Kelly Ripa Battled Outrageous Sexism as She Became Daytime’s Top Star: ‘I Don’t Think They Wanted to Pay Me. They Had to Pay Me’

Kelly Ripa has spent 22 years as the host of a single daytime talk show, now earning a salary in the range of $20 million a year. She not only got movie-star rich as the co-host of “Live!”; she’s part of TV history, in a league of legends — Regis Philbin, Phil Donahue, Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey — who changed TV as they greeted millions of stay-at-home moms and dads each day.

Following in Winfrey’s footsteps wasn’t a path that the actress born and raised in New Jersey dreamed for herself. When Ripa joined Philbin on “Live!” in February 2001, after a fierce nationwide search to replace Kathie Lee Gifford, she was a bubbly soap-opera star best known for her years on “All My Children.” Since then, Ripa has maintained a cheerful (but not plastic) persona as she steered “Live!,” the most-watched syndicated talk show on TV, through divisive moments in our country’s history and three co-host changes. Through it all, she has remained a part of America’s morning ritual, as familiar as Folgers.

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Ripa, 52, has kept the ratings up on “Live!” through three distinct eras: She’s clinked coffee mugs with Philbin (from 2001 to 2011), Michael Strahan (2012 to 2016) and her current partner, Ryan Seacrest (since 2017). She’s embodied a kind of Lucille Ball comedic timing as she’s effortlessly tossed softball questions to A-list celebrities and reality stars, responded to fan letters on TV and dressed up in elaborate costumes — from Peter Pan to Sarah Palin — every Halloween. To watch “Live!” is to feel like you’re among friends. Ripa’s voice is soothing. Her smile is sincere. She’s not annoying about her family (she has three kids, all in their 20s, who grew up in front of America), her hot husband (Mark Consuelos) or her friendships with other famous people (such as her gay besties Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen).

Kelly Ripa Variety Power of Women Cover
Kelly Ripa Variety Power of Women Cover

But when the time came recently for the announcement that Seacrest would depart the program they’ve carried together for the past six years, Ripa once again had to think about welcoming a new man into her daytime digs.

Ripa had known about Seacrest’s departure for a while. At first, it caused her some anxiety. She says her husband, who will become “Live’s” next co-host in the fall, consoled her about Seacrest’s decision to move on. “Ryan and Mark were like, ‘What are you nervous about? It’s going to be fine,’” Ripa says. “And I said to them, ‘You have to forgive me. I have a little PTSD.’” It turns out, even on daytime, one of the most powerful women on TV still had to fight to be heard.

Seacrest’s decision to join “Live!” in 2017 marked a turning point in Ripa’s professional life. She hadn’t been sure, before that, if she even wanted to continue on the show, because of the way ABC executives had treated her. For one thing, in 2016, they’d left her in the dark as they poached her co-host, Strahan, for a job anchoring “Good Morning America.”

But things started to get better for Ripa behind the scenes in the years after. Seacrest relocated to New York from Los Angeles to take the gig because of his friendship with her. “There’s no other show or person I could see myself doing that for,” Seacrest says. At work, Ripa and Seacrest hang out in each other’s dressing rooms, and on their days off, they text each other with restaurant recommendations and family photos.

“She’s one of the greatest broadcasters of all time,” Seacrest says. “To be able to come onto this show, do the first 20 minutes without any script and keep it thriving for decades — she has an incredible skill. She’s helped me get better.”

Ripa’s original elevation to “Live!” involved battling it out with every female comedian or interviewer on TV, from Lisa Rinna to Maria Bartiromo, in one of most competitive job searches of the early aughts. Many women wanted the job, but no one could channel Ripa’s ease and humor with such swagger. From the outside, it seemed like a dream job. But these successions are delicate matters; if you go down the wrong path — such as when Caroline Rhea replaced Rosie O’Donnell on her eponymous talk show in 2002 — viewers are quick to bail.

Ripa says it was the network’s idea, not her own, to cast her real-life husband as her next permanent co-host. Initially, she thought it was a terrible idea, but she realized the choice would work for the audience, which has watched the couple on TV and has been uniquely invested in their lives for more than 20 years. They’ve worked together since they first met on the set of “All My Children”; played lovers (again) in “Hope & Faith”; and jointly run a production company — Milojo — out of New York.

