Neighbor: Jill Rappaport, Reporter and Activist

Hamptons resident Jill Rappaport is an award-winning reporter and correspondent for Today on NBC. Over the course of her career, she has proven to be a great advocate of animals and philanthropist, as well as a great entertainer. We caught up with her to discuss her career, her love of animals and how one very special dog changed her life forever.

Rappaport is a virtual dynamo of charisma and ambition, a “star reporter” in both senses—covering celebrities for decades, and becoming a star herself on the popular NBC news program The Today Show. Now, she is turning all that star power into the greatest cause of her life, helping shelter animals find homes. Rappaport has multiple pro-animal projects going, splashiest being her Today series “Bow to Wow.” The idea for the series, where shelter dogs and cats get “makeovers,” came from an experience she had with her friend of 30 years Matt Lauer (yes, that Matt Lauer). The two personalities share not only the spotlight on the show, which Lauer co-hosts, but a personal experience that turned Rappaport’s life around.

“Matt was visiting one day while I was renting a house on Lumber Lane, when lo and behold a neighbor came over with a puppy in her arms and said, ‘Does he belong to you? I know how much you love animals and always see you surrounded by your dogs, so I figured this one was yours, too.’ I said, ‘No, but I will try to find who he belongs to,’” Rappaport recalled.

Rappaport took it into her home and called shelters, hotlines and every source she could think of. And, you guessed it, while waiting in vain for someone to claim the little
german shepherd she fell in love with the dog. She named him “Jack,” and the 10-week -old pup lucked into the blissful life of a stray with an owner who is out-and-out gaga over him. Over the next 13-and-a-half years, when he wasn’t sitting by her side, he spent his days gamboling around the rental home, and later the Water Mill property she bought and turned into a horse farm. Then, sadly, he succumbed to bone cancer five years ago.

Rappaport was practically knocked out by grief. But she did what journalists do—she reported on his treatments, showing the world how a courageous animal copes with illness.

She brought Jack on the air, even after he had a leg amputated, and viewers followed his story until “he went to heaven,” she said. “Jack truly changed my life. When I chronicled his miraculous journey on Today, viewers all over the world were touched by his story. He taught me the true meaning of resilience, and never let the loss of a limb get in the way of leading a wonderful happy life. It really is incredible how much animals have to teach us.”

Jack went on to become a celebrity, as well as becoming the “Ambassadog of Hope for Animal Cancer,” and Rappaport wrote “a wonderful children’s book about him called Jack and Jill—The Miracle Dog With a Happy Tail to Tell.”

Rappaport, who will be honored at the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation 4th Annual Unconditional Love Gala Saturday, June 20, has been on a mission to help other animals that, like Jack, can go “from cages to castles.”

Jack got her to rethink her then-job as entertainment reporter on Today and to create the award-winning, popular series where shelter dogs and cats get a “makeover.” Thus began her life-saving forays up to the Animal Care and Control of NYC shelter on 110th Street. She described her dedication to shelter animals as “24/7. It’s my oxygen.”

Makeovers meant making the dogs irresistible and well trained. And it’s not just the out-and-out cuties that get a trip downtown to TV-land. “I pick dogs that are middle-aged, blind, and some on three legs, so forth. It’s a second chance for a new life. The phones are ringing off the hook, and people are fighting for these animals. We have a one-hundred percent adoption record.” Rappaport and the show don’t let it go at waving happy good-byes; they have a yearly reunion holiday segment that follows up on the adopters.

A favorite photo is of a yellow Labrador retriever, whose new family snapped a picture of him floating on a rubber raft in their Hamptons pool overlooking the ocean. “But it doesn’t have to be a Hamptons home, it could be a small walk-up in Brooklyn,” she added. “These animals know they’ve been saved, they thank you every day.”

Key to getting more dogs adopted is ”shining the spotlight on them,” as well as letting people know that “animals in shelters are wonderful, loving creatures, and they are not in the shelter because something is wrong with them, but because of the unfortunate circumstances that put them there.”

The Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation came about because of rescuers and philanthropists, notably Southampton’s Susan Allen, when the Town shelter was going to be closed in 2010 because of budget cuts. “It is one of the best,” Rappaport said, “not only because the facility is so happy, clean and pleasant for both animals and human visitors, but one of their special programs emphasizes socialization. I call it ’Pooch Play.’ It allows the dogs the chance to interact and have fun, which will enable them to be wonderful pets for adoption.” She added, “Sadly, there is nothing we can do about animals ending up in shelters, but you can hope if they do end up in one, it’s one like this. I can’t say enough wonderful things about this shelter and [Board President] Jonathan McCann.”

