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To understand Megyn Kelly’s success, think of her like a pop star

Stop thinking of Kelly like Bill O’Reilly. She’s more like Taylor Swift. 

The Hollywood Reporter's 25th Annual Women In Entertainment Breakfast - Arrivals Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

It was only three years ago that NBC’s newest star would not let go of the idea that Santa Claus had to be a Caucasian man. The country laughed at her relentless insistence that a mythical figure used to keep children well-behaved was a white man, and that his race was deeply integral to said myth. White Santa Claus was a hill Megyn Kelly was willing to die on.

This week, NBC announced that it had poached Kelly from Fox News, signing her to a contract insiders estimate is worth around $15 million and giving her two shows to helm.

The announcement comes after a tumultuous year for Kelly at Fox News, a year in which the president-elect of the United States questioned her merit as a journalist, insinuating that she was the epitome of style over substance, a bimbo with an audience.

Yet Kelly has eclipsed that turmoil and refashioned herself as one of the most coveted personalities on broadcast television, which just goes to show: Megyn Kelly is sort of a genius.

Megyn Kelly plays the authenticity game brilliantly

The key to understanding Megyn Kelly is to think of her less as a cable news personality and more as a pop star.

Network executives at Fox and MSNBC figured out early on that hosts with unapologetic views and distinctive personalities are a draw to viewers. While Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes couldn’t be more different from each other, the networks sell both men as personalities first, suggesting that what you see on television is who they are in real life. If you were to run into them on the street, you’d expect O’Reilly to be the boisterous, gruff man from The O’Reilly Factor and you’d expect Hayes to be the wonky, nerdy man from All In. This suggests authenticity is a driving force of the networks’ package.

Authenticity as an aesthetic has long been a cornerstone in the worlds of entertainment and celebrity. Pop stars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift and celebrities like Kim Kardashian have become masters of constructing authenticity, all offering carefully curated glimpses into their lives, constructing an image for fans to believe in and, hopefully, buy into.

Naturally, cable news, which is its own form of entertainment, follows suit. And at Fox News, no one is more aware of this authenticity paradigm, or more canny about exploiting it, than Megyn Kelly and the team behind her.

To be clear, that wasn’t always the case. In the past, Kelly’s reel was dominated by racist, incendiary opinions. Bust has a good rundown of some of the ridiculous things Kelly has said — ranging from insisting Santa Claus is white to calling Michelle Obama a “whiner” for speaking out against racism — that are in line with some of the more ridiculous things Fox has aired.

But over the past year, Kelly has cultivated a narrative that positions her as more progressive, more feminist, more independent, and less of a partisan lapdog than her colleagues at Fox News, while stopping shy of crossing a line that’s too far right or left. In the process, she’s positioned herself as Fox’s most mainstream-marketable host.

This shift can be witnessed in some of her recent segments, like this 2016 spar with North Carolina’s then-Gov. Pat McCrory over his support for the state’s anti-transgender bathroom bill.

Countering McCrory’s deflections, Kelly says, “If you could get back to my question …the public restrooms … the question that many have is what is your fear, because, you know, there is a misconception that transgendered are somehow molesters and they’re not. ... That’s not true.”

Similarly, Kelly has had moments where she’s defended maternity leave, confronted Erick Erickson and Lou Dobbs over their misogyny, and taken down Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage because of his anti-gay stance.

To be clear, these are not audacious positions Kelly is taking, but rather an acknowledgment of a certain baseline human decency: 61 percent of Americans approve of same-sex marriage, according a 2016 Gallup poll; a 2015 YouGov poll found that 69 percent of Americans believe companies should offer paid maternity leave.

But just as when Taylor Swift releases songs about highly publicized breakups, or Beyoncé’s visual album makes references to her personal life as a mother, Kelly is using these popular positions in segments to fine-tune her overall image. Each of her interactions gives us a glimpse of who she is — or, rather, who she wants you think she is.

That’s her hustle.

These moments where Kelly seemingly challenges the Republican platform have earned her begrudging praise from left-leaning and mainstream sites and challenged people’s preconceived notion of what she stands for. They’ve suggested to viewers that Kelly isn’t like her Fox co-workers, that she isn’t afraid to go against the grain, that she’s more complex and sharper, and maybe even more valuable than O’Reilly or Sean Hannity.

