Katie may be daytime’s most colorful show. The greenroom is literally painted a soft mint green. Deep blues adorn the high-tech, mechanized set. Audience members are decked out in numerous brightly hued cardigans. And today, the show’s stage was bathed by sultry red lights in honor of Couric’s guest — Erika Leonard, a.k.a. Fifty Shades of Grey author E L James. (Fifty Shades hero Christian Grey does his dirtiest deeds in a chamber known as the Red Room of Pain.)
The kinky theme didn’t stop with that crimson glow. For one day only, the usually demure Katie logo was adorned with a pair of handcuffs naughtily looped around the “k.” And Couric herself drew whoops from the audience when she appeared at the top of the hour in a sleeveless black leather dress and sky-high stilettos — to the tune of Rihanna’s “S&M,” naturally. “Relax — this won’t hurt at all,” Couric joked, introducing herself as our “mistress” for the day. What would Matt Lauer think?!
Given all this, audience members probably expected James to emerge wearing an American Horror Story-style rubber fetish suit — or at least to be as boisterous and open as Anastasia Steele’s inner goddess. In actuality, James is a shy, normal-looking lady in her 40s who speaks so softly that I had difficulty hearing her from backstage — not exactly what you’d expect from a woman who has sold 30 million copies of her erotic novels in just six months.
And honestly, James still seems pretty flabbergasted by all the attention her work is getting. “It’s ridiculous,” she said in wonder when asked about the 50 Shades phenomenon. Despite the fact that her books have been credited with single-handedly saving Barnes & Noble from oblivion, James’ lifestyle hasn’t changed much since her bestselling trilogy was published. Her teenaged sons still tease her, though they’re also supportive of (and a little embarrassed by) her success; her only major purchase has been a new Volkswagen. “I know how to live, ladies!” she joked after Couric mentioned the car. And yes, she asked whether the backseat was big enough to have sex in before making a down payment.
Couric’s audience ate it all up, howling with laughter at a video clip from a Fifty Shades-themed exercise class and nodding thoughtfully when a specialist from the Kinsey Institute called the books “the sex version of the cupcake.” (It made sense in context.) When it came time to pose their own questions, they asked whether James has plans to write something from Christian Grey’s perspective (answer: maybe), if she’s got any advice for those looking to dip a toe into the world of BDSM (“I would say start with a tie, honestly”), and who she’d pick to star in the upcoming film adaptation of the series’ first novel.
James was coy about this last query, saying only that she has three unnamed actors in mind for Christian and four in mind for Anastasia. But Katie‘s audience has a few casting ideas of its own: According to Facebook polls, they’d like to see Gilmore Girls alum Alexis Bledel as the naive college grad and Vampire Diaries hottie Ian Somerhalder as the handsome billionaire who sweeps her off her feet, then chains her to the wall.
But though she’s staying tight-lipped about the film, James was open and honest when asked how she handles criticism. The Brit has a pretty zen approach to those who badmouth her writing: “Somebody likes it,” she said with a shrug. As for those who don’t? She tries not to sweat them — “It’s just noise,” James explained. She advises those who want to replicate her success to embrace that same outlook: “Write for yourself,” she told aspiring authors. “That’s it. And write every day.”
Before saying goodbye, Couric genially asked James if the interview had been painful — innuendo intended — and James joked that it hadn’t been “painful in the right way.” And thus ended the kinkiest episode of daytime television since the golden age of Jerry Springer. Though she put on a brave face, it seems like taking off her handcuff-inspired bracelet and watching the lights shift from naughty red to regular white might have been a relief for Couric — during a post-show Q&A, the TV vet admitted that she wouldn’t let her 16 and 21-year-old daughters read James’ bestsellers. “But I’m a prude, as you guys can tell,” she quipped before leaving the stage for good.