The canines, of course, aren’t the only little guys that need homes. “The cat situation is even more dire,” she noted. And, of course, animal shelters are not all about overjoyed new owners hugging their take-home prize of a new dog or cat. “At the 110th Street shelter, I witnessed first-hand the countless cages filled with animals. Being involved in this goes from horrific to heartwarming. People ask me, ‘How do you do it? I could never go there.’ I say, ‘You have to remember that it’s not about you, it’s about the animals.’”

Like many dog lovers, she is an animal lover in general, and has at her farm, besides her five rescue dogs, seven horses she adores. We spoke just after she had come in from an afternoon ride.

Though Rappaport lives here in Party Central, aka the Hamptons, her idea of bliss is not gala-hopping or trying out the latest creations of the gourmet restaurants. “My favorite thing to do is to stay in my cabin,” as she calls her 7,000 square-foot house, “sitting with my dogs and looking out at my horses.”

She commutes to New York for her NBC job, but said, “I spend the majority of my time out here because I feel a huge void in my life without my animals.” As ASPCA Equine Welfare Ambassador, she emcees the Adoption Day at the Hampton Classic Horse Show.

Her long list of honors and awards includes two Genesis Awards—the Oscars of the animal world—for her reporting, and a nomination for her NBC Nightly News piece, Hurricane Sandy: Protecting Our Pets. Lauer presented her with the first “Voice for the Animals Award” from the Humane Society of the United States. She has received the 2012 Pet Philanthropy Circle Humanitarian Award, and the Presidential Service Award for Media Excellence from the ASPCA in November. And the list goes on and on.

“I have loved animals ever since I came out of the womb,” she said. Born in Detroit, later moving to Bloomfield Hills, “I was fortunate to grow up with dogs, cats, birds, and horses. When I was very little, I’d sit on the fence outside and pet imaginary horses.”

She also loved movies. Her first job was as a film publicist for United Artists. “I was able to promote great films, like Rocky and Apocalypse Now. “ Taking the celebrities to talk shows, she realized her true vocation. “In the car rides, I would find myself talking to them, and realized that in the process, I was getting some exciting ‘interviews.’”

Rappaport worked as a fashion reporter, then entertainment reporter. “And then, in the ’80s, I got the magic call to co-host PM Magazine in New York with a great guy named Matt Lauer. We had good chemistry instantly.”

She went from WCBS, then “I got a career changing call from NBC’S Today Show, and for the first 16 years of my now 22 years here, I was their entertainment reporter, and it was one of the most coveted jobs in the
world.

“I was amazed at how many people I interviewed loved animals like I do, and it was a great ice-breaker,” which brought up the idea of doing a book on celebrities and their horses, with her sister, Linda Solomon, taking the photos. The New York Times Best Seller People We Know, Horses They Love, features stars like Morgan Freeman, Richard Gere, Robert Duvall and Dennis Quaid.

But the interview with Robert Redford at his Sundance ranch in Utah was the most thrilling, in more than one sense. “He came riding up on his palomino, ‘Charm,’ and said he’d meet me inside for the interview. Once indoors, we sat practically on top of each other—my good fortune!—on this little bench. I have always been obsessed with Robert Redford—hey, what woman isn’t? So I began recording the interview, but I was way too vain to put my glasses on to see the recorder! He proceeded to give me one of the most revealing, wonderful interviews. After, I rushed out to listen to it, and to my horror there was nothing there! My vanity and lousy eyesight caused me to press rewind instead of record! My career flashed before my eyes.”

But whoa, there’s more: After dinner, “He came up to me and said, ‘So how was the interview?’ And I nauseously said, ‘The good news is I get to spend another thirty minutes with you!’ So he did the interview all over again—45 minutes this time–and it was even better!”

Before he left, she had Redford sign a book release, after which “he joked that based on my first screw-up perhaps he should have read it over again before signing it so quickly. I said, ‘No problem Bob, I now own half of Sundance, and in six months I will be Mrs. Robert Redford.’”

Rappaport even named one of her own horses “Sundance,” and made Redford the cover story for the best selling book, which is one of four she has written.

One of her most exciting projects has been launching “Jill Rappaport’s Rescued Me Collection,” a line of leashes and collars to benefit animals in need, and now available in Petcos around the country, bearing slogans like “I’m a Heart Melter From a Shelter” and “Smitten By My Rescue Kitten.” Also, She designed a line of equestrian jewelry with London Jewelers called “Hannah’s Heart,” named after her beloved late mare, which supports the
ASPCA.

It’s all been very glamorous, her dream job as entertainment reporter. But Jill Rappaport’s dream now is to empty out the animal shelters across the country and put the dogs and cats in loving homes for life. “The stars don’t need my help, animals do, and I am honored to
be a voice for our fur angels.”

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