When you watch O’Reilly, or Hannity, or Hayes, or Rachel Maddow, they don’t seem to be selling themselves as much as they’re selling the story. That’s the difference between them and Kelly. Kelly isn’t content with being the next O’Reilly; she cites Oprah Winfrey as her career role model. That’s apt, because no one cares about the stories Oprah presents half as much as they care about why Oprah is presenting them. Oprah is the story.

It’s unclear whether these recent segments represent the “true” Kelly, who has a history of statements that contradict this more progressive-leaning image, like when she blasted the notion of a gender pay gap. But ultimately, whatever Kelly truly believes doesn’t really matter, so long as people care about what she says.

How Megyn Kelly changed the conversation

The defining moment of Kelly’s career was her clash with Donald Trump during the first Republican presidential debate. Back in August 2015, Kelly asked Trump about the way he treats and talks about women, triggering a volatile response from the candidate.

“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” Kelly said, asking him if he had the temperament to be the leader of the free world.

Kelly couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity.

She was challenging the future president elect with a question that reinforced her standing as a Republican feminist, but she also painted Trump into a corner: His answer, no matter how dignified, would seem flimsy based on his prior actions — and if he retaliated, he was proving her right. Her question was personal, not political.

No one really remembers Trump’s response at the debate itself, because his tirade against Kelly really kicked into gear on the morning shows the day after. On August 7, Trump told CNN that Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever,” a reference he later claimed was not about her menstrual cycle. He also took to Twitter to mock Kelly:

The feud stretched into the fall, with Trump attacking Kelly on Twitter and in interviews. At one point he retweeted an account that called Kelly a bimbo, and suggested she was a biased journalist:

But Kelly insisted on taking the high road, telling Charlie Rose in October that “[Trump was] obviously upset. That’s fine. He’s running for president, it’s not a fun business, there’s going to be ups and downs, and I know he considered that a down.”

Kelly won respect for her restraint while Trump tweeted himself into a villainous role; she went high when he went low.

Around the same time, after fielding insult after insult, Kelly began shifting her image and positioning herself as a counter to Trump — and it started with her cutting her hair in October 2015.

Now, Megyn Kelly’s hair has nothing to do with her ability to host a news show. But her shorter cut sent a message that there was something different about her — and, as clichéd as it seems, that she was more serious about her job than her appearance. In January 2016, when Trump was threatening to skip another debate she was moderating, she debuted an even shorter cut, characterizing it as part of a personal metamorphosis.

“We change when we get in a different phase,” she told People. “I think I was just in a stronger mood.”

Then in February, Kelly, along with her new hair, was the subject of a Vanity Fair cover story. The in-depth profile portrayed her as a flawed figure, and continued the fascinating Kelly-might-be-a-feminist narrative.

“The brightest star at Fox News, Megyn Kelly is a newly minted role model for women who sees her gender as irrelevant, and a conservative champion who transcends politics with her skillful skewering of windbags of both parties,” the profile states. “Whatever the case, Kelly has become a feminist icon of sorts — the sort who won’t actually call herself a feminist. Perhaps this is because Kelly works at Fox News, where ‘feminists’ are in the same scary category as ‘liberals’ who wage war on Christmas each year.”

In the months after the profile ran, during the final breaths of the election season, Kelly would end up confronting Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich and feud with her colleagues Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Each time, she would come out on top, and the segments would go viral. The Kelly File became one of Fox News’s best ratings performers, Kelly’s viewership numbers consistently hovering near or sometimes ahead of O’Reilly’s.

That Vanity Fair profile was Kelly’s mainstream moment, proof that she’s more marketable and more intriguing to the general public than the rest of her Fox cohorts. It also underlined that she’d figured out how to market her ambiguous feminism for personal gain.

Megyn Kelly, Taylor Swift, and commercial feminism

To recap: Beginning in 2015, a beautiful blond woman got into a couple of highly publicized feuds with some big stars, cut her hair, became a flashpoint for contemporary feminism, and managed to squash her enemies one after another, leading to a widely successful career crossover. This is Kelly’s trajectory, but it also applies to Taylor Swift.

