Megyn Kelly Gets Candid: “Dangerous” Roger Ailes, Her Trump Saga, That Offer and Why She Won’t Call Herself a Feminist
Fox News' superstar won’t reveal whom she voted for ("Who the hell cares?") but just about everything else as she weighs the Murdochs' offer of a new $20 million contract: "I am trying to not confine myself."
“He’s scaring the shit out of people,” laughs Megyn Kelly. “He’s walking up and down the halls, popping in on people unexpectedly. It’s great fun. He has brought a new wave of energy into the building.”
She is describing Rupert Murdoch, the 85-year-old patriarch of 21st Century Fox and the man who tapped Roger Ailes to create a counterweight to what the two men had perceived as the overwhelmingly liberal bias of the mainstream media — and who, in an extraordinary turn of events, ultimately ousted Ailes and stepped in to replace him in the wake of widespread sexual harassment allegations. (Ailes has denied all allegations of sexual harassment.)
Kelly also can be given her share of credit for bringing new energy to Fox News — and for expanding the tent at the hugely successful ($1 billion in profit last year) but often reviled-by-the-left network. Ever since she challenged Donald Trump on his sexist remarks at the first Republican debate in August 2015 (more than a year before the “grab ’em by the pussy” hot mic conversation with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush leaked), she has burnished her journalistic bona fides and reputation for independence in an era defined by vitriolic partisanship.
“I think my viewers want smart, honest programming,” she says. “They don’t want to be told what makes them feel good.”
Kelly’s an overpreparer, which makes her a natural fact-checker when a guest is trying to spin his or her way out of a tough line of inquiry. And her proudest moments seem to be when she has challenged falsehoods, as she did during an interview with Bill Ayers during the 2008 presidential campaign, dismantling his assertions that no one got hurt when The Weathermen were planting pipe bombs to protest the Vietnam War. It earned her kudos from The New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd, whom Kelly says pulled her aside at an event years later to say: “That’s when I knew you were a great journalist. Great.”
Feminists long have despised Fox News. But Kelly herself does not identify with feminism. “I find it’s very alienating to at least half of the women in the country,” she reasons. “It has just come to include in particular a pro-choice agenda, and that’s no place a journalist should be going.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the stunning 2016 election: Kelly found herself exceeding the journalistic expectations of her network and also that of the men and women who watch her. If many in New York City are still reeling from the election, especially in certain neighborhoods, including the liberal enclave of the Upper West Side, where Kelly lives, she has become a symbol for the disenfranchised. “I’ve had a lot of women just openly crying, come up to me and start hugging me,” she says. “As a journalist, I’m not quite sure what to say. I’m certainly not going to take a position on Trump. So I’ve just been holding them.”
And in her new book, Settle for More, she’s not backing away from any of it. In fact, to borrow from Sheryl Sandberg, she’s leaning in — even if that means the Drudge Report puts her face at the top of its page the day of the book’s release with one simple, loaded line, “Year of the Bull,” and links to a story about its explosive allegations involving Donald Trump and Roger Ailes.
Kelly was putting the finishing touches on the book — for which she received a reported $6 million advance from publisher HarperCollins (a 21st Century Fox subsidiary) — when Fox News host Gretchen Carlson on July 6 filed her bombshell sexual harassment suit against Ailes. (21st Century Fox settled the suit two months later, paying Carlson $20 million and issuing an unprecedented public apology: “We sincerely regret and apologize for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve.”)
In her book, Kelly reveals for the first time details of the alleged harassment by Ailes when she first joined the network as a 34-year-old legal correspondent in Washington, D.C. — having given up a promising law career — and how she managed to thrive at Fox News in spite of rebuffing him. On writing that, “it was sort of cathartic,” Kelly tells me.
Kelly, who grew up in the Albany, N.Y., suburb of Delmar, is a former corporate litigator who went to Syracuse and Albany Law School. She had only one year of experience as a journalist (as a freelancer at ABC affiliate WJLA in Washington) when she was hired by the Fox News Washington bureau in 2004. But she was driven, having left a well-paying but grueling legal track — she writes in her book that in 2002, while working at Jones Day in Chicago, she was driving home on the Kennedy Expressway fantasizing about breaking a bone because she was desperate for time off. After two years at Fox in Washington, she moved to the network’s New York headquarters, where in 2010 she landed a two-hour afternoon show. In October 2013, upon returning from a two-month maternity leave after the birth of her third child, Thatcher, she launched The Kelly File.
