SJ’s favorite celebrity is never too far from family, friends and the hometown she loves
By Marianne Aleardi
Television’s hottest co-host is SJ’s favorite daughter. Kelly Ripa, star of Live! with Regis and Kelly, was born and raised in Camden County, and her roots here are deep. Despite her luxurious digs in Manhattan and a buzzing social calendar filled with celebrity A-listers, Ripa stays connected to her family and friends here.
“We see my parents all the time,” Kelly says. “The kids love SJ and seeing all the fun places I went when I was their age. They’re obsessed with seeing the Jersey Devil.”
Kelly’s bond with her family, and their dedication to the city of Camden, is what has led her to become involved with many nonprofit organizations, especially Cooper University Hospital. Kelly is well known for her television commercials, print ads and billboards that promote the hospital.
“I always felt a connection to the hospital because my parents met there. My mother worked there, my cousins work there and my friends have given birth there. I’ve met many doctors, nurses and specialists and believe they are extremely valuable in the area,” she says.
Kelly began working with Cooper four years ago when her dad, Joe Ripa, approached Cooper’s Board Chairman, George E. Norcross III. “Joe and my late father were great friends,” says Norcross. “Joe has a great affection for Camden, its people and the city itself. He suggested that his family might want to do something to help Camden. Kelly graciously volunteered to appear in television commercials for Cooper.”
Kelly, who donates her time to Cooper, filmed three unscripted interviews with Cooper patients as the first set of commercials. “In one interview,” says Norcross, “the woman Kelly was speaking with said, ‘Cooper saved my life.’ It shows you how extraordinarily talented Kelly is. She can draw emotions and thoughts out of people.”
Norcross says Kelly’s work with Cooper has significantly increased the hospital’s brand recognition in the Delaware Valley. “People call and ask to make an appointment at Kelly’s hospital,” he says.
For Kelly, the recognition even reaches to New York. “I’ve met people in my audience who received treatment at Cooper and thank me,” she says. “Like I did anything important…”
“She has made a great contribution to Cooper,” adds Norcross. “It has been a success because she is from Camden County, and she is genuine. What you see on television is what you see in person. She strikes you as the girl next door with a generous personality and a warm heart.
“Kelly is the daughter every mom and dad aspires to have,” he continues. “She’s a hometown girl, and people know that. This campaign wouldn’t work with someone who didn’t have a connection to this area.”
Kelly’s connection began in Berlin, where she and her younger sister Linda spent long summer days swimming in the backyard with packs of friends. “We were the Kool-Aid house,” says dad Joe, who was recently appointed Camden County Clerk. Kelly’s mom Esther (Essie) remembers those summers, too, since she was the “lifeguard on duty.”
“Kids would come over all summer long,” says Essie. “Every day, we had anywhere from 10 to 14 children in our house. Kelly and Linda loved it. They have wonderful memories of their summers.”
Those summers included grand Fourth of July celebrations at the Ripa house, and Kelly says those days are part of her favorite childhood memories. “I loved seeing the Fourth of July parade from the front porch of our house,” Kelly says. “It was the best.”
The Ripa family went all out for the holiday, hosting a daylong party for friends and family, decorating the house in patriotic fare and sprucing up – Fourth of July-style – Kelly and Linda’s bikes for the parade.
“One year we decorated Kelly’s tricycle to look like an airplane, and she won a trophy,” says Essie. “The next year, I spent three months making paper roses so we could decorate Linda’s wagon to look like a parade float. Kelly towed her around, and Linda won a trophy. Once they each had a trophy, I didn’t make any more floats. It was exhausting.”
That extra effort from Kelly’s mom never stopped. For most of Kelly’s childhood, Essie spent her days driving Kelly to classes in ballet (which she started when she was 3), piano, guitar and French. She was also a cheerleader for 12 years. “I would tell her to stop, that she was doing too many activities,” Essie says. “But Kelly would say, ‘I can’t stop. I love them all.’ And she really did. So as long as she wanted to go, I would take her.”
At Eastern High School in Voorhees, Kelly was bitten by the acting bug when she landed a lead role in their production of The Ugly Duckling. She appeared in several local shows, including the stage production of The Wizard of Oz and the television dance show Dance Party USA. Kelly enrolled in Camden County College after high school, but at 19, she set off for New York City.
“That was very difficult,” says Joe. “She was young, and we had to go up and get her set up in an apartment. But it was what she wanted. There was no stopping her.”
