02/19/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
I was the night before their Caribbean vacation, and All My Children
's Kelly Ripa
and her husband (on AMC
and in real life), Mark Consuelos, were digging into a bucket of takeout chicken on Jan. 19 at the northern New Jersey home they share with their 3-year-old son, Michael. Then the phone rang. Sticky-fingered, Ripa, 30, took the call from Angela Shapiro, close friend and president of ABC Daytime—and was happy she did. After seven months of playing musical chairs with her and a dozen other fill-ins for Kathie Lee Gifford (see box below), who left last summer to focus on her singing career, ABC executives settled on Ripa as Regis Philbin's permanent cohost on Live with Regis
Learning that the show would now be retitled Live with Regis & Kelly
, Ripa, who makes her formal debut on Feb. 12, says she was "tired, overwhelmed and just a little scared—but in a good way." She is also five months pregnant, which could lead to some hauntingly familiar conversation—but maybe not. As Washington Post syndicated TV critic Tom Shales observes, "If you're on television, you have to talk about yourself, but not your baby's first poo-poo." In that respect, he says, "Kathie Lee drove us up the wall. I have every hope that [Ripa] has a better sense of what is appropriate."
Ripa doesn't seem concerned. As a guest on Live
, she says, "I'd walk away laughing, because Regis and I always had this acerbic banter." And like Philbin, 69, who hosts four weekly editions of ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
, Ripa will pull double duty for the network, continuing to play feisty recovering alcoholic Hayley Vaughan Cortlandt McIntyre Santos on AMC
opposite Consuelos's heroic Mateo Santos. "I think it's like an ABC policy—you must work two jobs," Ripa said on the Feb. 5 Live, when Regis officially welcomed her. "Between the two of us," he joked, "we've got 40 percent of the schedule covered. If we go down, ABC is over."
The 10-year AMC
veteran takes the second stool at a boom time for Live
. Ratings are up 12 percent since Gifford's departure, despite competition from the third hour of Today
, which airs opposite the show in several cities. Yet Gifford was one of Ripa's first well-wishers. "She sent me [a] beautiful note congratulating me and saying she hopes I have a wonderful 15 years with Regis, like she did," says Ripa. "There is no replacing her."
Well, clearly there is. Ripa made her debut last November at the request of her friend Shapiro. During that first show, Ripa admitted to a guest psychic that she was pregnant. That was news to her AMC
bosses. It was also, says Shapiro, "a great television moment." After several more stints, she says, "Kelly was the one person we had in mind" for the cohost slot. "She has the right stuff," Philbin confirms. "She is very verbal, has a good sense of humor."
"If anyone was born to do it, it's Kelly," says Consuelos, 29. "She is hilarious." The older daughter of labor union president Joe Ripa, 61, and his homemaker wife, Esther, 59 (sister Linda, 28, is a children's-book author), Ripa grew up in Berlin, N.J., about 90 miles from her present home. Now that she'll be taping Live
five days a week, the family will find an apartment in Manhattan to ease the commute. "[It's] a dream job," Ripa explains. "[I'm] done working at 10 a.m. The rest of the day is for my babies." Sometimes. A few days a week she'll leave the Live
studio at 10:30 a.m. for the AMC
set two blocks away, where Michael and his nanny will join her after preschool. When the new baby arrives in June, Ripa will take four to six weeks off from Live
and about eight from AMC
, after which the infant will be a fixture on both sets. "My son spent the first year and a half of his life in my dressing room," says Ripa, "and he's turning out okay."
Media-savvy too. Recently, Ripa says, Michael pointed to the TV and said, "Mommy, look! It's Regis—your favorite!" His mother would like to amend that. "Actually I think my husband and my son are my favorites," she says, "but Regis is a close second."
Sona Charaipotra and Sharon Cotliar in New York City