Recalling her early days at Fox in her book, Kelly writes: “I would be called into Roger’s office, he would shut the door, and over the next hour or two, he would engage in a kind of cat-and-mouse game with me — veering between obviously inappropriate sexually charged comments (e.g. about the ‘very sexy bras’ I must have and how he’d like to see me in them) and legitimate professional advice.” By January of the following year, Ailes “crossed a new line — trying to grab me repeatedly and kiss me on the lips.” When she pushed him off, she writes, “He asked me an ominous question: ‘When is your contract up?’ And then, for the third time, he tried to kiss me.”
“When [sexual harassment] happens at the hands of a CEO, it is particularly dangerous because [to] whom are you going to report it?” Kelly tells me. “Especially at a company like Fox, where Roger Ailes was like a king. What, are you going to go down and talk to HR? Good luck with that. How do you think that’s going to go for a first-year reporter?
“It is so disheartening,” she adds. “The whole thing is very confusing. I can still look back and see that he treated me well for a lot of years, and we had a good relationship for most of my time here. But when you learn the full extent of what he was doing, just the gross abuse of power, it’s … I don’t want to use the word ‘unforgivable’ because it’s not a good word; forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself. But it’s a game-changer. And it’s tough to see him as a good person still, you know? I don’t understand how a good person could do the things he did. But it’s a loss. I feel a sense of loss.”
Through his attorney, Susan Estrich, Ailes issued a statement: “I categorically deny the allegations Megyn Kelly makes about me. I worked tirelessly to promote and advance her career, as Megyn herself admitted to Charlie Rose. Watch that interview and then decide for yourself. My attorneys have restricted me from commenting further — so suffice it to say that no good deed goes unpunished.” Ailes is referring to an interview Kelly did on Rose’s PBS program in October 2015 during which she noted that Ailes has “been nothing but good to me.”
Kelly has not spoken to Ailes since Carlson filed her lawsuit. She also has not talked to Carlson. But in the days that followed, Ailes’ wife, Beth, attempted to enlist her in the public campaign to defend him.
Numerous anchors came forward on Ailes’ behalf, including Maria Bartiromo, Neil Cavuto, Kimberly Guilfoyle and Greta Van Susteren, the former 7 p.m. anchor who parted ways with the network in September. Kelly refused, instead teaming up with another anchor also allegedly harassed to “quietly get the word out to other women who hadn’t spoken out that we were prepared to go on the record with the investigators, so they would not be standing alone,” she writes in her book. She does not name this person, but she calls her “a fearless soldier in what would become an underground army of women.”
At this point, 21st Century Fox technically still was handling the review internally. It wasn’t until Kelly learned that Ailes was attempting to have the review only focus on “a small circle of staffers” who had worked directly with Carlson that she called Lachlan Murdoch, the Murdoch with whom she has the closest relationship, and told him what happened to her more than a decade ago. 21st Century Fox general counsel Gerson Zweifach also was on the call. A few days later, the Murdochs hired the Manhattan law firm Paul Weiss to handle the review. (In response, a 21st Century Fox spokesperson issued the following statement: “The scope of the investigation was decided and set before anyone at the company or its law firm spoke to any colleagues. Any and all of the evidence that this inquiry received is confidential, and the identity of any colleagues who provided information will remain so.”)
Women continued to seek her out. Kelly’s friend Dana Perino — who joined Fox News in 2009 after serving as press secretary to George W. Bush — was approached by a young Fox News employee while in Cleveland to cover the Republican National Convention. “I had never seen anyone so distressed,” recalls Perino. “The abuse was ongoing. It wasn’t something that was 10 years in the past, like Megyn’s, it was something that was happening within the last six months.”
Perino asked Kelly to talk to her. “I’ve never been a victim of sexual harassment,” says Perino. “And it really opened my eyes to what some women have gone through in the workplace over the years.”
But even as the allegations piled up, there was a belief at Fox News that Ailes — whose instincts for internecine combat had weathered him through numerous career scrapes — would survive. “It took such guts for these women to come forward,” says Kelly. “Not me. If the company came down on me, fine. I can go get another job. But that wasn’t true of a lot of the women who came out. And they were very scared, very scared. And somehow they found the courage to do the right thing at a time when no one thought he was going to get fired.
“I never asked to be outed,” she continues. “I never asked to make any of this public. But I think that if this thing stays under the rug without any of the prominent people involved coming out and really telling the story, we do ourselves no good. And I really want corporate America to be put on notice that this is a problem, that this does happen at corporations, even to smart, powerful, confident women.”
