Dog lover and entrepreneur Maria Menounos cuddles one of her beloved dogs.
Thanksgiving traditionally means devouring elaborate calorie-filled feasts and spending quality time with family. For many, it also means watching sports or a parade on TV. And for dog lovers, it means one thing: gathering together to watch the National Dog Show Presented by Purina on TV. This year’s 18th annual event will be hosted once again by actor John O’Hurley and dog show expert David Frei, and features 2,000 canines representing nearly 200 breeds, all competing for the Best in Show honor. The Kennel Club of Philadelphia has presented dog shows for 125 years. The show is pre-recorded from the Philadelphia Expo Center. Approximately 20 million viewers are expected to watch the canine competition, which follows the telecast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC.
Before tuning in on Thanksgiving Day, pet owners are invited to participate in the fifth annual #DogThanking campaign, a social media initiative encouraging them to acknowledge and thank their pets for the unconditional love and support they provide year round. This year’s #DogThanking effort will put a spotlight on pets who make life better in times of crisis, as comforters, healers and protectors. Participants can share a photo or video of their pet on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #DogThanking and tagging @Purina that highlights their courageous and honor-worthy four-legged family member along with why they are thankful for their pet. Select posts will be featured during The National Dog Show Presented by Purina.
Back for her third year as a spokesperson for Purina’s #DogThanking initiative is TV personality, author, entertainment entrepreneur, talent cultivator and avowed dog lover Maria Menounos, whom we caught up with to chat about her connection with NDS, which will be airing on NBC at noon (in all time zones) on Thanksgiving Day, Nov., 28, and on NationalDogShow.com. She also discussed her deep bond with her pets and her multimillion dollar entertainment empire that she has built over the past decade with her producer/husband Keven Undergaro.
Menounos is the CEO of the online podcast series network AfterBuzz TV, in which devoted fans host after-show podcasts of their favorite TV shows, with celebrity guests and call-ins from listeners. The Los Angeles-based company boasts more than 300 hosts delivering approximately 150 hours of programming a week, from five studios.
Widely known for her work as a host and/or correspondent for entertainment news shows including Access Hollywood and Extra!, Menounos has been a fixture in Hollywood entertainment for a long time. She’s managed to overcome industry barriers and battled a serious illness (she underwent surgery in 2017 to have a brain tumor removed) to become the head of her own business empire. She is focused on developing the next generation of entertainment experts through her company, proudly boasting that many of her protégés have matriculated from their training ground at AfterBuzz TV into coveted careers in the popular entertainment media.
In promoting the National Dog Show Presented by Purina and the #DogThanking campaign, the charismatic Greek-American spoke with affection about her pups Whinnie, Max and William (a.k.a. Willie)—and how pets play such an important role in the lives of their human counterparts.
Angela Dawson: How long have you been serving as a spokesperson for this event?
Maria Menounos: It’s been three years now.
Dawson: How did you connect with Purina? What’s the scope of your duties?
Menounos: I’m pretty sure my agent was working with NBC and suggested that I participate knowing how much I love animals, and it all kind of came together from there. It’s been a really cool partnership because Purina has been doing so many amazing projects, like the Purple Leash Project that we did this summer and are working on currently as well as the Beverly Hills Dog Show and the National Dog Show. It’s been very rewarding on the social issue front and the charitable front but also very fun for me on the dog show front because I am the happiest person on the planet on the days I get to be with all the dogs. I’m literally like a 10-year-old. I’m just gushing over all the animals. They can barely get me to do any of the work I have to do on-camera because I’m just playing with every dog that I can.
Dawson: You have two dogs now: Whinnie and Maximus, right?
Menounos: I was trying to keep it to just those two and then William joined our life earlier this year. We lost our original five dogs. They passed away all around the same time because they aged out. Whinnie was the caretaker to our last Bichon, Benjamin, who passed away at 18 last October. I remember looking at her and she was just so sad without him. One day, my husband said something about a William. He said, “William’s coming today.” I asked him what he was talking about. When I was pulling into my driveway, I saw someone pulling in behind me, and it was a pet taxi. I got out of my car and there’s a poodle getting out of the pet taxi, and my husband said, “Look, it’s William!”
