It isn't every day that a Jersey girl trumps British royalty. But that's what Kelly Ripa
did last January, when she won the position of Regis Philbin's new morning copilot. At the end of a seven-month search, the 31-year-old soap-opera actress stood out among a dozen other fill-ins, including TV icon Valerie Bertinelli and Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson. Before adding the & Kelly to Live with Regis, Ripa honed her conversational skills on the set of ABC's All My Children, where she has played opposite real-life husband Mark Consuelos for 6 of 11 years on the show. "In the hair and makeup room everybody talks about everybody's lives," says Ripa. "This is just in front of more people." About 4 million more. Since settling onto the stool vacated by Kathie Lee Gifford after 15 years, the mother of two (Michael, 4, and Lola, 6 months) has given the coffee-talk formula a fresh jolt. "She was really good at the beginning," says Live executive producer Michael Gelman, "but she's gotten even better as she's become more comfortable." Ripa is doing what comes naturally. "I think people like her so much because she's herself," says Mark, 30. Even if that means painting her face green and draping herself in Statue of Liberty garb, as she did for the Halloween show. "She's a lot of fun and works well with Regis without stepping all over him," says Gelman. But if Ripa has avoided one of Gifford's trademarks, she's embracing another. "Wouldn't people find it odd if I never mentioned my kids?" Ripa says. "Wouldn't they think I was very uncaring?"