All this comes at a time when Kelly’s career could go all sorts of different ways. Her contract at Fox News is up next summer, and her agent at CAA has been playing the field. The Murdochs have offered her more than $20 million a year to stay (she makes about $15 million now), a payday that would rival that of Bill O’Reilly, the network’s top-paid star. They wanted a decision before the election. Kelly was not ready. And now she is preparing to hit the road for a book tour. “This is a big one for me, so I want to get it right,” she says.
Rupert Murdoch recently told The Wall Street Journal, which his family controls through News Corp, that Kelly is important to the network and he’d like to get her contract signed “very soon.” But he added, perhaps sending a signal to Kelly and her agent, that Fox News also has “a deep bench of talent, many of whom would give their right arm for her spot.” (Murdoch and his sons declined comment for this story.)
When I ask her husband, Douglas Brunt, a tech executive turned novelist, whether they’ve talked about her contract, he lets out a barely perceptible chuckle. “We have talked in circles about it. There are pros and cons with everything. But it’s like from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. she is on fire,” says Brunt. “And that’s not to say she couldn’t do very valuable, great stuff on some other platform. But she really does love that hour, as much as she may get frustrated with some of the toxicity and the things that happen outside of it, but when she’s in that chair, behind that desk for those 60 minutes, that’s a pretty good time for her.”
That toxicity has taken a toll. “I do worry that someone who is just slightly imbalanced, a little ticked off, a little enraged about how things are going, is going to come and really put a finger in her face,” says Brunt. “Or worse. Like maybe someone is really out to do something. So that is obviously the bigger fear.”
For Kelly, the lowest moment may have been in fall 2015, at the height of the Trump imbroglio, when her daughter Yardley, now 5, came home from school and asked, “What’s a bimbo?” It’s a story Kelly recounts in her book. But retelling it today, her eyes well with tears. “I hate that story,” she says. “My daughter, my awesome, amazing daughter, she didn’t realize the loss she suffered. You know what I mean? I just feel like that was damaging. And she didn’t even know how damaging it was. I mean, listen, it’s not the worst thing that could ever happen, but that upset me. I don’t want that to be a question our 4-year-old daughters are asking us.”
In fact, she says, “It’s been a year of death threats and security issues and scary moments.” And that was before Trump was the president-elect. Now, Kelly, the face of Fox News and its next-generation future, has been a prime target of the president-elect — someone who likely earned the vote of the majority of Fox News viewers. At the height of his attacks, Trump and his surrogates called for a boycott of her show — to no avail. The Kelly File was the top-rated cable news program in the third quarter and during October, besting perennial leader The O’Reilly Factor in the critical 25-to-54 demographic, though O’Reilly was No. 1 among total viewers (October numbers were helped by the fact that Kelly’s program aired after much-watched presidential debates). Kelly asserts that she and Trump have been in “a good place” since their interview in the spring for her Fox broadcast primetime special, Megyn Kelly Presents. And anyway, she reasons, as the president, “shouldn’t he have bigger things to worry about?”
Kelly says she has voted for Democrats and Republicans, but she won’t disclose for whom she voted this year. In a conversation before the election, she notes that because she lives in New York, her vote never counts — which, of course, has become a subtext of the presidential upset: “I’ve lived in New York state almost my entire life, so my votes never count. Who the hell cares whom I vote for? I make no difference.”
Kelly has made no secret of wanting to interview Hillary Clinton, but the former secretary of state generally has avoided appearances on Fox News. She has yet to renew her request now that Clinton has nothing to lose. And leaked emails posted by WikiLeaks revealed that Clinton surrogate Lanny Davis advocated a sit-down with Kelly during the campaign. “I believe it is in the interest of Secretary Clinton as well as Fox for the questions to be tough, something we should not fear as long as she has an opportunity to answer,” he wrote. “The interview has the potential to be a ratings and media bonanza.”
How does Kelly think Trump will handle his early days in office? “Certainly in the beginning, he’s probably going to feel somewhat humbled by his ascension to this office,” she says. “Hopefully we’re going to get the charming, magnanimous Trump and not the small, petty, mean-spirited version that we’ve seen occasionally in this campaign. Hope springs eternal.”
