It’s been almost two decades since Kelly Ripa took over as co-host of the show now known as “Live With Kelly and Ryan”; her 20th anniversary comes in February. This time 20 years ago, Ripa says, she was sure that the job she’d end up getting hired for was an impossible one. “I am the girl that when Kathie Lee [Gifford] left, thought, ‘Whoever takes over for her, I feel sorry for her. Nobody can do that job,’” she says. “I never in my wildest thought process thought it would be me.”
Back then, Ripa was an Emmy-nominated actor from the ABC soap “All My Children.” Now, having sat on the couch next to three male co-hosts — Regis Philbin, Michael Strahan and currently Ryan Seacrest — and done months of broadcasts self-recorded from home earlier this year, she’s among the most enduring stars in daytime television.
“It’s not just about me,” Ripa says of the show’s ongoing success. “It really is not. I don’t think I’m the show. I think the show is the show.” The format — 20 minutes, right at the top, of two people chatting loosely about whatever pops into their minds — may indeed predate Ripa, but she has made it an art form.
In some ways, the at-home tapings were liberating — at least for the “Live” audience. “People really loved it because they felt it was intimate,” Ripa says. “Once in a while, I’d tilt the computer and you’d see Mark [Consuelos, her husband] sleeping in bed. It was a very exciting way of doing business.”
Ripa was on a two-week vacation in the Caribbean when the show’s in-studio tapings were postponed indefinitely in March: “When Kelly heard what was happening,” says executive producer Michael Gelman, “she said, ‘Look, I want to be a part of it.’ We made it back, and we never missed one show in the pandemic.”
The thrown-together broadcasts epitomized what Ripa calls the “on-the-fly, guerrilla-style” tone of “Live”: “If something breaks down, we fix it. Nobody’s coming in from Hollywood to fix it.” To wit: Ripa notes that she was very content shooting in front of a window at home in full natural light — until the show sent her a ring light. “By the way,” she says of her blown-out, non-studio lighting, “I thought I looked amazing.”
It’s all part of what Ripa calls “my overall willingness to let all my foibles unfold and put all of my imperfections out there” — which in recent years has made an intriguing contrast with Seacrest’s crisper and less personal emcee image. For Ripa, “it took a few years to look directly into the camera,” given her acting background. The “American Idol” host is “so polished and I’m so not,” she says. “He’s one of those guys who pays attention to how long 30 seconds is, and I’ve never done that a day in my life.”
To hear Ripa tell it, bringing in Seacrest was a long game. “When Regis first announced his retirement, it was a strange thing,” she says of Philbin’s 2011 departure (he died in July at 88). “I think there was a contract dispute, I don’t know what happened, but he announced he was leaving on air, and it was a shocking moment. But then he decided he would wait until the end of his contract, so he’d be there for a year.” Over the course of that year, she says, Seacrest and Ripa tested the waters: “He reached out to me and said, ‘Do you think there’s any chance that if this goes down, we could work together?’” Their pairing would be deferred until after Strahan’s run on the show from 2012 to 2016, and was met with some trepidation by executives. “What the show liked about Regis and me,” Ripa says, “is that we didn’t really have a relationship. They liked two people coming together, having breakfast and letting it all unfold. The network and studio’s fear of Ryan and me is we are so close and we’ve been so close — it’d be like working with yourself!”
But the pair’s apparent intimacy has reaped other benefits, like their mutual ease in the most challenging of circumstances. “2020 is, we can all agree, the worst year ever,” Ripa says, “and I remember thinking it was going to be really fun.” Not merely did Ripa defer her plans for a “Roaring ’20s”-themed 50th-birthday party (“I never mentioned it again,” she says.), but she has had to address topics far more consequential than what she got up to last night. And when she speaks to Variety, she’s one day removed from a near-tears on-air eulogy for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; in conversation, she calls the jurist’s death “the s— cherry on the horrible s— sundae we’ve been ingesting this year.”
It’s striking that “Live” is enjoying continued boom times (its 33rd-season premiere in September registered some 2.66 million viewers) in a climate that has most richly rewarded, lately, its network mate “The View,” with its strongly opinionated political junkies. “Live,” airing two hours earlier at 9 a.m. in New York and with a softer mandate, has no politics in its DNA, though Ripa has ushered the nation through hard news before: On Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, she — fresh from maternity leave — and Philbin took over broadcasting the news for ABC. “We were on the air watching as the second plane went into the building,” she says. “You don’t know what you’re made of. That was my first realization that this show is real life, and that I am a member of our audience. It became clear to me that the job was going to be hard at times. Hard things would happen to me personally.”
Notes exec producer Gelman: “We’re normal people talking about our normal lives, and people experience what happens in America through us. We try to put a positive spin on things, but we can’t ignore what’s going on.”
But Ripa, an apolitical host, viewed the Ginsburg story, specifically, as in some ways transcending the cut-and-thrust of politics. “I have conservative viewers and liberal viewers,” she says. “I think I do a good job because my conservative viewers think I’m liberal and my liberal viewers think I’m conservative. I irritate both sides.” This time, though, she felt the viewership behind her: “I had quite the confidence the audience felt the same way I did. As a working woman, she was a trailblazer — she would never take a moment like I took to self-indulge in the loss. She fought so many battles in her life, and she did it in a way that’s so much more eloquent and gracious than I have been in my life. She never became bitter, and it’s hard not to become cynical and bitter.”
Ripa’s own battles have included, for example, her efforts to be taken seriously as a producer. “I read 36 books a year,” she says, and recently plucked the novel “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia for a drama to be produced by Hulu and ABC Signature. “I begged Hulu, I begged ABC, saying, ‘Please, please, I try to be a good employee!’” She also sounded a notable call for “respect in the workplace” in 2016 after Strahan announced his departure to join “Good Morning America” and ABC hadn’t informed her. She walked off the show for a dayslong break; her address to viewers upon her return made headlines and, she says, catalyzed a response from her peers. “I heard from all of them,” she says. “I don’t think there was an on-air woman that I didn’t hear from: either a personal letter or an email or a text or DM. It’s so easy to think that it’s just you. But you’d be amazed how many people don’t feel seen or heard at all. I didn’t kick up a fuss; it wasn’t a big thing; I was just like, I’m not doing this. If I’m not worthy of a discussion, if I’m not worthy of you running this conversation by me — it was outrageous.”
Ripa resists cynicism as she attempts an uphill struggle: “It’s hard not to become cynical; I try not to. Sometimes it’s that scene from ‘The Godfather Part III’ — ‘just when I think I’m not cynical, they pull me back in.’” She laughs. “What am I going to complain about? They didn’t buy my series? I try to stay the course. What I lack in actual talent, I make up for in work ethic and in extreme capabilities in multitasking. I’m able to always be working while looking like I’m not doing much of anything.”
Through it all, she remains a part of New York’s TV culture — anchoring a show that began its life as a local broadcast and raising a family that’s sent two children to NYU. During the COVID-19 crisis, Ripa and Consuelos have donated $1.5 million to the nonprofit WIN NYC, led by former mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, to buy necessary supplies for schoolchildren forced into distance learning. “We were watching our kids with their Wi-Fi,” Ripa says, “and obviously we can’t help them — they aged out of us being able to help them in third grade — but they still found at-home schooling very challenging. How are kids in the homeless system surviving?”
“New York City has had a pull on me,” she says, since she first went to the city as a young girl to see the Rockettes. “It’s truly a love affair I’ve had since I was a child. I saw rejection after rejection after rejection. But I would rather be rejected here than accepted anywhere else.”