She filled the coveted vacant seat next to Regis Philbin in 2001. Now, Kelly Ripa's reflecting on two decades at her daytime talk show.

By Gerrad Hall
February 05, 2021 at 08:54 AM EST
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Kelly Ripa "never, ever" thought about becoming a morning talk-show mainstay. Yet, two decades after replacing Kathie Lee Gifford as Regis Philbin's cohost on the iconic Live, Ripa is still going strong on the rise-and-shine perennial, with five Daytime Emmy awards for Outstanding Host to boot. "It happened to me by accident," the onetime soap star, 50, recalls. While still on All My Children, she was asked to fill in on Live in November 2000 for a guest host who had a family emergency. In the process, Ripa instantly became a frontrunner to replace Gifford.

"The show had really reached an iconic level of pop culture where everyone knew Regis and Kathie Lee. ... Everyone was really questioning, could we go on?" executive producer Michael Gelman, who's often seen behind the cameras, interacting with the hosts, recalls. "Kelly immediately lit up the room, and we knew there was something special. There was a certain charisma and humor and quickness that was really innate — because she wasn't an experienced broadcaster at the time. She just had that It Factor."

Credit: Spencer Platt/Newsmakers

She still does. But on that first official day (above) — Feb. 5, 2001 — Ripa admits to thinking "I have no idea what I'm doing" and receiving little direction along the way. Perhaps for the better. "It was just sort of, 'This is your job now. Good luck, and godspeed," she explains. "It really is one of those places where they give you autonomy. There's guidance, of course — they'll tell you, 'Please don't bring up so-and-so's arrest.' Sure. Or, 'Please don't mention...' whatever. But it really was an autonomous situation where I learned on the fly how to do that job because I didn't really have a lot of time. I guest-hosted that first time, [and] I think I guest-hosted two other times, and then I started working there."

Unlike the anticipation surrounding the announcement of Philbin's replacement, Michael Strahan in 2012 ("It was just, build, build, build, build, build, build, build, build, build... it was just an epic build," she says of the former NFL star landing the job), there wasn't nearly as much fanfare on her first day. "I don't think anybody was even expecting me to be the replacement host. It was really not a big announcement, it was just sort of, 'She is my new cohost," and it was business as usual," Ripa — who Philbin nicknamed Pippa — remembers.

But one person in particular made it special. "The one person who wasn't there, which was Kathie Lee," sent Ripa flowers and a note, she recalls, telling the then 30-year-old — who was pregnant with her second child, Lola — "'it's going to be the ride of your life... you're so cut out for this, and have a wonderful time.'"

Philbin and Gifford had been cohosts since 1985, when the show was still a local morning program on New York's ABC station. (The two and their families were close off-camera as well; Gifford visited with Philbin two weeks before he died last July.) So while there may have been pressure on Ripa to replicate the magic of Philbin and Gifford's dynamic, she didn't allow herself to feel it.

"I never think anything is that important, but I did not want to be the person that ruined a show with such a storied history. I would hate for it to be a show that's been on the air for 15 years and suddenly goes off the air the day I get there. That would be a bad legacy," she says. "I think I didn't let myself ponder the notion of the significance of it because if I did, I probably wouldn't have gotten out of bed every morning — it would have been too scary for me to think about."

Credit: David Russell/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Ten years later, though, Ripa found herself in Philbin's shoes, facing an uncertain future on the show that had made her a household name as she — and America — prepared to say goodby to him. It's Philbin's last episode (above) that she remembers perhaps more than any other. "His final show was significant," she says. "We were terrified, all of us."

After Strahan's four-year stint, moving on to GMA where he's now co-anchor, Ripa welcomed a rotation of guest-cohosts for more than a year before Ryan Seacrest — who has known Ripa since the two of them and Philbin cohosted ABC's Walt Disney World Christmas Day Parade some 15 years ago — officially accepted the position. The American Idol host left Los Angeles, where he hosted (and still does) the city's top-rated morning radio show on KIIS-FM, for the NYC-based gig, a decision made easier by Ripa.

