In The Know

Phil Mattingly opens up about CNN, pandemic life and his big break into news

Phil Mattingly
Jay McMichael/CNN

He’s handled sleepless nights during election week, kept his cool while covering Congress and ridden the roller coaster of daily drama on the campaign trail, but CNN’s Phil Mattingly says none of that compares to the stress he endured during one self-inflicted salon snafu.

When he first got hired by the network in 2015, Mattingly figured he needed a “fancy haircut.” After getting a recommendation from a CNN makeup artist, the now-37-year-old journalist strolled into the dressing room of a ritzy salon in New York.

“There’s a robe there. I’ve got my hair cut at the Senate barber shop since the week I moved to D.C. — I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with this robe,” Mattingly says. “So I text my wife and say, ‘What should I do with this robe? I’m at a haircut place, I feel like I should not fully unclothe myself.’”

He didn’t hear back from his spouse and go-to salon etiquette expert, so Mattingly got undressed and slipped on the robe.

“This feels very, very wrong,” he recalls thinking, “but I don’t want to look bad at this high-end salon that was recommended to me.”

Just as he was about to walk out sans attire, his panicked wife rang.

“Please tell me you have your pants on,” she exclaimed. Mattingly quickly sprang back into the changing room and threw on his clothes.

“After that, I made clear that I would only go to the Senate barber shop from here on out,” he says with a laugh.

Follicle foul-ups aside, Mattingly has styled a name for himself over the years at the network: The former Bloomberg politics correspondent was named CNN’s senior White House correspondent at the beginning of President Biden’s term in January.

ITK wanted to know more about the college athlete and dad of three — to T.J., 5; Carter, 3; and 1-year-old Brooke — so we asked him to answer these questions.

Grew up in: I was an Army brat, so kind of all over the place. We moved eight or nine times by the time I was in fifth grade. And then my dad retired from the military and I went to junior high and high school in Toledo, Ohio.

College attended: Ohio State University

What did you want to be when you were a kid: I wanted to be a professional baseball player. The reality [hit] when I went to Ohio State to play baseball and quickly realized I was not good enough to play much there, let alone play professional baseball.

Go-to outfit at home during pandemic: My wife will say it’s not too much different from my go-to outfit normally. I’m like jeans and a sweatshirt at all times, basically. I wear a suit and tie to work every day, but if I can put a sweatshirt on, I feel like I’ve accomplished something by the end of the day.

Favorite hobby/activity: I have three kids, so the hobbies are a little bit limited these days, but I’m a huge history nut, so I do a ton of reading. Any type of political history, military history is kind of my jam.

My wife always makes fun of me that anytime I have a free moment I’m usually trying to watch a documentary. So I’m not the coolest guy to hang out with, but that’s kind of what I’m into.

Most liked/disliked thing about D.C.: Most liked is I’ve honestly had since the first week I got here, the energy of the people here — both natives and people who come here. I feel like people who come here want to accomplish things. And I feel like people from here are immensely proud of their city and have a lot to teach everybody about the city that we’re just passing through sometimes.

Dislike, it’s probably somewhat aligned. Sometimes the people here who want to accomplish things aren’t necessarily like the nicest folks in the world. I feel like there’s a way to balance doing great things, and important things, and doing great things, and still be nice to people.

I have a fear of: Snakes. I hate snakes. I really hate snakes.

The “Indiana Jones” scene where he’s like in a pit of snakes, I honestly almost had to walk out watching that, it made me so uncomfortable.

Biggest accomplishment: Life-wise is that I’ve successfully kept three kids alive — with a tremendous amount of help from my wife — over the course of the last five years.

Work-wise it was probably election week this past year. Being part of that team over a pretty intense and crazy four or five days, I was immensely proud to just be part of that team.

It’s funny, [CNN chief national correspondent John King] and I were going on 12-hour shifts, the idea was we kind of planned for this in case the crazy scenario that ended up happening happened.

I was up in New York for pandemic purposes and my hotel was right across the street from where our bureau is. And the idea was when you finish, you walk straight across the street to your hotel, you go to sleep and at least get four or five hours. And no — you’re so wired it takes you multiple hours to wind down. And you’re so scared you’re going to miss something. And then by the time you get over that fear, you realize you need to be prepped to go back in again.

So John and I were probably averaging about 90 minutes of sleep a day.

Favorite food: Pizza. That’s always my cheat meal during the week. That’s what I go to on Friday nights. I’m a big Ledo’s pizza guy, it’s up near where we live.

Most hated food: I loathe green peppers. I hate them with a passion. I don’t know what it is, I’ve hated them since I was a kid.

I’m happiest when: I’m with my kids.

If I had a theme song, it would be: Jay-Z’s “PSA” was my walkout song when I came up to bat in college baseball, and it’s still on just about every workout playlist I have, so I guess I’ll stick with that.

Favorite TV show: I’m heavy into “Snowfall” right now on FX.

Something that few know about you: I was completely incapable of getting a job or an internship in journalism. After my first semester in grad school, I sent letters to 114 newspapers begging for an internship. I was rejected or didn’t hear back from 113 of them and was about to give up and decide I had no future in journalism [because] I couldn’t even get an internship.

And the editor in chief from The Lima News in Lima, Ohio, called me and said, “We can’t offer you any money, may be able to get you some gas money, but if you can get an apartment in Lima, we’ll let you work for us for the summer.” And that was my first real news job.

I was there for the summer and it was amazing. I wrote every single day. It was the luckiest break ever I got.

Favorite movie: “Bull Durham”

Biggest pet peeve: Loud chewers in close company. I think I am one, which makes it pretty ironic.

Best advice given: Work hard and be nice to people.

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