I can tell you that Whinnie has never been happier. She’s a new dog. She’s found purpose and new life, because she was like a nurse to all of our aging pets. She also was like a nurse to my mother and me through our brain surgeries. She didn’t have purpose after (Benjamin’s death). And now she gets to be a young poodle again and have fun. It’s funny how art pets are gifts to us, but they also can be gifts to each other.
Dawson: How has Whinnie and Max improved your quality of life and helped you through your health challenges?
Menounos: During my pre-op appointment, I asked the nurses if dogs are allowed in the hospital, and when they said yes, I was thrilled. I told my husband, “You have to bring Whinnie.” So, he brought her to the hospital, and she laid down on my chest and didn’t move. She was incredibly important to my recovery. When I got home from the hospital, all of my dogs were laying on top of me as well. So, part of it is the feeling of “you’re not alone.” They provide great comfort. I always joke that they’re my Advil. They’re medicine for your heart and your body, and I can’t live without them.
Dawson: How do you usually celebrate Thanksgiving?
Menounos: For years, I cooked the most massive feast you could imagine, and I would have a Friendsgiving. My parents would come out for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. We’d alternate every year. These past two years, we went home for Thanksgiving and because I wasn’t working every day—I was healing from my brain tumor—I was able to have time off and be with family.
This year, we’re kind of in limbo because my mom’s brain tumor has recurred and we don’t know how she’s going to be. She’s going to get some major treatments today at the hospital. If she does better and we can get on a plane next week, we will. If she doesn’t, we’ll have Thanksgiving here at home. We’re hoping we can get past this and get back to normal soon.
Dawson: Is there a Thanksgiving dish that you make with a Greek twist to it?
Menounos: I have to have the garlic dip—it kind of separates the men from the boys—and then I make some fried zucchini and spread the garlic on it, which is pretty amazing. We also have tiropita, which is a Greek cheese pie.
Dawson: You’re still hosting your own Apple podcast, right?
Menounos: Yes. Every Monday we do a new episode of Better Together, and bringing the best-of-the-best of all areas of life. A lot of it is focused on healing, spirituality and health. We just launched a Patreon (crowdfunding platform) where we do two more episodes a week in the same vein. I was a little chained up with my TV contract and not able to talk about it for a long time. But AfterBuzz TV really has become a news organization now where we produce over 150 hours of programming a week. I’ve been throwing all of my time behind that and have other projects coming up in 2020 that I’m very excited about.
Dawson: What changes do you foresee in the entertainment news industry?
Menounos: I’m seeing massive changes in the TV and digital landscape every day. I feel like where entertainment news is still trying to cater to the masses, we’re focused on niches and noticing much success. Our news clips on 90 Day Fiance, The Bachelor, or whatever show are crushing because there are such rabid fans of each different niche. Everything’s so splintered now that we’re trying to cater to that world. And we’ve launched our international division, so we’re doing the first Spanish-language after-shows, as well as German, and more.
It’s fun to be able to make your own path, create your own thing, and see the reward from your ideas, whereas when you’re working for a big corporation trying to get an idea through, it takes all of your energy. Then, trying to execute it and see success takes such a long time. On the entrepreneurial level, you can see things happen quickly, and it inspires you. It’s been a fun process and it’s been cool for me to be able to embrace this company that I built.
Dawson: How do you feel about how far you’ve come with your company?
Menounos: I am as proud of what we’ve done on so many levels. We’ve created a diverse company: every color, every size, every race, every gender, every age is represented. Our holiday parties are a beautiful rainbow. It wasn’t intentional; it just is, because we want to give opportunity to everyone to build their dreams and have a safe place. Before #metoo, we were already doing that. We’ve been building a new Hollywood model for 10 years hoping others will follow suit.
We want them to nurture talent and not tear them down. We try to help them grow and learn from mistakes, and root for their success as much as we root for our own. I’m so proud of that and the level we operate on. We have over 150 success stories of people who have matriculated from our system to the big leagues, and they’re constantly asking us how they can thank us and help us, because they know we’ve given to them in a way that no one else in Hollywood does.
Having been in entertainment news forever, I find it cool to see stars come in to be interviewed on our shows and not want to leave because they’re being celebrated for their work on their shows. It’s not about gossip and who they’re dating. It’s about their character and how obsessed we are as fans with their show and what they’ve done on their show with their character and arc. The showrunners of these shows sometimes credit us with helping them with their story arcs. They’re changing storylines based on our after-shows because we are an authen