‘Live With Kelly and Mark’: Till Death (or Cancellation) Do They Part

At the start of the Feb. 16 episode of the ABC morning talk show “Live With Kelly and Ryan,” before the actress Camryn Manheim demonstrated her knowledge of American Sign Language, before Ryan Seacrest and the show’s resident D.J. competed in a game called “Love Songs,” the show’s host Kelly Ripa made an announcement: Seacrest, who had hosted with her for six years, would soon be departing. His replacement? “My husband, Mark Consuelos, in what Ryan and I are calling the nation’s weirdest social experiment.”

“Live,” which began in 1988 as “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee,” hosted by Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford, has always depended, as its executive producer Michael Gelman told me, on the illusion that the hosts are a married couple who have invited some unusually glamorous friends over for morning coffee. He referred to the hosts — any hosts — as “this faux husband-and-wife, only they’re better looking and smarter and more vivacious than your normal neighbors,” he said.

But Ripa and Consuelos (“Riverdale,” “Alpha House”) are actually husband and wife. They’ve been married for over 27 years. “That’s 270” in showbiz years,” Ripa joked. What would it mean when Take Your Husband to Work Day was suddenly every day? What would it mean to perform your marriage for millions of households?

“I can’t wait to watch,” Seacrest said back in February, grinning widely.

Ripa said she doesn’t believe her chemistry with Consuelos on “Live” is anything special. “It is my job to make sure my partner looks good at all times, no matter who my partner is,” she said.Credit…Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

I visited the show on the first two mornings of the couple’s first full season together, in early September, about five months after Consuelos’s debut. There was no picket line to cross; the show does not employ Writers Guild members. Six cameras — three stationary, three roving — captured Ripa’s sleek blowout, her husband’s impossibly white teeth. This far into Consuelos’s tenure, their rhythms and repartee were established. She was the giddy cheer captain, a glammed up version of, as she put it, “a simple girl from New Jersey.” He was the hunky straight man.

I wanted to know, as far one can ever know these kinds of things when it comes to unscripted television, just how much of this was for the many cameras and how much spoke to their real relationship. Marriage, after all, is another kind of performance, with each spouse filling what is hopefully a complementary role. These two seem better at that act than most. Where did the act end? Did it end?

The first time Ripa and Consuselos pretended to be a couple was in 1995, during a chemistry read for the ABC soap “All My Children.” Ripa was already a star of the show, playing the party girl turned private investigator turned cosmetics chief executive Hayley Vaughan. Consuelos was auditioning to play her new love interest, Mateo Santos. The two actors had met in the rehearsal hall the day before, Ripa’s hair in giant curlers.

“Are you sure you want this job?” she asked him. She gestured to a blob of toothpaste she had applied to a pimple. “Look what they do to you.”

Consuelos did want the job. He and Ripa wanted each other, too. They were married, secretly, in Las Vegas, a year later and had their first child a year after that. Hayley and Mateo enjoyed a somewhat more eventful relationship: kidnapping, bigamy, arson, near death and at least one alternate personality. In 2002, in a soap-imitating-life move, their characters were written off, with Hayley moving across the country to host a talk show.

In reality, the couple remained a quick cab ride from the ABC studios, with Ripa having joined Philbin as the co-host of what became “Live With Regis and Kelly,” a cozy, upbeat robe-and-slippers hour. But even off the soap, the couple’s onscreen lives remained intertwined, with Consuelos guest hosting “Live” nearly 100 times. They were familiar figures at galas, on red carpets, in the pages of glossy magazines, posting sultry pictures of each other on Instagram, rendering a relationship for the camera.

Michael Gelman, a longtime executive producer of “Live,” said that the show has always depended on the illusion that the hosts are a married couple who have invited some glamorous friends over. Credit…Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

Philbin retired in 2011, replaced eventually by Michael Strahan. After Strahan left in 2016 for “Good Morning America,” abruptly and amid tensions that have since been publicized, Ryan Seacrest took up the branded coffee mug. Last year, when Seacrest decided that he would soon move on, his heir was apparent.

On the Tuesday after Labor Day, Consuelos, in a sweater tight enough to outline each pec, strode onto the living room set as though it were his second home. Which in a way, it is.

Ripa, glamorous in a Barbie-pink dress, shared vacation photos and teased Consuelos about his workout habits, mentioning a recent ice bath. “He looked like a frozen margarita,” she told the audience.

Consuelos didn’t mind the ribbing. He teed up punchlines for her. She finished his sentences. During a trivia segment, “Stump Mark,” Consuelos evaluated the truth value of a caller’s statements with terrifying seriousness. Ripa, who joked with me that her husband has “resting dictator face,” teased him for this, too.

