Off and Running
It can be hard to root for someone who is a fashion-world muse and a social media savant. It can be hard, that is, until you meet the formidable Gigi Hadid.
It's 8:50 P.M. at the Kelly File studio. The crew dudes finish shining her glass desk, through which viewers can see her shapely legs. Two makeup women, armed with blow-dryer and hair spray, put the finishing touches on her glistening tresses. And Megyn Kelly, Fox News's breakout prime-time star, girded in a snug black dress and four-inch strappy heels, is champing at the bit to make another presidential contender—this time Jeb Bush—squirm in his seat.
“If it's fair to question Mrs. Clinton for failures leading up to [Benghazi],” she says, looking into the camera at her 2.7 million viewers, “why is it unfair to question Jeb about his brother's failures leading up to September 11, 2001,” as Donald Trump had just done. She turns the question to Jeb, speaking via satellite video hookup. “Is it a double standard?”
“Trump doesn't know what he's talking about,” replies Bush.
She points out that Jeb's in fifth place in the polls, and she wants to know, “What would it take to make you get out [of the race]?” Bush, looking as if he were wearing a scratchy, too tight suit, replies that he's going nowhere.
In the face of Donald Trump's taunts, what's his plan? “To me,” says Kelly, “it seems like you don't know what to do. You're like, ‘How am I supposed to respond to this?’”
He smiles forcibly and tries for a joke. “We're in the same boat, Megyn,” he says, referring to Trump's recent attacks on Kelly.
She beams appreciatively but refuses the bait. “Well, but I'm not running for president.”
The moment the interview is over, Bush bolts from his chair, grim and grouchy. The control room, alight with numerous monitors, is buzzing with excitement. “He's not happy. I didn't even get to thank him,” says a young associate.
“You can tell he's on edge,” calls out another. “All through the interview, fake smile, fake smile. Soon as it's done, no smile.”
Unnerving would-be leaders, blowhards, and didacts from both parties has become Kelly's specialty, as the world learned in August. The first television journalist to call Trump out face-to-face on his obnoxiousness, she kicked off the first Republican debate by calmly cataloguing Trump's sexism in a single question. To recall: “You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.... You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton … that you are part of the war on women?” Trump tried to laugh it off mid-question, saying that those insults were directed only at Rosie O'Donnell, but Kelly wouldn't let him off. He then complained, “Honestly, Megyn, if you don't like it, I'm sorry. I've been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be based on the way you've treated me.” The following night, he suggested to Fox News's rival network CNN that the reason she was so hostile was that she was probably menstruating: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” When that didn't rattle her, Trump lashed out on Twitter, calling her a “lightweight,” re-tweeting that she was a “bimbo,” and stoking his supporters to boycott her show. Kelly took the high road and said on-air that she had no reason to apologize to Trump, and that she would “continue doing my job without fear or favor.”
Kelly's Trump episode was one in a string of satisfying male-ego deflations that have helped her surpass cable's biggest news star, Bill O'Reilly, in the key demographic of 25–54. Her occasional, yet highly entertaining, bucking of the conservative party line has attracted more independent-minded viewers and has even earned praise from liberals such as Chris Matthews, Joy Behar, and Gayle King. As of late, passersby have been calling out versions of “It's not too late to come to the other side!” Still, some media types warn against getting too excited over Kelly. As Bill Maher put it, “We think of Megyn Kelly as the sane one over there at Fox News. It's just because she's surrounded by Hannity and Bill O'Reilly. She's like the blonde dragon girl on Game of Thrones. Everyone else is a zombie or a dwarf or fucking their sister, so she looks normal.”
Whatever the case, Kelly has become a feminist icon of sorts—the sort who won't actually call herself a feminist. Perhaps this is because Kelly works at Fox News, where “feminists” are in the same scary category as “liberals” who wage war on Christmas each year. Perhaps, as she claims, it's because her accomplishments speak for themselves and have nothing to do with her gender.
‘Steve Martin said, ‘Be so good they can't ignore you.’ I love that,” says Kelly, kicking back in her no-frills office at Fox headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. She's in skinny jeans, hair pulled back, her wide eyes rimmed with dark eyeliner, looking more the take-charge hot New York mama than glossy Fox News anchor. Consider, she says, her own role model, Oprah Winfrey. “In all her years coming up … she never wallowed in any sort of victimhood.... She didn't play the gender card and she didn't play the race card. She was just so good we couldn't ignore her. That's my example…. Just get to the table and then do better than everybody else.” She adds with a laugh, “But every so often, as all [women] know, you have to stop and slap somebody around a little bit who doesn't understand that we are actually equals and not second-class citizens.”
