An Hour with ... Carmen Harlan
Broadcast journalist and founder of the Carmen Harlan Collection
After 38 years of looking at her from the waist up, we could have gathered that Carmen Harlan knows a lot about chic, comfortable blouses. The former grande dame of TV news in Detroit retired in 2016 after nearly four decades in the co-anchor chair at WDIV-TV (Channel 4) and recently launched a namesake fashion line. The Carmen Harlan Collection features an array of elegant, high-end blouses (available for purchase at carmenharlancollection.com), which Harlan created in collaboration with New York-based designer and fashion consultant PingPong Khumwan of Maison Khoomwan. Here, Harlan discusses her transition from deadlines to hemlines.
Hour Detroit: We would congratulate you on your retirement, but it doesn’t look like you’ve been relaxing.
Carmen Harlan: I’m not relaxing. (Laughs.) I don’t know how, really. When you come off a career in television news, relaxing is not necessarily the next step. I had started working on this fashion project years before [I retired].
What inspired you to start the collection?
Actually, it was a shirt that I owned. I’d had it for years — picked it up on one of my trips to New York — and it finally just fell apart. This shirt was classic, a little sexy, and very adaptable. I couldn’t wear it any longer, and trying to find a replacement for it became impossible, so I had it remade in Detroit. My husband said, ‘That shirt looks so good on you. You should make that shirt, Carmen.’ That was almost four years ago. We did it together as a team. I hope I recaptured that feeling, and maybe kicked it up to another level.
How did you happen to connect with PingPong Khumwan?
I knew I had to go to New York at some point. I made two appointments in New York, and she was one of them. I flew there and brought along some of the sample shirts I had made in Detroit. In the first 45 minutes, you kind of have an idea whether or not you can work with someone, and we hit it off right away. What she’s been able to do is just give them that ‘Wow.’ Right now, we’re getting sampling from as far away as Dubai and Morocco. I guess that’s the benefit of social media. We’re looking to expand to blazers, perhaps a sundress next spring.
Will you eventually add an established retail partner?
I will take calls from almost anybody. (Laughs.)
— Carmen Harlan
You’re described now as an “ambassador” for WDIV. Have you been on the air since your retirement?
Right after it was announced that Aretha [Franklin] passed, they had an hour-long special and asked if I would come back on. So, I was on briefly in the first 10-15 minutes with [longtime co-anchor] Devin [Scillian], [radio personality John] Mason, and [professional boxer] Tommy Hearns. We talked about the Queen [of Soul] and what Franklin meant to Detroiters, what she meant to music, and to us individually.
You have been a staple of the annual America’s Thanksgiving Parade as commentator as long as most Detroiters can recall. You were even Grand Marshal last year. What are your plans for this year’s parade?
I think I’m just going to watch it, which is something I haven’t done in God-only-knows. I think the last time I did that was when [WXYZ-TV] Channel 7 had the parade for a few years. Fortunately, we got it back.
Earlier this year, post-retirement, you received the 2018 Soul and Spirit Humanitarian Award from U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith at his 31st annual Soul Food Luncheon. What did that mean to you?
I had attended that luncheon over the years, and always felt it was an award for someone who truly had made a difference in the community. Because I covered Detroit, I never really felt my role as a reporter, as an anchor, justified that. I was humbled, truthfully, by it. When [Judge Keith] called to tell me, I didn’t know what to say. But it’s funny because it came at a time when the press was being vilified by the person who leads this country, and people were accepting it as if it were true. I took the opportunity to talk about a free press. We don’t ever want our democracy to function without it, because it won’t be a true democracy. So, it meant the world.
What’s most important to you in this chapter of your life?
You know what? Family is the most important. That has never changed. My children are all grown, married, and doing well. I have three grandchildren. I have a stepdaughter who’s getting her doctorate in pharmacy. And I still have my mom. You know, [President] Trump has his base? Well, that’s my base. (Laughs.) And the thing about family is, no matter what I do, I’m still just Carmen to them. And I need that. It just helps in the balance of things.
• She still keeps in touch with her former co-anchor of 16 years, Mort Crim. “The last time I talked to Mort, he promised me a signed copy of his latest book, but he was waiting on Will Farrell to write the foreword,” Harlan says. (Farrell acknowledges his Anchorman character, Ron Burgundy, was inspired by Crim.)
• Her first full-time job after graduating from the University of Michigan was as newscaster for Detroit rock ’n’ roll radio station WWWW-FM (W4).
• She and Devin Scillian, her on-air partner of more than 20 years, were Detroit’s longest continuously running TV anchor team.
• Her son, Joseph Cobb, is married to Eleanor (Ellie) Ford, daughter of Ford Motor Co. executive chairman Bill Ford.
• She was an Olympic torch relay runner for the 1996 Summer Olympics and the 2002 Winter Games.
• Her daughter, Jessica Hall, is her partner in the design business, working from her home in Cincinnati. “She took this on because her mother said, ‘I need you,’” Harlan says.