Megyn Kelly—whose public fireworks with Donald Trump and, behind the scenes, with Roger Ailes, launched her into the mega-celebrity stratosphere—is embracing a kinder, gentler aura now that she’s the shiniest star at NBC News.
“It’s allowed me to open up more and show more of who I am through my interview subjects,” Kelly told The Daily Beast in a phone chat to tout Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly, her magazine show which premieres this Sunday at 7 p.m., in advance of Kelly’s weekday morning show planned for the fall.
“I just feel like people will really get to know who I am in this job,” the former Fox News anchor said. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t my authentic self when I was at Fox. I would say quite the contrary. But this just allows me to show a range of emotion and personality and sides of me that wasn’t possible when I was in prime-time cable news.”
In contrast to the all-business slick-blond power-cut that distinguished her latter days at the Fox News Channel, the 46-year-old mother of three looks downright approachable in her new, insouciant, shoulder-length locks on display in network promos.
“You will laugh and you will cry—I know I did, in shooting these stories,” she promised Tuesday in a tweeted video. “I have missed you,” she yearningly confided—“you” meaning the millions of viewers that Kelly hopes to lure to her latest project, which will debut, if all goes according to plan, with Kelly’s Q&A with Vladimir Putin.
“I’m going to St. Petersburg,” she said about her trek to Russia this week for the big get with the former KGB chief who allegedly undermined American democracy by meddling in last year’s presidential election, possibly even colluding with the Trump campaign (the subject of investigations by the FBI, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and two congressional committees).
Kelly’s close encounter with Putin was scheduled after an early April trip by NBC News Chairman Andy Lack was followed up by intense lobbying of key Russian officials—“good old fashioned hard work by the whole team,” according to an NBC News executive.
“I’m definitely going to be sitting across from Putin onstage at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, and if history is any guide, I’m going to have an extended period to ask one-on-one questions,” Kelly predicted. “And he’s pretty good about going off topic. In other words, it doesn’t all have to be about international economics—and that’s what I plan to do.”
Putin’s joint appearance with the newest NBC News personality is scheduled for Friday morning, East Coast time—and Kelly can be expected to grill him, given the chance, about the Russia-related controversies swirling around the Trump White House. She also will try to persuade Putin to grant an exclusive sit-down.
“Like every other American journalist, that’s my goal,” Kelly said. “We’re not banking on that.”
Veteran NBC News producers David Corvo and Liz Cole, who are helming Kelly’s Sunday show, predictably sang her praises. Among Kelly’s pieces in the works are her visit with Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance and his smalltown Ohio family, and a profile of Fox sports reporter Erin Andrews, the victim of a stalker in 2008 who violated her privacy and took video of her nude through a peephole in her Milwaukee hotel room and posted it online.
“People are going to understand very quickly why Megyn’s an asset to NBC,” said Corvo, the longtime executive producer of Dateline NBC. “She’s a very good long-form interviewer and that will come through. She has a lot greater range than what she was able to demonstrate on a cable program that was really about politics and a lot of debating.
“She’s smart, she’s funny, she listens, and she’s firm,” Cole added.
Corvo also argued that NBC’s broadcast viewership won’t care about any lingering baggage that Kelly might have brought from her work at Fox News, such as her on-air insistence years ago that both Jesus Christ and Santa Claus are white men, or her repeated outraged segments in 2010 on then-Attorney General Eric Holder’s alleged refusal to stop the intimidation of white voters by the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia.
Kelly’s Sunday show, which will run for around 10 episodes before NBC’s football and Winter Olympics coverage take over the time slot, and then will resume after a six-month hiatus, is scheduled opposite CBS’ five-decade-old ratings-monster 60 Minutes.
That, in a way, takes some of the pressure off—at least initially.
“We don’t have an expectation that we’re going to all of a sudden knock off the champion of the universe,” Corvo said.
A former litigator whose television persona, thus far, has arguably been more debatable than relatable, Kelly said the TV news mag format is far more forgiving than the four-to-six minute prime-time cable interview strictures that afforded “no time for wining and dining; you gotta get right to it.”
“It doesn’t allow for any building of a relationship with the guest—someone who’s been through something,” Kelly continued. “That can be difficult because you have no time to establish a rapport, or have the audience get to know the person. There’s not a lot of time for nuance.”
Corvo said Kelly—after her famous confrontation with Trump at the first Republican primary debate in August 2015, followed by a torrent of public and social media abuse by the candidate and his supporters—was unfairly criticized last year for her allegedly softball treatment of the then-presumptive GOP nominee in an earlier magazine show at the Fox Television Network.
