NEW YORK — There aren’t many surprises on this year’s list of “The 10 Most Fascinating People.”
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe for this 16th annual edition, host Barbara Walters has rounded up the logical choices.
For instance, who’s gonna quarrel with including Olympic superswimmer Michael Phelps?
Or the country’s most famous hockey mom, Sarah Palin (who also happens to be governor of Alaska, a former vice presidential candidate and, some say, the future of the Republican Party)?
Or what about Will Smith and Tom Cruise, who, to put it simply, are Will Smith and Tom Cruise?
“This was almost the easiest year that we’ve ever had, because we had so many naturals,” says Walters, summing up the selection process for her special, which airs Thursday at 10 p.m. on ABC. “Some of the people you just know you have to do.”
Like “30 Rock” star Tina Fey, who helped define Palin to a national electorate with her hilarious impersonation on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Or Rush Limbaugh, the powerful conservative pundit who is now getting ready to take on a new Democratic president.
Or like 16-year-old singer-actress Miley Cyrus. Though wildly popular as star of Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana,” she’s become “a new Miley Cyrus,” says Walters. “She’s growing up.” (Cyrus also hit a bumpy patch this year due to arguably racy photos by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz that were published in Vanity Fair.)
Maybe not so obvious: Thomas Beatie, who will be interviewed as a representative of what Walters calls a larger subject — the emergence of transgender couples.
Frank Langella is yet another name on her list. Why? After decades as an acclaimed actor, the 70-year-old Langella has the buzz of a latter-day breakout star thanks to his new film, “Frost/Nixon,” Walters says.
By now, she has the winnowing process down to a science — including how she handles those who didn’t make the final cut.
“If a celebrity’s press agent calls, we say, ‘You were right there, you were the 11th! Maybe next year,’” Walters jokes.
As usual, the No. 1 Most Fascinating Person of 2008 will be announced on the program. But even here, a jaw-dropping surprise seems unlikely. After all, could it be anyone but President-elect Barack Obama?
“I would be the last one to tell you,” laughed Walters, refusing to give her interrogator even a hint. “You could very well be right — but, then again, you never know.”