On weekday mornings, Andrea Tantaros sits in a small, cramped sound studio on the far West Side of Manhattan—the same studio where Bob Dylan and Madonna and Bruce Springsteen recorded hit records. Before she wraps up her three-hour talk-radio show, she makes sure to plug her afternoon gig as a co-host on The Five, Fox News Channel’s evening roundtable program.
By the time Ms. Tantaros appears on that show, five hours later, she is virtually unrecognizable. Instead of a slouchy hat over her ponytail, a long-sleeve black T-shirt covered with a scarf and jeans tucked into flat black boots, Ms. Tantaros wears a brightly colored, tight-fitting dress, makeup and extra-high high heels. Her long brown hair is blow-dried and hair-sprayed into a face-framing mane. She’s ready.
Ms. Tantaros has been one of the hosts of The Five since it launched almost two years ago. The show is billed as a rotating panel of seven contributors (five of whom appear each day at 5, hence the name of the program) who discuss current political issues and pop culture. Each of the co-hosts introduces a segment, and they all weigh in on the other topics while bantering and joking around with each other.
Ms. Tantaros, who recently turned 34, has been on the verge of stardom at Fox since she started full-time at the network in 2010. But since taking over Laura Ingraham’s morning spot on Talk Radio Network this past January, she is no longer waiting in the wings. Ms. Tantaros has become the right wing’s new “It” girl.
And although she is solidly conservative, she represents a departure from the old Fox News mold of firebrand yellers and bubbly blondes. Ms. Tantaros lives in Manhattan, talks with equal enthusiasm about reality shows and budget hearings, and is laughingly sarcastic rather than loudly belligerent when decrying a liberal viewpoint. And she will occasionally depart from the party line. She is, in short, the perfect standard-bearer for Fox’s recent subtle shift to a less-divisive model of conservative news.
“Andrea has it all—smart, good-looking, well-informed, great sense of humor, fun to be around,” gushed Sean Hannity, the right-wing rock star and fellow radio host/Fox personality, whose approbation name-checks a critical box. “She’s always stood out as a rising, bright, young smart conservative star.”
Ms. Tantaros started on the other side of the equation—talking for campaigns, rather than about them. After majoring in journalism and French at Lehigh University, she headed to D.C. She interned in the press office of Pat Buchanan during the 1999 primary, and then briefly interned at Crossfire before working in the press offices of the campaigns of former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, Jeanine Pirro and Thomas Reynolds. Ms. Tantaros eventually became the deputy press secretary for Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, then a Congressman, now a Senator.
In 2007, a friend from Fox News asked Ms. Tantaros to appear on the air. One guest spot led to another, and by 2010 she had signed a contract.
“It was liberating, I think, to not have to speak for somebody else, because it was always in their voice,” Ms. Tantaros said, noting that once in a while she disagreed with the positions of her candidates, who ran a narrow gamut from moderate Republican to very conservative Republican. “So I promised myself that, when I was speaking for myself and not somebody else, that I would be completely unbridled by talking points or any party, and that’s what I try and do. I try and not be predictable; it’s just whatever I think.”
Occasionally, Ms. Tantaros’s “unbridled” talking points get her into trouble. Last November, when commenting on Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s food stamp challenge, in which the mayor pledged to live for a week on the $4-per-day food budget that a single recipient receives, Ms. Tantaros joked about it sounding like a good diet plan. This didn’t go over well.
For the most part, Ms. Tantaros has managed to walk the line between being outspoken and being offensive. She exemplifies the new, less controversial brand of Fox News anchor that the network—and the Republican Party—has begun to lean on.
“In the modern debate format, she’s a consistently passionate but pragmatic voice. So her arguments come across as extremely reasonable and are very good for people to be able to listen to even if they don’t agree with her,” said Tony Sayegh, a Republican consultant who worked with Ms. Tantaros on Jeanine Pirro’s disastrous run for the U.S. Senate. “She is able to do what my old boss Jack Kemp used to always say the Republican Party had to do, which is to speak about our conservative principles, but in an optimistic and positive way to attract those who may not already be on our side.”
Part of this ability to take a more compassionate approach comes from the format of The Five—and its demographics.
Fox News tends to skew older than other cable news networks, but The Five performs well with the valuable 25-to-54-year-old demographic compared with other shows on Fox (even if the majority of its total audience is still over 55). The show averages two million viewers, which is also solid for the network.