“We looked at it and we talked to her about it—I think the criticism was overblown,” Corvo said. “She was in a no-win situation. If she had really gone at it with him, it would be ‘oh, here she goes again with this act.’ If she had really laid way back, it would be ‘oh, she’s going soft because she wants to get another interview.’”
Kelly, for her part, said she is not, at this point, lobbying the White House for a Trump interview.
“I wouldn’t say no to a sit down with President Trump,” she emailed. “It’s not something I am pursuing right now. I think there is an opportunity to cover politics on this show, and, of course, we will be doing hard news. But there is also an opportunity to go so much broader than that.”
Meanwhile, Kelly said her new colleagues have warmly welcomed her—“I’ve been amazed at how supported I feel, from Tom Brokaw on down”—yet the announcement of her arrival at NBC News (for a rumored salary of $17 million) provoked instant upheaval, especially when it became clear that Lack had decided to cancel the troubled third hour of the Today show, titled Today’s Take, to accommodate Kelly’s future 9 a.m. program.
Tamron Hall, who had cohosted Today’s Take with Al Roker (and, briefly, Billy Bush), abruptly quit, while the New York Post’s Page Six column speculated—apparently without much proof—that Kelly would soon be threatening Matt Lauer’s and Savannah Guthrie’s jobs in the first two hours of the venerable morning show.
In her interview with The Daily Beast, Kelly pointedly mentioned Lauer and Guthrie among her new coworkers who “have been so kind just welcoming. Everybody has said the same thing, which is, ‘We’re so happy that you’re here.’
“Of course it’s an adjustment, as any new thing is,” Kelly said about the transition from Fox News. “I feel the same way when you move into a new neighborhood. You don’t know where your dry cleaner is. You don’t know where your grocery store is. You gotta figure it out.”
Kelly’s only complaint concerns the sometimes confusing button-pushing required to locate the right elevator to the right floor at 30 Rock: “The elevator system over here is ridiculous. They’re punking me.” She vowed: “I’m planning to take this up with somebody as soon as I get to somebody in power.”
Although she was joking, Kelly clearly understands power and its uses—as might be expected of someone who has risen to the vertiginous heights of the often brutal television business.
When she was a TV greenhorn, discarding a successful career at a white shoe law firm to become a cub reporter for Fox News’ Washington bureau, Roger Ailes spotted her talent, nurtured it, and ultimately gave her the 9 p.m. Kelly File program, banishing Sean Hannity to 10 p.m. in order to certify Kelly’s stardom.
As Kelly wrote in her 2016 memoir, Settle for More, Ailes also sexually harassed her during her early days at Fox—chasing her around his office behind closed doors as he attempted to embrace and kiss her—and hinted at retaliation when she rebuffed his unwelcome advances.
Kelly hastened Ailes’ forced resignation last July with her fateful decision to recount his misconduct to a team of lawyers hired by 21st Century Fox to investigate allegations made in the sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed by Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson.
As Kelly wrote in her book, “I worked my tail off… I established myself as a serious person. I built my own power. And when the allegations against Roger hit, I used it. Perhaps there is some poetic justice in that.”
When asked about her reaction to Ailes’ recent death, she demurred. “I’m not going to offer a public statement on that,” she said. “But I will say that that relationship is detailed in my book. I included both the good and the bad, so that people could have what I viewed as the full measure of the man. I thought that’s what was fair to him and what was fair to his victims.”
Kelly likewise declined to respond to the reported comments of Ailes’ teenage son Zachary during his eulogy for his father in Palm Beach, Florida. “I want all the people who betrayed my father to know that I’m coming after them,” Zachary reportedly vowed, “and hell is coming with me.”
“I don’t want to comment on that,” Kelly said tersely.
Kelly, who has been off the air since January, described her time off as “delightful.”
“Honestly, it’s been amazing,” said Kelly, who shares two sons and a daughter with her second husband, venture capitalist-turned-novelist Douglas Brunt. “I’ve gone through the full range of emotions being at home. When I first got home with my kids, it was Shangri-La. It was just amazing just to have dinner with them Monday through Friday, which I hadn’t done in three years. And then I knew I was in the sweet spot when that was no longer a special thing, and they were used to seeing me there.
“But then things got extremely hard, because it’s extremely hard to be a stay-at-home mother. I was trying to do it all. I was trying to make up for lost time. And that was exhausting.”
Kelly added that after a while “I was driving the housekeeper crazy. Poor Carla. Nobody was as happy as Carla was when I went back to work.”