The day before Easter Sunday, Kelly Ripa was shopping when a woman approached her. “I wasn't sure if it was you,” the woman said. “Because you weren't smiling.”
Ripa, intensely focused on cobbling together last-minute Easter baskets, found this observation particularly funny and started laughing before she could answer.
The woman was triumphant. “Yeah,” she said. “It is you!”
That's how we all see Kelly Ripa. The bubbly TV host is perpetually joking, laughing, hamming it up on Disney-ABC's “Live with Kelly,” the second-most-watched daytime talk show on television. For the past 16 years – including a decade alongside original star Regis Philbin, who retired in 2011 – she has bantered with co-hosts and celebrity guests with a magnetic spontaneity that borders on an art form.
“Live” was always meant to be a pure shot of joy, a one-hour respite of breezy chatter, impromptu dancing and audience giveaways designed as an antidote to the morning news, which airs directly before the show in most markets. So it was a surprise last spring when “Live” was suddenly consumed by interpersonal drama. Ripa's co-host of four years, former NFL star Michael Strahan, announced he was leaving to join “Good Morning America” – news that Ripa learned barely before the rest of the world.
Caught off-guard, Ripa stayed off the air for a few days – a widely noted absence that blew up into a national story, triggering a passionate debate among fans that drew in even people who don't follow daytime TV.
Order was eventually restored after Ripa returned to “Live” with a candid live monologue about her feelings on the whole situation. The chaos of that moment seemed ever more distant this month with the announcement that, after many months, that Ryan Seacrest will join the team as Ripa's permanent co-host. But with one year's hindsight, the incident now feels less like a clash of showbiz-millionaire egos than an oddly relatable case study of workplace dynamics.
“Everybody at a certain point in their career, or even in their lives, has felt left out of major decisions and major conversations,” Ripa, 46, said in an interview at the “Live” studio in Manhattan last month. “I think that was the reason that people really responded to it the way they did – because it's so much a part of everybody's life at some point.”
But it also created an intrigue around a star who, for all her fame and ratings success, had never before struck that kind of a cultural nerve – and raised natural questions about her own plans. She has enjoyed a trajectory like few others', a rapid few years from 20-year-old soap-opera ingenue to A-list talk-show host, a field she has dominated since 2001 largely through an uncanny knack for being herself on TV.
Blend of skills
To understand Ripa's enduring career and reported $17 million salary, you must appreciate the craft of talking – effortlessly, entertainingly, without a script, on live television, every day of your life.
“We can sit around drinking coffee and talk about what we did yesterday with friends. (But) when compelled to do that in front of a camera and make it seem as natural? ... That's a really difficult skill,” said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “There are very few people who can do it at all and practically no one that does it as well as Kelly Ripa.”
It's a blend of confidence and improv skills, quick wit and vulnerability – and to muster all that in a persona that remains relatable to a wide audience can be a tough line to walk for a wealthy and famous TV star. (On a recent episode, Ripa told guest co-host Priyanka Chopra about the time she encountered a paparazzo while walking to church with her family – and asked him to take a picture with her phone, because, hey, the kids were all dressed up and “we never have photos of us together as a family.”)
If she manages to walk that line, it's because, as friends and colleagues repeatedly insist, Ripa truly is who she appears to be on TV.
“She is someone who will dance on a cube at a club until 3 a.m., with absolutely no kind of alcohol or anything in her, just because she loves to dance,” said Bravo producer and host Andy Cohen. “She's got boundless energy. ... She's got a lot of stuff going on. I think that maybe people underestimate her because she makes it all look really easy.”
On TV, Ripa – who in the year after Strahan's departure was joined by a different visiting co-host every day – has the gift for allowing her guests to shine. In real life, she is similarly warm and chatty, with a compulsion to put the person next to her at ease. She comes across as someone who, if you said something stupid at a party, would instantly chime in to agree, just to save you from embarrassment.
“When I thought back to all the times we worked together,” said Seacrest, explaining why he joined the show, “I could never remember feeling anything but happy.”
Make no mistake, though: Being “Live with Kelly” is work, even if it seems effortless.
Charisma is an inherent quality, but it's also a skill honed over time; Ripa has long been able to charm people by simply saying or doing whatever comes to mind. In a production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” at her South Jersey middle school, she redeemed a song that was going off the rails by pretending to blow her nose into her co-star's jacket. The audience erupted in laughter.
In high school, Ripa busted moves on a cheesy syndicated music show, “Dance Party USA,” then dabbled at community college while taking the Greyhound to New York City for auditions. At 19, she landed an audition for ABC's long-running “All My Children.” Her expectations were as low as her own assessments of her acting, but producers kept bringing her back for another look. After one screen test, the director approached to ask her a question; Ripa replied, “Well, which answer will get me the job?”
She had no idea the cameras were still rolling. Producers watching from the control room burst out laughing. Later, they said that banter won her the job.
“I wasn't trying to make anybody laugh,” Ripa said. “I was just being honest.”
Over the network's hesitations about her skimpy résumé, she was cast as brooding Pine Valley teen Hayley Vaughan and quickly emerged as a fan favorite. Ripa's profile was further boosted when she wed co-star Mark Consuelos in 1996. Four years later, her life changed again, thanks to another sparkling moment of plain-talking spontaneity.
