Katie Couric: 'I'm Really Happy...But It's Complicated'

UPDATED 05/09/2011 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/09/2011 at 01:00 AM EDT

Don't let the laughter fool you. Katie Couric is on the phone interviewing a celebrity (she's not telling who), and it is obvious from her side of the conversation, she's nailing the story. Her friendly banter and giggles soften the pointed personal questions she wants, and gets, answered. It's a more jovial Katie, a Today-with-Matt Katie-and the Katie that America has seen little of since she became the first female to helm the nightly news solo, anchoring the CBS Evening News desk to widespread scrutiny. Is it a Katie that Couric herself has missed? "Yes," she says, settling comfortably into a sofa, coffee cup in hand, in her New York City apartment living room, surrounded by pictures of her children, family and friends in mismatched frames. "I feel very proud to be in that anchor chair. But the nature of the format can be ... confining."

But the shackles are about to come off. After months of headlines and media speculation, Couric, 54, exclusively confirms to PEOPLE that she has decided to leave the anchor spot at the end of her contract (which is up in June) and will branch out into something more ... Katie. "Time is not necessarily your friend on the Evening News, and we have to make difficult choices," she says. "It has left me less time to be spontaneous or show the extent of my interviewing skills." Still, she has no regrets. "I'm really proud of the talented team on the CBS Evening News and the award-winning work we've been able to do in the past five years," she says. "In making the decision to move on, I know the Evening News will be in great hands, but I am excited about the future."

And not just her professional one. As Couric launches the next phase of her career (along with her new book The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives), she's also opening up about her love life. For the last five years, Couric has been dating entrepreneur Brooks Perlin, 37, despite initially being worried about their age difference, and marriage isn't out of the question. "I'm in the process of figuring out the future, and so is he," she says. "I am really happy in my personal life ... but it is complicated."

It's a word that could describe many things about Couric's life. She arrived at CBS Evening News in 2006 amid great fanfare (and with a hefty $15 million-per-year contract). But she was soon blamed for disappointing ratings while also being lauded for her hard-hitting interviews with then-vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin in 2008 and hero Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger in 2010. She endured jabs that she was overly friendly and weakened the traditional format of the Evening News. And yet, even as she worked hard to cultivate the aura of a serious journalist, she has confessed to a celebrity crush on Glee's Matthew Morrison and made a cameo on the FOX show's post-Super Bowl episode. "I love doing all kinds of things," she insists.

She's navigated choppy waters before. The famously plucky (the word "perky" has been permanently retired) girl next door turned broadcast icon began her career by craftily sneaking her way into the deputy bureau chief's office of ABC News in Washington, D.C., an anecdote she shares in her new book of personal essays by Stephen Spielberg, Jimmy Carter and others (all proceeds go to Scholarship America). "I was just some girl from Arlington [Va.] who was not particularly exceptional," Couric laughs. "I had audacity."

And a life that looked beautifully picture perfect to the outside world, to her wide viewership on Today and to Couric herself. "I always imagined I would marry a guy with dark, curly hair," she says, "and I pictured him walking down the street holding the hand of a little girl who was wearing a tutu." The dream came true when she married attorney Jay Monahan and had daughters Ellie and Carrie-and then was tragically shattered when Jay was diagnosed with colon cancer and died at age 42 in 1998. "I miss him," she says, looking down at her teaspoon. "I wasn't afraid of death; I was much more afraid of loss."

After Jay's death, Couric threw herself into her work and cancer activism, famously broadcasting her own colonoscopy in an effort to convince viewers to undergo the procedure. "I have had an intimate relationship with viewers through the years," she says. "During my years on the Today show, viewers saw me have two babies, become an unexpected widow, and in every situation you would see a close friend, and so they do know me." As for her ongoing cancer work, she says, "I am so proud of the $180 million we've raised through Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C). I don't want to sound morbid, but I hope my obituary is first about my work with cancer research before mentioning that I was the first solo [female]evening news anchor."

As a single mother, Couric found solace in work but was very careful to choose her assignments wisely as she thought of her young daughters. "I don't want my kids to be orphans," she says. "I'd rather be responsible and not get the story than leave my kids without a mother. It is my personal compass."

Did she ever dream of getting married again and sharing parenting responsibilities with a spouse? "When my girls were really little, I always imagined I would be a modern-day Carol Brady," says Couric, motioning to her front door. "When my neighbor moved in, he had two boys, and I thought, 'It's kismet. We'll get married and be The Brady Bunch.' But we never even went on a date!"

