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Regis’ New Sidekick: Her Cup Bubbles Over

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the last several decades, the Berlin, N.J., Fourth of July Parade has marched stately by Joe and Esther Ripa’s house on Broad Street. So every year, the Ripa lawn chairs come out, the beer and soda get piled on ice in the trash cans, and the neighborhood settles in for a parade-watching party.

Last year, being the millennial parade, everything had to be extra spick-and-span, so Joe Ripa got his son-in-law out early to mow the lawn, while he gave the trash can scrubbing duties to his elder daughter.

“All of a sudden, I see him calling over the neighbors,” said the daughter, Kelly Ripa, who with her lawn-mowing husband, Mark Consuelos, has long starred on the soap opera “All My Children.”

“So he’s showing us off, saying, ‘Here’s my daughter and her husband. TV stars, but not too big to do yardwork.’

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“He never made me clean out the trash cans when I was young,” said Ripa. “Maybe he knows everyone has to be grounded.”

Ripa had better be prepared for lots of scut work come next July 4th, because now she’s an even bigger star--with her name on a show nonetheless. Earlier this month, she became the anointed one to sit next to Regis Philbin, replacing Kathie Lee Gifford on the talk show now called “Live With Regis and Kelly.”

Sure, she gets second billing, and the letters in “Kelly” on the new logo are significantly thinner than those in “Regis.” And she is still keeping her later-in-the-day job as Hayley on “All My Children.” But for Ripa, a self-described “Jersey girl who knows about partying,” the whole thing is one big party.

Actually, the party will be interrupted for a little bit this summer, as Ripa, now five months’ pregnant, gives birth to her second child (son Michael is 3 1/2). But for now, it’s on with the shows.

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“After all these years, it will be wonderful to play myself,” said Ripa. “My [“All My Children”] character is a recovering alcoholic with a split personality, and that surely is not me. But it is a really good job, so I like that too.

“And I’m a real popular-culture freak, so it will be marvelous meeting all of those people on ‘Live,’ ” she said.

On one recent show, for instance, she bantered with comic Chris Rock about their mutual fascination with Sean “Puffy” Combs and Jennifer Lopez, then told the band Barenaked Ladies: “I had every lesson here represented--drums, accordion, guitar--and I was terrible at all of them.” A man in the audience twice screamed, “We love you, Kelly,” and she smiled pertly back.

In between segments, she stepped lively on her 3-inch heels up the stairs to sign a few autographs.

“I can bring them down to you,” said a show aide solicitously.

“No, no. I’m happy to go up myself,” said Ripa.

“I’ve always felt it’s important to know you can get fired at any time,” she said later in her spare and tiny “All My Children” dressing room. It has a cot, a small storage area and a makeup mirror and table. “I finally brought my own pillow in last year and put a photo of my husband and I up. I’ve been here 11 years, but you never want to get a big head and think you have it made.”

Ripa is seen as a safe choice to co-host with Philbin; she’s not nearly as controversial as Gifford.

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“I think she fulfills what I call the Johnny Carson effect,” said Robert J. Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and director of the Center for Study of Popular Television. “The thing about Johnny Carson was that he was not too much of anything--not too sarcastic, not too funny, not too whatever.

“We want someone [with Philbin] who goes down smoothly, but not too distinctly,” said Thompson. “She has been doing daily television for a long time. She is pretty and has a nice personality. But what she is not is that she doesn’t seem like she’s taking dictation from Neptune like her predecessor.

“She is funny and will do a good job,” he said. “As Regis’ star was rising and [Kathie Lee] grinded her teeth, it became uncomfortable to watch. Kelly Ripa is born to make us comfortable.”

Ripa said she never really did have a star turn. Her mother’s father paid for her first acting lessons when she was a toddler after he heard her singing along with his Barbra Streisand records.

“But that didn’t last long, and I didn’t pursue it for a number of years,” she said. She started doing musical theater in junior high school but was often just a supporting character.

“I couldn’t really sing, and in high school, musical theater is about the music,” she said. “Still, I always got some part and enjoyed doing it.”

As a teenager, she was a regular on a Philadelphia TV dance show, breaking hearts with her much-pigtailed hair and ever-smiling face. And when she graduated from high school, she decided to give it a shot in New York.

“My parents were adamant about college, so I took a few courses and then would audition for everything,” she said. “I took things like psychology, things I couldn’t get motivated to do. After all, actresses pay psychologists just so they don’t have to know it.”

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Within a year, she got her part on “All My Children” and has hung on to it like a cat to a toy mouse ever since.

“Acting is generally for people who like rejection, because it happens so much,” she said. “I’m not like that. So when I got this soap job, I was not going to give it up--not on a show like this, which refuses to die.

“My father is still waiting for me to go to college,” said Ripa. “Maybe someone will give me an honorary degree to make him happier.”