The network divides its programming between straight news and opinion, and The Five offers plenty of the latter. During a recent segment, the hosts debated the Super Bowl ads, whether women should have access to guns and whether a teacher should be fired after posting photos of herself on Facebook that showed her in sexy poses, smoking pot and drinking beer. The consensus among the co-hosts was that the teacher should be fired, but for bad social-media judgment rather than for imbibing illegal substances.
“I think I’ve said I don’t see what’s wrong with decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. So some of our positions will surprise you,” Ms. Tantaros explained. “We’re a little bit of a younger demographic, so I think there’s a more open attitude toward equality and gay rights and that type of thing.”
This softer stance fits in with more general changes at Fox News, widely considered to be part of a larger effort to combat a ratings dip and a credibility problem following the election. Network President Roger Ailes, the Oz behind the most successful news channel on cable, quickly set about righting the ship, and underlining that “Fox News” and “the Republican Party” are not synonymous is part of that effort.
Last week, the network fired pollster Dick Morris, who comically predicted “a landslide for Romney approaching the magnitude of Obama’s against McCain.” Sarah Palin and Fox News parted ways after the onetime vice presidential candidate’s contract expired last month. Karl Rove, despite getting his contract renewed for the duration of Obama’s second term, has been somewhat defanged after he disappeared for a month following his failure to concede the election results, challenging the Fox analysts who called Ohio for the president in a strange on-air internecine tiff. Meanwhile, the network recently inked a multiyear contract with liberal oddball Dennis Kucinich.
“There is certainly a debate within the Republican party following the recent presidential election on how to interpret what happened,” said Joshua D. Clinton, a political science professor at Vanderbilt who has studied Fox News and the network’s impact on political viewpoints. “There was a situation where the incumbent president seemed relatively weak and the economy was not doing well, but nonetheless they did not do as well as they would have hoped.”
All of these changes, together with the emergence of Ms. Tantaros, suggest a network shifting to retain credibility at the same time as the Republican Party struggles to reinvent itself.
“I think we see that in the rise of Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal and Jeb Bush, advocating for this kind of compassionate conservatism,” Mr. Sayegh said. “It really puts people at the center of our policy and explains to people why the conservative ideology is right for them. And I think Andrea is doing it as effectively if not more than anyone on the national stage.”
It doesn’t hurt that, like Marco Rubio, Ms. Tantaros has the kind of immigrant success story that candidates on both sides of the aisle tend to love.
The way that Ms. Tantaros tells the story, her father left Greece after he saw the direction in which his native country was headed. Mr. Tantaros came to America, where he slept in a cardboard box in the boiler room of a diner in New Jersey owned by an uncle-type figure. While he was working in the restaurant, he met an attractive Syracuse coed home for spring break. She didn’t return to college. Instead, Ms. Tantaros’s parents got married and opened their own diner while living in a $12-a-night motel room. Mr. Tantaros cooked; Mrs. Tantaros waited tables until she became pregnant and switched to washing dishes. When the kids were old enough, they were put to work at the diner.
“I just love that background,” Mr. Hannity said. “Whenever you see the American dream unfold for good people, it’s a pleasure.”
The endorsement of established Fox News names like Sean Hannity doesn’t go unnoticed—or unremarked upon—by Ms. Tantaros.
When we went to a taping of The Five last month, Ms. Tantaros used the final seconds of airtime to thank Mr. Hannity for calling in to her radio show earlier that day to give his stamp of approval to the new host.
Ms. Tantaros lives on the historically liberal Upper West Side, near her lawyer boyfriend of a year (they don’t live together, though they spend a lot of time at each other’s places).
“Nobody really rolls their eyes or sniffs at me, unless I wear my ‘Guns Save Lives’ T-shirt to the Reebok Sports Club,” she said, when we asked her about living in one of the more left-leaning districts in the city. “It’s funny, all the screens are MSNBC or CNN, and then I have the one screen with Fox on while I’m working out.”
But Ms. Tantaros added that when people do come up to her, she is surprised by how many New Yorkers turn out to be fans.
“So many people tweet me, and they’re like ‘I watch you and I don’t really agree with you, but I agree with you on this issue,’” she said. “Or ‘I typically don’t watch Fox, but I watch The Five.’ So it’s been really cool to see that take off.”
If Ms. Tantaros’s rise can restore credibility to Fox News, it may just end up mirroring the Republican Party’s efforts to appeal to right-center moderates.
“In my opinion, Andrea isn’t just a future star at Fox, which obviously is a great place for someone in the TV business to be a star,” Mr. Sayegh said. “But I would even argue that she is going to be a more prominent voice for the entire conservative party in America.”
But of course, at the end of the day, Fox News just wants to attract an audience, which may mean that new faces like Andrea Tantaros are only the beginning.