Not that she didn't consider other ways of finding romance. Online dating, perhaps? "No. God, no. Never," she says, then leans forward like a girlfriend sharing a secret. "Okay, I thought it might be fun once when my nanny was doing it, but I couldn't put my real picture and my real name because who knows how that would have gone."

As it turns out, a dating site was unnecessary. Couric met Perlin at a 2006 party at the Louis Licari Hair Salon held to raise money for cancer research. "I thought he was really cute," she admits. "He asked if I wanted to have dinner sometime, and I liked that it was so direct and natural. When he called, he asked me if I wanted to be in a sailing competition with him. I don't sail. Then he asked if I wanted to go surfing, and I'd never surfed. I said, 'Listen, Mr. Outward Bound, how about something normal?'"

When she confidentially shared her upcoming date with some pals, they decided to Google him to learn more about the handsome stranger. Couric recalls, "They said, 'Hey, Katie, he was captain of the tennis team at Williams ...'-and I thought that was cool because that means he's smart-and they said, 'in 1996!' I knew he was younger, but I didn't know he was that much younger. I was, like, 'What?!'"

She considered cancelling, but her friends encouraged her to just have dinner with Perlin-the chief financial officer at Eco Supply Center, a green building materials distributor-and something clicked. "We really liked each other," she says, shrugging. But the self-professed people pleaser was stung by the comments others made about their "unconventional" May-December relationship. "I was stressed out about it. And I've been called all kinds of things. I've been 'cougared,' which was obnoxious," says Couric, convincingly growling and making her hands into claws before dissolving into laughter. "But if it's good enough for Demi, right?"

She's also still coming to grips with the media interest in her love life. On a Florida beach during a birthday vacation with Perlin last January, "I was reading The New York Times, and I look up and there are six paparazzi," she says. "All I could think is, 'Where is Britney Spears? Seriously, this is just sad.' "

Despite the attention and comments, Couric says she's learned to get over what others think and simply enjoy the time she spends with Perlin rock climbing, playing tennis or just hanging out. "He's incredibly kind, caring and sensitive," she says quietly. "He challenges me in ways I wouldn't be challenged otherwise. Even if we are not on the same page all the time, I like being in his space. I want to be a thoughtful, loving person to him in every way."

Does that mean she's thinking about heading down the aisle with Perlin? Couric doesn't know and isn't fretting about it, she says. "Honestly, I used to worry a lot about the future," she says. "Who knows what it may bring? Hopefully it will bring good things. I am glad I can focus on the here-and-now in a very significant way. When you are in a netherworld of complete fear, worrying about what is around the corner, that's not a way to live."

She's also unsure about a possible future with another man in her life, her onetime Today cohost Matt Lauer. When asked about reports that he could join her in her next venture (see box), Couric just chuckles. "Matt and I have undeniable chemistry in the most platonic sense of the word," she says. "We are like an old, married couple. We finish each other's sentences. He is very committed to the Today show. But who knows?"

For now, it's enough to look at her life and feel lucky, Couric says. "My kids are healthy and happy," she says. Ellie, now 19, is a college sophomore who will likely major in American Studies (like her mother) and go to law school (like her father). Carrie, 15, is in ninth grade and "is a committed student and interesting person," says Couric. Though she's careful to guard their privacy, "I try not to be too weirdly neurotic about it," she says. "I am proud of them." Couric reaches out to her coffee table crammed with books, photos and golden coasters and knocks on wood. "My girls are healthy, and I know what it means not to have health in your family. With some bumps in the road, I am glad they are happy."

Maybe it's a trait they've learned from their famous mother. Despite criticism of her ratings, her salary, her clothes and her boyfriend, Couric says that she's been able to stay pretty upbeat-just a regular girl sitting home watching Sex and the City reruns. ("I love the characters," she says. "I miss that show.") Of course, every girl has her moments. "Sometimes I get grouchy and irritable, and I think, 'Wow, this is how really angry people must feel all the time.'"

It's not a feeling that Couric says hits her very often. "Like Jay used to say, 'I was born on a sunny day,'" she says. "I am still passionate about what I do. In 32 years I have not burned out. I'm not a Pollyanna by any stretch, but accepting people for who they are is a good way to be."

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