From glamour girl to Jerusalem radio host

Heather Dean shares why she walked away from a life in the fast lane that most people would kill for.

Heather Dean's MTV badge (photo credit: Courtesy)
Heather Dean's MTV badge
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Compared to the glamorous life she led as a celebrity interviewer for MTV, E! Entertainment Television and Associated Press Radio, the golden stones of Jerusalem might as well be on another planet.
For Heather Dean, ending up in Israel was the culmination of a gradual process that included many difficult moments and tears. Having made aliya from Manhattan in 2001 as an engaged woman, Heather Dean now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three children. On March 1, she launched a radio show on Israel News Talk Radio called The Modern Jewish Home.
Dean spoke to In Jerusalem about the connection between her story and the festival of Passover.
“Passover is a festival of our freedom as Jewish people. A lot of my story is about becoming a free person. I used to be very driven, living a glamour-girl type of life. It was definitely very fun.
“But in a way, I was also a slave to a certain kind of outlook and a certain kind of value system. Now I’m a servant of God. As a woman in broadcasting, I’m no longer a slave to looking gorgeous on camera all the time. It’s fun being asked to work on camera,” Dean says, but it comes at a price. “A woman is expected to look a certain way and continue to look that way forever.”
Dean was raised in a family that loved the land of Israel. Her parents lived in Israel for a year before she was born and her father spent his sabbatical year teaching at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. They belonged to a Conservative synagogue in the US and she attended a Zionist afternoon Hebrew school three days a week.
In Hebrew school, she learned “a lot about Israel and how to speak, read and write Hebrew. It wasn’t a spiritual connection, and once I was 16, I was so happy that all that was behind me. I didn’t have a strong connection to Judaism. It was a very academic type of family. Religion was really downplayed.”
The family’s connection to Israel and to their Jewish identity was more through the culture of Jewish entertainers like the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny and George Burns than through a religious framework. “When I interviewed Eddie Fisher,” Dean recalled with a laugh, “it was a big day for my dad.”
High-powered career
During her college years at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, Dean hosted a college radio show. She was also the director of the campus film society. Those leadership positions helped her snag a highly competitive internship at MTV in Manhattan. Ironically, she grew up in a home without cable television and the only time she watched MTV was when she was visiting friends or babysitting.
That post-college internship launched a serious broadcasting career. As an intern, she so impressed people in management at MTV that she was hired to work on a new weekly program, previewing new movies.
“Every week, a different movie star would come to be a guest on the show and be interviewed by the host. Mel Gibson was such a huge star at the time, he was interviewed on a closed set. It’s so weird to think of what’s happened with him since he was directing Braveheart,” she muses.
Describing the straight trajectory of her career path, Dean concludes, “All I did was interview celebrities.” She worked at MTV from 1988 until 1992 and characterized those years as “not spiritual at all.” After leaving MTV, she started working as a freelancer for Associated Press Radio, recording interviews with celebrities who were in Manhattan promoting a new project.
“I got to do all these interviews in New York and then send them to my editor in Washington. It was so fun! I was getting A-list stars in every field – Broadway, models, film and television. At this stage, I began interviewing people over the age of 30, because I wasn’t working for MTV anymore.”
She also worked as a field producer for E! Entertainment Television.
“My editors were in Los Angeles and I was one of the New York producers. I conducted lots of one-on-one interviews and attended tons of award shows.
“One of my colleagues in France used to work for another radio station. He said that press junkets were really the pits,” Dean says incredulously. She didn’t understand what he didn’t like about them. She was enamored with the work, which came with free screenings, free CDs and other perks.
“It was a great, great deal of fun,” she admits.
Spiritual awakening
Nevertheless, seeds of doubt were starting to sprout in Dean’s mind.
“I confided my concern to a mentor.
‘Is this going to be my legacy, just being a celebrity interviewer?’ My mentor said, ‘What’s wrong with having a fun career?’” After a decade of doing this work, the ground began to shift beneath her.
“In my early 30s, I started to have a spiritual awakening. With all the fun of the interviews and all the free giveaways – shirts, handbags, umbrellas, bathrobes, etc. – from the studios, with all those perks, it really was a lot of pressure.
“In broadcasting, deadlines were daily or weekly. The deadlines were very difficult. I was really considered an excellent interviewer. I was often complimented by the people I interviewed. Maintaining that level of excellence was also a source of pressure.”
Simultaneously, and somewhat inexplicably, she developed a fear of flying.
Despite a lifetime of flying to exotic places like Belgium, Paris, Egypt and Greece, her sudden fear of flying put a crimp in her career.