If Kelly is concerned that her book could set Trump off again, she is not letting on. As we talk two days after the election, she offers a provocative analogy for the misogyny Trump directed at her. What if it had been a black person? And Trump had “referred to that person as an N-word?” she asks. “He’d be done. He’d be over. Society has gotten to a point where we say, ‘No, that is a bridge too far; you will not diminish your fellow citizens of color that way. And if you choose to behave that way, we will rise up and hold you to account.’ But we are not yet there when it comes to women.” And here she laughs ruefully. “We are not yet at the point of strong line-drawing. Like, ‘You will not refer to women as bimbos; you will not say you will grab them by the pussy.’ “
Kelly allows that this pervasive tolerance for sexist language is “somewhat alarming.” But, she continues, “My own take on it is, in a way, it’s good to know. Because this is the status of our society right now; this is where we were on Nov. 7, and nothing changed with Donald Trump’s election except we now have more information. So perhaps there’s an opportunity here. I don’t know that it’s going to involve Donald Trump. I don’t know if he wants to have a conversation like that or whether he’ll behave differently now that he’s been given such power. But I think others can. It’s a problem we could never fix without knowing how bad it is.”
And Kelly believes she has a role to play in fixing the problem. In 2013, when she was pregnant with her youngest child, she had a viral confrontation with RedState.com founder and Fox News contributor Erick Erickson and Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs, who had bemoaned a just-released Pew study that indicated 40 percent of households had women as breadwinners. “What makes you dominant and me submissive, and who died and made you scientist-in-chief?!” she asked Erickson.
“Erick Erickson has been really kind of great after that exchange, saying it really opened his eyes,” she tells me. “And he was one of the first to call out Trump for sexist behavior.”
Erickson famously disinvited Trump to his influential Red State convention after Trump’s misogynist attacks on Kelly in the wake of the debate. Dobbs, however, never spoke to her again. (He later would tweet out the home address of one of Trump’s sexual assault accusers.)
When Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich, in an Oct. 25 interview, accused Kelly of being “fascinated with sex,” she did not lose her composure. “I knew he was baiting me,” she tells me the day after that interview. “You have an instantaneous conversation with yourself not to take the bait. And that’s unfortunate because it doesn’t lead you to necessarily give your top response. I handled it fine, I think, but I would have preferred to have said something like, ‘We’re not talking about sex, we’re talking about sexual assault allegations. There is a difference. And I, too, would love to stop talking about sexual assault allegations; however, they keep being made against your candidate and then he keeps talking about them at every campaign stop, so I have no choice as a journalist.’ ”
Kelly sits in her 17th-floor office at Fox News headquarters; she just wrapped a short postmortem meeting with her producers, many of whom are female and under 40. A cork board is festooned with photos of her three children with Brunt: sons Yates, 7, and Thatcher, 3, and daughter Yardley. They are foremost in her mind as she considers her next move. Because her show airs live, she leaves the house around 3:30 p.m., right when her children are getting home from school.
“I am a good mom, and I’m present for my children, and they get whatever ounce of energy I have left in me after I do this job, which some days isn’t much. And I’m a good news anchor, and I prepare and I care, and I have a true commitment to excellence, and I feel like it shows. But that does not leave a lot of leftover time,” she says. “I have these three little people who need me and whom I really love and like to spend time with, and the current schedule I’m on is not ideal for a mother of young children.”
Taping her show is one option she is considering. (Both O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, whose shows air at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., respectively, tape their shows but air live when news warrants.)
Some television news executives suggest that her tenacity has made her potentially an awkward fit for morning TV, which requires a softer side and lots of oversharing on the part of its anchors. (One exec notes, with some admiration, that Kelly’s “sharp edges” could potentially be jarring amid the fluffier milieu of morning TV, where the big money is in television news.) And Kelly admits that she is not a morning person. “I’m not chipper. So I might be like George Stephanopoulos on a bunch of downers,” she says, referring to the Good Morning America anchor. She says she has not “ruled anything out.”
But whether another network is willing to match the rich payday proffered by the Murdochs amid the tightening profit margins of the TV news business is an open question. Says one TV news chief, “For that kind of money, it needs to be transformative.” Conversations with rival network executives inevitably turn to the Katie Couric example: The onetime Today star commanded a $75 million five-year deal to jump to CBS Evening News, but she was unable to move the ratings needle. “I think everyone has learned from that,” says a second network executive.
Still, Kelly’s natural charisma pops onscreen. She’s obviously telegenic. But the deep timbre of her voice also confers a certain authority. In person, she’s warmer, more self-deprecating. But her penchant for self-help bromides could easily veer into cliche if it weren’t so genuine. She’s an adherent to the Oprah, live-your-best-life mantra and counts Dr. Phil as a sounding board/life coach.
