A lifelong New Yorker, Cristina Alesci is an award-winning television and digital correspondent. Even before joining the CNN team in 2014, she had interviewed countless business leaders and tastemakers as a correspondent for Bloomberg. Facebook’s IPO, Dell’s takeover battle, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s “common woman” interview are among the stories that have helped make Cristina one of the go-to New York journalists for breaking stories.
As hosted by Cristina, The American Dream: New York will be premiering on CNN’s digital platforms on Monday, Feb. 13. The American Dream is a multi-part documentary series exploring how living in New York during the first half of the 20th century inspired some of New York’s most successful residents. Interviewees include J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, hip-hop legend Russell Simmons, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. The series will also be showing on CNN International shortly after its Feb. 13 premiere.
Do you yourself have a definition of what the “American Dream” is?
Cristina Alesci: Now more than ever, I believe the American Dream is hope. At its core, the American Dream is having the freedom to achieve success as you define it, regardless of where you’re born and who your parents are. While government programs and policies can nurture an environment of possibility, the individual needs ambition, resilience and a decent amount of luck. It’s a struggle and it’s not easy. The American Dream is an ideal we should all aspire to achieve and preserve for future generations.
Where did the idea for this series come from?
CA: My family and New York, two of my favorite things. My parents and grandparents inspired it in large part. Like many others in this country, they emigrated to the U.S., in their case from Italy. To me, they embody the spirit of the American Dream, unrelenting hard work and hope. My mother arrived when she was 12 years old and had to learn a new language, a different culture and how to take care of herself in some very tough neighborhoods. The same with my father, who eventually started a successful small business. I’m in awe of what they’ve been able to achieve. Also, New York was a breeding ground for their dreams and so many others who found success in this country. I wanted to understand it, document it and share it so it can inspire others.
Do you have a favorite moment or interview from the upcoming series?
CA: I have many, actually, but as a woman covering corporate America eight years was struck by Xerox CEO Ursula Burns‘ observation that despite all the advances women have made in business over the last few decades, men still seem to have the advantage. She made a point about how women sometimes may overlook picking a kind of partner who will help them share the burdens of their personal and family lives.
Who was the first person you ever interviewed?
CA: My younger sister Laura, I was eight. My parents had just bought a video camera and my first thought was, “I want to do an interview for the news.” I actually watched the video over Christmas for the first time in years, and it was a lot different than I remembered. It was more like an interrogation.
What about the first celebrity?
You’ve interviewed a lot of big names, but are there people that you’re still hoping to talk with?
CA: The bold-faced names often don’t lead to the most riveting stories. Jimmy Breslin likes to say that the more compelling stories are found in the losing team’s locker room. One of the biggest stories of Breslin’s career, which is still taught in journalism school, was a column he wrote following President Kennedy’s assassination, where he interviewed the gravediggers who would be burying the President. I firmly believe the best way to report on something is by looking in the less obvious places.
Rumor has it that you wanted to pursue a career with the FBI before getting into journalism. What was it that drew you to the FBI?
CA: The rumor mill was right! I was always drawn to the idea of public service. At the time, it seemed like the best way for me to make a difference in the world. Also, Agent Alesci seemed to have a nice ring to it…but I had no poker face, so I wouldn’t have been very good at undercover work.
Have you been able to interview anyone from the FBI?
CA: Not on the record.
You helped break the story on Facebook’s initial public offering. Movies usually show a reporter getting a call in the middle of the night from an anonymous source. How does breaking stories usually come to you?
CA: I do get a lot of late-night calls but breaking a story is rarely that easy. It’s always the product of shoe leather. That, and not taking “no” for an answer—even if you’ve heard it a dozen times. But it can be a lot of fun.
I had a two-year rivalry with another reporter at a major financial newspaper. We were always trying to one up each other on breaking financial news. One time, after a week-long vacation, I scooped him on three stories my first day back. He e-mailed that night and begged me to go back to the beach.
What is a typical day like for you as a reporter? How much of the day is actually spent reporting or writing?
CA: A typical day is five hours of sleep, one hour of eating, one hour in the gym and the rest spent reporting and writing. How much is reporting versus writing changes from one day to the next, but I do both every day.
CNN series aside, what else is coming up for you?
CA: I’m focused on the nexus of money and politics, and its impact throughout the country. I believe it’s more important than ever to ensure the public understands that relationship.
You’re a CUNY graduate. What is it that keeps you based in New York?
CA: That seems like a trick question! I was born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens and now that I live downtown, I can’t imagine myself living in too many other places.
When not busy with your career, how do you like to spend your free time?
CA: With my family. I have four younger siblings; three sisters and a brother. My husband and I love cooking big meals and having everyone over for dinner — I’m Italian, after all.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in New York?
CA: It’s hard to have one favorite restaurant in New York. I have my top ten, but it’s always changing. Right now I really like Café Altro Paradiso, Via Carota and Le Coucou. I don’t have time for brunch, but for a simple breakfast on a Sunday, I love hitting the Greek bakery Pi in Soho.
Do you have tickets to any upcoming concerts or events?
CA: My husband just told me he got us tickets to see the Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet [Of 1812]. He always makes sure there’s a frosted side to my mini-wheat.
Finally, Cristina, any last words for the kids?
CA: Read as if your life depends on it, because it does. And question everything.