The inside story on Uma Pemmaraju's latest career move  

The Boston Globe/February 11, 1993
By John Robinson

Uma Pemmaraju burst onto Boston's media scene in 1984 like a rocket with booster jets blazing.

She instantly was dubbed a cross between Jayne Kennedy and Janet Langhart, selected as a "face to watch" in Boston magazine, and tipped to be the next star anchor on one of the big three local television news programs.

But then the booster jets fizzled, and Pemmaraju got caught in sub-orbit.

She parted ways with WLVI-TV (Ch. 56), dabbled in news-magazine formats, took a flyer with the now defunct Monitor Channel and flirted with national television prospects.

But her ambitions remained beyond her grasp, and she returned to local news reporting at WBZ-TV as a free-lance correspondent, where she tries to focus on stories about the dispossessed, the indigent, the powerless.

She considers the free-lance job an opportunity, not a disgrace or a comedown, she says.

"I'm a conduit to help other people. I don't want to sound too sentimental. But that's what I'm about. I want to use my celebrity to help people, to help bring about something that needs to be done."

Meanwhile, her social profile has sharpened as her career awaits its next evolution.

Her years of quiet work with civic and charitable organizations like the March of Dimes and the Boys & Girls Clubs is beginning to receive more recognition.

Lately, Pemmaraju has been wooed by such diverse organizations as the Huntington Theatre and Rosie's Place, the women's shelter, to help in their development.

She is in demand as a celebrity host, in part because of her multicultural background. (She is from India and Texas, and you can't get much more multicultural than that.)

And in December her longtime beau, millionaire businessman Andrew Petkun, proposed marriage, offering her a sapphire-and-diamond ring as a token of his resolve.

After consultations with her spiritual adviser, Swami Satchidananda, she set the date for Sept. 12.

"I'm looking very much toward marriage," the 34-year-old reporter says. "I want to do it in a very ecumenical ceremony. My swami will be coming up from Virginia, and I want to incorporate him with a rabbi, a Tibetan monk, maybe somone from the Islamic faith. I want the ceremony to be something people can share so they can come together in a positive way, to feel the positive energy."

A word about Pemmaraju's reliance on her swami before the false impression is formed that she is some kind of mystic kook.

Pemmaraju was 6 years old when her parents moved to San Antonio from Rajahmundry, India. They were the only Indians in San Antonio, and one of the few Indian families then in Texas.

Her father, a research scientist specializing in birth control, was invited to Texas to direct a new foundation for population studies.

Her mother, a housewife from a prominent Indian family, sought to balance her wish to impart Indian cultural values to her daughter and two sons while allowing them to grow up American.

Lacking a Hindu temple in San Antonio, the family eventually sought the spiritual guidance of Swami Satchidananda after he was invited to the United States by artist Peter Max for the opening ceremonies at Woodstock.

The swami, who planned to stay three days, has been here ever since. He runs an ashram in Virginia and counsels thousands with his philosophy of "one goal, many paths."

"He is more than just a spiritual teacher to my family," Pemmaraju says. "To me he's more like a grandfather. He's my confidant, and I can tell him my innermost thoughts. He helped my family bridge the gap between Indian and American culture. He is very modern in many ways."

Pemmaraju is a strict vegetarian, another reflection of her balancing act between Indian and American culture. Her mother, she says, dabbled in carnivorous cuisine when her children were small because she did not want them to feel alienated from the prevailing Texas culture of the time, particularly at school, where vegetarianism was considered weird.

But she eventually gave up the effort, telling her children they could do as they pleased outside their home, but the flesh of dead animals would no longer be served from her kitchen.

Pemmaraju says her interest in journalism stemmed from family connections.

Her grandfather was a newspaper publisher, she says, in south India. As a child, she kept a daily diary filled with reflections about world affairs brought into her San Antonio house via television.

As a teen-ager and through college, she worked for a local newspaper and television station. She eventually became a reporter in Dallas and Baltimore, winning an Emmy one year in Baltimore for a report about a nearly drowned child who was rescued from the brink in a bizarre set of circumstances.

A workaholic who gets by on four hours of sleep a night, Pemmaraju has had her share of journalistic coups and weird encounters.

As a result of her friendship with Kitty Dukakis, she was first to break the story of Michael Dukakis' decision to enter the 1988 presidential race. Later that year, while she was setting up a feature for WBZ-TV's late, lamented "Evening Magazine" in Brighton's Star Market, two masked men ran in, ordering everybody to freeze while they robbed the cashier. Pemmaraju said later, "I've been sent out to crime locations before, but this was the first time one came to me."

After she left WLVI-TV, Pemmaraju was interviewed by network television as a possible feature reporter and occasional anchor for such shows as "Good Morning America." But the job and the woman were not exact fits, and she eventually went to WBZ-TV, where she is today.

Some of her friends believe she is blocked from local anchor jobs because of established anchors like Liz Walker and Natalie Curtis, who appear to have infinite tenures.

Pemmaraju, however, says she does not feel caught in any way.

"It's been a good thing for me," she says about her return to local reporting. "I enjoy getting back on the local beat. There's something to be said about being in a community for a long time and knowing that people believe in you.

"Where am I headed? I'd love to be on a magazine show on the networks, or have my own production company. Maybe I'll consult on how to do wonderful television. I'd love to do children's television. I think we're entering an era where children are taken more seriously. I'd love to develop programming that meets their needs, where they are not just thought of just as kids."


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