When comparing anyone to Taylor Swift, there’s a knee-jerk reaction to not take the conversation seriously. But in the worlds of pop culture and celebrity, there is no star as shrewd, calculated, and successful as Swift. From her public feuds and her army of friends to the causes she chooses to speak out on and the charity work she does, no one out-hustles Swift when it comes to parlaying personal image into album sales. (Beyoncé and Drake are distant seconds.)

It’s a compliment to Kelly — to anyone, really — to be compared to Swift in terms of business savvy. It’s a testament to Kelly’s Swiftian skill at parlaying her brand into ratings that in the last year of her contract with Fox News, she will have two shows on NBC and what many speculate is around a $15 million contract.

But as with Swift, there’s a question of what you find when you dig into what got Kelly here — that is, her feminism. Swift’s feminism is bent and broken: She has a cadre of famous female friends and has talked about special places in hell for women who don’t help other women, but also makes extremely profitable songs about a woman (Katy Perry, allegedly) who crossed her. Hers is a surface-level feminist stance that gets more difficult to parse the deeper you go beneath that pop culture veneer.

The most consistent thing you can say about Swift’s feminism is that it’s helped at least one woman: Taylor Swift. And as with Swift, Kelly’s feminism isn’t that nuanced, and often comes off as more concerned with furthering Megyn Kelly than it is with furthering gender equality.

“I love how her brand of feminism highlights the things we can all agree on as women — empowerment, advancement, equality, sisterhood — and steers clear of the more divisive issues,” Kelly writes about Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement in her 2016 memoir, Settle For More. “Who gives a damn what label we use, as long as we are living a life that supports other women?”

As the Vanity Fair profile points out, Kelly gives a big damn about labels. Calling herself a feminist would alienate her loyal viewers, whereas floating in this in-between gray area of “empowerment” and “sisterhood” allows her to build her less conservative audience without isolating more conservative people.

“My problem with the word feminist is that it’s exclusionary and alienating,” Kelly wrote in her memoir. “Why do we have to make the most divisive issues a key part of the feminist platform?”

Kelly’s flashes of feminism are often tethered to her career (as opposed to, say, reproductive rights), acknowledging that there are challenges women face in the workplace. But she’s more concerned with overcoming those challenges through self-professed hard work than she is with dismantling the systemic problems that lie beneath them. Put another way: She doesn’t seem especially concerned with sexism and misogyny unless it’s affecting her personally.

“Sure, Kelly recognizes that women have to work twice as hard and be twice as good, but she sees that less as an inherent problem with the system than a noble hurdle that can be overcome with simple hard work,” Anna Silman wrote about Kelly’s book at the Cut. “‘I cracked the glass ceiling, Kelly implies. Why shouldn’t you?’”

If you look at this past year as a slow-boil audition for Kelly’s move to NBC, or for her getting a raise at Fox News, then it bathes the fights with Trump and the talk about gender equality and LGBTQ bathroom rights in a new light. Kelly doesn’t say how far left of right or right of center her views actually are, allowing her to position herself on the fence or let the press decide for her.

This sort of ambiguity has long been a part of Kelly’s brand, which has always been less about espousing specific political or ethical ideals and more about performative confrontation: “I’m a soulless lawyer,” Kelly told the Daily Beast in 2010. “Give me any opinion and I can argue it.”

Accordingly, Kelly’s à la carte relationship with feminism goes beyond the events of the past year. One of the most memorable Kelly takedowns is a 2011 Jon Stewart Daily Show segment where he shows Kelly arguing against maternity leave and then later arguing for it after having one of her three children:

That the merits of Kelly’s feminist politics, rather than her most imbecilic moments as a news host, is a national discussion is a sign that Kelly has already won by controlling the conversation about her. Her new job at NBC is just gravy.

But what made Kelly stand out at Fox isn’t what’s going to make her stand out at NBC. Her liberal-ish views on LGBTQ and women’s rights made her more marketable to a mainstream NBC audience, but now that she’ll be on NBC, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her lean into her more conservative views — or surprise us all with something we haven’t seen yet. What won’t be surprising is if the ever-savvy Kelly succeeds once again.

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