It's tempting to dismiss her “Just do it” motto as simplistic. Easy for her to say—she has obvious genetic good fortune, plus a husband, Doug Brunt, who is straight out of central casting for the Perfect Guy: a handsome, successful novelist, who is on call with their three young children (sons Thatcher and Yates and daughter Yardley) when she's working. (Her normal workday stretches from the mid-afternoon until about 11 P.M.) But, in fact, her ascent has been marked by taking risks and obsessive preparation—the kind she did when she was a successful trial lawyer, her first career, until age 33. Perhaps more relevant, at a network whose on-air women seem to fit a certain mold, Kelly hasn't sacrificed much of who she really is; she's even cut her hair and started occasionally wearing pants on-air.
It helps that she's a woman of preternatural charisma, with star power closer to that of Julia Roberts than to, say, Norah O'Donnell or Erin Burnett—two other beautiful TV newswomen who have made it big but have never exactly exploded. Now pulling down a reported annual pay package of $6-$9 million, she's the alpha girl at the dinner party, the one telling the stories, cracking the jokes, the one who is nice to everyone but leaves people wanting more. Her ego is robust—in her mind it's obvious why she's a star—yet she enjoys taking the piss out of herself for a laugh. Witness just a few minutes of interaction with her husband, who has joined us for breakfast near their apartment on the Upper West Side: “I was just telling her that I was actually voted most popular in the eighth grade. It's come to that.”
When Brunt remarks that she excels in every area of her life, even cooking—“There's three or four things she cooks that are awesome … that chicken thing you do?”—she shoots back, “I just want you to know that that was complete and total bullshit.”
Gentle ribbing seems to be Kelly's go-to mode. When Brunt apologizes to me for giving me his novels in a crumpled brown grocery bag, she doesn't miss a beat: “It would have been a little much if you'd gift-wrapped them.”
Brunt is hopelessly enamored. In his opinion, “she's like a combination of Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, and then a Grisham character who's a scrappy guy from the other side of the tracks who has a rare gift for the law, in a Grace Kelly package, with a little Larry the Cable Guy sprinkled on top.”
Walter Cronkite might be a stretch. The Kelly File, which Kelly bills as a “news” show as opposed to an opinion show, like Hannity or The O'Reilly Factor, is made up largely of the kind of stories you'd find on many other Fox News shows at any other time. Some recurring themes are political correctness run amok, the left-wing slant of the mainstream media, and the question of Hillary Clinton's trustworthiness. (Hint: “She's lying! She's absolutely lying!,” says the mother of one of the Benghazi victims in a teaser.) Not so infrequently, the right-of-center axis roams into Hannity territory, like a recurring bit on “Ahmed, the clock boy,” who was mistakenly arrested after school officials thought he might be building a bomb—and then got invited to the White House. Not only was the clock really lame, The Kelly File told us, “just wait until you see what we found on his father's Facebook page.” (Supposedly it called 9/11 an American hoax to encourage a war against Islam.) A go-to guest on the subject of race and law enforcement is Mark Fuhrman, the disgraced race-baiting policeman from the O. J. Simpson trial.
And yet … it's not uncommon for the casual left-of-center viewer to say, in spite of himself, I kind of like her. In Kelly's hands, these right-wing red-meat stories are presented with a varying degree of balance and often treated with humanity and wit. She'll muster outrage at political correctness, but it feels rooted in common sense, not just derived from talking points. When, for example, a Muslim activist takes issue with Somalian writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali's being given a public forum for views that are critical of Islam, Kelly shoots him down: “When you undergo genital mutilation, you may have a thing or two to say about it!” On the other side of the political spectrum, she can demonstrate reason and sympathy when encountering vicious, right-wing small-mindedness. “There's so much hate for gays and lesbians and transgendered people,” she tells a Fox News contributor who thinks the transgender Chaz Bono is a danger to America. “You seem to be adding to the hate.”
She has no patience for talk that's above the audience's head. When a general talks about rebels “putting pressure on Assad, particularly Jabat al-Nusra, from Aleppo to Damascus,” she interrupts: “Hold on—nobody understood what you just said. Say that in plain English.” She won't sell her soul for a ratings bonanza. When Trump made the shocking suggestion that Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S., Kelly rightfully blasted the television media for giving him 18 hours of airtime over the course of 24 hours. Trump had played them, she said, and they were “marching like lemmings.”
