Fame & Fortune: Maria Menounos

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Maria Menounos always looks red-carpet ready with a gleaming smile, great fashion sense and an enviable figure. Whether interviewing the hottest celebs for “Access Hollywood” or “Today,” the Medford, Mass., native and former Miss Massachusetts Teen USA has projected a sense of style. But that was not always the case for the 31-year-old journalist and actress.

During her college years at Boston’s Emerson College, the 5-foot-8-inch beauty packed on 40 pounds, which she has since successfully lost and kept off. On the job, Menounos is equally as successful, having been voted one of the “50 Most Beautiful People” in 2004 by People magazine. Of Greek-American heritage, Menounos recalls growing up in a very blue-collar environment but says her childhood only strengthened her foundation for wanting more out of life.

Bankrate: How did you gain the weight?

Maria Menounos: College and being away from my mom’s healthy cooking. My dad is diabetic and I grew up eating really healthy. Basically, I went to college and had that unlimited meal plan that allowed me to eat at any hour and as many times as I wanted. I definitely took advantage of it.

Bankrate: Did you ever struggle with self-esteem issues when you were heavier?

Maria Menounos: No. I never had a problem with that, and even when I was heavier, I had no problem with it. I never really cared. It seemed that everyone else had a bigger problem with it because they knew me as the niece, the cousin or the daughter that modeled and did pageants, and here I was blowing up like a tick in their eyes. They would wave at me with the beauty queen wave every time they saw me eating something, and it would just make me want to eat it more. There were definitely moments when I was unhappy in the way I looked, but for the most part, I really didn’t care. I knew I wanted to be on television at some point and that I would lose it.

Bankrate: You have a real routine for exercise — strength training, cardio, circuit — and I heard you also do Krav Maga (hand-to-hand combat system).

Maria Menounos: You know, I don’t necessarily have a routine, I have to be honest, because I travel so much that I try to do whatever I can wherever I am, whether it’s doing sit-ups in my hotel room or lunges while I’m in the shower, waiting for my conditioner to soak into my hair.

Bankrate: To relax, you’ve said you watch movies at home. What kind of movies will you sit back and chill out to?

Maria Menounos: I either watch really old movies like “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” or some Hitchcock movies or old Woody Allen films. Or I will watch new stuff that’s out. And I love just sitting at home doing this.

Bankrate: Who or what would you say has been your favorite work assignment so far?

Maria Menounos: I have so many favorites. The Cannes Film Festival is always amazing, always a good time. And anything I’ve gotten to do for “Nightly News,” traveling to small towns throughout the country and meeting people. I’ve met some really nice people throughout the country who I’ve kept in touch with. And the “Today” show is so much fun, I love, love doing that. Plus, I’m producing a movie called “Serial Buddies,” where I’m using another set of skills.

Bankrate: When you were younger, I know you did beauty pageants, but was that a means to an end to be in front of the camera, or what did you want to be when you grew up?

Maria Menounos: I knew I wanted to be on TV. I knew I wanted to do movies and things, so pageants were definitely a step in that direction. Joan Lunden was my idol growing up, and I always dreamed about having her job. She retired while I was in college and I was devastated because I’m like, “Wait, hold on a little longer!” I always knew there were a few key jobs I wanted in life and being on the “Today” show has been a dream.

Bankrate: What’s the best thing about being famous?

Maria Menounos: For me, I’m such a people person, I love saying “hi” to people and I love having them know that somebody’s on the inside who’s cool. You think of famous people as not being friendly, not being real. I kind of feel like I’m the ambassador in that respect, where I was Twittering today and someone said, “Oh, I want to get a picture with you.” So I said, “Meet me at Rockefeller Center and he did, and he got a picture with me.” People were Twittering me, saying how cool that was for me to actually take the time to do that. I always feel I’m the one on the inside for the people.

Bankrate: How do you share your financial success?

Maria Menounos: I have a charity “Take Action Hollywood!” that I started after a trip to South Africa. I was there reporting on AIDS and the effect it has on that area, so when I returned home, I started this charity hoping that the entertainment business can shed some light for positive social change there. I also help provide for my parents and that’s a wonderful feeling to know that I can. They don’t have to work anymore; it’s their turn now. They live in Connecticut but they come and visit me for six months in Los Angeles every year. I take them everywhere. They get to meet everyone and get to see everything.

Bankrate: You come from humble beginnings. Can you talk about your childhood and the money strains on your family?

Maria Menounos: I remember my family cleaning a nightclub in the ’80s for money. I would go and sing on the stage there when they cleaned, but it was back to reality when we had to go home. My parents would collect the beer cans and get money for recycling them because there were always bills to pay. Later on in life, I had to leave college because of financial concerns, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise because one of my big turning points in life happened. I got the job at Channel One (News) and that brought me my entire career. It was right after I produced “In the Land of Merry Misfits” in 1998. Now I’d say I have the best job in the world. Besides meeting great and interesting people, traveling all over the world and being able to provide for my parents, I get to do my movies and branch out, so I’m always learning and growing.