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Rising star Megyn Kelly making mark at Fox News Channel

By: Dan Zak The Washington Post
December 22, 2013 Updated: December 22, 2013 at 7:50 pm
photo - Megyn Kelly, shown in the News Corp. Building in New York on Dec. 6, hosts ?The Kelly File,? which debuted just over two months ago and has ratings among 25-to-54-year-olds have exceeded those of ?The O?Reilly Factor? six times. Illustrates MEDIA-KELLY (category e), by Dan Zak (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post).
Megyn Kelly, shown in the News Corp. Building in New York on Dec. 6, hosts ?The Kelly File,? which debuted just over two months ago and has ratings among 25-to-54-year-olds have exceeded those of ?The O?Reilly Factor? six times. Illustrates MEDIA-KELLY (category e), by Dan Zak (c) 2013 The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post). 

NEW YORK - The anchor who might beat Bill O'Reilly gets her eyelash extensions applied one at a time, with tweezers and dabs of glue, about 90 minutes before showtime, right after a motorized gun sprays foundation over her face, neck, shoulders, collarbone and sternum, wiping out a galaxy of light freckles that spreads across her ...

Let me stop you right there.

Would you write this way about a man?

About O'Reilly himself?

At least that's what Megyn Kelly might ask at this point. Kelly, 43, is the host of "The Kelly File," a live TV program that airs weeknights at 7 on the Fox News Channel, where she interrupts and challenges guests whenever they resort to talking points or petty distractions. It debuted about three months ago, and so far its ratings among 25-to-54-year-olds have exceeded those of "The O'Reilly Factor" six times. In November, her first full month in prime time after years in daytime, Kelly was second only to O'Reilly in the overall ratings, which means she's the No. 2 person on cable news' No. 1 channel.

"It's like working on a supermodel every day - a brilliant supermodel," says makeup artist Maureen Walsh, as she airbrushes Kelly's skin from milky white to Technicolor.

The small makeup room is hot from the blow dryer. Pen in hand, Kelly, a former corporate lawyer, reads an article headlined "For Democrats in 2014, the website is still the problem," her eyes zipping over text as Maureen smudges heavy plum-colored eye shadow on her lids.

Megyn Kelly is very easy to like.

Megyn Kelly is a good and decent person.

The story of on-air Megyn Kelly is the story of off-air Megyn Kelly.

End of story.

Start of another: She's a former head cheerleader with tomboy tendencies. If the world was "Peanuts," she'd be a Lucy - always the smartest, always in charge, but in a way that's ultimately endearing.

"Poor Piers," she says, as if she's snatched the football away from her CNN competitor. She scrolls through an Excel spreadsheet of Nielsen ratings in her small office on News Corp's 17th floor early this month. It's near the close of business in midtown Manhattan, but Kelly's workday is only beginning and, according to the numbers, she's eating the competition for breakfast.

"The Kelly File" draws more viewers than Piers Morgan and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow combined.

"We just do it better," she says, legs crossed in dark-blue jeans and calf-high leather boots. Her hair is pulled straight back. Her crucial physical trait is not her Grace Kelly face but her Barbara Stanwyck voice, a deeper, authoritative register inherited from her mother, a retired nurse.

Her office is a taupe nook with jail-narrow windows overlooking 48th Street. Instead of an ego wall she has photos of her husband, three young children and 98-year-old Nana. A Post-It note over Kelly's phone says "It's All Going to Work Out!" even though it already has. She has a job she loves, a family she loves even more. Bliss.

From the law to TV

Ten years ago, she never had been on television.

Now, in a way, she is queen of it.

"I swung and I missed a little bit with the law - I was good at it but it didn't make me happy," she says, referring to her nine years as a corporate litigator. "And I swung and I hit with this job. And I knew I would hit, and I did hit. And it felt good when I hit it, and I'm running the bases with aplomb."

Before and after her show are O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, admitted opinionators who specialize, respectively, in cantankerousness and mongering. Kelly, whether she means to or not, markets herself as a break in the clouds, an interlude of lucidity, a host who protects her viewers by condensing complex issues into digestible bits, by cross-examining news analysis with zero tolerance for guff.

"Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?" she asked Karl Rove on the evening of Election Day last year, after the GOP architect said that Ohio was still in play despite data to the contrary.

"What makes you dominant and me submissive, and who died and made you scientist-in-chief?" she said to Fox contributor Erick Erickson in May, when challenging his controversial comments on studies of women as primary breadwinners.

The populace perked up each time.

Who is this woman?

She is a quick study, a true skeptic and a recovering perfectionist, ever since Roger Ailes, chairman and chief executive of Fox News, called her into his office seven years ago, praised her confidence, then said "Now who's the real you?"