"She really made it very clear to me how the show worked, how the schedule worked, what the team was like," Seacrest, 46, explains. "It gave me a sense of comfort knowing that she and I could speak directly and candidly about the role, and how it works and what she is looking for in that person. The chemistry with us wasn't the difficult part, the relationship wasn't the difficult part — the trickiest part was just figuring out and working into the puzzle having to move to New York City, which we did. And thankfully, it's been a great decision."

Credit: Pawel Kaminski/Disney/ABC Home Entertainment and TV Distribution

When he started in July 2017, Ripa says Seacrest brought with him "all of his tricks" as a broadcaster. "He is very, very precise, in a way that is extraordinary," she says of his hosting abilities, explaining how he's made her more aware of the timing of the show. Not to mention how he took their "little local New York show" and turned into it "big time, Hollywood, on the marquee."

But at the essence of Live is the show's first 15-20 minutes known as the "host chat," made famous by Philbin, who "was such a character" — always the "foil" and "person that screwed up" in his anecdotes, Ripa says. "He really gave me the gift of learning how to tell a story in a way that is so funny and so free of ego."

And that tradition lives on today, thanks to Ripa.

"She always comes ready to play," Seacrest says, describing how she has made him a better host. "She always has a story to tell, she's always got a joke, she's always got a reaction. And she brings incredible energy and honesty and candor to the show. She's probably made me more comfortable, just talking about myself — which I don't do on American Idol, I do a little bit more on the radio — being more vulnerable and more comfortable sitting back in the chair and having a conversation, versus performing. It's less hosting and more companionship conversation."

But these three-and-a-half years with Seacrest by her side may not have happened were it not for him filling the empty seat next to her. In the midst of her 4,000-plus Live episodes and the same number of famous "host chats," after countless celebrity interviews and Halloween costumes, after learning how to ride a bike and facing her fear of roller coasters on air, after the departure of Philbin and then Strahan, she "was very much considering retirement," says Seacrest, adding he hopes "she wants to stay there for many years." For her part, Ripa credits her current cohost's "enthusiasm and his excitement" for changing her mind. "The two of us are partners," she says. "There's this energy between us because we both appreciate the amount of work that goes into making a show look effortless."

Their off-screen friendship largely contributes. Ripa says it's more than that. "It's gone beyond just the work relationship where we're actually like family," she points out, telling a story about how she was buying T-shirts for her sons in a big Mr. Porter end-of-year sale and Ryan also needed new T-shirts, so she bought some for him too. While Ripa says Seacrest joining the show was like her "brother [was] coming to work," they've also adopted that common workplace phrase for each other: work spouses. "We share everything with each other, on the show and off the show," her work husband says. "It's an interesting dynamic. I'm very close to her husband as well. Mark [Consuelos] and I speak often in text, often talk to each other, about life and things that we're working on or things that we want to do."

If one were to look for the secret to her success and longevity at ABC, family may be the key. Her actual family — husband Mark and children Michael, Lola, and Joaquin. Her work family. Her TV audience family. Her relationship with the latter is one she's been cultivating for 30 years at the network (she celebrated that milestone on Live in November), dating back to her debut as Hayley Vaughn on All My Children in 1990. And that may be coming full circle with a possible prime-time reboot of the iconic daytime soap, which was announced in December.

Credit: Everett Collection

"We would be the parents, and this show is really more about the children of Pine Valley," Ripa explains of how the original cast would figure into the new series. "It's a darker look at things, and I'm very excited about it. It was pitched to us and we were like, 'We will absolutely produce this. And we want to be a part of it.' Immediately we called [former All My Children costar Eva LaRue], all of our friends, and we started saying, 'Just be at the ready. Get ready.' "

While fans undoubtedly are also ready to return to the fictional Philadelphia suburb, Ripa sounds just as anxious, for one major reason. "[All My Children] is responsible for every singular good thing that has happened in my life. I met my husband there, I had my children there – not in the studio but pretty close; they kept you there until your contractions were five minutes apart, as we like to say," she jokes. "It's from there that I got the talk show. It's from there that I got [Hope & Faith].... and our first production deal [at TLC]. So it's truly responsible for every good thing in my life that's happened to me."

And that is something to talk about.

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