government. He sold the footage to classroom network Channel One, and by 1993 he was a full-time correspondent there. He scored a job at ABC News in 1995 before landing at CNN six years later.

Anderson Cooper 360° premiered in prime time in 2003, but it wasn’t until his tireless and emotional coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that people really began talking about the silver fox. ”He’s been the champion of people who cannot advocate for themselves for many years,” says pal Kelly Ripa, with whom Cooper has guest-hosted on Live! With Regis and Kelly. ”It wasn’t really given a lot of attention until Katrina, obviously, but it’s been within him for a long, long time.” His most talked-about moment came when he lost his cool and scolded Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu during an interview: ”For the last four days, I have been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other… There are a lot of people here who are very upset and very angry and very frustrated.” Reflecting on it now, Cooper says, ”I think it had been building up for a couple of days. I had just come off being with a female body-recovery team, and they had found a family that had drowned in their living room.” The disaster also hit home for the reporter: Wyatt Cooper was born in Mississippi and lived in New Orleans for a period of time; he took young Anderson on trips to the Louisiana city. ”New Orleans is such a city of memory,” explains Cooper. ”It certainly had extra relevance in my life.”

July 2011
The tiny pile dedicated to the daytime show in Cooper’s CNN headquarters has now grown into a corner office in the Time & Life Building, the home of Anderson’s staff. (The show tapes at the Time Warner Center.) Employees are having their first staff meeting with Cooper, and a buzz fills the spacious floor. For many of them, it’s the first time they’ll be meeting their boss, so they’ve dressed up for the occasion. Cooper, meanwhile, shows up in his typical uniform: jeans, sneakers, an untucked blue button-down shirt. He’s ridden his bike to work, and, unfortunately, the AC is broken in the conference room. The crowd of mostly female staffers still swoons. ”I rode my bike over, so that’s why I’m sweating — it’s not that I’m nervous or a meth addict,” Cooper jokes. The staff, which includes executive producers Lisa Morin and Jim Murphy (Good Morning America), go around and introduce themselves, and then Cooper opens up the room for questions.

What’s your favorite food?
”I go through periods where I rediscover food. I rediscovered peanut butter and jelly. I’ve rediscovered Boston Market! The food is really good!”

What will surprise people most about you?
”My extensive knowledge of the Housewives.”

As the meeting comes to a close, a staffer tells Cooper that she heard from someone that there are multiple babies in Haiti who have been named Anderson because of the work he did there after the 2010 earthquake. He looks touched, but jokes, ”That sounds like a Maury DNA episode.” Cooper’s bravery during the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake led to another Katrina-like watercooler moment: Noticing a young boy being hit with rocks by looters, Cooper dropped his camcorder and ran to the kid. ”I just remember his blood was really hot, and then handing him over a barricade,” he explains. ”I never saw him again. It’s interesting, moments like that. Your adrenaline is pumping so fast. Your mouth gets so dry. After it’s done, it’s like you’re exhausted. It’s incredible what adrenaline does.”

It was months later that Cooper would begin his next adventure. In the summer, he took a meeting with Telepictures president Hilary Estey McLoughlin; the pair bonded over a TLC special on primordial dwarfs they had both recently watched. She had been following Cooper’s contract renegotiations with CNN and saw an opportunity to grab him for a talk show. ”I’ve always checked on Anderson on a regular basis, because he’s been on our wish list,” McLoughlin says. ”I started sensing Disney was going to make a move on him to put him in that spot if Regis ever left.” (While Regis Philbin announced his retirement in January, Cooper says that Disney never offered him the job.) McLoughlin and Cooper’s agent devised a plan that would keep him at CNN and give him his own Telepictures show — both of those are in the Time Warner family (as is EW). ”I thought these are people I’d really like to work with,” says Cooper, who had also taken a meeting at Oprah Winfrey’s company, Harpo. ”It didn’t involve moving and didn’t involve leaving CNN.” In September 2010, the anchor signed a new long-term contract with CNN and a deal to host his own syndicated talk show beginning in the fall of 2011.

August 2011
Cooper emerges from his dressing room after the Toddlers & Tiaras test episode wearing a white T-shirt and khakis, and makes the five-minute walk to his CNN office. He orders his usual lunch — dry Boston Market turkey with corn and mashed potatoes (no gravy; it’s too ”fattening”) — and sits down to reflect. ”I think we’re definitely still finding the groove,” says Cooper of his fledgling talk show. ”It’s important to me that every show be entertaining and informative.” Anderson will be a mix of celebrity interviews and personal stories, which, says his friend Kathy Griffin, plays to Cooper’s strengths: ”He can talk to Angelina Jolie one day, and then talk to Hosni Mubarak the next day. Not sure if he can get Mubarak on the phone this week. If anyone could, it would be him, though.”

There’s no clarity, however, on whether Cooper will address the one topic many people want him to talk about: his personal life. For years, he has declined to speak about it — even after Out magazine ranked him No. 2 on its list of ”The 50 Most Powerful Gay Men and Women in America” in 2007. ”My job has been reporting for so long,” explains Cooper. ”I have a nightly newscast. I’m not really interested in who reporters are seeing. The less I know about reporters, the better, from my perspective as a viewer. I’m not interested in their personal lives. But I understand people are, and, you know, we’ll see.” Of course, daytime audiences become intimately acquainted with their hosts’ significant others — Oprah has Stedman, Ellen has Portia, Donahue has Marlo — and Cooper does say it’s possible that he’ll discuss his significant other on the show. (He declines to say if he’s dating anyone at the moment.) ”I’m going to do stuff that’s real to me and natural to me. But I certainly want to be a fully formed human being,” he says. ”I’m literally feeling this day after day and seeing how this goes. We’ll see.”

In his 2006 memoir, Dispatches From the Edge, Cooper admitted that he still looks for signs of his father’s approval. He wrote, ”I like to think of him watching my show each night.” And what would Wyatt Cooper think about his son’s new daytime-talk-show venture? ”I think he would be tickled by the whole thing,” says Cooper, finishing his lunch. ”He was a great storyteller. He would be great having his own talk show,” he muses, before launching into his own great story about the time he got pranked by Candid Camera as a child, and how his resulting tearful meltdown kept the episode from airing. It may have been the last time Cooper wasn’t camera-ready. If only his father could see him now.

Anderson Looks Back
The talk-show host and anchor responds to snapshots of a life lived publicly

On To Tell the Truth (1977)
”[On the show], you masqueraded as a real person. The real person was this kid next to me who was the world’s youngest bear trainer, allegedly. I think maybe my dad knew someone who worked there.”

With His Family at Their Southampton, Long Island, Home (1972)
”This was in the living room of my parents’ house. That’s a collage by my mom. I love that they’re just sitting around dressed as sailors. I have this sofa. It’s in my house in Long Island now.”

In New York City (1976)
”There used to be a place in New York called Claremont Stables, which was this run-down stable on the west side. On Saturdays, I used to go horseback riding.”

In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (2005)
”Honestly, what comes to mind is this man who I saw the first day I got there, which was five days after the storm. An African-American man who was laying out on the roof of the car, and his body was bloated from the water and the sun and he had been laying on this car for five days.”

Giggling over Gérard Depardieu on AC360° (2011)
”I’m a little stunned by how many people have seen that video. I went to bed telling myself, ‘I doubt anyone will notice the giggle fit.’ I woke up and in the elevator the first thing my building super said to me was ‘What’s wrong with your laugh?”’

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