How CNN's Kaitlan Collins Took an "Apolitical Upbringing" All the Way to the White House
Kaitlan Collins never dreamed she'd be a journalist, let alone one that appears on screens across the country. Despite facing setbacks covering the Trump administration, including a highly publicized ban from the Rose Garden, she somehow rose like a phoenix from the ashes of a, well, fiery four years. Just a week shy of her 29th birthday, Collins — one of the youngest chief White House correspondents for CNN — tells InStyle she's in it for the long haul.
"Being known for your reporting is the highest compliment," the newest subject of our Badass Women series says. "I always feel the most confident when I break a big story or ask the perfect question. It doesn't always happen, but that one moment is worth the hundreds of frustrating moments." When thinking about her legacy, she cites prolific newswomen who came before her, like Christiane Amanpour and Barbara Starr.
Since she's a member of the media on the frontlines in Washington D.C., you might think Collins was raised in a political family, but it was quite the opposite. Growing up in Prattville, Alabama, a rural town outside of Montgomery, she says she "had a really apolitical upbringing," which consisted of watching mostly local news programming. "I think the most national news show that we watched was The Today Show," she said. In fact, Collins doesn't recall her parents ever voting or expressing strong opinions about candidates, presidential or otherwise.
That quickly changed when Collins went to study at the University of Alabama — though it wasn't all smooth sailing from there. Blindly following in her sister's footsteps, she first chose to major in chemistry. "I really struggled at the beginning," Collins says. When she realized that science wasn't her strong suit, Collins gave journalism the old college try, and that was that. She recalls thinking, "I've always been a big reader, I like to write, maybe I should try my hand at this."
Her second instinct proved to be spot-on. After graduating with a degree in political science and journalism, Collins moved to D.C. to take a position at the right-wing news and opinion website The Daily Caller, initially reporting for the entertainment section because she had briefly done so during a college internship at a local paper. "I didn't even know what The Daily Caller was," she confesses. "But I needed a job… and you have to start somewhere."
In an ironic twist, it turns out that Collins's former and future beat would become intertwined once a former reality TV star was elected president. "The day [Donald Trump] was inaugurated was my first day covering the White House, and it was obviously an adventure that started that day," she says. "We had no idea what was ahead of us."
Collins likens her career progression from working at a website to broadcasting on-air for CNN to "being Baptized by fire." She had to learn how to distill information down and deliver the goings-on from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as quickly — and comprehensively — as humanly possible. "I had no experience being on television," Collins said. "I didn't know how to put the mic on. I didn't know ear pieces. All these things look so easy, but it's so much more complicated."
The hurdles didn't stop there. However, the White House ban wound up being a blessing in disguise for Collins, because it equipped her with the journalistic skills to face a complex interviewee like Trump. "He wants to intimidate and bully [the press] so you don't ask him what he doesn't want to get asked about," she says. "You have to remember to focus on the question and get an answer. [The ban] really prepared me for that." Not to mention, it taught her to grow a backbone and stand up for herself. "If you're scared of adversity, confront it head on," she advises.
Of course, being prepared never hurts, and neither does having a fighting spirit. Though Collins appreciates the camaraderie among the press corps, she's well aware that everyone is chasing the elusive scoop. "You have to be competitive and want to break the story before anyone else does," she said. "What goes hand-in-hand with that is being diligent and making sure you're being fair, making sure you're reaching to people, and making sure you're right."
With that said, Collins is keen to share the names of past women of the White House press corps she admires, like Helen Thomas, who blazed the trail back when the West Wing was populated solely by men. "Now if you look, all the chief White House correspondents are women," she said. "It does make you think of what it was like for those who came before you and paved the way."
If the female reporters of yore taught Collins anything, she says it's that hard work, rather than "talent or looks or money" pays off. Setting goals and chasing them, even if they seem implausible, creates a foundation for success. "I just hope going forward that I can continue to cover things vigorously, and important things that people care about," she says. "That's my goal right now, just to cover Biden the best I can and to keep the scrutiny up. I don't want to predict what's going to happen after that, because I never predicted Donald Trump would be president, or that I would become the chief White House correspondent for CNN. So I feel safe not making any predictions and just seeing where it takes me."