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How Megyn Kelly Became the New Star of Fox News

MEGYN KELLY Variety Cover
Robert Maxwell for Variety

Megyn Kelly is bucking the conventional wisdom of what it means to be a Fox News anchor. The take-no-prisoners newswoman isn’t afraid to throw hardballs at Republicans. She recently lectured Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul over his penchant for arguing with female reporters. She poked Jeb Bush about whether he would have invaded Iraq in 2003. She cornered Mike Huckabee for saying it was trashy for women to swear in public. Last year, she told Dick Cheney, “History has proven that you got it wrong” on Iraq. On Election Night 2012, she dared to question Karl Rove for claiming that Barack Obama hadn’t won Ohio, and it went viral.

Just as surprisingly, she says she wouldn’t brawl with a certain Democratic presidential candidate if she landed an exclusive with her. “I think Hillary Clinton could handle me — easily,” Kelly says on a recent afternoon in her Manhattan office. “That would be epic television,” she muses. “Here she is, this powerful woman talking to somebody who is also a woman in a powerful post, who would never be accused of giving her a pass. Right? But I respect Hillary Clinton, and all that she’s achieved.” Kelly makes the case that she’d be fair. “I’d be under pressure, too. If you want to get big-name Democrats who are running for president, do you want to annihilate them? Of course not.”

Robert Maxwell for Variety

Kelly, 44, a former corporate litigator who continues to gain prominence at the country’s biggest news network, is poised to become a force in the 2016 election, and is already set to co-moderate an Aug. 6 Republican primary debate. She will need to seize that opportunity to try to prove her detractors wrong, particularly the many liberals who still distrust her, and insist she’s way too soft on her subjects.

Bill Maher lambasted her on HBO’s “Real Time” for her coverage of the police officer in McKinney, Texas, who attacked black teenagers at a pool party (Kelly questioned the behavior of one of the girls shown in a leaked video). “We think of Megyn Kelly as the sane one over there at Fox News,” Maher said. “It’s just because she’s surrounded by (Sean) Hannity or Bill O’Reilly.”

Kelly said she wept when she saw an 11-minute clip of Jon Stewart skewering her reporting several years ago, but claims she’s grown thicker skin. “When you’re young and just starting, you think, ‘Oh gosh, how much power does he have? Is he going to hurt me?’” Kelly asks. “Frankly, I really no longer listen to Jon Stewart. I think we’ve stood the test of time.”

But like everything on Fox, Kelly is controversial. Viewers and critics are often befuddled, because they never know where she stands. She sounds like a Democrat on social issues (she’s long defended the transgender community) but a Republican on fiscal matters. Kelly tells Variety she’s not a member of the GOP. “I have voted for both Democrats and Republicans,” she says. “I’m an independent.” She believes her lack of political ideology actually makes her a more effective reporter. “I’m not rooting for anybody,” she says. “I’m a Fox News anchor, and I have no horse in the race. I can give anyone a hard time.” When asked if she considers herself a journalist or a personality, Kelly says, “I don’t really separate the two. I just think of myself as Megyn Kelly — broadcaster. You can do both.”

Just as TV news personalities are fast becoming an endangered species, Kelly has evolved into the fresh face of Fox News, and her influence in cable news just keeps growing. Although she’s been a staple at the network for a decade, and headlined her own nightly show since 2013, her current show, “The Kelly File” — featuring segments of news analysis, exclusive interviews and lighthearted cultural debates — is a primetime juggernaut.

And now coming on the heels of landing an exclusive interview this summer with TV’s now infamous Duggars family, a scoop that drew 3.1 million viewers in early June, Kelly is wading into Barbara Walters territory.

Her boss, Roger Ailes, reveals that he’s giving his star a series of primetime specials to air on Fox News starting early next year. These one-hour interviews with high-profile subjects in the news, including celebrities and sports figures, will look like her Duggars scoop with TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting” reality stars Jim Bob and Michelle, who broke their silence about reports that their son Josh molested their daughters as a teenager. Kelly believes there’s an opening for this kind of long-form journalism on TV. “Barbara Walters has retired,” Kelly observes. “Diane Sawyer left her anchor role. Oprah has moved to the OWN network and is doing a different thing now. So why not me?” Ailes, CEO of Fox News Channel, is confident that Kelly can handle both breaking news and these more in-depth gets. “Listen, Megyn is so good today that there is no interview I would not want her to do,” Ailes says.