Unlike most young actresses who arrive in Manhattan, Kelly got a job quickly, appearing as Hayley Vaughan, a troubled teen, on the soap opera All My Children (AMC). She quickly developed a fan base, and was given a love interest five years after arriving on the show. That leading man, Mark Consuelos, became her real-life husband in 1996. (Their on-screen characters married a year later.) They now live in New York with their three children, Michael, 12; Lola, 8; and Joaquin, 6.
“She may live in New York, but she’s a Jersey girl at heart,” says Joe Ripa.
That may be, but she’s been doing pretty well in her second home.
Six years ago, Kelly won the coveted seat next to Regis Philbin on the popular morning show Live! with Regis and Kelly. Longtime co-host Kathie Lee Gifford had announced her retirement from the show and several female celebrities – including Dolly Parton and Valerie Bertinelli – were being considered for the part, appearing on the show as guest co-hosts in a quasi-audition. At the time, Kelly was riding high with a successful 12-year career at AMC, where she had won three Soap Opera Digest Awards. During her tenth guest appearance on Live!, Philbin announced her permanent position. For a year, Kelly filmed with Philbin in the morning before heading to work at AMC in the afternoon. A year after her start at Live!, both Kelly and Consuelos departed the soap opera.
Since serving as co-host, Kelly has received five Daytime Emmy nominations for Outstanding Talk Show Host. She’s been named one of People magazine’s “25 Most Intriguing People,” E! Entertainment’s “Top 20 Entertainers of the Year” and has appeared on FHM’s “100 Sexiest Women” list – twice.
While on Live!, Kelly branched out, taking roles on prime-time series Ed and Hope & Faith, where she played an out-of-work soap star. Television movie credits include It’s a very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and Someone to Love.
Recently, Kelly and her husband formed a production company, Milojo Productions, which is about to launch a reality series on TLC featuring women inventors. The company’s first project was a documentary about a high-school wrestling team in Florida that had a 34-year winning streak. The film was featured at the Tribeca Film Festival and later aired on ESPN. The company is scheduled to release a second documentary next year.
Early on, as Kelly’s fame grew, she began using her visibility to raise awareness and money for charities. “Kelly has a good life,” says her mom. “I’ve always taught my children that ‘much is expected from those who are given much.’”
Both Essie and Joe say they placed an emphasis on charitable work when Kelly and Linda were growing up. “One time,” Essie says, “I had the girls at Kmart and a woman was looking to buy a Christmas wreath, but they didn’t have the one she wanted, and she was very upset. She didn’t have a way to get home, so we drove her home. After we dropped her off, I drove to another Kmart and bought the wreath she wanted. We went back to the woman’s home, and I had the girls take the wreath to her door. I told them the woman would try to give them money, but not to take it, just let her say thank-you and come back to the car. That’s how you teach children the importance of helping others.”
Heeding her parents’ lessons, Kelly became involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 2001, a few years after her sister Linda was seriously injured when her car was hit by a drunk driver. Two years ago, she began working to raise money for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund (OCRF) after a close friend died from the disease.
And last year, after signing as spokesperson for appliance manufacturer Electrolux, Kelly penned a deal with the company to support fundraising efforts that would raise a committed $500,000 for the OCRF. Electrolux donated $100 to the nonprofit for every turquoise washer or dryer purchased during National Ovarian Cancer Awareness month last October.
This year, Kelly and the company have established virtual lemonade stands to raise funds for OCRF. Through the fundraising effort, anyone can create an online lemonade stand, choosing a sign, naming the stand and selecting three flavors of lemonade to sell. Donors can visit the cyber-stand and make a donation to buy a virtual glass of lemonade. When they do, they are entered into a contest to win a new refrigerator.
“It’s a thrill for me that she does so much charitable work,” says Joe Ripa. “There are many things Kelly does where she does not receive a paycheck. She knows that money is not the most important thing. It’s what you do for those less fortunate that is important. She hasn’t forgotten that.”
The Ripa family’s commitment to helping others was honored last year when Cooper officials renamed their women’s center as The Ripa Center for Women’s Health & Wellness at Cooper. The unique Voorhees facility offers medical services and educational programs – focusing on wellness – designed for women.
“I’m blown away and beyond honored,” Kelly said at the gala announcing the name change.
For the Ripa family, their work with Cooper and other nonprofits has little to do with status and everything to do with integrity. “I don’t look at Kelly as a big celebrity. I know others do, but I don’t,” says Joe. “Both of my girls are lovely people. That’s what I see.
“Kelly is basically a hometown girl,” adds Joe, “on temporary loan to New York City.”