On one episode they did a segment that involved several team building exercises. “Trust falls and blindfolds? It’s like being at home,” Ripa said wickedly.

“We know how to compartmentalize,” Ripa said of keeping certain elements of her and Consuelos’s personal and professional lives separate.Credit…Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

Really? Ripa thought so. “The version of us at home is very similar to the version you see on TV,” she said. “But we look nice and we sound good.” This was during a post-show chat on the following day in their actual home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. After the show, wardrobe changes and a few extra segments, a sleek, S.U.V. had spirited the couple from an ABC loading bay across Central Park to their townhouse.

Ripa’s brand has always been one of extreme relatability. This house, with its imposing facade and marble interiors, was not quite so approachable, but it was somehow familiar. The living room where we sat (beige furniture, gold accents, light like poured honey) was more luxurious than the TV version but still hewed closely to it. Figuring out which was the simulacrum made my head hurt. Especially because offscreen the couple still sounded good. And they still looked nice, even as Ripa swabbed off her photo shoot makeup with a series of wet wipes.

“I’m slowly melting back into myself,” she said, removing a false eyelash.

That self seemed very like the TV one. She held her body more loosely, it’s true, and her manner was arguably more subdued, as was Consuelo’s. They do keep some things private, they assured me.

“Talk about 401ks or wills, discussions we’ve had about passing things on, you wouldn’t want to watch that,” Consuelos said. Whether this had more to do with self-protection or audience savvy wasn’t quite clear.

Their time in the soap, particularly that first year, when their relationship was a secret, has taught them not to let everyday worries or arguments bleed into airtime. “We know how to compartmentalize,” Ripa said.

Friends and colleagues say that Consuelos and Ripa aren’t essentially different in real life from their onscreen personas. Credit…Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

Even so, colleagues confirmed that there wasn’t a lot of daylight between Ripa and her “Live” persona. The same went for Consuelos. Seacrest said that occasional obscenities were the only difference.

“A few vocabulary choices are made, but the essence of their humor and their relationship is what we get every morning,” he said.

The TV personality Andy Cohen, a longtime friend, agreed. “What they’re portraying onscreen is a natural extension of themselves,” he said. “For two people in this business, which can be so divisive, they really are such a unit together. And it really shines through in everything they do.” He added that for a long married couple, “they’re very hot for each other.”

Between them is a palpable attraction, evident both on the “Live” set and back at home, as Ripa rested her bare feet against Consuelos’s thigh and I wondered if I should leave the room for a while. But Ripa doesn’t believe that the chemistry she and Consuelos share on “Live” is anything special.

“I just know that as a co-host of a show, it is my job to make sure my partner looks good at all times, no matter who my partner is,” she said.

Still, that chemistry helped make the choice of Consuelos an easy one for network, not so much for the couple, who delayed accepting the offer for months. Consuelos, who was finishing a seven-season stint on “Riverdale,” wondered if people would take him seriously as an actor once he was established as a permanent morning show fixture. There was also the more nebulous worry that he might be perceived as a nepotism hire.

“I may have had a flash of, What is this going to look like?” he said.

Ripa had her own concerns. For a woman who delights in jokes, she is wholly serious about the job and the comfort she believes it brings. She mentioned mothers struggling to breastfeed, patients undergoing chemotherapy, residents of nursing homes. These people, she insists, are the show’s audience. “There’s a lot of people that are counting on us to make them feel better,” she said.

For a long married couple, “they’re very hot for each other,” the TV personality Andy Cohen, a longtime friend, said.Credit…Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

That felt like a lot of responsibility for one couple. “We don’t want to be the people that ruin television,” she said.

So far, television — or at least the narrow tranche of unscripted television not subject to contract negotiations — seems fine. Which isn’t a surprise. Consuelos was hardly an unknown quantity and if he has had to acquire a few more skills — intros, outros, how to pause an interview just before a commercial break — he has acquired them quickly. And ratings are steady, which means that the experiment, which was never especially weird, is a success.

Gelman had told me that the other secret of the show, other than the faux husband-and-wife act, is the enjoyment that the hosts take in each other. “The audience knows when you’re having a good time versus when you’re faking it,” he said.

If Ripa and Consuelos are faking it, no one can tell. Not me. Maybe not even the couple themselves. In their presence, the continuum of reality and performance, life and “Live,” felt as slippery as some very expensive skin care serum. It slid through my fingers every time. The easy banter that Ripa and Consuelos trade onscreen, they kept it going during the commercial breaks, as they accepted hugs and gifts from audience members. They kept it going at home.

On the first day I visited the set, after the blindfold bit, the show ended. The cameras stopped rolling. The microphones cut out. Their work was done. But Consuelos and Ripa stayed in their seats, heads bent close together, still chatting.

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