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TALKING SHOP WITH THE ADVICE GAME'S RISING STAR

IN 1981, WHEN Jeffrey Zaslow was 22 and Ann Landers was 63, they spent 30 minutes together in a Florida hotel room. Then a reporter, Zaslow was interviewing her for the Orlando Sentinel.

After Zaslow sent her a copy of the story, Ms. Landers responded with a warm letter.

"You will go far in this business," she wrote. "Your instincts are right and you have the courage and good sense to follow them. . . . I know we shall meet again."

How prophetic.

Today, Zaslow sits in Ms. Landers' once Pepto-Bismol-pink office at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he writes an advice column called "All That Zazz."

Ms. Landers, on the other hand, moved her operation to the rival Chicago Tribune 2 1/2 years ago.

"I was with the Chicago Sun-Times for 33 years when Rupert Murdoch took over," she told a Boston Globe reporter. "That was a problem. I was beyond retirement age. I'd been there a long time. Should I leave the security or go to a new paper? It looked as if leaving was a risky thing to do.

"In the end, I decided to leave on the basis of a principle: 'Was it an honorable move? Was I going to improve my work?' My answer to myself was: 'Yes! Yes!' "

When the Sun-Times ran a widely hyped contest to replace Ms. Landers, it was natural that Zaslow, then a Wall Street Journal reporter, would chase down the story. Other reporters had covered the basics, so Zazz needed a new angle: He applied for the job.

So did 12,000 others. Zaslow figured he didn't have a shot because he was too young (28), too irreverent and too male. Entrants submitted resumes, photos, proposed pen names; after the first cut, finalists answered test questions.

By then, Zaslow was hooked. The challenges of the column and the chance to be innovative outweighed the potential negatives of feeling that he was selling out or might tire of the format. When the job was offered, Zazz grabbed it. The paper also hired Diane Crowley, a daughter of its original advice columnist.

Since then, Zaslow has faced several "major life changes."

He married (Sherry Margolis, a Williamsville native and former WKBW-TV newswoman), he became a father, he moved, he changed jobs, and he em-barked on the road of celebrityhood.

"On the first day of work, instead of finding out where the coffeepot and men's room were, I was being grilled by 60 reporters and photographers," Zaslow said recently from his Detroit home. He has two phone lines and a computer there, so he has to be in the Chicago office only one or two days a week.

Everywhere Zaslow goes, people badger him with, "So, what's it like?"

What's it like to get 50,000 letters asking for advice, drenched with despair or telling you to drop dead? What's it like to get 10-page letters from pregnant teen-agers who want to kill themselves; an answering machine message from a man who pleads that his name not disappear from the face of the earth?

What's it like to be asked endlessly, "What's it like?"

To answer the queries, or at least to quiet them for a while, Zaslow wrote "Tell Me All About It" (Morrow, $18.95), which has been excerpted in the New York Times Magazine and Reader's Digest.

Paramount Pictures just bought the movie rights.

Not bad for a guy who angered a lot of people who thought he took Ann Landers' place. Actually, he's little threat to Ms. Landers and her advice-giving sister, Dear Abby. Ms. Landers runs in 1,200 newspapers, Abby in more than that; Zazz has 50.

Zaslow just finished a book tour that kicked off with a three-minute appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America."

While he hopscotched into 10 major cities, Ms. Margolis, an anchor at Detroit's WJBK-TV, and their daughter, Jordan, 5 months old, visited her parents in Williamsville.

Zaslow seems to be bearing up under the grind of being asked why a yuppie youngster like himself thinks he can hand out advice like Life Savers.

"Well, I'm 31 -- with the wisdom of a 32-year-old," said Zaslow, who has been satirized in the comic strip "Brenda Starr" as Zazley Jeffrow, the Easy Street Reporter.

OK, so he has mastered the flip one-liner, but is there anything more to this guy?

It seems there is.

Professionally, he has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize for his work as a reporter.

And personally, if his first column is any indication, he has heart.

Reprinted in the book, this column is an account of the strength and struggles of Tillie and Alex, an elderly couple dealing with Alzheimer's disease.

"Alex's abilities kept deteriorating," Zaslow writes. "He spoke haltingly. Then he whispered gibberish. Then he hardly spoke at all. . . . But when she was watching, he would often smile at her, reminding her that he loved her once."

" 'That kept me going,' Tillie said. 'My joy was having him in my life. Period.' "

Zaslow ends by thanking his grandmother, Tillie, for what she taught him about life.

As an advice columnist, Zazz is unconventional. He doesn't rely on the question-and-answer format. Instead, he plays "Jeopardy!" with his readers, offers some advice to Elvis Presley and allows readers to talk to one another through the column. Once he printed a letter to a mother from a girl she had given up for adoption. And he let the friend of a boy who murdered his stepfather use the column to convey a message of sorrow to the victim's family.

"The thing I feel worst about is that everybody wants an answer, and I don't have time to do that," Zaslow said. "I can't send them a form letter, so sometimes, rather than a quick answer, I give them no answer."

To make sure he stays down to earth, Zaslow has invented ways to keep in touch with the masses. He formed the Regular Joes Board, 26 people named Joe, Josephine or Joanne who sling hash and steel in Chicago and meet regularly to discuss his advice.

Once a month he makes a house call, if the host cooks dinner. He has visited with the residents of a college dorm, with a homosexual couple and with a deaf family, where he felt handicapped because he was the only one who couldn't communicate.

He's impressed by how caring people can be -- and how cruel.

"I hear from a lot of people who are hateful, angry, racist, women-hating," he said.

"I hear from them in large numbers, either because they are more apt to write or there's a lot of it out there. I'm more used to it now, but it was hard to live with in the beginning.

"(Writing the column), I've had to overcome something. I think I've always wanted to be liked, that it would be nice if people agreed with me. But every time I take a stand, I get hateful letters. Almost every day I'm angering people."

Zaslow doesn't view "The Twins," as he calls Ann and Abby, as competitors. "In Chicago, they try to make us competitors," he said. "But I try not to be the same. I'd get bored very quickly.

"I don't know if I want to do this until I'm 50 and they're 92. I know they'll still be doing it when they're 92."

Ms. Landers, 71, agrees. In her Boston Globe interview, she said: "I'm at the top of my game. I'm going to die on the job. At age 88. I'm just going to slump over my typewriter."

Zaslow says, he, too, loves the job and learns something every day -- from readers and from his baby.

In his pre-father days, Zaslow told a new mother that she wouldn't hurt her baby by propping up a bottle with a blanket in the baby's crib. That raised a cry from readers, including his wife. "I was horrified," she said. "You just don't do that."

Now that he has been at this hybrid of journalism and counseling for a while, Zaslow says he has gotten thick-skinned.

As a matter of fact, he has already picked a title for his next book: "I Don't Want to Hear It."

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