A frequent guest on “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee,” Ripa was brought in to audition as Kathie Lee Gifford's replacement. She appeared live alongside psychic Char Margolis, who delivered a prediction: Ripa's late grandmother would one day watch over her “when this new baby comes.” Ripa looked stunned.
“You're not pregnant yet, are you?” Margolis asked. Ripa laughed nervously. Philbin looked confused. Finally, Ripa exclaimed, “I haven't told my boss yet!”
The audience gasped. Sure enough, Ripa sheepishly confirmed, she was pregnant with her second child. The charming exchange sealed the deal. In February 2001, Disney-ABC officially announced Ripa as Philbin's new co-host.
“It was just such a real moment that it showed Kelly in a light for really who she was,” said longtime “Live” executive producer Michael Gelman. “She had that much honesty she couldn't not react.”
Philbin, a morning-show host since 1975, was impressed by the way she adapted to the 15 minutes of conversational riffing that opens each show, when the co-hosts hold forth on weekend plans, current events, funny stuff that happened at home or other random stories – such as Ripa's yarn about the time her family went to Anderson Cooper's pool with an inflatable swan that just refused to inflate.
“She could instinctively zero in on the funniest details, which came out of nowhere and somehow hit a comic bull's eye,” Philbin, who declined to comment for this article, wrote in his memoir. “That knack of hers pretty instantly struck a chord with the audience.”
Morning TV hosts have a unique relationship with viewers, brightly chattering away in the hours when their audience may be struggling to get it together. “Live” has about 3.3 million viewers a day.
“That television screen is a truth detector. You can tell who's real and who's not,” said Cooper, the CNN anchor and frequent “Live” guest host. “Kelly's honesty comes through that little piece of glass into people's homes. ... It's not even like you feel like you have a relationship with her. You do have a relationship with her.”
It's an intimacy with the audience that explains the intense reaction to the Strahan shake-up last April. Reports soon emerged that Ripa was staying home intentionally because she felt blindsided by his departure.
Her fans were dismayed the duo was breaking up – Gelman says the 10-month search for a Philbin replacement got many viewers “invested on a personal level” when Strahan was hired – and offended on her behalf by how it was handled. There were detractors, though, who thought Ripa was throwing a diva tantrum. Ripa avoided reading the news coverage at the time, but she's aware of the criticism.
“That's the thing that I think is funny, when people are like: 'You have a cushy job. You couldn't possibly have any problems.' Trust me, they don't take your humanity away just because you work on TV,” Ripa said. “I'm mindful that I'm not the only person that works here. This is a group. And you have to take care of the group. This show is bigger than just me.”
Looking back, Ripa calls the situation a “learning experience” but also an overblown story: She deliberately sat out for only two episodes; the other two she missed were long-scheduled vacation days for her 20th wedding anniversary. Gelman also maintains that the controversy was “blown out of proportion.” Still, it sparked a larger conversation about how women, at any level, are treated in the workplace.
“The amount of women that are on camera, that do what I do for a living and reached out to me, overwhelmed me,” Ripa said. “It was definitely universal, and I was stunned by it.”
On May 1, Ripa strolled on stage with Seacrest, the ubiquitous former “American Idol” host, syndicated radio star, creator-producer of the Kardashian reality-TV franchise and perpetual red-carpet emcee. Disney-ABC brass hope that the new “Live With Kelly and Ryan” will hit its stride over the next few months before the high-profile ratings showdown expected when NBC launches a show for former star Fox anchor Megyn Kelly in the same time slot this fall.
In a phone interview later that day, Ripa said her team had been in talks with Seacrest for months, a deal seeming distant before it suddenly came together. “It seemed like it happened in 12 hours,” she said.
Seacrest first showed he was “Live” host-worthy during a long-ago guest appearance: Ripa was so caught up in the goofy on-air game they were playing that she missed frantic cues from producers trying to break for a commercial. Seacrest smoothly took it upon himself to make the announcement instead.
“He's that guy that can throw himself to commercial break, even when he's a guest on somebody else's show,” Ripa said. “He's a great broadcaster. He understands the nature of live television and all that entails, all of the human elements, all of the mechanical elements. So he's one of the rare people that really understands ... how it all works.”
And as for Ripa?
It wasn't just the Strahan drama that got observers wondering whether Ripa, too, might want to take that voracious energy to a loftier job. There have long been rumors that she could be a candidate for one of the key network morning anchor jobs. In 2005, the New York Post reported that Jeff Zucker, then the president of NBC Universal, wanted her to replace Katie Couric on “Today.” Ripa deflects with a joke about how pals such as Zucker always lend a hand by saying nice things about her when her contract is up for negotiation.
“Live,” meanwhile, has been renewed on ABC-owned stations through the 2019-20 TV season. Ripa, now an executive producer with a multiyear contract, insists she can't picture herself anywhere else.
“There are very few people as fortunate as I am in terms of their job. It's allowed me to be creative outside of this building. It's allowed me to be an entrepreneur in a way that I never dreamed possible for myself,” Ripa said. “It has given to me far more than I have given to it, so it's been such a benefit. I can't imagine. I can't imagine leaving here.”