Kelly posts strong numbers on most nights. “The Kelly File” ranks as the second most-watched program in all of cable news behind only Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” and often outdraws other cable entertainment programming in the hour. Year to date, the 9 p.m. program averaged 2.2 million viewers, up 4% from the comparable period last year, and up 23% in the adults 25-54 demo (to an average of 414,000), according to Nielsen. Kelly’s hour easily draws more viewers than Anderson Cooper’s and Rachel Maddow’s programs -— the top-rated primetime shows on CNN and MSNBC — combined.

Ratings Watershed: Kelly’s early June interview with the Duggar family, including father Jim Bob, was seen by 3.1 million viewers. (Photo courtesy of Fox News)

Kelly says she’s more inspired by events that happen off the political beat. “I don’t feel passionately about politics,” she says, a remark that might come as a surprise to anyone who saw her question Fox News’ own research team during coverage of the 2012 presidential election, after Rove pushed back on the network’s findings that President Obama had won Ohio over Mitt Romney. “I’m not a political person. Is it easy for me to get fired up about someone’s position on climate change? No, it’s not. On most of these issues, I can see both sides.”

She’s been able to successfully interview politicos, she says, by treating them as human beings. “I don’t understand these politicians who want to be president, and complain when they get a tough interview,” Kelly says. “If you behave like a stupid moron, you’re going to get called out by me.” While debating disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner last year, she took a jab at the sexting scandal that forced him to resign: “I’m trying to understand how somebody with a secret like that could go on national television and be that cocky,” she snapped.

Kelly also wants to wade into the crowded field of celebrity interviews — not exactly a Fox News staple. Doing so means she will have to fight off rivals. “My goal is not to be ‘Entertainment Tonight,’ with all due respect to ‘Entertainment Tonight,’” she says. Among those atop her wish list: Caitlyn Jenner, who has yet to give an interview as a woman. Kelly would even like a chance to grill Kim Kardashian-West on what her prominence says about American popular culture. “I want to know if she’s a force for good or evil. I had someone make the argument that she’s voluptuous, and maybe sending the message to young girls that you don’t have to be a stick figure to be desirable,” she says. “But I see the other argument too — it’s all enhanced, and you send the message that you need to surgically alter yourself to the point of shocking to be attractive to men.”

Kelly’s success in this new arena is not guaranteed. The “big get,” as it is known in newsroom parlance, has become more a coin of the realm than it was even in Walters’ heyday. These days, every news program from “Today” to “The CBS Evening News” to “Nightline” is constantly on the hunt for interviews with people enveloped by the maelstrom of breaking news and social-media chatter. But her pal Charlie Rose of “CBS This Morning” thinks she’ll succeed. “Longform interviewing is different than anchoring a newscast,” he says. “To be good, you have to be very spontaneous. She has the capacity to do that.”

Kelly’s tough approach to questioning often makes her sound less like a newscaster and more like her TV idol, Judith “Judge Judy” Sheindlin, a style that’s won her many fans. “When I heard Megyn Kelly was moving to the evening, I cried, I was so happy for her,” says Lyndon Hong, 52, a waiter in Manhattan who stitched himself a jacket with the words “Thank God There’s Fox News” on the back.

Kelly’s star continues to shine as the network’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, is in the midst of reshuffling. Rupert Murdoch is passing leadership to sons Lachlan and James, and the company says Ailes will report to them while maintaining a relationship with their father — a move that has the potential to create drama in months to come. A source familiar with Kelly’s situation says her contract is set to expire in 2017. Fox may have to fight to keep her. Two years ago, she turned down an offer from Jeff Zucker to join CNN for her own primetime gig, and she will certainly be wooed by the likes of NBC and ABC, which have also tried to hire her before. Kelly doesn’t rule out doing a talkshow down the line. “I’d have to see what’s available,” she says. “Daytime TV has changed a lot since the Oprah days. Right now I like the venue I’m in. I like the boss I have. I want to keep working for this boss and place.”

Kelly had never seen an episode of TLC’s “19 Kids” when the Duggars news broke, and her natural impulse was not to even cover the story, because it was too dark. But the more she heard about it, the more interested she became in the various angles. She ended up calling the family’s rep personally, a move out of the Walters playbook. When she landed the interview, she flew from New York to Arkansas in the morning with a small staff. She spoke to Jim Bob and Michelle for 50 minutes. The producers then flagged her to wrap — the interview was airing the same night — so she could move on to interview the daughters. They sped back to the airport, where she frantically sifted through a 36-page transcript, made her own edits and had her assistant email them back from the plane.