“I’ve got to tell you: Even during the tough moments, my wife, she’s a worker,” Consuelos says. “I’d like to think that she’s made a lot of sacrifices that have advanced the cause for women.”

Kelly Ripa Variety Power of Women
Kelly Ripa Variety Power of Women

Case in point: When Ripa started as co-host of “Live!,” she says she wasn’t given paid vacation time or maternity leave or a wardrobe budget. In her 2022 book “Live Wire: Long-Winded Short Stories,” Ripa writes that she was “commanded” to use Philbin’s hair and makeup team over her own. As has been well documented, Ripa was kept in the dark by her bosses — twice — about her co-hosts’ exits: Philbin announced on-air that he’d be retiring after he couldn’t come to an agreement over his contract with ABC, without giving Ripa any notice. And then again, in 2016, Machiavellian ABC executive Ben Sherwood hatched a plan to steal Strahan for “Good Morning America,” instructing everyone at the network to keep the switch a secret from Ripa until the contract was signed.

“It was very tough,” Ripa says about her rocky times on the show. “Had I known how difficult it would have been, I don’t know that I would have gone for it. I just think my ignorance in that situation wound up being my blessing and my superpower. I did not have an easy time.”

On this afternoon on the first day of spring in New York City, Ripa is willing to spill some more daytime tea in an effort to show how she learned to stick up for herself. She says ABC stalled for years in even granting her a permanent office backstage on “Live!” The best the network could do was to empty a janitor’s closet for her to use. In fact, it took Ripa more than three seasons to even negotiate that space. “It was the strangest experience I’ve ever had in my life. I was told that I couldn’t have an office,” she says. “It didn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially because there were empty offices that I could have easily occupied.”

Ripa says that whenever she asked about those offices, she was told they were being reserved for executives visiting from the West Coast. “It was after my fourth year,” she says, “that they finally cleaned out the closet and put a desk in there for me. And so I was working in the janitor’s closet with a desk so that I could have a place to put things.”

In the early years of the show, Ripa didn’t have a private bathroom either. Instead, she had to share a public bathroom with members of the audience, while Philbin had his own toilet. “Picture this,” Ripa says. “We have a studio audience — like 250 people! — and I have to queue up. Particularly when I was pregnant, it was extraordinarily exhausting to have to wait in line. I have to host the show, and I’m still waiting in line to use the bathroom. It just seemed, you know, a very needlessly difficult situation.” What did tourists think of having to stand in line to pee with Kelly Ripa? “Yeah,” she says, taking a beat. “They couldn’t believe it either.”

Today, as “Live!” is readying for its new iteration with Consuelos, Ripa is proud of the way the transition has been handled. ”I can’t say it enough. I had a really difficult time. These transitions don’t have to be dramatic,” she says. “I know what it’s like to feel like you’re not wanted somewhere. I came from an acting background, and I am an expert in rejection. But this was like weirdly being rejected while also being the person that they wanted for the show.”

Strahan’s botched departure in 2016 prompted Ripa to stop coming to work for four days. When she finally returned, she delivered a stunning soliloquy about respect in the workplace that was widely applauded by the working-class fans of the show. Prior to Seacrest, Ripa says she was always being treated as second fiddle to whoever was sitting next to her. After years of being told that the janitor’s closet was good enough, Ripa assumed that, having been elevated to the main host slot following Philbin’s departure, she had earned the right to a real office.

“They said, ‘Oh, no, we’re saving that.’ And I said, ‘Saving it for what?’ And they go, ‘Well, for when the new guy comes.’ And I looked at them, and I said, ‘I am the new guy,’” Ripa recalls. “I just moved my things. I forced my way into the office because I couldn’t understand how I would still be in the janitor’s closet and somebody new would come in and get the office.

“Initially, I thought this is just what happens, and they don’t have to fill me in because I’ve only been here 10 years. I’m still the new girl. But then, when I was the more senior on-air person, it was like watching the same movie all over again: All of those offices that were not available to me were suddenly made available, with walls knocked down to make them twice as big. It was fascinating for me to watch — the need to make the new guy comfortable and respected, but I couldn’t use those offices. I had to use the broom closet.”