Actually, Joe Ripa is quite happy with his daughter’s success. He took a day off from his job running Amalgamated Transit Union Local 880 in New Jersey to be with her on her first day on the morning show, having warded off friends and reporters, saying he knew nothing of her ascension to the vaunted coffee-table chair next to Regis before it actually happened.

After Three Tryouts, She Emerges as ‘the One’

Michael Gelman, the executive producer of “Live,” said he’s content with Ripa and is only sorry he didn’t recognize her talents before.

“For years, we had a list of possible co-hosts. Kathie Lee took off a lot of time, so the staff and I would brainstorm and we had a long list,” he said. Ripa was always on it, but until Gifford finally retired last summer, she never subbed in the co-host chair. Over the last several months, Ripa did three tryouts and Gelman was convinced she--not others like comedian Joy Behar or actress Bernadette Peters or financial newswoman Maria Bartiromo, who were also seen next to Philbin during that time--was the one.

“We weren’t really targeting an age group,” said Gelman. “You know, Regis is timeless with his energy and his sense of humor. He appeals to young kids and older ladies. So we need someone who has that same appeal. We needed someone who had the chemistry to work with Regis, and we think she has it.”

Philbin has declined to talk to the press during Ripa’s first weeks on the show, but on air, he has been supportive of her. On her first show, he introduced her, with his loving sarcastic smile, “I can’t believe I got married again--and to a pregnant woman. It was a shotgun marriage.” On the show, Ripa works deliberately. She pushes herself up slowly on the high chairs on the set and lowers her body down in a measured pace. She picks up her coffee cup with two hands and then transfers it to her right hand for a smooth, slow sip. She chides Philbin, but not too much.

“I love that you are on a nickname basis with the stars,” she said, after Philbin mentioned the singer-actress Jennifer Lopez as “J.Lo.” It was the kind of moment when Gifford would have rolled her eyes and let out a sarcastic groan. Ripa merely put her hand on Philbin’s shoulder and purred her line.

But she doesn’t want anyone to think she is a shirker. She intends on taking only a short maternity leave.

“I always took little jobs when I was young and working hard on ‘All My Children,’ ” she said. “Perhaps that’s why I never got in trouble. I have made good money for a while, but since I was working 20 hours a day sometimes, I never had time to get into some mess.”

She Knows Show Biz, but Sports Is Another Matter

Though she claims to have an encyclopedic knowledge of current movie, TV and music folks, Ripa said she falls down when it comes to sports. Though her best friend is Gretchen Randolph, the wife of New York Yankees coach Willie Randolph, she isn’t a big sports fan.

“Willie helps me with baseball players, but I can be a real dolt otherwise,” she said. She went to the opening of the ESPN Sports-Zone restaurant in Times Square last year as a soap celebrity. (“All My Children,” “Live” and ESPN are all owned in various ways by the Walt Disney Co.) The bulk of the other celebs was made up of sports stars.

“Mark would be coming to me and saying, ‘You know who that is?’ And then another one would chat with us and he’d whisper, ‘Unbelievable. I never thought I’d be able to talk to him,’ ” she said. “I didn’t know who any of them were. . . . I guess I’ll have to do more studying.”

One mark of what Ripa said was a not-so-wild youth that most viewers won’t see on “Live” is a 4-inch-long tattoo of a flower on the inside of her left ankle. “Its story is no story, I guess,” she said. “It’s a symbol of my youthful stupidity. I was 19 and in San Antonio for my first personal appearance for ‘All My Children.’ I had two hours to kill and the limo driver said, ‘Why don’t you get a tattoo?’ I did it. The flower? I told the guy to do whatever he had. That was it.”

Ripa said she gets down to Berlin, about 90 miles south of New York near Philadelphia, to see her family every other week. Her sister, Linda, was eight months’ pregnant when she was injured badly in a car accident in 1999. Linda has been recuperating with a broken back, legs and pelvis at their parents’ house for most of that time. Her son, Ripa’s nephew, Sergio, is now 18 months old.

“Those are the things that remind you how life can change quickly,” she said.

And right now, things are changing quickly for Ripa. The soap opera press, she said, is almost always kind and careful not to criticize. But already, the tabloids have spread rumors of a fight between her and Gifford, which she said is untrue. In fact, they haven’t even met and have only exchanged polite phone messages, said Ripa.

“The other thing is the free stuff--gifts and the like,” she said. The Philadelphia 76ers basketball team sent her a jersey with her name on it. The rock band Grateful Dead sent her two shipping cartons of gourmet popcorn.

“On the soaps, you get baby blankets made by shut-in fans,” she said. “This sure is going to be different.”

* “Live With Regis and Kelly” can be seen weekdays at 9 a.m. on KABC-TV.


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