Robert Maxwell for Variety

By the time she got back to her Fox News office at 7:30, she was met with a flurry of activity. “The head of editing had five editors stay, which is unprecedented in the history of Fox News, because it requires money,” Kelly deadpans. Thirty minutes before the show, the edit was still six minutes too long. “In response to which I sent an email that said, ‘We are f—ed,’” recalls Kelly, who promises she rarely swears in emails. “You know how a person finds superhero strength to lift a car off a child? That’s where I was at that moment. Everything became clear.” The show was being edited as the broadcast started — and she kept telling her team not to celebrate as segments aired intact, because there was still a chance that viewers would be met with dead air in the middle.

Kelly’s job is a high-wire act, all the more complicated because she has three young children. “She’s a freakishly good mother,” says her sister-in-law Diane Brunt, a shell fisherman in Cape Cod. “It’s kind of unbelievable.” Kelly says that motherhood is her most important responsibility, and that she’s lucky her husband, Doug Brunt, has a job that allows him the time to bring their kids for play-dates to Fox, and to put them to bed at night.

Kelly, who was raised in upstate New York, says her sense of humor was shaped by her parents. When she was 15, her father died of a heart attack 10 days before Christmas. Her mom eventually went back to work as a nurse, and ended up crying during a meeting with the doctors she was meant to supervise. “Even in that moment, she looked at the doctors and said: ‘These tears are not for you. These tears are for my husband.’ That’s my role model,” Kelly says.

She spent a decade as a corporate litigator, but was so captivated by the idea of doing TV news she worked on weekends at ABC affiliate WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C. She commuted from Maryland, where she lived in an apartment infested with mice. “I killed 21 in just one year,” Kelly brags, adding that she personally removed the carcasses herself. That experience may have helped her deal with the Internet pests that routinely attack her. “More often than not, we get hit by critics who have an agenda about Fox News,” she says, though she tries to keep an open mind over valid complaints about her work.

The blogosphere was divided over her interview with the Duggars. Many felt she went too easy on them. “Somebody in writing up my interview with the Duggars said, ‘She went Barbara Walters on us.’ I took that as a compliment,” Kelly says. Ailes, who watched “most of it,” gives his anchor high marks on how she handled a delicate subject. “The people who criticized the interview obviously didn’t like the Duggars, and so they wanted her to be tougher on them, but tougher how?” Ailes says. “She asked every question that had to be asked.“

Kelly conducts her evening show live — she’s the only primetime anchor on Fox to consistently do so — in a cavernous studio bathed in blue lights, on the 12th floor. Her colleagues are quick to note how difficult the broadcast is: “She shapes her interviews based on a whole lot of legwork that she does,” says her executive producer, Tom Lowell. Another ingredient in the broadcast: the three-inch heels behind the desk, which are glimpsed during the camera’s wide shots across her opaque desk. “I think she should have a shoe cam,” says Fox News meteorologist Janice Dean.

On a recent night, Kelly, assisted by two hair-and-makeup staffers, each toting a carry-on bag of beauty products, kicks off the show by examining a proposal by the Obama administration to offer housing grants that would promote neighborhood diversification. She then jumps into an on-camera interview with convicted murderer Michael Alig about the conditions of the upstate New York prison from which David Sweat and Richard Matt escaped. She chides him at the end when he says he’s grown a lot since killing a man. At the commercial, she turns to her crew. “I hope I live,” she says. “He’s here in the building.”

When Kelly first came to Fox News, she wasn’t as loose and flip on the air, and she learned her journalism chops from Washington, D.C., managing editor Brit Hume. “Nobody asked me about my political stripes,” Kelly says. “When Roger Ailes hired me, he knew I was the daughter of a college professor and a nurse. There was nothing in this resume that would telegraph she’s a secret conservative.” She says she’s never been told to go easy on Republican guests. “There have been so many times when I challenged Republicans on air — in big moments,” she says. “And my boss keeps promoting me.”

She’s not had trouble negotiating her salary either. “I always have people telling me, ‘You’re not going to get that much.’ And I’d say to them, ‘I’m going to get that, and more. Because I’m worth it,” she says. “The smart bet is on me.”