And she owns her sexuality in a way that feels real and lighthearted. When Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg recently came on the show to talk about how men who helped more with the housework had happier family lives and more sex, Kelly (who has talked about her breasts on the Howard Stern show and posed for racy shoots in men's magazines) cheered. “We have been selling it all wrong in the past! More action, all right? That's all you need to know, guys,” she said to the camera, giving a thumbs-up. “Do some laundry.”
Prominent female journalists from rival networks can't help but praise her uncanny charm. “She doesn't talk down to her audience,” says Campbell Brown, who hosted her own prime-time show on CNN and now leads a nonprofit in education. “There is none of the sanctimonious, condescending attitude. And, frankly, none of the hate. I think people are sick of these prime-time chest thumpers characterizing the other side as evil.” Jessica Yellin, a former chief White House correspondent for CNN, says, “She defies all the pigeonholing that usually happens to women on TV. She's smart, strong, sexy, fierce, sympathetic all at once.”
Veteran newswoman Katie Couric praises her dogged interviewing skills, crucial when interrogating dodging politicians. “She takes no prisoners and takes no BS,” says Couric. “And I've noticed that she's a really good listener. Sometimes the tendency is to go down a laundry list of questions and to not say, ‘Wait a minute.’ It requires you to think on your feet and to take the conversation in a totally different direction.”
Kelly, who was raised in Syracuse and a suburb of Albany, the third child of a nurse and an education professor, fairly arrived on this earth the Queen Bee. “I distinctly remember being very young,” she recalls, “sixth grade maybe, and being at a party and hearing the mothers discuss the children. And the mothers said, ‘Well, it's very clear who's the leader in the group.’ And they were talking about me!” In high school, she took public speaking and found she got a rush from presenting in public. She felt bound for a career in journalism, but when she applied to Syracuse University's communications program, it turned her down, so she majored in political science there instead. “Now they tell people I went there,” says Kelly, who delights in recalling past instances when people stupidly underestimated her. “I'm like, ‘Oh, I did not!’” She then went on to Albany Law School, after which she was $100,000 in the hole with student loans.
By age 33 she was married to a doctor (her first husband), was working at the prestigious law firm Jones Day, had paid back her loans, and was on her way to making partner (“And you can check me on that”) when she realized she wasn't fulfilled. “I had this little voice in me saying, ‘I am more interesting than this. I am more interested than this.’” With the help of a friend, she cut a demo tape and started cold-calling local stations in the larger markets. She landed a freelance job at WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington. While WJLA was stalling in negotiating the full-time deal she wanted, she'd sent her tape to Fox News Washington-bureau chief Kim Hume, wife of Fox News anchorman Brit Hume. The couple became her champions. She told Brit that she believed in Fox News's mission and that the mainstream media weren't balanced. He passed her tape along to Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, who scooped her up to be a reporter. “I could have kept doing [law], and I think I was in what my sister-in-law calls my ‘zone of excellence,’” Kelly says, with characteristic self-assurance. “But I chose a different path, and I made a big financial sacrifice when I first started, and wound up getting into what she calls my ‘zone of genius.’”
“Genius,” admittedly, took some time. “This is me on day one,” she says, handing over her Fox identification card. In the photo, she looks like a nervous co-ed. “Picture that woman. I don't want to say I was scared shitless, because I knew I could do it. But I also knew I wasn't very good yet.” In her early reports, delivered from Washington to Hume, Kelly is stiff, as if doing an imitation of what a perfect news correspondent sounds like. (“Now watch the poise and confidence here,” she would joke on her show seven years later, airing her very first clip.) In 2006, thanks to her legal background, Hume put her on the Duke lacrosse-team rape case, sensing that the story wasn't what it seemed.
Her reporting got the attention of two men who would change her life, personally and professionally. Brunt, who'd gone to Duke, developed a crush on this whip-smart looker. Through a mutual friend, he concocted a fake business meeting as an excuse to go to Washington and meet her. They clicked immediately. While they were falling in love, he told her, “By the way, if you don't want children, you should tell me soon.” As it happened, Kelly had long believed that she didn't want kids, but she had recently experienced an epiphany: “I'll never forget being in my own bed and thinking to myself, Oh my God! It's not that I don't want children. It's that I didn't want to have children with my first husband.” Thirty-seven when she married Brunt, Kelly got right to work on that front.