Ripa puts these stories into context, pointing out that this type of treatment toward women was not unusual back then. Without naming names, she notes that none of the people running the show in those days has remained in the news business. “It’s not any one person’s fault,” she says. “It was a collective fault of many people.”

But Ripa doesn’t necessarily blame her male co-hosts for not standing up for her. “The network had a duty and an obligation to keep all things equal,” she says. “I don’t blame the fellas — they were just doing what they had been told, or what they were instructed to do, or what they thought they deserved. Having said that, I go out of my way to protect the people I’m working with at any and all costs, even if it means that I am not as popular.”

Ripa says she only began to receive what she considered fair pay when her bosses knew her contract was up and realized she could quit. “I don’t think they wanted to pay me,” Ripa says. “I think they had to pay me. I was trying to walk out the door and close it behind me. And I think they really figured out rapidly that they had screwed up in a major way, and it was not a good look. I think that was really the impetus behind paying me fairly. They had no choice.”

Ripa is happy at “Live!” today, and she takes a lot of pride in being at the helm of the show. She says not only does she feel valued in her workplace, but so do her co-workers. Ripa only started to receive the respect she feels she deserved in 2018, when Debra O’Connell, president of networks for Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution, was brought in to oversee the long-running talk show. “From my perspective, they’re putting more and more women in positions of power, and women just are, from my experience, more willing to hear and solve problems in real time,” Ripa says, crediting O’Connell for changing the culture at the show. “It really makes a difference when you have people that are behind you who come aboard. It’s powerful.”

Ripa’s priority in her most recent contract was to get the show a monthlong summer hiatus, like most talk shows. Yes, she and her family do love a good vacation, but that wasn’t the only reason behind her negotiations. “When I have time off, the show has time off,” she says. “The other parents that work there get to have spring break with their kids. I don’t think people understand how much work and effort it is to put on a one-hour daily talk show.”

Ripa has been toying with her TV retirement for years, and having her husband join as her new co-host certainly extends her time on “Live!” ”We’re the last people on earth to suggest ourselves to work together for anything,” Ripa says of Consuelos. “It’s always surprising to us when people are like, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if Kelly played your mistress?’” (As she did in one episode of “Riverdale.”)

On “All My Children,” Ripa says she had a front-row seat to how differently men are treated in the workplace. “He was paid far more than I was paid. Always. And he started years after I started,” Ripa says. “It wasn’t until I got what we call my ‘fancy job’ that I started actually earning more money than him.” She adds, for the record, “We have been together so long that it’s always been collective money. We are very much old-fashioned in that sense.”

Ripa speaks passionately on the topic of fair pay, asserting that women should be encouraged to talk openly about what they earn. “I was used to that pay inequity because that was my life for 15 years — 11 years on ‘All My Children,’ and then during the Regis years, certainly. I would expect a man who was at the helm of the show for many years before me to earn a substantial amount more than me,” she says. “However, there has been this weaponization of my salary, as though I somehow should not ask for the money that the men routinely earn. And I’ve earned it the hard way.”

Ripa hopes her legacy is defined by being an inspiration for other women to negotiate for themselves and stand up for what they deserve in the workplace. “It’s the only reason I speak out,” she says. “It’s not just that I have a daughter. I have co-workers. I have people in my life that I care about. I don’t want them to have to scrape for the scraps.”

When the time comes for her to retire from “Live!,” Ripa wants to take a year off. “I’ve never had a year off in my life,” she says. “The most I’ve had off is a month, and that’s usually been for maternity leave.” She’d like to continue acting, but she’d also love to get behind the camera and to write a scripted series.

Although she’s been the show’s rock for 23 seasons, Ripa is certain that “Live!” will go on for years once she leaves. “I don’t want to put a timeline on it,” she says, referring to her departure, “but I do believe there is a great opportunity to get two younger people and start training them, because I like seamless transitions. However long it takes to get two people up and ready is how long we’ll be there.”

Styling: Audrey Slater; Makeup: Kristofer Buckle/Crosby Carter Management; Hair: Ryan Trygstad/Crosby Carter Management; Look 1 (white dress): Dress: Jason Wu; Look 2 (black dress) Dress: Khaite; Shoes: Miu Miu

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