04.27.10

The Barbara Walters of Fox News?

Megyn Kelly ditched the partner track at a powerhouse D.C. law firm for a freelance reporting gig, and the gamble paid off. Could prime time be next? She tells Rebecca Dana about her political allegiances—and why she loves Jon Stewart.

When she was a sophomore in high school, Megyn Kelly took a career aptitude test.

“At the time, I was interested in boys and popularity and cheerleading and my friends, and maybe a distant fourth or fifth would be academics,” the Fox News anchor said one recent afternoon.

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The results were unambiguous: She should go into broadcast journalism.

A whip-smart blonde with made-for-TV looks, Kelly became…a lawyer. But the pull of destiny was strong and after a time, Kelly abandoned the partner track at powerhouse Washington firm Jones Day to take a chance on journalism. In 2004, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes took a chance on her, and the rest is (recent) history: After a promotion this February, she now anchors two hours of live television every afternoon, is one of the network’s top new stars, and has emerged as a likely candidate for her own prime-time show. (Watch your back, Greta Van Susteren!)

In the last few weeks, Kelly has rocketed to a level of fame that any cable news personality would dream of. On April 20, she went on The Howard Stern Show and, when the radio host posed the old summer-camp question of whom, in the Fox family, she would “fuck, marry, kill,” she didn’t blink before answering: Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck—in that order. Last month, The Daily Show devoted a full 10-minute segment at the top of the program just to mocking her.

“I’m a soulless lawyer,” Kelly told The Daily Beast. “Give me any opinion and I can argue it.”

She is at the vanguard of a new generation of female TV news stars, including ABC’s Bianna Golodryga and CNBC’s Erin Burnett, who are emerging as the next queens of the airwaves. Unlike the group that precedes them, including Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric, or the elder stateswomen of television like Barbara Walters, they began their careers in newsrooms where women outnumbered men. Now that two of the three evening news anchors are female, there’s less pressure on new talents to be path-breaking. Which means, for Kelly and her cohort, they get to be more of themselves.

This is the advice Kelly says Ailes, a legendary television programmer and former adviser to Richard Nixon, has given her time and again: “When I first started here, I really thought it was important to be perfect, to look very put together, but one of the things that Roger taught me was not only is that not important, it may actually hinder your attempts to connect with the audience.”

Kelly, who was charmed by the Stewart skewering and says she “paid actual money” once to see the comedian perform stand-up, is catching flak for her zealous on-air persona. But she professes to have no political allegiances whatsoever. “I’m a soulless lawyer,” she told The Daily Beast. “Give me any opinion and I can argue it.”

In retrospect, even without the Meyers-Briggs prophecy, it seemed clear that Kelly was headed for a career as a professional talker. She grew up in upstate New York, the youngest and by far the most boisterous of three children. In a typical example of the family dynamic, Kelly’s parents, an education professor and a psychiatric nurse, used to go around the dinner table each night asking each of the kids about their day.

“My brother would tell a little. My sister would tell a little. I would go on and on and on,” Kelly said. “I was brought up in an environment to believe that my opinion was important, that I had something to say, and that it was no less powerful because I was young, a girl, at the time really unattractive, definitely not the smartest kid in the class.”

Kelly went on to Syracuse University and then to Albany Law School, where she became an associate editor on the Law Review and, generally, won at everything. Michael Hutter, one of her professors at Albany, remembers her as a charming, driven student. She won her senior mock trial. She answered questions enthusiastically in class. She was—yes, very popular.

“Her strength was: She’s a very personable person,” he said. “She’s not in your face and arrogant. She’s very down to earth, but she’s relentless.” Hutter thought she would be “the next great female trial lawyer in the United States.”

Chicago litigator Robert Cummins gave Kelly her first job out of law school and quickly formed the same impression of the pert young trial lawyer as a future real-life John Grisham heroine. Cummins, whom Kelly calls “WoBo” for “Wonderful Bob,” has the highest opinion of his former mentee as a lawyer. The two co-authored a paper on conflicts of interest in the legal profession. He had no idea what, if any, politics she had back then.

“I would not suggest that Megyn is not a woman of integrity, but I’m never quite sure when I hear some of these people, whether or not they could possibly believe some of this stuff they seem to endorse,” he said. Cummins is not a watcher of the Fox News Channel (“I’m 77, but I’m not senile.”) and had to ask his wife to turn down MSNBC when he was speaking on the phone from their Chicago home.

Kelly moved to the capital to litigate for Jones Day, where she was quickly identified as a rising star but soon found the weight of the job unbearable. One night, upon returning home from a three-month trial out of town, Kelly reached her breaking point. She wrote a short entry in her diary: “I am more interesting than this. I am more interested than this.” And that was that. She ditched the firm for a $17,000-a-year job at the ABC affiliate in Washington.

Said Bill Lord, the station’s executive vice president for news and the man who hired Kelly: “Basically, she was an attorney, she came in, she wanted in the worst way to be a reporter. I put her on our cable station one-day-a-week freelance gig, and she did extraordinarily well. Then some guy wandering through the streets named Roger Ailes saw her, and the next thing you knew she was on Fox.”

It turned out that a lot of the skills that made her a standout litigator have also made her a success on cable news. She is fearless. She is gorgeous. And she completely unflappable, transitioning between discussions of sex toys and Stalinism with the ease of a true polymath.

For this versatility, Fox News senior vice president Michael Clemente compares Kelly to Barbara Walters. “She can do long, short, hard, soft, funny, in-between,” he said. “She’s a breakthrough.” Her opportunities at Fox—at least as long as those Stern and Stewart clips keep coming—are, to his mind, limitless.

“I don’t know that anyone specifically should be worried,” Clemente said, “but it’s only up for Megyn. I mean, she’s not even 40! She’s got the whole world in front of her.”

Kelly married her second husband, Douglas Brunt, in 2008, and in 2009 they had a son, Edward Yates.

“This is the first time in my life when everything’s been firing on all cylinders at all times,” Kelly said. “I’m really trying to stop and smell the roses, you know, knock on a lot of wood.”

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Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.