Meanwhile, Ailes saw that he had a star on his hands—if only she weren't so determined to be perfect. As she recalls, he called her into his office and said, “Go out there and make some mistakes.... And don't be afraid of taking risks. You're trying too hard. And I have news for you. You don't need to be perfect. No one will like you if you are, by the way.” Kelly concluded that, for her, taking risks chiefly meant using humor at her own expense. “Or even humor at all,” she says, “telling a stupid joke and maybe they won't find it funny. Which happens a lot, by the way.” An on-air colleague, whom she doesn't name, told her that trying to be funny was too risky, and attempted to talk her out of it. Kelly listened to Ailes instead, and it unlocked her voice. It was their Up Close & Personal moment—without the romance and all the mushy liberal ideals.
The star-in-the-making was groomed by appearing weekly on The O'Reilly Factor, during which she and O'Reilly developed a bit of shtick: sassy daughter takes on cranky old Dad. (He would, and still does, call her “Miss Megyn” and has sometimes referred to her as an “anchorette.”) Over the years, she has challenged him on everything from the number of opportunities given to African-Americans to how to talk to women more respectfully: “You have a penchant for that term ‘Calm down’ [to women]…. It's patronizing.” Her ammo has been simply to have facts at the ready. “I've told him many times on the air, ‘You're arguing with your heart and not with your head.’” She was given her own daytime show, America Live, in 2010.
Defeating the male blowhard by being fully prepared became a Kelly specialty. The rest of her career ascent would be littered with the bruised bodies of guys who had it coming—all while she continued to have babies. In 2011, when right-wing radio host Mike Gallagher remarked on his show, in reference to Kelly's maternity leave for her second child, that maternity leave was a “racket,” Kelly, upon her return, invited him on her show. “Maternity leave? It's a ‘racket’? … What a moronic thing to say! … What is it about getting pregnant and carrying a baby nine months that you don't think deserves a few months off so bonding and recovery can take place?”
Gallagher tried to double down. “Do men get maternity leave, Megyn?”
“Guess what, honey—they do. It's called Family Medical Leave Act.”
Next up was Karl Rove, Republican strategist and Fox News's chief political analyst. It was Election Night 2012, and the election desk at Fox News had reported that Ohio—and the presidency—had gone to Obama. But Rove, sitting at the desk with Kelly and co-anchor Bret Baier, knew better. He spat out a whole bunch of numbers about the Ohio vote he was hearing about—in this county and that—which he was confident would lead to a Romney victory. “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is this real?” Kelly asked. The clip of this humiliating moment made the rounds; even Jon Stewart celebrated her moxie. Less than a year—and another baby—later, she was given her own show in prime time.
The hits kept coming. In May 2013, she gave the Megyn treatment to two more Fox News contributors, Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson, head of RedState.com, after they'd bemoaned a report that in 40 percent of households a woman was the breadwinner. To Dobbs, it was a sign of the end of civilization; to Erickson, a perversion of the natural world's order in which male animals are dominant and female animals are submissive.
“I'll start with you, Erick,” she said. “What makes you dominant and me submissive, and who died and made you scientist in chief?! … I've got a list of studies here that say your science is wrong.” Erickson scrambled, while Dobbs, getting rattled, tried the patronizing approach. “Excuse me. Let me just finish what I'm saying, O Dominant One.” Sheryl Sandberg, who didn't know her, immediately saw a woman who leaned in hard, and promptly invited her to Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit. “Megyn speaks truth to power,” says Sandberg, who has become a friend. “She's tough, fair, and relentlessly brave.”
Today, Erickson admits, “She definitely got the better of me. It was a wake-up call. You've got to be more responsible about what you say. Particularly when you have a daughter and a wife.”
Trump probably didn't imagine he'd be next. After all, in his mind, what beautiful woman didn't want to go to bed with him, right? When I remark to Kelly and her husband that Trump sounded like a jilted suitor after she asked her now famous sexism question, they share a knowing look, and Kelly proceeds cautiously. In the past, she says, “he would send me press clippings about me that he would just sign ‘Donald Trump.’ And he called from time to time to compliment a segment. I didn't know why he was doing that. And then when he announced that he was running for president, it became more clear. But I can't be wooed. I was never going to love him, and I was never going to hate him.”
