Soap dish Kelly Ripa enjoys a year of noblesse o'Reege.

When Kelly Ripa first appeared at Regis Philbin’s side in November 2000 — just three months after Kathie Lee Gifford ended her embattled 15-year run as cohost of Live — guest psychic Char Margolis correctly surmised she was pregnant with her second child.

It was the kind of unscripted moment TV producers dream about, but in retrospect, it’s also noteworthy for what Margolis didn’t predict: that Ripa, 31, would take a permanent perch with the 68-year-old Philbin last Feb. 12, and become a morning phenom even bigger than Kathie Lee at her pre-tabloid peak. Ratings for Live With Regis and Kelly, already surging after Gifford left in July 2000, have continued a steady climb since Ripa pulled up a chair at the coffee klatch.

To wit: In its 17th year, Live ranks behind only The Oprah Winfrey Show among syndicated talk shows and has increased its viewership among women ages 18-34 by a whopping 75 percent. And in markets where they compete, Ripa routinely outshines NBC’s $65 million newsgal Katie Couric, as Live clobbers Today’s third and fluffiest hour by nearly a full ratings point. (Moreover, Ripa is a comparative bargain, earning an estimated $3 million to $5 million annually for Live.) ”It’s the exception rather than the rule that a program would increase that much after being on for so long,” marvels Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate. ”I would guess [the reason] is Kelly Ripa. She was a good choice.”

We’ll say. The perky, self-deprecating native of Berlin, N.J., brings a lot to her elevated chair. Younger and less polarizing than her 48-year-old predecessor — at least she’s not yet a target for Howard Stern — Ripa has a passionate fan base after 11 years playing plucky heroine Hayley Vaughan Cortlandt McIntyre Santos on ABC’s All My Children, where she still lathers up about three days per week. Plus, viewers have embraced her on-screen charm — particularly her lively interaction with the oft curmudgeonly Reege. ”Now it’s fun,” observes Soap Opera Weekly executive editor Carolyn Hinsey, a longtime Ripa pal. ”When the inevitable thing goes wrong, you know Kelly’s going to make it funny and make it work.”

Though Ripa declined to comment for this story, last year she told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY that her success owed much to her right-hand man: ”If you work with Regis, you’re gonna come off looking good, because he won’t let you look any other way.” (Philbin also nixed interview requests.)

But Ripa’s morning glory may just be a stepping-stone. Witness her high-profile Feb. 27 guest spot on Ed. ”At the core, Kelly is an absolute TV star,” gushes Ed executive producer Rob Burnett, who doesn’t rule out a Ripa reprise as Tom Cavanagh’s love interest. Burnett adds jokingly: ”In fact, my advice would be for her to dump Regis immediately.”

He was kidding. We think. Still, Live’s omnipresent exec producer Michael Gelman stresses that Ripa knows her priorities. ”I don’t think you’ll see her in an ongoing situation that would take her away from us,” says Gelman. ”But she’s got leeway to do other projects, and we think it only brings more people to the table.” Ripa’s agent, Jim Ornstein, denies rumors that his client is angling to host her own chatfest. But expect to see more Ripa in the future — especially considering that Gifford plugged everything from Carnival cruises to Almay makeup to that notorious Wal-Mart clothing line. ”We have a lot of stuff brewing for [Kelly],” says Ornstein, though he declines to elaborate.

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