She would like to do more longform interviews; Charlie Rose, Oprah Winfrey and Diane Sawyer are among her role models. Her primetime special on Fox Broadcasting in May, which featured a headline-grabbing Trump booking, was seen as a trial of sorts — if not internally, certainly by rival network executives.
But Kelly was criticized for being soft, and she says Trump detractors — of which there are many — “felt it was a surrender of sorts. They wanted to see me castrate him.”
It’s unclear whether criticism of the Trump interview — produced by Bill Geddie, the former executive producer of The View — affected Kelly’s free agency prospects.
When I ask Kelly what her ideal job looks like, she cannot — or will not — say. But she seems convinced that it does exist. And there is lingering tension for Kelly at Fox News, spurred by the Trump ugliness but also the competitive realities of TV news. O’Reilly warned her when she got her own show in 2013 that “primetime cable news is a snake pit.” And certainly the tension between the two of them — and Kelly and Hannity for that matter — has spilled into the public.
“He treated me with respect, and he let the audience see that he respected me and would cede arguments to me, which is very rare for Bill,” says Kelly of her regular appearances on O’Reilly’s show when she was coming up at Fox News. And she’s careful to add that O’Reilly provides her with the “best lead-in in the business. But, of course, now that I’ve gotten into primetime, things have become more competitive between us, given the nature of where we are. And that is just true of us as personalities. Again, as with Hannity, we are both Irish, we’re both Catholic, and we’re both very competitive. So the dynamic has changed. But I really will always be grateful to Bill.”
The primary debates and Kelly’s coverage of and involvement in the unprecedented 2016 presidential race have further delineated her from O’Reilly and Hannity, her opinionated counterparts in the Fox News primetime lineup. And she now is that much more valuable to the Murdochs as they position Fox News for the future and a bigger tent.
Look at that screen. Look at the faces of the people at Clinton campaign headquarters. It’s very somber,” says Kelly. “They understand exactly what is happening, and they are in shock.”
It is 11:41 p.m. on Nov. 8, Election Day. Kelly is anchoring Fox News Channel’s coverage from a brand-new $30 million street-level studio right on the Avenue of the Americas, and outside, supporters of Donald Trump erupt in cheers each time the anchors call another state for their candidate. Kelly has just announced that Georgia and its 16 electoral votes will go to Trump. The win gives Trump 232 electoral votes to Clinton’s 209, putting him ever closer to his stunning upset in a race that everyone — the media, the candidates — expected to be called, in Clinton’s favor, by 11 p.m.
“It’s 11:44 here in the East,” says Kelly as she sends coverage to a commercial break. “We still have not called the presidency, but right now the night looks very good for Donald Trump.”
In the control room, Tom Lowell, the executive producer of The Kelly File, tells her through her earpiece to check a note in her inbox “about the Trump campaign internal polling.”
As the world now knows, that polling was predicting a Trump win in Pennsylvania, though Clinton had a significant lead in the battleground state in the days before the election. Pennsylvania would not be called until after 2 a.m., but it would put Trump within five electoral votes of the presidency. It was the first time since 1988 that Pennsylvania had voted Republican in a presidential race. And that obliterated any lingering hope of a comeback for Clinton, the candidate meant to shatter the highest, hardest glass ceiling. Kelly would anchor until nearly 4 a.m., more than 10 hours in all.
The next morning, after only an hour of sleep, she is back at it, getting ready to head to the Live With Kelly studio to co-host the show with Kelly Ripa. But first, she has to reveal the election results to her two older children.
She describes the conversation later that morning. “I said, ‘Guess who won? Donald Trump!’ And Yates, who loves numbers, said, ‘But he was behind by four points in the latest poll,’ ” she laughs. “And my daughter, Yardley, said, ‘Yes! That means I can still be the first woman president!’ Which I just loved. And my son Yates said, ‘That’s right Yards, you could!’ And put his arms over his head with fists, victorious, in his delight for Yardley’s future prospects. To me, it was so heartening because she just thought the sky’s the limit for her, and she knows it. And here is this evolved little 7-year-old boy completely rooting her on. And while, present day, we are not where we ought to be as women, your daughter and mine, they will be. I really feel confident that they will be. Those of us in our 30s and 40s are going to have to take a few more bumps and bruises along the way. But that’s OK.”
Kelly will deliver the opening remarks at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment breakfast on Dec. 7 in Los Angeles.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.