“I needed to talk it over with someone. It was getting in the way of managing my life. I didn’t know what kind of counselor to go to. I remembered that my mother said maybe I should talk to a rabbi. I was living in New York City and I didn’t know any rabbis. A friend gave me a list of four rabbis and I just called the first one on the list and went to meet with Rabbi Avraham Goldhar from Aish HaTorah in New York.”
That meeting “opened up other things. He was very nice and patient. After listening, his answer surprised me. He talked about the difference between the body and the soul. He compared the pilot you can’t see controlling the ship to God. People who fly, it is a pretty heavenly experience. You see things looking down from a high place to earth. Fear of flying had to do with being claustrophobic, compared to the expanse of the sky.
“I intended to meet with him just once. As the hour was finishing up, I thought I would ask a spiritual question.”
They discussed her family background and her feeling that she didn’t have the tools to pass Jewishness on to her future children. Since Aish HaTorah focuses on adult Jewish learning, Goldhar invited her to attend classes. Despite the invitation, “I think he thought he would never see me again,” Dean says with smile.
“I didn’t go back until Rosh Hashana. All the publicists were Jewish and were in synagogue, so there were no interviews to do. I figured I can either go race walking in Central Park or I could go back to that place where I met Rabbi Goldhar. So I put on nice clothes and went. I had the shock of my life that I could follow the service, because I had retained so much from Hebrew school – even niggunim [prayerful tunes] that were familiar.”
Soon enough, Dean became a regular at some of the evening classes. Goldhar invited her to her first Shabbat meal.
She reports never feeling any pressure.
“It really was laissez-faire. In kiruv [Jewish outreach], the point isn’t to oversell. It’s ‘Just don’t get in the way.’ So no one got in the way at Aish haTorah.”
During this transitional period, she was still working as celebrity journalist.
She had many celebrity friends, including a number of stand-up comedians who went on to great career success.
“I would hang out with them after the late night gigs. I was playing poker with Louis C.K. before he was well-known. He was a ruthless poker player.
“Spiritually, I was becoming a lot closer to God Jewishly. I would do meditation before to connect with a higher being. But once I learned about God on Jewish terms, I was sort of waiting to learn something false about it. I really didn’t want to be a religious Jew. I didn’t want that. The more I learned about the Jewish concept of God, I felt that it all agreed with me.”
Struggle and resolution
Jewish learning began affecting her work. As a result of her own journey engaging with the spiritual side of Judaism, Dean began asking her celebrity interviewees for accountability about the work they were doing.
“My questions with celebrities got better, got deeper.” She asked Arnold Schwarzenegger if his movies had a negative effect on his fan base. When interviewing him about his 1999 gothic horror film Sleepy Hollow, she asked Johnny Depp if he would let young people come to violent movies, and she asked Playboy Playmates of the Year if beautiful women are afraid of middle age.
Still enjoying the high life with celebrities in Manhattan and pulled to Jerusalem at the same time, Dean struggled to choose between her competing worlds.
“I really thought about this a great deal, probably half a year. Many tears were shed. I just loved being in Jerusalem and learning about Judaism all day. It was really a delicious experience, even compared to all the interviews and appearances and perks.
“Can I have a foot in both worlds? Can I be the only religious celebrity interviewer? Israel doesn’t need another ba’al teshuva [newly religious Jew], but the world really needs a religious interviewer.
I would talk it out through so many tears. It was a struggle, but Judaism was winning.”
After five trips to Israel in 1999, Dean decided to take some time off to study full-time. Intending to stay for the summer, she took a leave of absence, sublet her New York apartment and came back to Jerusalem.
She met her husband, stayed on in Israel, started married life and gave birth to three children in rapid succession.
As a young married mother, she was a big fan of Tamar Yonah’s Eishet Chayil radio show.
“I loved that show!” Dean chirps. “It was like a Jewish lifeline to running a Jewish home.”
In 2016, after being out of the broadcasting world for a long time, Dean connected with Tamar Yonah and Israel News Talk Radio. Today, she’s resurrected the Aishet Chayil show she used to love so much. Her weekly show on Israel News Talk Radio is called The Modern Jewish Home. The target audience is anyone who runs a home. In the weekly show, which is live Wednesdays at 5 p.m. and then available as a podcast, she interviews experts in nutrition, home organization, recipes, relationships, working mothers and more.
In addition to relaunching her broadcasting career, this time on her own terms, Searching for Heather Dean, the book she wrote to tell the story of her journey, is due out in a few months.
Dean reflects on what’s next for her.
“My only dream is to carry this message forward. The Hollywood values of Western society versus Jewish values that are eternal. Knowing you have a mission in this world. My goal is to continue to talk to audiences about that so people will understand that there is something so much better out there.”