JUST BE­ING HER­SELF. NO ONE DOES IT BET­TER.

Kelly Ripa, a year af­ter some rare drama, re­mains day­time TV’s mas­ter of spon­tane­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY EMILY YAHR IN NEW YORK

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-most­watched 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 week with the an­nounce­ment, 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 a new 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’s dom­i­nated since 2001 largely through an un­canny knack for be­ing her­self on TV.

With all that blaz­ing en­ergy and drive, can she re­ally re­main con­tent in what her close friend An­der­son Cooper calls “the best job on TV”? What does Kelly Ripa want?

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 co­host ev­ery day — has the gift for al­low­ing her guests to shine. In real life, she is sim­i­larly warm and chatty, with some­thing of 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.

“It is a di­aled-up ver­sion of your per­son­al­ity,” said Ripa, sit­ting in an of­fice lined with fam­ily pic­tures and Day­time Em­mys. She had changed out of her show wardrobe — a chic belted dress and stilet­tos — into a long skirt, a cardi­gan and white sneak­ers. “I am clearly not laugh­ing and yukking it up all day long. When I go to parent-teacher con­fer­ences, I act like a hu­man be­ing. I’m not like, ‘Hey, ring-ad­ing-ding!’ ”

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.”

Gretchen Ran­dolph, a close friend, re­mem­bers Ripa racked with nerves the night be­fore her “Live” de­but. Ran­dolph’s hus­band, for­mer New York Yan­kee Wil­lie Ran­dolph, gave her a 45-minute pep talk in their kitchen. Yet as soon as she started the job, the self-doubt seemed to evap­o­rate.

“For­get it,” Gretchen Ran­dolph said, laugh­ing. “For that girl? It was a piece of cake.”

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.”

Ripa fre­quently shares pho­tos and sto­ries about her three kids and hus­band. She has im­i­tated her teenage daugh­ter in the af­ter­math of wis­dom-tooth surgery and di­vulged her ten­dency to pester her hus­band with trou­bling thoughts (“Do you think we would know how to get our kids out of here in case of a fire?”) just be­fore he falls asleep.

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.”

When Ripa re­turned to the air af­ter nearly a week, she de­liv­ered a rare solo mono­logue that hit all the right notes: self-mock­ing (“Our long na­tional night­mare is over!”), hon­est (“I needed a cou­ple of days to gather my thoughts”) but point- ed (“Af­ter 26 years with this com­pany, I earned the right”); and pur­pose­ful (“Our parent com­pany has as­sured me that ‘Live’ is a pri­or­ity”). Dis­ney-ABC Tele­vi­sion Group Pres­i­dent Ben Sher­wood ac­knowl­edged to the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter that ex­ec­u­tives “made some mis­takes” in han­dling the sit­u­a­tion but that every­one had moved on.

“I was just try­ing to steady this fam­ily,” Ripa said, look­ing back. “I was try­ing to just be like: ‘Okay, the ship got turned around. We’re go­ing to turn it back around and keep go­ing on course.’ ”

On Mon­day, 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 Mon­day, 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 lon­gago 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 2019-2020 TV sea­son. Ripa, now an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer with a multi-year con­tract, in­sists she can’t pic­ture her­self any­where else.

Still, she has had her hand in other projects, most no­tably a star­ring role on the ABC sit­com “Hope & Faith,” which she jug­gled with her daily “Live” sched­ule from 2003 to 2006. (Af­ter each “Live” tap­ing, a car would rush her to the set across town and “she would lit­er­ally run to the stage,” re­called sit­com cre­ator Joanna John­son, “be­cause she didn’t want to keep peo­ple wait­ing.”)

Her sched­ule now is eas­ier. She ar­rives at the “Live” stu­dio around 8 a.m., hav­ing read her notes the night be­fore. While she’s in the hair-and-makeup chair, pro­duc­ers chat with her about po­ten­tial on­air top­ics. (“Keep­ing up with April the gi­raffe?” “Of course!”) Just be­fore 9 a.m., she walks with her co-host to the stage — they avoid talk­ing ear­lier, so their first in­ter­ac­tion is fresh. Then the show wraps at 10 a.m. Sure, there are meet­ings and emails. But she can go to her kids’ school events and dine at home ev­ery night. She and Con­sue­los also run a pro­duc­tion com­pany that spe­cial­izes in re­al­ity TV and doc­u­men­taries.

Lately, she thinks the “ultimate” dream would be to work be­hind the cam­era, writ­ing scripted shows. How­ever, “Live” is so built into her iden­tity that she feels as if she looks “phys­i­cally strange” when she’s not in the stu­dio.

“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.”

DOU­GLAS FRIED­MAN/TRUNK AR­CHIVE

DAVID M. RUS­SELL/DIS­NEY-ABC HOME EN­TER­TAIN­MENT AND TELE­VI­SION DIS­TRI­BU­TION VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

ABOVE: Kelly Ripa and Michael Stra­han on his fi­nal day as co-host of “Live!” in May 2016.

CHRIS PIZZELLO/IN­VI­SION/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

BE­LOW: Ripa with hus­band Mark Con­sue­los dur­ing a cer­e­mony to award her a star on the Hol­ly­wood Walk of Fame in 2015.

JUDIE BURSTEIN/GLOBE PHO­TOS/ZUMA PRESS VIA ALAMY

LEFT, BOT­TOM: Ripa starred as Hay­ley Vaughan on “All My Chil­dren” from 1990 to 2002.

DIS­NEY-ABC HOME EN­TER­TAIN­MENT AND TELE­VI­SION DIS­TRI­BU­TION VIA REUTERS

LEFT, TOP: Regis Philbin wel­comes Ripa as his new co­host in Fe­bru­ary 2001.

PAWEL KAMIN­SKI/DIS­NEY-ABC HOME EN­TER­TAIN­MENT AND TV DIS­TRI­BU­TION VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Kelly Ripa and her new “Live” co-host, Ryan Seacrest, on Mon­day. “When I thought back to all the times we worked to­gether,” Seacrest said, “I could never re­mem­ber feel­ing any­thing but happy.”

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