In preparation for moderating her first presidential debate, Fox News research assistants put together massive binders on the candidates, on everything they'd ever said on every topic. As she read Trump's, a couple of themes began to emerge. The one that hadn't been explored was his sexism. Knowing that if Hillary were to be the nominee she'd hit him with that issue, Kelly had her first question. “I wrote it. I researched each line item myself. It was interesting to me after the debate when people started fact-checking my question. My own reaction was ‘Bring it on.’ You think I'd go out there and ask a question like that at the first G.O.P. debate without making sure I was bulletproof on every single word?” She drafted and re-drafted it, and showed it to her fellow moderators, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier, whose initial reaction, Baier recalls, was “Wow, let's think about this … there clearly was going to be pushback.”
Kelly almost didn't get a chance to ask it. The morning of the debate, while doing debate prep, she got violently ill. But, she says, “I would have crawled over a pile of hot coals to make it to that debate. No one was going to be sitting in for me, reading my questions. And I can say with confidence that neither Bret nor Chris wanted to read my questions—for many reasons!” She did the debate with a blanket over her legs and a bucket to throw up in by her side.
The Kelly-Trump exchange made headlines worldwide, and Kelly, much to her alarm, had become the news. “I felt like Alice Through the Looking Glass,” she says. To casual viewers, it seemed an obvious win for Kelly. But Trump supporters unloaded a truckload of venom, reportedly sending her death threats, tweeting that she was a “c--t” and a “hag.” The candidate was intent on taking her down, with his top deputy re-tweeting, “gut her.” For the folks at Fox News, it wasn't immediately obvious how to respond. Trump's supporters made up a good chunk of the Fox News viewership, and Trump was a “friend” to a number of on-air personalities, who seemed terrified to lose his favor. Hannity, Geraldo Rivera, and Brian Kilmeade tweeted rather limp pleas for him to stick to the issues. A few days after the debate, Steve Doocy began an interview with Trump with the hopeful and slightly tragic words “Glad we're friends again.” According to a report in New York magazine by Gabriel Sherman (author of the recent book about Fox News, The Loudest Voice in the Room), Ailes wavered in his support for his anchor. Kelly says this is “complete nonsense.”
“I talked to her on the phone every day,” says Ailes. “Whenever there is a crisis Megan is a cool customer.” According to Kelly, “We were eye to eye on what we both wanted. Which was to move forward.” Immediately following the debate, her viewership climbed by 9 percent.
What with all the male bullies she's put in their place, Kelly would be perfectly positioned to become a leader in women's issues such as equal pay and reproductive rights. But Kelly, whose position on abortion, she says, is known only to her husband and herself, claims these issues actually divide women. “Why can't there be an acknowledgment that, in some instances, women remove themselves from the workforce for a long time and when they come back of course they're not going to get exactly equal pay?” she asks. “It's like some of these things are anathema—if you say them, you get booted out of the feminist club…. Gloria Steinem doesn't get to kick those other women out of the feminist club, or the female-empowerment club, because she says so!” Sensing herself getting uppity, she laughs and does a sassy snap across her face for emphasis.
In the smaller political arena within Fox News itself, Kelly, it seems, has taken the same, rather delicate tack in pursuing women's empowerment: to fiercely pursue one's needs while rejecting anything that sounds like lefty dogma. Her team is made up mainly of women, many of whom are pregnant or have just had a baby. “I've said to all of them, ‘If you feel overwhelmed, please come and talk to me and let's try to find a solution.’ I don't want all the young mothers to be driven off the show because they feel they have to choose between devotion to the show and devotion to their child.” According to a Fox News colleague, Happening Now host Jenna Lee, who has sought out Kelly's advice on balancing children and work, “Megyn really owns who she is. When you see someone who really owns who they are, it inspires you to own who you are.”
In keeping with owning who she is, Kelly isn't reticent about what she wants next: to do longer, more in-depth interviews, in the vein of Charlie Rose or Winfrey, which would be “less immersed in angry political exchanges.” She reports that some prime-time specials, featuring longer interviews, are coming down the pike at Fox News, but one senses that she's already thinking one step ahead of this development, and restlessly pushing at the constraints. “Charlie Rose does it, and he does it very well. But that doesn't mean nobody else can do it,” says Kelly. “I think that there's a spiritual component to my personality that is completely unutilized in my current job.” Note to television executives everywhere.
To watch Megyn Kelly's best HARDBALL questions, go to VF.COM/FEB2016.
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