Megyn Kelly’s rebranding effort, a campaign to transform her image from a hardline right-wing Fox News personality to an Oprah-esque morning beacon of positivity, is in full swing. Her new NBC show “Megyn Kelly Today” debuted Monday, during which she declared herself “kinda done with politics for now.”
Kelly spent more than a decade in conservative media as one of its most effective agents of race-baiting and anti-black fear-mongering, helping stoke the kind of white racial resentment that made Donald Trump president and overt racial hatred en vogue. The ludicrous suggestion that she can leave that legacy behind by repeatedly talking about her newfound desire for “joy” in every interview suggests both she and the NBC brass think we’re all as dumb as the Fox News audience.
The image overhaul has already hit a few stumbling blocks, even at this early stage in her morning show run. After just three episodes, the host has rubbed two prominent guests, Jane Fonda and Debra Messing, the wrong way, and shown that old, divisive habits die hard.
On Monday, Kelly sat down for a conversation with the stars of the rebooted hit “Will & Grace.” New Yorker writer Doreen St. Félix observed tensions across the segment, noting that “Eric McCormack barely looked at Kelly while responding to her boilerplate questions; I thought I saw Megan Mullally wince.” But most off-putting was how Kelly handled a superfan in the audience. After inviting the fan up on stage, Kelly asked, in a misguided attempt at humor, if he’d been inspired to become both a lawyer and gay after watching “Will & Grace,” then brought up his sexuality again at the end of the segment. (The moment happens at 2:35 in the video below.) The awkwardness of the scene was noted across Twitter, and by actress Debra Messing, who lamented appearing on the show on social media the next day.
“Honestly I didn’t know it was MK until that morning,” Messing wrote on Instagram. “The itinerary just said Today show appearance. Regret going on. Dismayed by her comments.”
On Wednesday, Kelly spoke with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, co-stars of the new film Our Souls at Night. Kelly’s attempt at light conversation included asking Fonda—though not her male co-star—how she keeps up her looks, and pressing her on previous admissions of having had plastic surgery. That’s not exactly fodder for morning TV, and the discussion immediately went sideways.
“You’ve been an example to everyone in how to age beautifully and with strength and unapologetically,” Kelly said to Fonda. “You admit you’ve had work done, which I think is to your credit. But you look amazing…I read that you said you’re not proud to admit you’ve had work done. Why not?”
Fonda eyed Kelly momentarily, letting the question hang in the air, before answering, “We really want to talk about that right now?”
Ultimately, Fonda answered briefly, ignoring Kelly’s followup volley and instead guiding the conversation back to the movie she was there to discuss. It was the sort of misstep that may become standard fare as Kelly tries to play a convincing version of a breezy chat show host, instead of the woman who once insisted both Jesus and Santa Claus are white. (St. Félix, hitting the nail squarely on the head, describes Kelly’s energy as “latently abrasive.”)
Just to jog your memory of Kelly’s greatest (or rather, worst) hits:
[O]nce characterized remarks emphasizing the need for a racially diverse judiciary by then-Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as an example of “reverse racism.” She accused Michelle Obama of perpetuating a “culture of victimization” for publicly relaying a personal experience with racism, and falsely suggested President Obama was going to force communities deemed “too white [and] too privileged” to integrate “whether [they] want it or not.” In one 2015 segment, Kelly wondered aloud if finishing high school and getting a job is “valued in the black communities,” and in another, she derided a 15-year-old black teenage girl tackled by a white cop twice her size as “no saint.” Kelly spent 45 segments relentlessly promoting an absurd conspiracy theory linking the Obama administration and the New Black Panther Party in an anti-white voter suppression effort, suggesting a twin obsession with delegitimizing the first black president and turning a marginal group into a brand-new scary black thing.
The network will surely continue to make tweaks to offset Kelly’s incongruity with her role, knowing that rebrandings are a delicate thing. What NBC might want to factor into the equation is that images are malleable, but personalities less so. And Kelly’s may not be as easily buffed into smiley, digestible bits as NBC executives banked on—to the tune of a reported $17 million.