"I was sort of taken aback that he wasn't buying the persona I was projecting," says Kelly, who previously was a daytime anchor on Fox's "America Live" and "America's Newsroom," with Bill Hemmer. "I really thought I was fooling everybody into thinking I was this together. My words were chosen so perfectly and the script was done just right, and it wasn't until (Ailes) said, 'First of all, that's bull, and second of all, the viewers can smell a phony a mile away,' that I realized I was doing myself and my viewers a disservice."

The real Megyn Kelly, the Megyn Kelly you can see every weeknight, grew up the youngest of three in a vanilla suburb of Albany, N.Y. No, she says, politics were not discussed in the Kelly household; "The Jeffersons" or "The Golden Girls" were watched more than the nightly news. Her upbringing was "standard" until her father, an education professor who traveled often, died suddenly of a heart attack when she was 15.

"I think that event had the single greatest impact on who I am as a person," she says. "I do think it made me keenly aware of my own mortality, and I think in many ways that has been a gift. It's forced me to change my life when I'm unhappy. I don't know I would've gotten out of my law job or my first marriage if I hadn't been keenly aware of that."

'I'm not a political person'

On Fox, Kelly took a range of assignments and covered the Supreme Court, then Ailes brought her to New York in 2006 to become a daytime anchor with Hemmer. And now she's following - and nipping at the heels of - O'Reilly, the big man himself.

"When Kelly first started (her new show), she came in and she was smart enough to ask me, 'How do you drive an hour by yourself?'" O'Reilly says. "You can count on two hands who's been successful at that. It's very hard to drive an hour by yourself. I said, 'Look, it's all about the emotion of the day. You have to know what folks are talking about, and what they care about that day. So it can't be all about you. It's gotta be about them.'"

Kelly has listened. The words "anger" and "outrage" are used frequently on her program, as are vague references to "what is happening in this country." Might this language, however justified on occasion, stoke and sustain a contentious discourse that ultimately corrodes the media and therefore the society it serves?

"I hope not," Kelly says. "I certainly don't wanna be that force."

She wants to address the feeling of powerlessness among viewers. When people don't trust their media or their leaders - look at the congressional approval rating, she says, and the president's crumbling credibility - they feel powerless. She views her program as a nightly attempt to wrest that power back.

"People feel validated when they hear their own emotions accurately described by someone on television," Kelly says. "And I think when you ignore their genuine heartfelt feelings, they feel diminished. And I think it's like scratching an itch, to hear someone in a position of power - somebody with a big microphone at least - give voice to what you're feeling."

There's nothing fancy about the offices and studios at Fox News, which could use new carpeting, just as there's nothing fancy about Kelly's operation. A crew of five guys runs the show on the soundstage of Studio J. Her producers keep tabs from a nearby control room. It's casual clockwork.

She positions her segment folders on her desk. O'Reilly can handle one folder at a time on his anchor desk, according to a crew member, and Hannity's is usually a mess of folders. Kelly's are orderly and alphabetized.

Her opening lines and segment intros are scripted, based on the research and reporting of her producers, but then she walks the high wire without the TelePrompTer, relying on the authority she honed as a lawyer and her study of the news of the day. She is smarter than most of her guests, or at least acts that way, and believes they are smarter than they often let on.

"I enjoy covering the boxing match, but I don't back a player in the ring," Kelly says from behind her office desk after the show. "And that's the truth. I'm not a political person and I never have been."

A devoted mother

Megyn Kelly is no one's puppet. Megyn Kelly is Megyn Kelly whether or not the red light is on. She says so. Her husband says so. Friends and colleagues from different phases of her life say so.

She orders the spinach-and-goat-cheese omelette. The husband orders the lemon-ricotta pancakes. The baby slumbers in a stroller to the side. The bay window of this cute cafe on the Upper West Side frames a still-life of glad, urbane domesticity. The baby is 4 months old and named Thatcher. The husband is 42 and named Douglas Brunt. His second novel is in the can and he's finishing a third.

He calls her "Meg." She calls the baby "so awesome."

The real Megyn Kelly is a mother. Sometimes the family - including 4-year-old son Yates and 2 1/2-year-old daughter Yardley - joins her commute, and picnics on the floor of her office. When her cellphone rang on the air a day before Thanksgiving, she silenced it out of frame, barely fazed, but didn't ignore the tiny blooper. When the show resumed from a commercial break, she told viewers her turkey had just been delivered from FreshDirect.

"So, honey, if you could let them in," she said into the camera, and you couldn't help but feel a bit fonder of - and a bit closer to - Kelly. Partisan media watchers say this appeal is what makes her treacherous, that her stern-yet-inviting tone is the spoonful of sweet-and-sour sauce that makes Ailes's conservative medicine so addictive. Fox haters believe this, she knows, and Fox haters are wrong. She also knows that some people invest too much time and energy in television.

"I think if you're watching TV at the expense of being with people - and conversing with real live human beings as opposed to just listening to the one talking at you - you're in dangerous territory," she says. "As with anything, moderation is the key."

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