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Can Megyn Kelly Become the Taylor Swift of TV News?

Her Donald Trump interview was her latest play for mainstream success—and she's got something Katie Couric doesn't.

Mike Coppola/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, we finally saw Donald Trump interviewed by Megyn Kelly, the woman he made an unexpected feminist icon, a woman so tough she thinks pepper spray is not much more than a little hot sauce, as long as it’s sprayed in other people’s eyes. After nine months of feuding with Trump, what did Kelly do? She tried to make him feel emotions. Sad emotions. Vulnerable emotions.

“Has anyone ever hurt you?” she asked.

Trump essentially shrugged, even after being pressed three times. “I don’t know,” he said. “I can say this: It would be something I could certainly think about.”

But it doesn’t matter. There was no news in this show, and there was never going to be. This was not really Trump’s job interview for president of the United States. It was Kelly’s interview to become a brand-name emotion-solicitor like Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, and Connie Chung. Doing so will require unshackling herself from the bonds of Fox News, where’s she’s stuck hanging around with the likes of Sean Hannity, who has asked more hard questions of President Barack Obama’s workout routine than he has of Donald Trump. Only then can she become a true superstar—the Taylor Swift of TV news.

Swift was a country star until she crossed over to mainstream pop. Freed from the tropes of country music and the straightjacket of Nashville, she became a global mega-star. There is evidence Kelly is considering the same path. Since Trump declared war on her for asking a tough question in the first Republican primary debate, Kelly has given tons of interviews, including for a Vanity Fair cover story. At New York, Gabriel Sherman writes, “This publicity tour makes it clear that she is about to attempt a feat that no other Fox personality has yet accomplished: successfully crossing over into the mainstream.” When Charlie Rose asked her to describe the perfect TV show, Kelly said, “How about if we merge a little Charlie Rose, a little Oprah, and a little me all together. And we serve that up as an hour?”

That sounds a lot like Tuesday night’s Megyn Kelly Presents. The hour-long special was less than 20 minutes of Trump. The next interview was of Laverne Cox, the transgender actress from Orange Is the New Black. Kelly suggested Cox was about to become the first transgender superstar, and got Cox to get all emotional about her childhood and struggles with her identity and her suicide attempt. See, liberals? Megyn Kelly is not so different from you. Under the headline “Donald Trump’s Interview With Megyn Kelly Proved Her Strength as a TV Star,” Time raved, “Kelly’s willingness to book Laverne Cox at all is an act of daring in an era in which trans rights, at least with respect to to public restroom use, have been publicly questioned by some of Kelly’s Fox News colleagues including Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.”

The crossover appeal and the blond hair are about all Swift and Kelly have in common. While Swift is adorable and relatable, Kelly’s charismatic onscreen persona is a type we don’t see that much these days: the power bitch. Kelly is not cute, she’s not giggly, she doesn’t trip over her own feet to show she’s approachable. She’s not Jennifer Lawrence, or Alex Wagner, or Ann Curry, or Katie Couric. She’s no Gretchen Carlson, who once pretended to have to look up “czar” and “ignoramus” in the dictionary. (Carlson went to Stanford.) It’s hard to imagine Kelly letting Al Roker play her butt with drumsticks. She is none of the adjectives that have been used over the past decade to describe this affect: twee, adorkable, etc. She’s not really self-deprecating and she doesn’t smile self-consciously. Her hair is now short and slicked back; it looks powerful and a little Star Trekish, a utopian show in which female crew members were unquestionably equal to men.

And this, at least, is refreshing. We need a power bitch anchor at a time when we have our first power bitch presidential candidate (though she sometimes tries to play it down a bit by talking about yoga). This gave power to some of Kelly’s most interesting questions: when she challenged Trump on his bullying tweets.

Do you tweet yourself? Yes, Trump said. What about the rude ones? Trump says he heard she got some mean tweets. His fans are just so enthusiastic.

Kelly: You retweet some of those. It’s not just the fans.

Trump: Yeah but not the more nasty ones. You’d be amazed at the ones I don’t retweet.

Kelly: Bimbo?

Trump: Ah, well, that was a retweet. Yeah. Did I say that?

Kelly: Many times.

Trump: Oof. OK. [Hesitation, then smarmy smile] ’Scuse me.

Kelly: [Smiles]

Trump: Not the most horrible... Over your life, Megyn, you’ve been called a lot worse, is that right? Wouldn’t you say? You’ve had a life that’s not been that easy.

Kelly: [Smiles less] It’s not about me. It’s about the messaging. To young girls. And to other women.

Even the most confident power bitch is not cool with a presidential candidate calling her a bimbo. It’s stupid and absurd. She shouldn’t brush it off. She shouldn’t change her behavior to adapt to his. He should change. This was the one moment Trump wavered a tiny bit from his persona. But then he came back, and implied, in a repugnant and smarmy way, that Kelly had been called worse because of her personality, not because of sexism. Trump probably meant “bitch.” Kelly should savor it, proudly bear the crown of a power bitch queen.

In a way, Trump and Kelly have a bit in common. It’s not clear either of them believe everything they’ve said to appeal to the Fox audience, whether it’s banning Muslims or the threat of the New Black Panther Party. Trump told Kelly, “When I’m wounded I go after people hard. I try to unwound myself.” Kelly did the same, not with tweets, but with this interview show. When Trump tried to stamp out her career, she used him to make herself an even bigger star.